- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Editor's note: David Williams was eliminated during the second level of action on Day 3.
When observing the relationships between online poker's two largest entities -- PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker -- and the assorted pros they sponsor, one starts seeing a difference in those relationships. Those wearing FTP logos, generally speaking, will be asked to play on the site and wear the patches when they're playing in the presence of TV cameras. PokerStars pros are required to do a bit more and really work for their money.
A sponsorship with Stars really is a job, albeit a great job. Players coordinate with company officials, take public relations training, are scheduled regularly for interviews and appearances and must be proactive in promoting their individual brands and their connection with the company. When they sign, PokerStars pros are the un-molded clay. At least, that's true most of the time.
This week, Stars announced the signings of two veteran players with whom the sculpting has already been mostly done. David Williams and Vanessa Selbst were introduced as the industry giant's latest signees. The two have taken divergent paths towards this point in their respective careers, but both journeys have apparently worked according to plan. Both Selbst and Williams have their sponsorship deals and are following up on that accomplishment with strong showings through the first two days of the main event at the World Series of Poker. According to the WSOP website, Selbst started Day 2 with $265,000 and Williams with $148,000, both well above average.
"Signing with PokerStars has been a dream of mine since I qualified there for the main event in 2004, when I burst on the scene," recalled Williams, the 2004 main event runner-up, just prior to taking his seat on Day 3. "It was disappointing to see Greg Raymer with the title, the money and now he's a big Stars ambassador and you see him everywhere, so that day was always a painful day for me looking back. Even though I've found my own success, when I won the WPT this year and then signed the deal with Stars afterwards I guess it feels like all of the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place. I am where I'm supposed to be. I'm a champion and representing Stars."
"After I won the North American Poker Tour stop at Mohegan Sun this year, I kind of knew it was a good time," Selbst, 26, said. "I'd been thinking about getting back into poker for a while. I reached out to PokerStars. I knew there were questions about how much I was playing because I hadn't been around for the last two years, so I colored some interviews so people would know I was interested in getting back in the game. PokerStars was incredibly receptive."
Selbst burst onto the scene in a 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated in which she was painted as brash, cocky and aggressive, but the 26-year-old is now an about-face from the 21-year-old we saw at the time. Selbst is thoughtful in conversation, responsible in her actions and is looking to expand herself in a way she recognized could not be found playing poker 24/7.
"I'd immersed myself in the poker world and got burnt out very quickly," Selbst said. "It's important to have a healthy lifestyle Eat right, exercise, don't go out until 5 a.m. just because you're in Vegas. Having side projects in important to your mental health as a poker player. I think I thought I wasn't living a meaningful existence playing full-time. I know now that it's meaningful because fun can be meaningful. That's the biggest lesson I've learned.
"I definitely wanted to make a contribution to society," she continued. "I work with issues regarding police misconduct and misuse of authority. For the summer, I'm working in a firm [Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, founded by Johnny Cochrane] that specializes in police misconduct litigation. It's important work and I see communities affected by it. I never loved authority in the first place and I think when it's used well it can be a good thing, but used poorly it's an issue I can make a lot of change in.
"I've done work in civil rights for a while, but I really wanted to go to law school because I felt the most intellectually stimulating way to do the work was through law. It's been great. I've worked on cases for clients in Guantanamo Bay. It's really been amazing."
While Selbst's reintegration with the poker world will take some time away from her legal pursuits, she sees herself maintaining a balance. Her hope is that she'll find enough success in poker to start funding her own projects in her non-poker areas of interest.
While Selbst was away, Williams has been in the poker spotlight for years. Williams had been living the 18-year-old dream: fame and fortune as a poker player, starlets on his arm, pimped out this-and-that and so on. Then came the realization that his long-running relationship with Bodog would be coming to an end, leaving him a man without sponsorship support.
"Being in no man's land was in my head," said Williams, who just turned 30. "We knew six months in advance that I wouldn't be resigning when my contract ran out, but I was still feeling OK about things. I have a good team behind me in Poker Royalty, but yeah, knowing that I was going to be a free agent after that WPT was on my mind. I knew it was important to go in there and do my best."
That he did. Williams won $1,530,537 and one of the most prestigious events of the year, putting a punctuation mark on an already impressive résumé. It was time to go back to Stars and see if they could reach an agreement. The wisdom of years definitely played a part, with an older, more mature Williams proving a better fit to the well-rounded image PokerStars searches for in their sponsorship signees.
"PokerStars pros all seem responsible," Williams said. "I was more of a degenerate back in the day and now I'm not. Hopefully, the maturity lines up with what they were looking for. Maybe that is a reason I was chosen. I'm proud if it is, because that says a lot out myself and their values lining up."
Now, with new patches adorning their clothes and the confidence they feel from those who have invested in them, Williams and Selbst are each looking to make their new sponsors proud. They have the chips, the perspective and the skill to make something special happen in this main event. If they do, they'll have even more interviews and similar appointments. They're both at a point though where, no matter how they got there, they're ready to embrace the job.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
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