In Friday's ill-fated predictions column, I wrote about how the 2010 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship would be the coming-out party for Annette Obrestad. The 21-year old wunderkind's arrival was a big deal. Obrestad represents a new breed of female star that the poker world could hitch its wagon to. Apparently, however, the old breed isn't quite done just yet.
Annie Duke was once primarily known as Howard Lederer's sister. She played her way to a 10th-place finish in the main event of the 2000 World Series of Poker despite being eight months pregnant and won $2 million in the 10-player 2004 WSOP Tournament of Champions, launching her to stardom. In the past five years, Duke hasn't scored a six-figure win, playing rarely as she's turned her attention to other things namely, being a star. She's written books, produced and starred in TV shows and worked for Ultimate Bet, and her run on "The Celebrity Apprentice" last year (including epic clashes with Joan Rivers) showed a tenacious, aggressive and ultimately successful woman whose Q-rating may be as high as any poker player not named Ivey. Now, she's back to success at the table with a win at the NHUPC.
Give Duke the credit. She's done a remarkable job of picking her moments to shine. Just as the Tournament of Champions propelled her to poker stardom on ESPN, this win will reignite it on NBC. Annie's been among the group of old-school TV pros of whom the new generation of poker players have asked, "What have you done for me lately?" while receiving myriad invitations to high-profile events. Now, she has an answer.
Her absence in poker is something she hasn't taken lightly. While away from the table, Duke worked on her mindset in preparation for a return with a new attitude.
"I really had gotten to the point after this year's WSOP that I realized that when I went to go play poker, I would treat the game as a freeroll," Duke told ESPN.com on Monday. "[I thought] if I do well, that's fine. If I lose, then I'll just go home to my family earlier. I really had that in the back of my mind as I was playing and that is a terrible attitude to have. It shouldn't be cool if you lose. You should really want to win.
"In December I planned to play the Bellagio WPT, but I really just wanted to spend time with my family and I didn't go. It was a real turning point for me. I had to decide that I wanted to play poker because that's what I wanted to do. I asked myself, 'Do I really want to keep doing this? Do I really want to be a poker player?' When I came out of hiding in February, I wanted to be there and I wanted to be a poker player."
Duke's record in prior NHUPCs was 1-5, but that didn't affect her as she sat down to play this year. It was a new Duke with a new desire to prove that she can actually play.
With the title, Duke takes home $500,000 as well as the distinction of being the first female winner in NHUPC history. She also reasserts herself as poker's most visible woman a year after GoDaddy girl Vanessa Rousso seemed poised to start staking such a claim with her second-place finish in this same tournament. Duke had some strong words of praise for Rousso despite an early elimination this year.
"I got to play with Vanessa on Day 2 of the LAPC and boy, that girl can play poker," said Duke. "She does some amazing things. She did some things I wish I could do. I learned a lot from playing with her during much of Day 2. Vanessa had one of the best years in poker last year and there's not many players that can be on the same level as her."
Some now wonder if Duke's win will spark a boom in women's participation in the sport, and while she remains optimistic, Duke believes there's still a long path ahead.
"One of the disappointments for me that with this huge boom, the percentage hasn't changed in tournament poker," said Duke. "Three to five percent of the field was women in the '90s. Granted that there are more players in total, but the ratio is the same now. "
Duke's run started with a win over good friend Andy Bloch. On Day 2, she quickly disposed of Darvin Moon before winning a see-saw battle with Paul Wasicka that seems likely to get some television time. On Day 3, Duke won three matches, beating 2007 world champion Jerry Yang, Dennis Phillips and finally close friend Erik Seidel to capture the championship.
"I really described [facing Seidel] as storybook," she said. "We've known each other for so long and we're so good friends. If he won, I was going to be as happy as if I won, and I'm serious about that."
In the best-of-three finals format, Duke took the first match and believed she outplayed Seidel. In the second match, Duke freely admitted that Seidel outplayed her. The third match was basically even.
"It was fitting that the blinds were high and we just had to get our money in [during the third match]," said Duke. "It was just amazing. First of all, I love playing with Erik. Every time I play with Erik, I learn. I learned so much from the second match with him. He's just someone I'm really rooting for. That match was so much better for me than another opponent where it would've been an incredible disappointment if I came in second."
For Seidel, the final result marked a disappointing end to a remarkable reversal of fortunes in the Heads-Up Championship. Seidel was the only player to play in each of the five previous editions of the event and fail to escape the first round each time. His quick win over defending champion Huck Seed (who previously had the best record in the event's history) in the first round this year proved to be a sign of good things to come. He downed David Williams and Chris Moneymaker on Day 2, then made it through WSOP main event champions Peter Eastgate (2008) and Scotty Nguyen (1998) before facing Duke.
Seidel, who currently sits fourth in lifetime WSOP bracelets with eight, won $250,000 for his second-place finish. In the aftermath, he tweeted, "Ended 2nd to Annie Duke in the NBC Heads Up. She played an outstanding match. Easiest loss of my career, very happy for her."
It was typical fare for the mild-mannered Seidel.
Phillips and Nguyen each received $125,000 for their semifinal finishes. Yang, Eastgate, Doyle Brunson and Jason Mercier each received $75,000 for appearing in the Round of 8, while eight players, including Obrestad, Moneymaker and Wasicka, received $25,000 for advancing to the third round.
The NHUPC broadcast schedule begins April 18 on NBC. There's sure to be plenty of Duke and Seidel with a focus on their respective reversals of fortune in this event. You can also bet you'll see a lot of Obrestad, who defeated Phil Hellmuth in the second round. After all, she's the next big thing. Apparently, the woman whose footsteps she's walking in isn't done with the spotlight just yet.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.