Annie Duke’s NBC Heads-Up Cinderella Story

The last time Annie Duke was on NBC, she got her ass handed to her courtesy of Joan Rivers and the Donald. Needless to say, things went a little better for the poker pro and reality starlet the second time around. Rather than have another go at The Celebrity Apprentice, Duke returned to the felt for the sixth annual NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, and though she may have come up short in the boardroom, she was the last woman standing in the card room.

Duke’s victory in this year’s NBC Heads-Up event is just one of a number of surprises that unfolded over the course of the three-day event. Over the years, these surprises and upsets have come to be par for the course for the televised tournament, yet every year players and fans are shocked and stunned as an elite field of 64 players gather in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for six rounds of action. This year was no exception as two players with some of the worst records in the event’s history found themselves making deep runs, busting brackets and producing some of the more memorable matches in the tournament’s history.

It is these surprises and upsets that make the $20,000 buy-in, televised event such a compelling piece of poker television. The structure may not be the deepest and the poker community will always debate who deserved to be in and who was undeservedly snubbed, but the fact of the matter is that this tournament is one of the more high-profile events of the year, with the winner pocketing $500,000 and some substantial screen time on network television. Prior to the start of the event, the players at the top of this year’s snub list were WPT Championship event winner Yevgeniy Timoshenko and a player with a great heads-up track record, Vivek Rajkumar. While those Internet whiz kids were left off the roster, there were several other younguns making their NBC Heads-Up debut including Annette Obrestad, BLUFF Player of the Year Jason Mercier, WSOP Main Event winner Joe Cada, Eric Baldwin and Leo Wolpert.

Some of those rookies made a splash in the event, but on the whole, this year’s event was a tour de force for both the old school set and the crop of past WSOP Main Event winners trying to prove they weren’t flash in the pan phenoms. This year, there were thirteen former Main Event winners who played in the event, nine of which advanced to Round Two. From there, six would advance to the Sweet Sixteen: Jerry Yang, Jamie Gold, Peter Eastgate, Doyle Brunson, Scotty Nguyen and Chris Moneymaker. Gold, Eastgate and Moneymaker were all seeded in the Clubs’ bracket, which proved to be the source of some of the more surprising upsets in the early round. Moneymaker defeated online poker forum favorite Patrik Antonius, Gold bested Dario Minieri and former NBC Heads-Up Champion Ted Forrest fell to online qualifier Stephen Quinn.

One could also argue that the first round match up between Huck Seed and Erik Seidel was a David vs. Goliath affair. Yes, Seidel has eight WSOP bracelets to his credit and isn’t exactly a poker slouch, but a glance at the Heads-Up history would lead you to believe Seed had the best of this match up. The reigning NBC Heads-Up Champ has one of the best records in NBC Heads-Up history headed into this event. Prior to this year, Seed has cashed in the event every year, culminating with his victory in ‘09. Like Seed, Seidel has also taken part in every single NBC Heads-Up event, but unlike Seed, he has made a first-round exit every single year. Seidel’s 0-5 record was the worst in the event’s history, and it was beginning to seem like Seidel was destined to make it 0-6 after drawing the closest thing to a lock that this unpredictable event could come up with.

Poker works in mysterious ways though, and it was Seidel who prevailed over Seed to advance to his first-ever second round to ensure that there would be no back-to-back champion this time around. Seidel’s win over Seed, plus the another upset in the Clubs’ Bracket opening round, set the tone for the rest of the event, and left the brackets of even those close to the event in total disarray. “The clubs bracket was a complete bloodbath massacre,” says NBC Heads-Up Commentator Ali Nejad. “It left me going, ‘I know nothing about the game of poker, and I’d like to admit this publicly.’ There’s just no way you can really take this event and think you have it figured out, it is just too unpredictable.”

The unpredictability in Round One continued with Yang besting Mike Matusow, Don Cheadle beating JP Kelly, Gabe Kaplan defeating Johnny Chan, Mercier making quick work of Daniel Negreanu and Phil Gordon prevailing over Tom “durrrr” Dwan. The unexpected results continued right on into Round Two, which featured several interesting matchups like Scotty Nguyen vs. Phil Ivey, Annie Duke vs. Darvin Moon, Chris Ferguson vs. Dennis Phillips and Annette Obrestad vs. Phil Hellmuth.

The Ivey-Nguyen battle proved to be a memorable one. What started off as a one-sided affair on the event’s feature table, ended with a series of unbelievable all-in showdowns. At first, Ivey seemed to be steamrolling his way to a second victory, but Nguyen refused to go down without a fight. Nguyen was down to just a handful of blinds and his elimination seemed inevitable, but he managed to be on the winning end of five different all-ins in order to rally back to life. Nguyen turned up with premium hand after premium hand, even flopping set over set with his pocket kings against Ivey’s pocket jacks on a K-J-5 board. On the final hand of the match, it was Ivey who held the kings, but Nguyen rivered two pair to advance to Round Three.

The Hellmuth-Obrestad match was also a feature table affair. The duo played in relative silence, but that didn’t mean the match didn’t feature a little dramatic flair. Hellmuth found a way to make himself the center of attention after Obrestad moved all-in on the river with the board reading Q-9-2-10-8 with a possible club flush getting there on the river. Facing a decision for his tournament life, Hellmuth tanked, paced and thought for well over five minutes before making a hero call with a pair of nines, which was no match for Obrestad’s straight. Obrestad advanced into the money rounds, thanks to that hand, but she would hit the rail just one match later, falling to Brunson in the Sweet Sixteen. The word on the street was that Brunson was intent on skipping this event to relax and take some time off following some major dental surgery, but he found the energy to get on over to Caesars and was likely happy he did. Brunson was on the winning end of his Round Three match to claim a spot in the Elite Eight, as was Nguyen, Duke, Eastgate, Seidel, Mercier, Phillips and Yang.

The Sweet Sixteen match that really had people talking was the one between Paul Wasicka and Annie Duke. Their battle was a back and forth affair comprised of several hands with big suckouts and even bigger re-suckouts. Duke had the advantage early, but Wasicka’s A-10 hit a lucky ace against Duke’s pocket jacks to stay alive. Duke would get lucky with A-10 as well, though, cracking Wasicka’s pocket aces when she ran out a straight after he flopped top set. Nejad had high praise for the thrills and drama of the pairing stating, “The most exciting match in the history of the event, pretty much the whole crew agrees, is the Annie Duke-Paul Wasicka match.”

That long and dramatic bout was just one of several stressful matches for Duke. She squared off with Yang in the quarterfinals and, once again, had to overcome some rough beats to emerge victorious. The match brought back memories of Yang’s improbable WSOP run in 2007, as it seemed like the Lord just might have been on his side in a couple of all-in confrontations in which his small pair faded Duke’s flush, straight and overcard outs to win the pot. Despite all the double ups, Duke managed to retain the chip lead and fend off Yang to advance to the final four, where she was set to play Phillips, who bested Brunson to win the Hearts Bracket. On the other side of the pairings, the old guard overcame the young guns, as Seidel beat Eastgate and Nguyen prevailed over Mercier to claim the other two spots in the semi-finals.

With the elimination of Mercier and Eastgate, there were no players left in the field under the age of 40, something Duke was quick to point out via Twitter and comment on after the event was over. “I have to say, I was really happy that Erik Seidel got really deep, that Doyle Brunson got really deep, that Scotty Nguyen got really deep, and I got really deep, and it was really an older Heads-Up, because we can play too,” Duke admitted. “Why can’t everybody play, and why do we have to critique each other? Can’t we all just be good players and be successful and be happy?”

Duke was certainly happy with the result of her semi-finals match. She once again pulled out to the chip lead, got it in with the best of it and lost only to fight her way back to win the battle and claim the first spot in the final round. In the Seidel and Nguyen bout, the two were deadlocked for the duration of their match and it took a cooler of a hand to determine who would advance to the finals. Seidel made a boat against Nguyen’s trips, and the two were so evenly stacked that the dealer had to count down the stacks to the smallest denomination before it could be determined that Seidel had Nguyen covered and would be advancing to the finals.

When Duke learned that Seidel would be her opponent in the finals, she ran on the set to give her longtime friend a big hug. She had tears in her eyes as she congratulated Seidel and was elated that she would be vying for the title with someone who has known her since she was a teenager. Before the final round even began, Duke described the ending as “storybook,” regardless of who would walk away the champion. Even though Seidel and Duke are seasoned vets to the poker world, it is fair to say that their respective runs in the event were Cinderella stories. Granted, their stories may not have been on the scale of George Mason making the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, but they were two players with something to prove when it came to their heads-up records. As mentioned previously, Seidel had the worst record of them all headed into the event and was now guaranteed a chance to be batting above .500 by the time this tournament drew to a close by defeating Duke. Duke’s record prior to 2010 was not much better at 1-4, and even she was beginning to think she didn’t stand a chance of making it out of the first round again.

“I was in the press line and Chops [of Wicked Chops Poker] asked if I was geared up for the event, and I was like, ‘You know, heads-up, not my thing,’” Duke explains. “Because it’s not my favorite event. I’ve had such a terrible record, and I’ve come in with such a bad attitude in the past and it’s embarrassing. I come in to this thing every year and lose in the first round, and I was feeling like people were like, ‘Oh, I hope I get Annie Duke in the draw.’” Seidel was equally aware of his unimpressive record in past years, as he was the one at the draw party who was first to point out that the players with the worst and best records were playing in Round One.

The final round, which was played in a best of three format, proved to be just as dramatic as the matches leading up to it. Duke quickly took down the first match, but it was Seidel who came out on top in Match No. 2, leading to one more battle to determine which player would be crowned champion. The two friends, who chatted it up a bit during the early matches, played in near silence, with both very clearly focused on bringing their A game. Seidel was able to slowly chip up, and the escalating blinds forced Duke to shove all-in holding Q-9 to Seidel’s A-K. The board brought both a queen and a nine to double Duke up and give her the chip lead, and her pocket nines held up against Seidel’s A-2 just a few hands later to secure her the win.

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May 2010