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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS, Nevada – The glitzy trophy and the pile of $500,000 in cash that sat in front of her were reason enough for Annie Duke to be overjoyed with winning the NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship on Sunday night.
But they certainly weren't the only reasons why Duke was overcome with emotion after she took out good friend Erik Seidel in the best-of-three final match that took more than three-and-a-half-hours.
For Duke, a victory in what has become one of the most coveted titles in the game was about much more than hardware and cash. It helped her prove some critics wrong. It saw her break yet another barrier for women in poker and win one for the older pros in the game. And, of course, she was able to score a little revenge with a certain network.
"I finally didn't have to settle for second place on NBC," Duke said with a huge laugh before the award ceremony, referring to her appearance on last year's "Celebrity Apprentice" where she was the runner-up to rival Joan Rivers on Donald Trump's reality TV show. "It feels good because this time it wasn't up to some guy sitting across the table. It was up to me."
Duke was laughing as she made her point, but surely she wasn't kidding. The longtime poker pro is as competitive as they come and the longer she spoke to the press following her triumph, the more you realized just how satisfying this victory was for her.
"I took a lot of time off from poker over the last year or so and I've taken some criticism for it," said Duke, who was still involved with teaching poker and working the charity circuit, but didn't play in many events for a five-month span between October of last year and February of 2010. "People were saying that I'm not a poker player anymore and that I'm just focused on all of the other things going on in my life.
"But, you know what? That time off helped me refocus. It made me realize that my priorities are family first and then poker. I don't like being criticized for that. So, I came back hungrier than ever so to see that hunger translate into a big win like this…it just feels really, really good."
Then she spoke about what the victory meant for the "older" generation of poker players.
"I'm really glad that one of us 'old folks' was able to win," said the 44-year-old. "The younger generation has some ridiculously talented players out there and it seems like they are the ones winning a lot of the big events. So it was nice to see me make a deep run and Erik and Doyle (Brunson) and Scotty (Nguyen).
"I think most of us realize how talented the younger players are and we respect that. But I'm not sure the respect goes both ways. Maybe all of us doing so well in this event will change that."
Then there's the whole female aspect to Duke's victory. Last year, Vanessa Rousso became the first woman player to make it to the finals of the Heads-Up, but she fell short of becoming the first to win the title when she lost to Huck Seed. Duke was able to seal the deal this year and become the first woman Heads-Up champ.
"First of all, Vanessa is incredibly talented and she's playing as well as anyone in the game right now," Duke went on. "So this wasn't about me trying to 'one-up' Vanessa. I'm happy she was able to make a run last year and I'm happy I was able to do the same this year. I think we've proved beyond a doubt that women can play this game."
And finally, Duke spoke about what the Heads-Up title means for her career.
"I haven't won a real big event since the Tournament of Champions back in 2004," she said. "I needed another landmark victory for my career and this does it. This one ranks right up there with any of my accomplishments.
"And the best thing about that is that it will help my charities. Winning an event like that will make a huge difference in that part of my life so that makes this even more special."
Meanwhile, Seidel had to settle for second place, which in the grand scale of thing is pretty good considering he came into the event with a 0-5 record over the last five years.
"I'm real happy for Annie because we've know each other for like 20 years so if I couldn't win, I'm glad Annie did," he said. "But it still hurts a little bit."
Seidel lost the first match of the best-of-three finals and then dominated the second to square things up. In the third match it was a dead-even heat until Duke's pocket nines held up against Seidel's Ace-2 on the final hand.
But even with the loss and runner-up finish that earned him $250,000, Seidel admitted that he felt a little bit of redemption for finally breaking through in the event with not only one victory, but a run to the finals.
"Yeah you could say that," he laughed. "I've been taking a lot of shit from a lot of people about that. So this does feel pretty good."
Duke, who said she first met Seidel when she was 19, said that she feels poker fans and media constantly underrate her long-time friend.
"I see these Top-10 players in poker lists all the time and sometimes you don't see Erik in there, and that's just crazy," she said. "Look at his record. Look what he does every year at the World Series. It's incredible and I don't think he gets the recognition he deserves."
Wasicka a tough task for Duke
"He's just such a solid player; he wasn't giving away any chips," she explained. "Facing Andy [Bloch] in the first round wasn't easy, but things just fell my way and we played a lot of hands. Believe me, I never want to have to sit down and face Andy Bloch heads-up ever again. And the same goes for Paul. They are both incredibly talented players and I feel fortunate to say I was able to beat both of them."
Duke's other opponent in between Bloch and Wasicka was Darvin Moon. After she chipped slowly away at Phillips and eventually disposed of the man wearing his customary St. Louis Cardinals hat, Duke once again said she felt fortunate to survive and advance to the finals.
"I actually think I made a lot of mistakes in this match," she said. "Dennis had me confused at times. So I'm really lucky to have gotten by him. He was a tough opponent."
Special moment for Dennis Phillips
"I'm glad the TV cameras weren't focused on my feet because they were dancing because I was so nervous," said Phillips, who burst onto the poker scene at the 2008 WSOP Main Event when he was the chip leader heading into the final table before finishing third. "I mean think about it. I'm sitting there playing heads-up on national television for $50,000 against a legend like Doyle Brunson. That's just mind-boggling to me."
Phillips said that he was just as anxious about his match with Texas Dolly than he was before the Main Event final table two years ago.
"Oh, without a doubt," he said. "This was something I'll never forget. It was a real special experience, even if I didn't win."
Cash is king for Phil Ivey
Trying to be discreet, Ivey pulled six rolls of large bills out of the front pocket of his jeans and handed five of them over to a prominent member of the TV crew on the set. He then stuffed the other roll back into his pocket, before getting miked-up by another person on the set.
When we asked the TV crew member who was the recipient of Ivey's cash what had transpired, he was taken aback at first, but then was kind enough to explain.
"That was Phil's buy-in," he told us before declining to give us his name. "He was too lazy to walk over to the cage and pay it. I've been friends with him for a long time so he called me and asked me to front him until he got here."
Bloch sees 'momentum' for online regulation
So it was refreshing to hear Bloch say that he thinks we are getting closer and closer to seeing online poker getting regulated in the U.S.
"I'm very hopeful because we have a lot of momentum coming into this year," said Bloch, who lost in the first round to Duke on Friday. "We've always had most of the Democrats in Congress on our side and now we're finally starting to get some of the Republicans to back off some of their opposition to it. That's a good sign…Hopefully all of the poker players out there can kind of unite. There are a couple of elections coming up where we can make a difference."
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