The thrill of beating an ace: Our man savors a win over poker queen Annie Duke

Posted: June 08, 2010

I HAVE been struggling with a major dilemma lately. It's one so vexing it has kept me up nights: When I win this year's World Series of Poker, on which wrist should I wear my championship bracelet?

That I am going to win professional poker's most prestigious (and lucrative) event is pretty much a foregone conclusion. After all, I beat Annie Duke in a recent heads-up match - which in my mind makes me invincible at the poker table.

For those unfamiliar with the formidable Ms. Duke, she is generally considered the best female poker player in this or any other solar system. Her winnings in both high-stakes cash games and major tournaments are in the millions. She is as much the "face" of professional poker as anyone - and I beat her in a one-on-one, no-limit Texas Hold'em tournament.

This may have been the most epic two-person game since Edward G. Robinson's Lancey Howard bested Steve McQueen's Eric Stoner in the classic 1965 film "The Cincinnati Kid."

Well, maybe not.

It all started earlier this year when Harrah's Atlantic City announced it had signed Duke to a celebrity endorsement deal for its World Series of Poker Circuit Events, in which players compete for a seat at the $10,000 buy-in Main Event held each summer in Las Vegas.

After more than 20 years covering the Atlantic City casino industry, I immediately heard destiny not only calling my name but also urging me to square off against Duke, who happens to be the reigning Heads-Up Texas Hold'em world champ, since she was coming to the casino last month as part of her agreement with Harrah's.

Duke OK'd the match, obviously unaware of my prowess "on the felt."

We rendezvoused at the appointed time in a third-floor ballroom at Harrah's that had been converted into an auxiliary poker room for Circuit Event play.

I asked Duke one favor: that she not hold back while we played. I wanted to test my skills against her "A" game. She assured me that whether she's playing "for pennies or millions," she can't help but "play to win."

We sat at the specially designated "Final Table," but our historic showdown didn't start smoothly.

I always wear sunglasses at the table. Many of the players who don shades are copying superstars they've seen on televised events, such as Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Greg "Fossilman" Raymer. But I'd been doing this for years before poker came to the small screen.

I wear shades because poker room-lighting aggravates my eyes (and because it helps hide "tells," the almost imperceptible tics that can give away a player's hand).

I asked Duke if she minded if I wore them as we played. Her reply? "Real men don't wear sunglasses at the poker table."

Yikes. The first hand hadn't yet been dealt, and she already held a psychological advantage.

Duke then reminded me of her well-known opposition to this affectation, but she ultimately relented, allowing me to sheepishly don my Ray-Bans.

We both started with a stack of multicolored tournament chips (which have no intrinsic cash value) in front of us. In the excitement of sitting across the table from the great Annie Duke, I neglected to count my chips or ask how much they totaled.

My guess is we were each staked with $10,000 worth, but that soon changed when Annie requested green chips worth $25 so she could better calibrate her bets.

Finally it was game on, and I wasted no time in taking a few small pots, raking chips because she failed to call my bets.

My first significant pot came fairly early.

I was dealt 6-7 off-suit (meaning they were different suits). A 3 and 4 came on the "flop" (the first three of the five cards exposed that are used to make a player's best five-card hand), and a 5 on the "turn" (the fourth community card) gave me a straight to the 7.

I went "all-in" (betting all the chips in front of me). Annie folded, and I took a $2,600 pot.

From there, I pretty much cruised, taking mostly small pots. I would love to say it was because I outplayed her - that I used my guile, cunning, intuition and pure talent to bluff her off ostensibly winning hands.

But the truth is, my good fortune was mostly random luck. I simply kept getting great cards. For instance, I started one hand with the king of spades and 7 of hearts (a decent starting hand in heads-up play but a horrible one when playing at full table, as there is little mathematical chance of making a strong final hand).

But on this day, the poker gods were smiling. Two kings and a 7 hit the board, giving me a full house. I was also dealt a number of powerful starting hands, including two aces and several other "pocket" pairs.

Throughout the match, Duke and I chatted. Most of our banter involved me asking her such questions as which pros are her favorites (her first answer was "my brother," referring to top player Howard Lederer), and to describe her most memorable hand.

For the latter, she told a long, fascinating tale of a $10-$20 limit Hold'em game in Montana that involved four-of-a-kind losing to a higher set of "quads."

Thanks to this ongoing dialogue, it took me little time to realize Duke isn't just a poker genius but also a down-to-earth person, as warm and engaging as she is attractive (an easy-to-spot attribute considering she makes her living in a male-dominated realm where pretty faces are extremely rare).

The game continued in much the same way that it had gone from the jump, with me getting really good cards and Annie getting, in the words of ESPN poker analyst Norman Chad, "squadoosh." But finally the humongous difference between our skill levels was revealed.

I was dealt the king of diamonds and 6 of clubs, a miserable starting hand. Duke didn't raise the "big blind" (one of two mandatory bets made before the start of any round of Hold'em), so we got to see the flop. And what a flop it was, with two kings.

In heads-up play, three-of-a-kind (or a "set") is, mathematically speaking, virtually unbeatable. But I didn't bet the way I should have, wagering a small amount on the flop and checking (not betting) on the turn, which happened to be the second heart to hit the board.

That allowed Annie a free chance to see the "river," or fifth card, which was another heart. Being first to bet, she put $1,500 in front of her. I raised it to $3,000. Mercifully, as it turned out, she just called. And then she showed me her pocket cards, the 10 and 3 of hearts, meaning she made a flush that beat my "trips."

As she gathered her chips, she suggested that I remind her about the hand after our game so she could explain in detail how I misplayed it.

Fair enough, but meanwhile, I was still on the winning track.

Finally Duke's chip stack had dwindled to the point where she had no choice but to go "all-in" regardless of her starting hand. She did so with king-2 of diamonds. I called with the ace of diamonds and the 6 of hearts (in heads-up play, any ace is considered strong).

The dealer turned up the 10 of hearts, 8 of spades, jack of spades, queen of spades and 8 of hearts. Because neither a king, deuce nor three diamonds came up, my ace bested her king, and - cue the trumpets - I had beaten the great Annie Duke.

But my ego was deflated as quickly as it had blown up, as Duke addressed that hand where her flush beat my three kings.

What I needed, she said, was "to find a way around that hole in your game." She launched into an impressively detailed, technical rehash of the hand, explaining how I had totally screwed up with my betting pattern, which she diagnosed as a chronic problem, not just a single-hand lapse.

I was extremely grateful for the tutorial, although more than a little embarrassed; I had hoped to bowl over Duke with my game.

Then the reality of what had transpired occurred to me.

Yes, I had beaten Annie Duke in one-on-one play. But the victory was nothing more than a confirmation of the old adage, "better lucky than good." I had won mostly because on this particular day, I had consistently held superior cards. On the one big pot she had won, she made mincemeat of me.

Ultimately, poker is a game of skill more than dumb luck. If it weren't, the same group of players wouldn't be regulars at the final tables of the big, televised tournaments.

So maybe I needn't stress so much about how to display my WSOP Main Event bracelet. To hear Annie tell it, I'm probably not quite there yet.

On the other hand, I can go to my grave bragging that yeah, I beat Annie Duke heads-up. For the foreseeable future, that will be more than enough to keep my poker ego at an obnoxiously large level.

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