The Tournament of Champions
By: Annie Duke
Annie Duke became the most successful female poker player in history when she won ESPN’s Tournament of Champions. For the first time, hear in her own words exactly how she did it.
How do you win a tournament where no one is going to make any big mistakes? This is what I was thinking as I sat down to play the ESPN TOC. I looked around the table and saw Greg Raymer, Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Chip Rees, Johnny Chan, TJ Cloutier, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and my brother, Howard Lederer. “Well, I just hope I don’t get knocked out first,” I thought.
I had gotten a call in August, from Howard Greenbaum of Harrahs, inviting me to play in the TOC. Harrah’s and ESPN had decided to put up a $2- million prize pool, winner takes all, for those they considered to be the ten best players in the world. The game would be No-limit Hold’em. My first reaction was one of shock that I had been invited. Then I realized how amazing this tournament was for poker players, what it meant to them. Poker players have been putting on a great show for TV audiences for two years now. Networks were printing money from poker - and yet players were still paying their own entries in tournaments. Someone had finally stepped up and said, “You deserve to get something back.” And that something was $2 million!
When I sat down to play the event, on September 2 at 3pm, I looked at that table and thought there was no way I could win. My feelings seemed to be confirmed when I got crippled in an early hand against Daniel Negreanu. He raised on the button and I re-raised out of the small blind with T-T. The board came K-7-5, two hearts. I bet and he called, but he gave a speech that made me think he had hit his hand. I
checked the turn and he checked. I checked the river and folded when he bet. When I saw the broadcast later I saw that he had A-K.
I was the short stack now and was praying I wouldn’t be out first, when Chip Reese got into a huge confrontation with Phil Hellmuth. Phil had A-A and Chip had K-K and the board came Jack-high. Chip was decimated by that hand, and was soon out of the picture. I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not first out. Next TJ Cloutier went down and I had moved up another spot.
Still, despite my sense of relief, I was feeling very out of sorts. I felt I had no real strategy against the players at this table. When I sit down at a table, I am used to being the one people focus on - they know me and are generally unhappy to see me at their table. I am usually the most aggressive player, used to feeling in control - but not at this table. I had to rethink my strategy. I had been trying to play small-pot poker up until this point - but it wasn’t working against this table of greats.
I caught a big break when Daniel Negreanu opened the pot in first position with 7
-5 .I looked down at two Kings and moved in. Daniel called and my Kings held up. Now that I had rebuilt my dwindling stack, I could focus on a new strategy. I noticed that as the blinds and antes got higher, my brother, Howard Lederer, had started moving in a lot. I suddenly realized he had come up with the right gameplay - not surprisingly, since he is one of the greatest poker players who ever played the game.
We were playing with a group of players with very few weaknesses, and
no one was going to make any terrible decisions. What Howard realized was that the one weapon you had against this group was to take their decisions away from them. To say, “If you want to play a hand with me, it will be for all my chips. We’ll play a 5-card hand, because I’m going to put all my money in before the flop so you won’t have a chance to out-think me later.”
Great players don’t like to get all the money in before the flop. It increases variance and makes you gamble. Great players like control. They like to make as many decisions as they can during a hand because they can out-think and out-play their opponents. By adopting a move-in strategy, you take that away from them. What made this strategy all the more effective was the fact we were playing a winner-take-all event. That meant there was no value in moving up a spot; the only prize was first place, so you are expected to gamble more. A move-in strategy is proper in a winnertake- all situation.
Now that I knew what to do, I felt more comfortable, but still needed the cards to break my way. My first chance came when Phil Ivey moved in. I looked down at A-Q and moved in behind him, having him slightly covered. Everyone folded to Howard, who had built up a dominating chip stack by this point and had me well covered. He moved in behind me. Uh oh! That meant Howard had a huge hand and, indeed, he turned over K-K. Ivey turn over A-8. The board fell two spades and when the turn was a spade, I made my flush and tripled up, knocking Ivey out in the process. I had outlasted three players and now had a healthy chip stack of about 290k.
Then came, from my point of view, the most interesting hand of the tournament: Daniel Negreanu opened the pot in first position for about 36k. I looked down at the same T-T that had crippled me earlier. I felt Daniel was somewhat weak and asked him how much he had left. He counted his stack down - about 90k more. I re-raised him all-in and everyone folded around to Greg Raymer in the big blind. Greg had built up a nice stack, playing very controlled and excellent poker. He had about 450k to start the hand. When the action got to him he moved in. Daniel quickly folded and I was left with an incredibly difficult decision. I had 150k left; there was 450k in the pot. This meant I was getting three-to-one from the pot to call my last 150k. Those are huge odds. I went into the tank, trying to decide if there was a possibility Greg had A-K.
When you are getting three-to-one from the pot and you have a pair, you can only fold if you’re sure your opponent has an overpair. An overpair would put you at over a four-to-one disadvantage, an easy fold if you are only getting three-to-one. But if your opponent has A-K you are a six-to-five favorite, an easy call getting three-toone. But what if both are possible? He might have an overpair or he might have A-K. In that case you also are mathematically forced to call.
I thought about the logic of the hand. Greg knew that Daniel had raised out of first position - a sign of a strong hand. He also knew I had re-raised Daniel out of second position. This makes it highly unlikely that I am bluffing. I also look like I am pot-committed because I have left myself with only 150k in chips. This means if Greg moves in, I will be getting three-to-one from the pot and it will be very hard for me to fold.
Greg knew that; and I knew he knew. I combined this with a tell on Greg that let me know he was very comfortable with his hand. So all I was left with was this question, “I haven’t played with Greg before. Is he someone who, given all he knows about my hand, would move in and risk the majority of his chips with A-K?”
My answer to this was, “No.” I decided that not only did he not have A-K; he didn’t have J-J or Q-Q either. From the way he was acting, and the way the action had come down, I decided he could only have A-A or K-K. I folded.
I was left to ponder what had happened for an hour, since dinner break was right after that hand. What a roller coaster to have tripled up and then immediately, the very next hand, to be knocked back down to 150k. I had to think about whether I was right to fold the Tens for an entire hour. Phil Hellmuth criticized my folding, saying he really thought Greg had A-K.
After dinner, Doyle knocked Daniel out the first hand and my brother knocked Doyle out shortly after. I realized that, beyond my expectations, I had made it to the top five. I was in control now, having adopted my brother’s strategy, but was still short stacked after the devastating T-T against Greg Raymer. Greg raised on the button and I looked down at A-4. At this point the blinds and antes were very high and I was short-stacked.
I knew that this hand rated to be the best I would see this round. Greg could have any hand, since a good player will raise a large range of hands on the button. I figured that not only would this be the best hand I would see this round, but my hand rated higher than Greg’s. I moved in. Greg, who was getting over two-to-one from the pot, had an automatic call with any two cards. He called with 9-8. My Ace-high held up, and, suddenly, I had a healthy chip stack.
I chopped out some more by moving in on people or just raising before the flop and winning the blinds and antes. Greg, who now was crippled, moved in on the small blind and I looked down at 8-8. Automatic call. 8-8 held up and we were down to four. As I shook Greg’s hand, he whispered in my ear, “I had Kings on that hand.”
Thank you Greg, for putting my mind at ease that I had made an excellent fold. You gave me so much more confidence throughout the rest of the tournament.
I was now facing Howard, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan. What a nightmare line up. But I was chip leader and I actually felt pretty comfortable now. We were now anteing and blinding 56k a round. The price of poker was getting higher.
Johnny Chan opened the pot in first position for about 50k. He had 260k left after his raise. Phil Hellmuth, who had about 650k, went into the tank and finally folded. My brother re-raised Chan, who thought for a while and moved in. Howard had an automatic call. Chan turned over 6-6 and Howard turned over A-J. Phil then announced that he had folded A-Q. The board came Queen-high and Chan’s 6-6 held up against my brother. Howard said: “That was such a bad beat for me that you folded, Phil. My only satisfaction in losing that hand was that you would have won it.” My brother always makes me smile.
Chan now had a ton of chips but took a very bad beat when he had Phil all-in with T-T against Chan’s K-K. Phil hit a Ten on the river to double through Johnny and cripple his chip stack. After that Chan was forced to go all-in with Q-J and was out of the tournament.
I was now in the top three with my mentor and brother, Howard, and my good friend and fellow UltimateBet.com spokesperson, Phil Hellmuth. Phil was chip leader, I was second and Howard was third. After some jockeying and lots of raises and move-ins with no big confrontations,
the hand I will remember for the rest of my life occurred.
I looked down at 6-6 on the button and raised. Phil folded. My brother
moved in out of the big blind. He had been playing super-aggressive poker, moving in lots of hands. This meant that his move in didn’t mean that much in terms of the quality of his hand. 6-6 rated to be the best hand. Howard was also, in my opinion, the best player left at the table, so I was willing to gamble more to knock him out. I had Howard covered and could not go broke, so calling with the 6-6 became easy. But Howard had 7-7. I was over a four-toone underdog now. Howard was going to double through me, and I was going to be crippled again after working so hard to get a big chip stack.
The board came 6-Q-Q. I had out flopped my own brother. The wave of emotions that came over me is hard to articulate. As a poker player I was happy: he was the tougher of my two opponents and I really wanted him out of the tournament. It meant I was heads-up in the biggest money situation of my life. But it was my own brother I had put a bad beat on - the man who is responsible for my being a poker player. He taught me almost everything I know. I was only in this Tournament of Champions because of him. And I had just knocked him out on a bad beat. I couldn’t hold back the tears and had to leave the room to compose myself.
I got myself together and sat back down to play Phil heads-up. We started with about the same number of chips. At this point I stopped moving in. The blinds were too low in relation to my chip stack and I wanted to play some flops now. I started limping in more pots trying to make decisions against Phil. I quickly gained a big chip lead, chopping hands against him.
Phil is a much better player than I am, but I have always done well against him. My style matches up well against his style. So, I felt confident that I could win. I also know Phil well and felt that I could out-psyche him.
Phil gets a ton of leverage by making people mad at the table. He tells
them how great he is, how bad they are, how reckless they are, and most people get defensive. They want to prove Phil wrong. They play tilted because he gets under their skin. But I just find him funny.
So I turned Phil’s berating back on him by agreeing with him. Every time he told me I was terrible, I agreed. I asked him why he wasn’t calling me and trapping my reckless play. I gave him a dead end, and that got under his skin. I tilted him by agreeing with his own admonitions.
I caught a rush of cards, flopping a full house and making two pair with K-9 against his top pair. I had him down to 500k in chips. Phil limped in and I checked in the big blind with K-T. The board came T-high and I checkraised him again. This time he moved in on me and I called. When he turned over T-8, it was all over. I had won!
I cannot described the sense of elation, shock and disbelief at the moment I won. I had won the Bellagio $2500 limit Hold’em event in April, won my first WSOP bracelet in May and now had won the Tournament of Champions and $2 million. All that I had been striving for as a poker player, all that my brother had dreamed for me had come true. At 3.30 am Howard Greenbaum of Harrah’s presented me with the trophy and I sat in front of this huge pile of money with a silly grin on my face, just thinking about how much I had achieved, and thankful for the wild ride.
People have asked me how I felt about Phil Hellmuth’s rant at the end of the TOC. They ask if I was insulted by it. My answer is no. How could I be? I’m the one with the trophy!
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