Las Vegas, NV
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a documentary film by Eleanor Coppola released in 1991 which chronicled the arduous process of her husband's attempt at creating one of the greatest films about the Vietnam War... Apocalypse Now. Somewhere in that film, Francis Ford Coppola made a random remark about the future of filmmaking. The titans of today's cinema were products of niche films schools during the 1960s and 70s. He said that in twenty or thirty years that that paradigm would shift. The next great filmmaker, he insisted, is currently a young girl in Iowa somewhere tinkering with a camera.
Filmmaking was an art that was only accessible to a selected few. I'm a film school reject, and crushed when I did not get into NYU Film school during my senior year in college. In the mid-90s, I wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater. Alas, I took a different path and these days due to the wonders of the Internet and YouTube, I have been able to exorcise those demons by posting my own videos.
Coppola's comment about the young girl in Iowa being the next big thing always stuck with me, so much so, that I always had it in the back of my mind when I began covering poker. The accessibility of online poker allowed the game to be played from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. You no longer had to fly to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or some other localized gambling Mecca in order to play competitive poker for decent sums of money. As a wider pool rushed into the game, it was inevitable that the next great players would probably hail outside of Las Vegas. Tom 'durrrr' Dwan and Annette 'Annette_15' Obrestad are products of the online poker surge and never would have reached legendary status in their early 20s if they had to take the route that pros as far back as the late 1990s had to traverse.
The first stories about Annette_15 on the forums were something out of folklore -- a mythic high school girl from the frozen tundra of Norway who was killing the games. She even won a 180-person SNG without looking at her cards. Many rigid hardline old schoolers found this fact impossible to believe. Fueled by a combination of sexism and egocentric-Americanism, they were convinced that it was impossible that "an idiot from Norther Europe" (Hellmuthian term for all Scandis) was hailed as one of the best MTT players in the world, let alone that a woman (and a teenager at that) was crushing the game. The tinfoil hat crew were convinced that Annette_15 was a hoax and really one of the Vegas pros playing online under a well-thought out disguise. The online sites where Annette_15 frequented were ambivalent about all of the attention. Sure, it was good for business that curious observers were sweating her MTTs, but at the same time if her story checked out, then they'd be in deep shit. In a world where there's strong opposition to online poker (under the "what about our children becoming corrupted by gambling" rally cry), no online poker room operator wants to be known as the online site that catered to underage kids.
But that's what happened. Annette_15 was exactly who she claimed to be -- a teenager from a small town in Norway who loved the game. As the legend goes, the '15' part of her online moniker was derived from the fact that she was 15 years-old at the time when she set up an online poker account. Heck, when I was 15, I spent more time wanking off to Samantha Fox videos on MTV (yes, I'm dating myself. There used to be a time when MTV actually showed music videos 24-hours a day. And man, so I ever miss 'Yo! MTV Raps').
One of the first published interviews with Annette_15 mentioned that she couldn't play as much as she wanted to because she had to get up early and go to school in the mornings. For Christ sakes, the girl was still in high school.
I often wondered if some of these young poker pros are losing a lot of their early adulthood. I mean, your early 20s is a precious time. I know that I couldn't handle an 80-hour work week on Wall Street when I was 23. That seemed a suitable lifestyle for someone twenty years older and with a family to support, but I could not let my youth rot away in the trenches, so I bailed and embarked on a bohemian lifestyle on the road less traveled for the next few years.
How does intense media and corporate pressure affect twenty-something poker players who have to spend a significant amount of their developmental years in complete isolation? Because let's face it, online poker is a solitary pursuit. Which is why many players among the new wave of phenoms are socially awkward. They simply haven't logged real-life hours hanging out and talking with people, instead, spending more time in the virtual world.
Your twenties is a time for social interaction. If you want me to get crude, it's a time to get laid. Believe me, the older you get, the more you start to say, "Man, I wish I banged more chicks in my 20s."
Earlier this year, Michael 'Timex' McDonald had his own period of existentialist navel-gaving and came to the conclusion that he needed a break from the game. Most recently, Peter Eastgate issued a statement that he no longer had the desire or commitment to grind it out at the tables. Yes, Eastgate will not be at this year's Main Event. He skipped the preliminary events to watch the World Cup matches in Africa. Once he got there, he realized that he didn't want to go to Vegas and play the Main Event. I can't blame him. I know what it is like to see the light outside of the blackhole of the Vegas vortex, and I even know how demoralizing it is to leave the light and dive down the rabbit hole into the darkness.
I don't know Annette Obrestad, but she follows me on Twitter though (and vice versa). Most poker pros are self-fluffing wankers on Twitter, others are trainwrecks, and a bunch don't even do their own feeds. Annette keeps it real and you really get a glimpse into the young woman's mind. Most Scandis are very stoic and they never let you inside their heads. I think Annette has been hanging out with Americans too much because she's certainly more open than the average Norwegian. And she's friggin' hilarious. To this day one of my all-time favorite tweets that I came across in the Twitterverse was sent out by Annette after he new kitten fell into the toilet. Yeah, Phil Ivey doesn't tweet about kittens nearly drowning in a toilet.
Cue the groovy music (Sugar Magnolia from the Grateful Dead will suffice). 2007. Monte Carlo. The press room of a swanky conference room overlooking the Mediterranean. I sat in between Justin Shronk and Tiffany Michelle. We all worked for Poker News at the time and were sent to Monte Carlo to cover the EPT Grand Final. We surrounded by the foreign press. The Norwegians set behind me and the Italians in front of me. That was the same assignment when British scribe Stephen Bartley and I discovered that the word for 'big pot' in Swedish is "monsterpotten" and I've since helped popularize that term into the everyday poker vernacular.
A short girl walked into the press room. One of my British colleagues pointed out that was Annette_15. She sat down behind me and chatted with the Norwegian press. They were speaking Norwegian of course, save for a few poker terms in English. Then she started speaking in English. I was floored. She had an impeccable accent, dare I saw very American. She sounded more like she was from Minnesota or North Dakota.
Later that day, I wandered the playing area and sweated Annette's table. EPT events are notorious for "no rails" and people can walk up to a table and stand around for hours on end. This is why it's tough to cover European tournaments because spectators cock-block the media and won't let you in to see a hand. With the exception of Gus Hansen, Annette drew the biggest rail in the room. Photographers constantly swooped in to snap her photos while curious American pros stopped by to see what all the hype was about.
From the moment I saw Annette Obrestad in action, she had a circus of media following her around. When I crossed paths with her again in Australia during the 2008 Aussie Millions, she was dealing with "stalkers" for the first time. Apparently, a young American became smitten with Annette. He wasn't dangerous or anything like that, but he definitely followed her around the Crown Casino like a little puppy. That was the same assignment where I made a prop bet with Change100 on who was taller -- Amanda Leatherman or Annette. They stood back to back while I measured them. Justin Shronk even recorded the video for PokerNews. Annette won by a hair and Change100 shipped her bet.
Another flashback. Cue the punk music (The Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK is perfect).
London. 2007. Inaugural WSOP-Europe. I watched Annette Obrestad make a run at the final table of the Main Event, busting notable female players Jen Harman and Annie Duke in the process. She eventually took down the championship event and won her first bracelet. Since the UK permitted gambling to anyone over 18 years old, Annette became the youngest bracelet winner -- just a few days shy of her 19th birthday. Shit, when I was 19, I was following the Grateful Dead. Another flashback... er, wait. I'm running out of time here, so I can't trail off into a flashback within a flashback and talk about eating seven hits of acid and thinking that Jerry Garcia was trying to contact the aliens with his guitar riffs during Franklin's Tower.
The moment that Annette won her first bracelet, everyone had circled the 2010 WSOP on the calendar because that would be the first time she'd be eligible to play legally in Las Vegas. But the WSOP was not her American debut. She played in the NBC Heads-Up Championship and bubbled off the Elite 8 in 9th place. She then entered few events at the Bellagio leading up the WSOP. And going back to her roots, she shipped the Sunday 500 on PokerStars for $187,000 the weekend before the WSOP began.
The uncomfortable pressure loomed before she took a step into the Rio. All you had to do was glance at the displays of Bluff Magazine and see her image plastered against an American flag. She was virtually everywhere and it was painfully obvious that she was embarrassed by it. Then toss the 'Year of the Woman' hype that some of us were rattling around the echo chamber after victories from Vanessa Selbst and Liv Boeree this Spring. It seemed like everyone had accepted the fact that Annette was going to win a bracelet this year. No pressure, though, right?
At this point, no matter what Annette does, she will never live up to the grandiose expectations that have been thrust upon her by everyone. The fact remains, at one time, she was the best online player in the world, a distinction that is both honorable, but constantly changing every few months. With so much pressure to be perfect, it's tough to juggle the life of a twenty-something year old, let alone being a young woman in a licentious environment.
Annette Obrestad made her Main Event debut at on Day 1B. She sat at the secondary feature table and had an ESPN crew on her the entire time. I passed her in the hallway on my way back to the Amazon Ballroom and she had a look which I described in my notes as "bummed out, yet relieved." Yep, it was around 11pm or so and she was out. Busting from the Main Event is one of the worst days of the year for pros. But then again, if you had a rough WSOP, busting out also marks the official end of the series. It's over. Hence the relieved part. The bombardment of pressure from all areas is enough to make anyone's head spin. The release resembles pure ecstasy.
I can't help but think of a lyric to a one of my favorite songs which describes this situation perfectly... "Sometimes people build you up just so they can knock you down."
Photo credit: Wolynski