Obrestad vs Tabatabai was a great poker battle so we interviewed them to get the lowdown

Annette Obrestad and John Tabatabai recall their World Series of Poker Europe final table

At 1.30pm on 16 September 2007, nine players took their seats in London’s Casino at the Empire for the final table of the inaugural WSOP Europe main event. Over four exhausting days, the finalists had negotiated one of the toughest fields ever assembled, as the cream of the poker world vied for the first World Championship bracelet ever to be awarded outside of Las Vegas.

From the outset it was clear that the vast majority of support and attention was focused on the players in seats three and four: Welshman John Tabatabai and Norwegian internet prodigy Annette ‘Annette_15’ Obrestad.

Not only was chip-leader Tabatabai the most promising hope for a British victory, he was an exciting and fearless player who loved to pull off big moves. The 20-year-old’s online pedigree was already well established and this was his chance to record his first major live result.

Obrestad’s online reputation was even more fearsome. Every bit as aggressive as her male counterparts, if not more so, the 19-year-old had once managed to win an MTT without looking at her hole cards once.

Like Tabatabai, she had yet to make waves in the live arena and although she was only sitting on a medium stack, there was still plenty of play left…

ANNETTE OBRESTAD: I think I had 70 big blinds, which is huge for a final table, so I wasn’t really short-stacked. For the first few hours I didn’t really play any hands; I didn’t get anything. I called a couple of raises with K-Q suited, didn’t hit the flop and just folded. I wasn’t frustrated, I just didn’t get dealt anything to play. I was very patient, though; I knew I had plenty of time left.

JOHN TABATABAI: My biggest concern was that Annette was immediately to my left. I’d heard she was ridiculously aggressive. With three tables to go she had 6-2 and I had 7-8. She raised, I flat-called on the button. The flop came down Q-9-6. She checked, I bet, she raised, I re-raised, she went all-in. We both held the largest stacks at the time. I couldn’t call with a straight draw after playing for five days. That hand stuck in my mind. My main concerns were, is she going to keep playing back at me and what’s she heard about me? I didn’t know what her plan was, but if she went nuts I was pretty much going to shut down, wait for hands, and do a bluff every hour. If she shut down, I was more than happy to keep playing.

Tabatabai took hardly any time getting busy at the final table, applying his trademark aggression to every pot he played in. Over the course of 100 hands he managed to win 27.5% of the pots, with his nearest rival Mathew McCullough picking up 16.5% of the spoils. By 7pm there were only four players left and Tabatabai held almost half the chips in play.

OBRESTAD: He was raising a lot, but he was also getting a lot of premiums. If I’d been getting the same hands as him, I’d probably have been playing the same way. He built up a lead but it didn’t worry me too much. You just have to play your game. If you’re not getting cards, there’s nothing you can do. If you have a raise and a re-raise ahead of you, sometimes you just can’t shove with 7-2! The thing is, with my image (because people knew I was a bit crazy by then) I couldn’t really make too many crazy moves. I knew people were just going to shove on me really light or call me down really light, so I just had to wait for a hand and hope to double up.

TABATABAI: For me, the tournament started when Magnus Persson did a smallish raise in early position and I had 5-6 and called. Everybody else called and I ended up making a straight off it.

From then on in, I had a load of chips. I wanted to instil the idea that I was crazy and if they re-raised me I wouldn’t hesitate to call with shit. It only cost a fraction of my stack to make the table think, ‘This kid’s got serious issues.’

Because I had a lot of chips, I was always asking them the questions. So what might cost me a tenth of my stack would cost a third of theirs. For my stack it was small-pot poker, for them it was their whole tournament life. That was what helped me to pick on Dominic Kay so much – his stack was so much smaller than mine.

With three players remaining, Tabatabai had stretched his lead even further and now held 3.5m to McCullough’s 2.6m. Obrestad was trailing quite a way behind with 1.1m but her boom-or-bust strategy soon paid off. She raised from the button with Q?-J?, McCullough called and Tabatabai re-raised. Thinking it was just one of his typical squeeze plays, Obrestad went all-in and Tabatabai snap-called with his dominating pocket Jacks. A blank flop and turn seemed to spell the end for the young Norwegian but she miraculously spiked a Queen on the river.

OBRESTAD: I wanted a chance to win the tournament. I figured that to do so I needed to double-up so that we were all about evenly stacked. I didn’t care if I took the chance and busted, because I’d rather have had a chance to win than come second or third. All I wanted was to win the bracelet.

That was what happened when I played that Q-J against John. I raised from the button and Mathew called from the small blind; but he was really weak, not a very good player. John re-raised. I knew he could be doing that with 90% of his range. He’ll probably laugh at that but he knows it’s true! I just figured, there’s 150k in the pot and I have 800k behind. I shipped them and he called with Jacks. That’s really just bad timing on my part. It made me look like a real donkey to everyone watching on TV, but I still think I made the right move.

TABATABAI: Of course I wanted to get heads-up with Mathew because I knew much better where I stood with him. But there was nothing I could do about it once Annette cracked my Jacks with her Q-J. Had I won that, I would have won the whole tournament because I had a huge chip-lead over Mathew. Unfortunately she hit the Queen on the river and then she had the chips. I kind of semi-tilted at that point.

All three now had almost identical chipcounts and the tournament seemed to be anyone’s for the taking. Early markets had McCullough as a 1/5 favourite, but all that changed in an instant as Tabatabai took a monster 1.5m chips off the American just minutes after losing the hand against Obrestad. Two hours later, a small slice of luck meant that Tabatabai was responsible for McCullough’s exit, and going into heads-up he had a healthy edge over Obrestad, 4.2 million to her 3 million.

OBRESTAD: Once you get to heads-up, you’re guaranteed so much money and recognition that it doesn’t make that much of a difference who wins. The only difference is the bracelet – and that’s all I wanted. But even if I did lose it wasn’t the end of the world.

TABATABAI: Since that final table everybody’s said to me that they thought it would come down to one big hand. I thought it was going to be a lot of small pots. Punkfloyd (John Conroy) said, ‘Shall we talk to them and see if they want to do a deal?’ I was so confident I was going to win that I said, ‘No. No deals.’

The heads-up started tentatively, with both players taking small pots here and there. Several mistakes from Tabatabai, however, helped Obrestad to pull back to level and beyond, the momentum now swinging decisively in her favour. After almost four gruelling hours the epic battle finished in what can only be described as a ‘cooler’ hand. On a flop of 7?-6?-5?, Tabatabai held 5-6 for two pair while Obrestad had pocket sevens for top set. All the chips went flying in and by the time the 2? arrived on the turn, it was all over.

He was playing the same way I was, and because of that I could put myself in his shoes and think, ‘What would I do if I had the hand that he was representing?’ That was kind of how I adjusted. I don’t think he realised that.

TABATABAI: I can’t say that I’m a better heads-up player. The tournament had no element of luck or crapshoot in it. It was just pure skilful heads-up.

There was no way he could get out of the last hand against me. I guess he could have limp-folded pre-flop, but once he called that raise, he had to go broke on the flop. He even told me that he put me on a hand like nines, tens, Jacks or a medium pocket pair. If that was his read, he had to go with it.

When she raised pre-flop I would have bet anything that she had a middle pocket pair. When that flop came and she bet, I raised and she went all-in. At that point I would have bet anything she had pocket eights or pocket nines. You can’t feasibly put someone on flopping the set in a heads-up match when they’re as aggressive as her. You’re raising, she’s raising all the time. Unless I had a physical tell on her, there’s no way in a million years I could have known.

At half past midnight, a speechless Annette Obrestad accepted the £1m prize and proudly donned the WSOPE Championship bracelet. But her victory meant so much more than the money and silverware – the 19-year-old had smashed a slew of records including youngest bracelet winner and the biggest female winner in WSOP history. Above all, she had demonstrated that she was at the forefront of the heralded online poker generation.

OBRESTAD: I didn’t realise that I’d won until the tournament director came over to count our chips. It was just crazy – I had no idea that I was going to win. I can’t believe it took four hours. I was like: ‘What? We played two levels?’ I wasn’t tired at all. Sitting there with $2m and a bracelet on the table, you don’t get tired.

TABATABAI: I ran out. I was close to tears. I just wanted to get into a taxi. One of my friends grabbed me and said, ‘You can’t leave.’ The tournament director came out to make sure I didn’t leave without collecting the money and doing the press stuff. I just wanted to be left alone.

OBRESTAD: The only thing that might surpass the feeling that night is if I win my first bracelet in the States. I feel like there is huge pressure and expectation on me to do well there when I turn 21.

TABATABAI: You don’t get many chances to win a bracelet, a million pounds, the title. Four hours of heads-up, all your friends there supporting you, you’ve come through 300 of the best players and then you fall at the last hurdle. It was so depressing. It was only later that I realised I’d achieved something quite great.

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