Annette Obrestad opens up to PokerPlayer

Three years ago Annette Obrestad was the kooky 18-year-old online prodigy who won a million pounds at the WSOPE. Now she’s a high-profile Full Tilt pro with a legion of online fans

Annette Obrestad is a giggler. I’m pretty sure what I’m asking isn’t even that funny, but she’s giggling. With anyone else I might get a complex about my interviewing technique, but having met her several times over the last few years, I know that the 22-year-old Norwegian is naturally predisposed to having a ball wherever she goes.

Anyway, it would be hard for her to feel anything but giddy with excitement right now. Although it’s been a long day in South Wales, it’s been worth it. She’s just won $120,000 on The Poker Lounge, a new TV show made in the image of Poker After Dark. She beat veteran players like Howard Lederer and Tony G, and young gun Shannon Shorr, to record a victory that looked comfortable right from the start.

It’s telling that after decimating the rest of the field, she gave the irascible Tony G a serious lesson in aggression when heads-up. The usually mouthy Lithuanian-Australian was quiet in defeat. ‘I’ve been beaten by one of the best players in the world,’ he muttered in the post-match interview.

Watching her gracefully accept the plaudits and applause of the TV crew, the other players and a few interested onlookers, you wouldn’t think that Obrestad has just claimed a six-figure sum, one of her biggest cashes of the year. When a producer asks for her bank details, she just chuckles, says she doesn’t know them and promises to email them sometime the following week. The only sign that she gives a hoot about the money is via a conversation with Poker Lounge presenter Millie Clode. ‘I can add to my shoe collection now!’ says Obrestad.

Early Days

It’s hard to believe that Obrestad has been on the live circuit for less than four years. She’s managed to cram in a hell of a lot. At 18 she was uncovered as the Scandinavian internet phenomenon who didn’t need to look at her cards in order to win; the day before her 19th birthday, she became the only female to win a World Series of Poker Main Event, albeit at the fledgling European leg, and a month later almost did a double, finishing runner-up at the EPT Dublin. For two years she was Betfair Poker’s highest-profile ambassador and has recently
been snapped up by Full Tilt, bolstering its world-class stable of pros still further.

She is poker’s number one Norwegian money-winner of all time, and the third highest female tournament earner in history.

Little wonder then, that in 2010, the year of her first competitive WSOP, she was expected to go stratospheric. The hype machine started rolling early. People weren’t talking about ‘if’ she’d win a bracelet, it was just a matter of ‘how many’. She was going to four- and five-bet everyone into oblivion and the odds were stacked implausibly in her favour to make the November Nine at
the first time of asking. At the table, she says people would just stare at her and say, ‘Are you Annette?’ or even more cryptically, ‘Are you famous?’

For the first time in her career, the Norwegian wunderkind was feeling the pressure. ‘I felt people were expecting me to do well and I wanted to give myself a chance to prove that I could do well,’ she says. ‘I basically played all of the no-limit tournaments, all of the PLO tournaments, [but] I skipped a few of the $1k events so I wouldn’t miss the $5k. Other than that I didn’t really have any days off and I felt like I played as many tournaments as I could. If there wasn’t that much pressure and hype about me I probably wouldn’t be playing as many tournaments as I did.’

Don’t Believe The Hype

Living up to the hype was always going to be an impossible task and Obrestad finished up with four cashes and a pretty measly return of $41,494. The backlash was inevitable. ‘Annette fails to make impact at WSOP,’ read one headline. ‘Annette Fail,’ said another. Oblivious to the criticism, Obrestad is happy with how things panned out overall. ‘I played 15 tournaments and cashed four times – that’s above average, so I’m not really complaining. I cashed in the $10k Bellagio Cup VI as well. People expected me to get two bracelets – it’s impossible! Not everyone can be like Phil Ivey!

Her only disappointment was just missing out on a final table appearance in the $1,500 no-limit Hold’em shootout. ‘It sucks to go out 11th,’ she says, ‘but I got it in preflop pretty much dead so I can’t really complain about it. I feel like I played extremely well to get to the last 14 and then they decided to make the structure a crapshoot.’

She certainly has no intention to change her approach next year. ‘I don’t see any reason to change anything. I felt like I was well rested for most of the tournaments that I played.’ She snaps back her head in laughter when I ask whether she would consider cutting back on alcohol in future WSOPs, as British bracelet winners like James Dempsey and Richard Ashby have done. ‘I wouldn’t do that!’ she says, pulling her hand over her mouth in mock horror. ‘You’re in Vegas, you’re supposed to have fun! I partied a little bit but I obviously had my priorities. I would always play tournaments before I started drinking and I would never drink the day before I played in a tournament.’

Obrestad’s seemingly limitless enthusiasm for anything poker-related meant she also had no issues with burnout, unlike most players at the World Series. ‘It really wasn’t a problem for me because I love waking up every day and playing poker. It’s something I really enjoy. It’s not like a job, it doesn’t feel like something I have to do. In my off days I still went to the Venetian to play cash games!’

Telling It Straight

Scan the poker forums for threads on the diminutive Norwegian and you’ll notice two things. Firstly, that she is almost universally respected by players for her poker talent, but also that she has garnered admiration for her tough-talking persona. Her stance on female poker players is well known. During an ESPN interview at the Series, she didn’t mince her words: ‘Girls suck at poker.’

It doesn’t take much encouragement from me to set her off again. ‘I’m going to stand by what I said and say that in general female poker players are worse than men.’ However, instead of the usual outbreak of flaming, forum posters applauded her for ‘telling the truth that everyone thinks but doesn’t say’. The Norwegian really got tongues wagging when in the same ESPN interview she was asked whether she would rather play the top live players or the top online players. She candidly replied, ‘Online players process information so much faster and don’t let their egos get in the way of becoming a better player. No disrespect to Doyle, but I’d rather play him.’ The comment needled Doyle enough for him to tweet back, ‘It must be that time of the month for Annette, whatever her name is…I’m at Bobby’s Room almost every day if she really wants to play.’

Although there was some outrage that this young upstart had dared to insult a poker legend, for the most part she received praise. ‘This chick just has confidence and you need that to succeed in poker,’ was the general feeling.Although she admits her outspoken honesty is not a front for being hip or cool – it really is her – Obrestad is irked by her spat with Brunson. ‘I meant that if I had to choose between playing the best online players, and Doyle and other good live players, I would rather play the live players. I would say it’s more of a compliment. I’m really sorry that it came out the way it did because I really respect Doyle. I should just shut up and not mention names!’

Strangely, for someone so young and with such a loose and wild image at the table, Obrestad is a nit away from it. She admits to actively avoiding hanging out with high stakes players. ‘My closest friends are poker players but not the high stakes players. I’m friends with a lot of cash and tournament grinders – they just seem a lot more normal than the gamblers and degens who prop-bet every day. I can’t stand all that stuff.’

No Nosebleeds

She won’t divulge the exact details of her personal bankroll, but emphasises that whatever the figure, she wouldn’t be caught dead playing the nosebleed games (which play up to $500/$1,000 on Full Tilt). ‘I just think it’s disgusting. It’s way too much money,’ she says. ‘How can you throw so much money around and why would you play against the best players in the world at that high stakes? It doesn’t make any sense to me. I wouldn’t mind playing against those players but not for those stakes. I don’t think I’d ever want to play a $500k pot – it’s just ridiculous to me. There’s so much more you can do with that money that’s a lot smarter.’

Obrestad’s bankroll sensibilities no doubt derive from her early experiences of the game. From her very first freeroll she hit the ground running, but because of her young age – her alias ‘Annette_15’ was a giveaway – she couldn’t withdraw a single dollar. ‘It was just a number on the screen, so that’s how I treated it,’ she says. That meant flaunting any cash winnings was impossible, and even boasting in the schoolyard seemed out of the question. ‘I didn’t really tell my friends about it. They were girls, they didn’t really get it. I told them I played poker and they just looked at me like I was a weirdo. So I decided I wouldn’t tell them what was going on.’ She may have been racking up thousands of dollars but her parents just thought she was playing videogames. ‘They didn’t really care that I was playing for money because I never deposited anything.’

She dropped out of high school at 18 and was never hassled by her parents for doing so. ‘My mum dropped out of school and my dad started working when he was pretty young,’ she admits. ‘None of them had too much education so they couldn’t say much when I dropped out!’

That she was a massive winner online is no secret. Twelve months prior to her WSOPE win, still only 18, she had won $500k on PokerStars, $200k on UltimateBet and over $130k on Full Tilt. By July 2007, her superstar status was fully realised after the revelation that she won a 180-man sit-and-go despite only looking at her cards once (the screen was covered with a Post-it note). This, she says, was to ‘demonstrate the importance of position and to pay attention to the players at the table.’

Time’s Up

Despite her incredible affinity for online poker, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see those sorts of numbers from Obrestad again. ‘I haven’t played online in a month and a half – I never get time to!’ She’s not lamenting her situation though – her lack of time is completely self-inflicted. ‘[Being on the road] is so fun!’ she says. ‘I’ll be home for two days, get really bored and want to travel again. There’s always a tournament to go to so I can’t [play online]. I mean, I can if I want to, but I don’t really want to.’

I’ve never met a poker player with such an unquenchable thirst to travel and a complete willingness to live out of a suitcase. Unlike many of her big-city peers she grew up in a town of just 60,000 people – Sandnes, Norway – so her need to escape is understandable. She readily admits that she rarely misses anyone, not even her family. ‘I don’t really miss people very easily, so even if I’m away for a couple of months I don’t really care. Yeah, it’s cool when I go back home but I’m not homesick when I’m away and I don’t think about my family that much.
I still talk to them on the phone all the time and feel as if I get my share of them even when I’m not there.’

It’s probably not a surprise that she instantly pooh-poohs any suggestions that she might be looking to settle down soon, and is adamant that she doesn’t see herself ever doing anything else. ‘I don’t see myself getting married and having kids in the near future. I don’t even know if I’d ever want kids because I just don’t like kids, but that might change.’

Lucky Girl

It’s now gone 2am and Obrestad struggles to stifle a yawn. I take that as a signal to wrap things up but have to ask her one last question – how many more years of poker does she have left in her?

‘I really do see myself doing this in 20 years,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do!’ She says her lust, not just for the game, but the community as a whole, is the reason she is  constantly bouncing off the walls. ‘I’m one of the lucky ones. I’d say 90% of players don’t really enjoy it. They probably push themselves to play more than they should. I’m lucky that I have enough money that I don’t have to worry about that side of things. I just play when I want to play and I have the most fun doing that.’ She claims that she could never see herself getting burnt out like Peter Eastgate or Shaun Deeb. ‘I just want to play! Everyone keeps telling me, “You’re going to be so sick of this.”

‘I bet you a lot of money I won’t!’ she says, with a giggle.

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