That Duke won will probably further fuel debates over the relative significance of the event in terms of its measure of poker skill. Of course, anything involving Duke tends further to fuel debates in the poker world.
The fact is, besides now being known by many as a reality TV star, Duke is a highly accomplished poker player. Just looking at her WSOP record, it’s kind of amazing. She has 38 total cashes for over $1.12 million (I think the WSOP site is missing one, her cash in the 1995 Main Event), 15 final tables, three runner-ups, and one bracelet (the $2,000 Omaha/8 event in 2004). All in open events, incidentally, and in a wide variety of games (no-limit hold’em, limit hold’em, Omaha/8, stud, stud/8, and pot-limit Omaha).
Of course, Duke’s biggest win in terms of career earnings was that $2 million score for winning the 2004 Tournament of Champions event, which, like the NBC Heads-Up event, was a tourney she was invited to play. In fact, only ten players were invited, and while Duke outlasted a genuinely tough field (Hellmuth, Lederer, Chan, Raymer, Brunson, Negreanu, Ivey, Cloutier, and Reese), some have downplayed the significance of her having so significantly boosted her total career tourney winnings in this single-table freeroll.
So I think there is probably a bit of prejudice already in place to downgrade Duke’s triumph this weekend. Interestingly, two articles turned up on Sunday -- before Duke had won -- that differently addressed the significance of the event. One was a piece over on Casino City Times by Gary Trask with the headline “NBC Heads-Up event held in high regard by poker pros.” The other was a blog post by Daniel Negreanu in which he rated the “World’s Top Ten Toughest Tournaments.”
At first glance, the articles may appear to share a common focus -- namely, to highlight those tourneys the top players hold in “high regard” as genuine achievements if one wins. Indeed, Negreanu’s article does provide a somewhat thorough ranking of tourneys’ “toughness” according to three primary criteria: strength of field, structure, and field size. While his list certainly invites debate -- e.g., ranking the WSOP Main Event as the sixth-toughest tourney and putting a couple of yet-to-be-played events at the top of his list -- it is clear Negreanu is focusing mainly on how well the events test players’ tourney skills.
The Casino City Times article rather focuses on other factors affecting players’ “high regard” -- namely the enjoyment they get from participating, the fun of competing (and earning bragging rights with friends/colleagues), and the intangible benefits of succeeding in a high-profile, televised event.
Trask quotes Phil Gordon noting how “we all want to play in it” and how “the fact that it’s a heads-up, one-on-one match really brings the whole ego thing into the equation.” However, Gordon recognizes how the tourney may rate lower on a “toughness” scale such as the one Negreanu put together. “[W]e all realize that when it comes right down to it, this is a crapshoot,” says Gordon. “There’s just so much luck involved in a one-time heads-up match.”
Negreanu does mention at the end of his list how the NBC Heads-Up event’s fast structure necessarily eliminates it from consideration as one of the “toughest” tourneys. But the question remains of how to rate the achievement of someone who does win the event. As an NBC Heads-Up champ, Duke joins a list of other highly accomplished players -- Hellmuth, Forrest, Wasicka, Ferguson, and Seed. Each enjoyed some good fortune along the way to win their titles, but such is true for all tourney winners to some degree.
I’ll stick to the idea that winning it is “something noteworthy,” though doubt Duke’s win will necessarily up the NBC Heads-Up event’s status as an especially “tough” test for players.