Young champ makes long-awaited WSOP debut

Annette Obrestad’s entry into the World Series of Poker was one of the most widely anticipated debuts of any player in the 41-year history of the tournament.

A native of Norway, Obrestad had established her credibility in the online poker community when, at age 19, she topped a field of 362 players to win the World Series of Poker Europe championship in London in 2007, earning 1 million British pounds.

When she turned 21 in September, and could legally play poker in Las Vegas, the countdown began.

Poker publications Card Player and Bluff Magazine gave her prominent play in their pre-World Series of Poker issues. Online gambling website FullTilt awarded her a lucrative sponsorship deal. ESPN The Magazine featured Obrestad over a two-page spread, including a full-color, full-page photo with three Las Vegas showgirls.

Even World Series of Poker officials played up the hype, featuring Obrestad in the tournament’s kick-off news conference, pairing her with defending World Series of Poker Main Event champion Joe Cada.

Maybe Obrestad and Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who made his major league June 8, should exchange notes on dealing with high expectations.

However, she admitted she didn’t know who Strasburg was.

"This has been more fun than I expected," Obrestad said. "But I really wasn’t sure what to expect."

Through the first month of World Series of Poker, Obrestad cashed in three events. Her best finish was 15th in a no-limit hold’em event, which earned her $13,654.

Still, she is one of the more sought-after players by fans and the poker media. Dealing with the attention and expectations have been part of Obrestad’s learning curve, as has playing inside the Rio’s temporary airplane hanger-sized tournament poker room.

"I’m getting used to the fact that people know who I am," Obrestad said. "I’ve signed more autographs than I ever imagined. But I love poker so much and it’s what I want to do, so I don’t really mind the attention."

In the years between her World Series of Poker Europe victory and the Rio, Obrestad continued to dominate on the Internet while securing in-the-money finishes in various foreign tournaments. In January, Obrestad took a first place and seventh place in events at the Aussie Millions.

Once she turned 21, Obrestad was able to test her Las Vegas skills in several smaller tournaments.

She finished ninth and won $25,000 in NBC’s televised National Heads-Up Poker championship in March at Caesars Palace. She eliminated Phil Hellmuth Jr. in the second round but was knocked out by Doyle Brunson.

In April, Obrestad reached three final tables at the Five Star World Poker Classic at Bellagio.

Hellmuth called her an aggressive player. Poker standout Annie Duke wrote on her blog that Obrestad had great composure at the table and solid poker instincts.

"I shudder to think how good she will be in five to 10 years," Duke wrote.

Poker bloggers gave Obrestad some heat over comments she made in the ESPN The Magazine article.

She said online players were superior players to those who learned the game live because "they can process information much faster and they don’t let their egos get in the way of becoming a better player."

Obrestad also took a shot at the growing legion of female players, telling ESPN that "girls suck at poker." She didn’t back off those remarks, telling the Review-Journal that many of the up and coming female players try to hide their lack of skills "by looking good in a bikini."

The biggest challenge Obrestad has discovered is the gruelling challenge of tournament poker, where some events can turn into 12-to-14-hour days. She said Internet players, who can pick and choose when and how often they want to play, aren’t used to the grind.

Still, she had planned on entering many of the $1,500 to $3,000 buy-in events leading up to the $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em World Championship Main Event, which begins Monday.

Obrestad has grown accustomed to the dozen or so fans taking her picture or watching as she plays a hand if her table is located near the rail.

"No pressure at all, right?" she said.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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