Hollywood gambles on televised poker -- New stars Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke talk about money, hats, and why they love to hate each other

By Daniel Fierman
October 15, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Two million dollars is on a table. It sits there naked, lit from above by miniature klieg lights. Just wads of hundreds wrapped neatly in little bands of white paper. ? Nine of the best poker players in the world are gathered in a dark, run-down Italian restaurant in Harrah’s Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas to play for this money. And someone in this room is going home with it.

Tonight. As soon as the 10th and final player actually shows up.

Most people would arrive on time for a potential $2 million payday. But the assembled carnival menagerie — including a hip-hop hepcat, a 10-gallon-hat-wearing Texan, and an overweight patent lawyer scoping the room through snake-eye hologram glasses — just roll their eyes. There’s no doubt about who is late. None at all. That would be Phil Hellmuth, the loudest, most obnoxious, and biggest all-around crybaby in the poker universe. ”I tell ya, if there ever was a player who was as good as Phil thinks he is,” cracks the Texan, the legendary Doyle Brunson, ”why, we’d never win a single hand.”

The gathered poker geniuses grin as a woman — actually, the only woman — perks up and slips the dagger in. ”Just wait,” says Annie Duke, ”until he gets beat by a girl.”

Duke is a sprightly, sexy, redheaded mother of four, who happens to be cute as pie. She knows Phil well. And unlike a lot of folks in the poker world, she can actually stand him. The rapid-fire jokes go back and forth — largely at Hellmuth’s expense — until finally, 20 minutes later, the man saunters in, all 6 foot 5 of him, smirking and wearing his trademark Oakley sunglasses. He surveys the table, folds himself into his seat, and the cards, finally, are dealt.

The game is No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, and over the next 12 hours, Duke and Hellmuth dismantle the field. Card Player magazine Player of the Year Daniel Negreanu? Gone. World Series of Poker champion Greg ”Fossilman” Raymer? Toast. And on and on, until Annie finishes off her brother, Howard Lederer, with a divine speck of luck and a five-minute flood of tears. Suddenly, Hellmuth and Duke find themselves face-to-face, peering at each other over $2 million in cash.

They spar back and forth for the better part of an hour, but Duke is in the lead. Hellmuth bets his towering stack of chips on a 10 and an 8. It’s not a bad bet — the cards on the board give him a pair of 10s — but the minute his opponent flips up her cards, which give her a king high in addition to her own 10s, Hellmuth knows it’s all over. Duke thrusts her hands to her face and unleashes a $2 million grin. As she dashes for the phone to call her brother and share the news, Hellmuth storms off?hands dancing, spittle flying, and muttering darkly. The thrust of his complaint is something along the lines of ”Oh, drat! I was indubitably the far superior player in that contest.” But on air, it comes out more like ”BLEEP! BLEEP! BLEEP! What the hell is going on here? It’s unbelievable! [Kicks a food cart] . . . I love Annie but BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP! Another BLEEPIN’ second for me. Second, third, second, third. No money! . . . BLEEP!”