NBC Heads-Up event held in high regard by poker pros
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – The NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship is in its infancy with this just its sixth-year of existence. So while for most players it doesn't carry the prestige of a World Series of Poker bracelet event, make no mistake about it. Getting a spot in the Heads-Up bracket of 64, playing well in the event and ultimately winning a Heads-Up title are all things the big-name poker pros are passionate about.
"Because there are so many big names and because it's on NBC, it's a big deal for sure," says 2003 WSOP Main Event champ Chris Moneymaker, who was bounced from this year's event at Caesars Palace by Erik Seidel in the quarterfinals. "It's a fun event because it's much different than your typical tournament with thousands of people in the field. I think this is something everyone looks forward to."
Moneymaker proved just how much he cares about the event when we asked him after he won his first-round match over Patrik Antonius if he realized that it was his first Heads-Up victory since 2005 and snapped a five-match losing streak.
"Are you kidding me? Of course I do," he smiled. "And, believe me, I remember everyone of those losses. I got run over by Joe Hachem one year, but other than that they were all real tough losses. So to get at least one victory here this year means a lot to me.'
Moneymaker, who killed time after his win on Friday by jumping into a $1-$2 No Limit game in the Caesars Palace poker room and on Saturday was roaming the Caesars sportsbook in between matches, went on to earn his first Heads-Up cash by taking out Leo Wolpert in the second round before losing to Seidel.
Meanwhile, Phil Gordon was diplomatic about where the Heads-Up event ranks on the poker pecking order.
"It's a tough question," said Gordon, who beat Tom "durrr' Dwan in the first round before suffering a brutal beat on Saturday in the second round in a loss to Phil Laak. "I know we all want to play in it. And the fact that it's a heads-up, one-on-one match really brings the whole ego thing into the equation. But overall we all realize that when it comes right down to it, this is a crapshoot. There's just so much luck involved in a one-time heads-up match."
But 2008 WSOP Main Event champ Jerry Yang had a different view. Not only does he think the Heads-Up title ranks right below the WSOP Main Event, he also thinks that there is more skill involved than most people think.
"It's a world-class field so you can't be lucky to win this tournament, you've got have a lot of skill and deep focus," said Yang before his second round match against Jennifer Harman on Saturday. "Believe me, if I could be fortunate enough to win this title, it would be a dream come true for me."
Yang's dream was alive and well late Saturday night after he took out Jennifer Harman in the quarterfinals to move on to Sunday's quarterfinals.
Elite Eight is set
Sunday's match-ups have Seidel taking on 2008 WSOP Main Event champ Peter Eastgate in the Clubs Bracket final with the winner facing the man who comes out of the Spade Bracket, which comes down to a match between Scotty Nguyen and Jason Mercier.
On the other side of the bracket, Dennis Phillips takes on Doyle Brunson in the Hearts Bracket final while Yang faces Annie Duke, who will be trying to become the second woman to reach the Heads-Up finals after Vanessa Rousso did it last year, and the first female to win the title.
None of the players in the Elite Eight have ever made it to the Heads-Up Final Four. Brunson has the most Heads-Up experience with a 6-5 career record, closely followed by Duke, who came in with a 1-5 record before ripping of three-straight victories.
Another player still alive that has turned his fortunes around in the event in a big way is Seidel, who was reminded quite a bit at the Draw Party on Thursday night that he was 0-for-5 coming into this year. Seidel's new success in the event could be attributed to what he's currently reading. On Saturday he was spotted carrying around the book "The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right" by Atul Gawande.
Also, there are two Heads-Up rookies still alive -- Phillips and Mercier -- and four of the final eight players are former WSOP Main Event champs -- Eastgate, Brunson, Yang and Nguyen. As we noted in our Heads-Up Preview last week, all five of the NBC Heads-Up title holders have had at least a Top 5 finish in the WSOP Main Event. If this trend holds up, the four Main Event winners mentioned above and Seidel -- who was a runner up in the Main Event to Johnny Chan in 1988 -- are the five players to watch out for.
Hellmuth goes into the tank
It was no surprise that Phil Hellmuth was the player who created the most drama on Saturday. Facing Annette Obrestad in the second round, The Poker Brat took nearly five minutes to decide whether or not he should call Obrestad's all-in with a board of Queen, 9, 2, 10 and 8. Hellmuth's pacing and pondering delayed more than just his match because in the meantime a couple other matches had all-in calls as well, but had to wait for the NBC cameras to play them out.
Finally, Hellmuth made the decision to call with a pair of nines and an Ace kicker. When Obrestad flipped over pocket jacks for a straight, Hellmuth appeared as if he was about to blow his top and suffer a classic meltdown, but somehow remained calm.
Too bad. We were quietly rooting for an "Idiot From from Northern Europe – Part II" explosion. (One of Hellmuth's classic breakdowns -- which is saying something since there have been many -- came during the 2008 WSOP Main Event when he caused some controversy by shouting at Romanian Cristian Dragomir.)
Before the tournament, Hellmuth, who won the inaugural Heads-Up title in 2005, was talking tall, not only about his chances this weekend, but for the rest of the year.
"I've been learning stuff and playing a lot of hours lately trying to watch how some of the new school players are playing and trying to figure out their style," he said at Thursday night's Draw Party. "It's a really good time for me. I'd like to be the first guy to win [the Heads-Up] twice and serve notice that Phil Hellmuth is back, big time, in 2010."
Tilly, Cheadle make Oscar picks
Two of the poker-celebrities in this year's Heads-Up field – Jennifer Tilly and Don Cheadle – were asked their expert opinions about Sunday night's Oscar Award ceremony.
"Jeff Bridges should win [Best Actor] because he's fantastic," said Tilly, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1994 for her role in Bullets Over Broadway. "And I'd love to see Meryl Streep win. But I also think Sandra Bullock has a great shot because she's very popular in the Hollywood community and she's very well-respected.
Tilly added that she loved Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, but felt that Avatar would most likely win out for Best Picture.
"I think most that are expected to win are probably going to win and I like that. I don't like surprises. There are enough unpleasant surprises in poker."
Cheadle said that he thought Avatar was a "juggernaut" and pretty much a "lock" to win Best Picture and that Jeff Bridges would "most likely" win Best Actor. Cheadle, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2004 for his role in Hotel Rwanda, had a new film -- Brooklyn's Finest with Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke -- debut over the weekend.
E-Dog as classy as ever
Erick Lindgren has long been a favorite at this address because of the way he always handles himself with class both at the table and away from it. This was on further display Friday afternoon when he showed up for his first-round match against Dan Ramirez, who is one of five online qualifiers in the event.
The soft-spoken Ramirez, who was sitting in the stands with three family members, was noticeably nervous and understandably so, considering the task he was up against as well as NBC cameras that were sitting all around him. The two players met briefly at the Draw Party on Thursday night, but when Lindgren walked into the studio on Friday he spotted Ramirez and immediately went over to reintroduce himself.
E-Dog then politely introduced himself and shook hands with Ramirez's wife, brother and sister-in-law and then proceeded to sit down and continue to chat with his opponent about where he was from and what his other interests were outside of poker.
Ramirez was immediately put at ease, especially since Lindgren went on to explain what it was going to be like at the table once the cards went in the air. Once the match began it was cordial throughout, as expected, but surprisingly it ended up being one of the more entertaining matches of the early session.
In what was the last of the first round matches of the Clubs Bracket to end, Lindgren – who had fellow Full Tilt pro Erica Schoenberg in his cheering section during both of his matches this weekend – finally put the amateur away when his Ace-King cracked Ramirez's pocket Queens. After the match, Lindgren hugged Ramirez and all of his family members and posed for pictures.
In a poker world where arrogance and ego sometimes outweigh classy behavior, this was a refreshing scene indeed.
Quotes, Notes, Stats and Streaks
- The Heads-Up buy-in is $20,000. Players have to win two matches and make it to the Sweet 16 in order to cash. Ninth through 16th place make $25,000, fifth through eighth place make $75,000, third and fourth place earn $125,000. The runner-up takes home $250,000 and the winner cashes a check worth $500,000. The final two is a best-of-three match and each player begins with $640,000 in chips.
- We can't confirm this for sure, but we think it's pretty safe to say that the Brunson-Obrestad match in Round 3 Saturday night marked the largest age discrepency in Heads-Up history. Obrestad, the 2007 WSOP Europe champion, is 21 years old, meaning the 76-year-old Texas Dolly has 55 years on her. Experience won out Saturday night as Brunson took out Obrestad and moved on to Sunday's quarterfinals. This marks the deepest run Brunson has had in the Heads-Up event. His previous best was when he reached the third round in 2008. He has won as many matches in this year's event alone (3) than he had in his previous five appearances.
- David Williams was noticeably suffering from the affects of the flu during his second-round match against Seidel on Saturday, drinking tea and sprinting to the restroom on a couple of occasions. Seidel eventually won the match, but Williams has now won four out of his last six matches at the Heads-Up event after losing four out his first five.
- Despite blowing a huge chip lead and falling to Nguyen in the second round on Saturday, Phil Ivey also seems to be warming up to the Heads-Up event. After being eliminated in the first round of the first three Heads-Up tournaments, Ivey has now won six of his last nine. He was a semi-finalist in 2008 before losing to Chris Ferguson. Similarly, Nguyen, who lost in the first round in each of the first four events, has now won four out of five after knocking out Kaplan in the third round Saturday night and moving on to the quarterfinals.
- When NBC hostess Leeann Tweeden asked Nguyen what it was going to take to beat Ivey before their match, he answered, "cocktails baby!" But curiously, once the match started Nguyen was drinking a green bottle of non-alcoholic O'Douls beer. And it appeared Scotty should have been drinking the high-test when Ivey ran out to a fast start, crippling Nguyen's stack down to 2,500. But Nguyen not only scraped and clawed his way back into the match, but won it after five-straight double-ups on all-in calls. On the final hand, Nguyen cracked Ivey's pocket Kings when he hit a set of nines on the river.
- Six of the eight players who came into this year's event without a first-round loss were able to continue their Day 1 mastery. Barry Greenstein, who lost to Yang in Saturday's third round, is now the only player to be in the field for all six Heads-Up events and never lose on Day 1. Overall, Greenstein is now 11-6 in this event. Phil Laak (5-0), Kaplan (4-0), Yang (3-0) and Eastgate (3-0) also kept their Round 1 streaks intact while Huck Seed (now 5-1 in the first round and 17-5 overall) and Rousso (now 3-1 in the first round and 7-4 overall) failed to make it to the field of 32 for the first time.
- Tilly and Antonius remained winless at the Heads-Up event with 0-5 and 0-3 career-records, respectively.
- Here's a friendly tip if you ever plan on attending the Heads-Up Championship in person. You might want to consider hitting the evening sessions instead of the daytime ones because that's when Caesars Palace cocktail waitresses work the crowd with complimentary beer, energy drinks and waters.
- Kaplan not only kept his winning streak in the first-round alive, but he also cashed in the event for the first time in four tries after making it to the Sweet 16. On his way to cashing, he knocked off two Main Event champs – Chan and Joe Hachem. Kaplan also has a victory to his credit over Heads-Up stalwart "Jesus" Ferguson, in last year's event. Unfortunately, "Mr. Kotter" ran into yet another WSOP Main Event champ – Nguyen – in the quarterfinals and couldn't spring a third-straight upset.
- Of the 20 players who have played in all six Heads-Up events, only Chan and Howard Lederer have failed to make it to the field of 16 and cash in the event. Chan is now 3-6 in his Heads-Up career. The Professor's track record is even worse as his first-round loss to Hellmuth dropped him to 1-6.
- Despite a first-round loss to online qualifier Stephen Quinn in the first-round, 2006 Heads-Up champ Ted Forrest still owns a sparkling 11-5 record in the event.