Editor's note: Carlos Mortensen was awarded a bid into the National Heads-Up Poker Championships just hours before the draw party. He replaced Gabe Kaplan in the field.
Every March, the National Heads-Up Poker Championships brings together 64 individuals for a chance at often-sought television coverage, a nice chunk of change and bragging rights. The champion of this event takes home a nice trophy as well as the understanding that outside of the poker world's die-hard fans who simply know better (that's you 2+2), you are the best heads-up player in the world. The NHUPC is considered a poker major by many because it reaches perhaps the widest audience of any tournament during during the year, but for those in the know, this is an invitational that drives debate, discussion and drama. And I love it.
As I said on the last Inside Deal, this event doesn't feature the 64 best players in the world. It is a made-for-TV event that features names and faces that the general public recognizes, some deserving players who earned their spots based on automatic entry and celebrities who enjoy the game and could potentially move the needle. Last week, Gary Wise analyzed the field immediately as it was announced. He brought up some stories to watch and highlighted some potential matchups that could be entertaining.
Since last week's article and the announcement of the field, there have been a few changes in the roster due to player conflicts. The field lost two WSOP champions in the form of Johnny Chan and Joe Cada. Replacing that duo is Olivier Busquet and Sam Trickett. Busquet is a WPT champion, an online juggernaut and well-versed in heads-up competition. Trickett is perhaps the hottest player on tour since the 2010 WSOP with more than $3.5 million in earnings in that stretch. These were two changes that addressed the concerns of the poker fans who want this event to feature the best players here and now.
The selection committee has a tough task in determining the players who will fill their brackets, but with each year, I believe they are getting closer to reaching that happy medium. Plus, the players that some might feel were snubbed might have been invited and couldn't attend (Sammy Farha is a great example of this for 2011). Until the tournament goes in the all-entertainment or all-poker direction, there will always be those who will critique and complain and for the next few paragraphs, I'm going to be one of them. I love the pokertainment setup as is, but if I could make a few tweaks to one of my favorite events of the year, here are the players that I wish could sit down at the felt this weekend. (Disclaimer: There may be more changes made prior to the start of the event this Friday in Las Vegas, so these are my snubs as of Wednesday afternoon.)
Carlos Mortensen: Forget the fact that he's a three-time WPT champion and could potentially be a four-time champion by the time the event starts. Forget that he's a WSOP main event champion. Forget that he's in the top dozen players in earnings of all time. Why should Carlos Mortensen be invited into this event? Because he can be a true architect with his chips (great photo by PokerNews).
Mortensen locked up his third WPT title in 2010 along with a final table in the $10,000 HORSE event and WPT Championship. He also started out 2011 with a victory in the 10,000 AU$ heads-up event. He also cashed in the NHUPC in 2005. If I'm the selection committee, the downside is that Mortensen isn't really a talker and while he puts on a show with his ability, he's not going to create fans by chatting like Daniel Negreanu would. That said, give "The Matador" the chance and let's see one of the game's best in action.
Matt Affleck: If you've watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN for the past two years … and I hope you have … you've seen this gentleman's face time and time again. Affleck is one of the few players in the past few years that have developed their character and is a player that the general poker audience would recognize if they saw on another show. He'd talk, appeal to the mass poker audience, and if you want results, he has those too. Affleck has nearly a million dollars in live earnings from touranments all around the world and another $1.5 million from online action.
Kathy Liebert: If anyone, time and time again, has been snubbed from invitationals, sponsorships, endorsement deals, you name it … it's Liebert. She has every right to complain about the lack of invitation if it is based purely on credentials. Since 1994, Liebert has been on the tournament scene notching cashes of all sizes and a coveted WSOP bracelet. She has $5.7 million in earnings, good for 48th of all-time and first on the women's all-time list. Liebert has been vocal about this on Twitter stating: "Way too much politics with poker invitationals. Should be a more fair way and not a popularity contest."
Mike Sexton: Poker's first and true ambassador should be on the felt anytime there is a television camera present. He's been a perfect representative of the game and is most definitely recognized by the masses due in part to his hosting responsibilities on the World Poker Tour. He's a WSOP bracelet holder with $3.8 million in lifetime earnings and, after all the years behind the microphone, finally notched his first WPT cash last year. Sexton's reason for inclusion isn't about recent stats, but the idea that he continues to carry the torch for the industry.
Alexander Kostritsyn: In a sense, see Carlos Mortensen. Kostritsyn doesn't have the titles that Mortensen does quite yet, but he defines excellence online and live, cash games and tournaments. He won a 2010 WCOOP event, finished in the semifinals of the 2010 heads-up event at the WSOP and won the six-handed high-roller event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in January. Kostritsyn has earned $2.8 million live and as "postflopaction" online, he's profited in the millions. If we're talking about the best players possible, it's a mistake to not include him.
Tony G/Luke Schwartz: Let's bring back the discussion about the entertainment factor. If this event is to truly make this the most entertaining poker tournament on TV, how do you not include two of the biggest loudmouths in the game? OK, well maybe two of the three (they got Mike Matusow). If they were to be included, the comments they'd make would be rude, arrogant and probably disruptive, but just like Matusow, their brashness would make good TV. Every game/sport needs villains for fans to root against, but in this case, the villains are actually really good players too that could definitely make deep runs.
Daniel Alaei/Scott Clements: It was too easy to group these two together as they both are successful players who don't get much respect or consideration when it comes to this type of events. Alaei is simply, borrowing the phrase of the moment, winning. In the past two years he has a WPT title, a WSOP bracelet and $3.3 million in tournament earnings. Oh yeah, he's a pretty intense cash game player as well. Scott Clements is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner and finished 18th in the 2010 WSOP main event. Last month, he won the FTOPS $10,000 heads-up event for $290,500. He has more than $5 million in lifetime earnings and, as Wicked Chops would say, the most intense stare in the world. I'm not sure what else it might take for these two to get a bid, but they deserve one.
Even with these "snubs," the NHUPC will still be an incredible tournament to follow over the weekend here on ESPN.com and when it airs on NBC starting in April.