- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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If poker has an all-star game, it begins this Friday at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. There, 64 of poker's best -- or rather, 56 of poker's best, 5 poker playing celebrities and 3 qualifiers -- will put up $20,000 a piece to play in the game's most hyped event this side of the World Series of Poker. It's time for National Heads-up Poker Championship.
I'm a big fan of the NHUPC. It means that most of poker's biggest story lines converge in a tournament that:
(a) Has some real money at stake,
(b) loans itself well to bracketology-style gambling,
(c) always proves memorable in the way it plays out, and
(d) provides a format that results in a higher percentage of hands played than any other.
It makes for heavy action and fun personality clashes with plenty of poker stars for the camera. It also gives us some great television moments, like:
• Phil Hellmuth gets Jesus Ferguson all-in with four outs on the turn, then sprawls to the floor when Ferguson hits one of the four in the finals of the 2004 event.
• Don Cheadle wins the nightmare matchup against Phil Ivey.
• Sheik Sheikhan mocks Doyle Brunson's legendary status, then avoids karmic punishment en route to defeating him.
• Ted Forrest survives five all-ins to win a three-and-a-half hour match vs. Sammy Farha.
• Johnny Chan draws out on the river to survive humiliation at the hands of James Woods.
Phil Hellmuth came back to win that '04 event, which also saw Ferguson win a rematch of his 2000 WSOP victory against T.J. Cloutier, Chan beat Woods and Daniel Negreanu call two consecutive cards against Lakers owner Jerry Buss. In 2006, Ferguson made it to the finals again only to be felled by Forrest. Last year, it was Paul Wasicka who took the title, beating Chad Brown in the finals after ending Shannon Elizabeth's Cinderella run in the semis.
This year's will be the fourth installment of the tournament, and there are more great moments to come. But the truth is, I don't care about them nearly as much as I do about the pre-tournament conjecture. That's because I love the now-yearly debate over who should have been invited almost as much as I anticipate the drawing of the brackets.
In order to get into the debate a bit, a look at who made the cut:
Jason Alexander, Patrik Antonius, Jean-Robert Bellande, David Benyamine, Andy Bloch, Chad Brown, Doyle and Todd Brunson, Johnny Chan, Don Cheadle, Scott Clements, T.J. Cloutier, Allen Cunningham, Freddy Deeb, Annie Duke, Tom Dwan, Bill Edler, Eli Elezra, Shannon Elizabeth, Antonio Esfandiari, Sam Farha, Chris Ferguson, Scott Fischman, Ted Forrest, Jamie Gold, Clonie Gowen, Barry Greenstein, Sam Grizzle, Joe Hachem, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth, Orel Hershiser, Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Gabe Kaplan, Tom Kelly (Caesar's qualifier), Phil Laak, Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Jonathan Little, Mike Matusow, Chris Moneymaker, Michael Mizrachi, Daniel Negreanu, Scotty Nguyen, Hooman Nikzad (Caesar's qualifier), David Pham, Greg Raymer, Vanessa Rousso, Tom Schneider, Daniel Schreiber, Huck Seed, Erik Seidel, David Singer, Gavin Smith, Jennifer Tilly, Brian Townsend, J.C. Tran, Kenny Tran, Paul Wasicka, David Williams, Jerry Yang, and one online qualifier.
I've got to feel for my NBC counterpart Dennis Oehring if only because he can't really dissect the validity of the selections his parent company made. Fortunately, I'm not subject to those same restrictions. Keep in mind that this event isn't about the 64 best players in the world. It's an all-star game and combines competition and entertainment as such. Here's a look at the most shocking omissions this year:
Phil Gordon, Bernie Lee, Peter "Nordberg" Feldman - The simple truth is that if I list any one of these guys, the readers would think it stunk of ESPN bias, so I'm taking the cop out by listing all three, saying they're good men who do good things for a damn good Web site and leaving it at that. I can't be objective about my fellow columnists, so I'm not going to try.
Humberto Brenes - While not necessarily the most glaring omission, this one was the most shocking to me. Brenes got as much air time as anyone on last year's NHUPC en route to a quarter-final appearance, then followed that up with a three final table WSOP. I don't know that anyone has gotten more TV time over the past 18 months, so I have to wonder if this means that NBC's decision-makers decided the viewers are getting tired of Humberto's 'chark' schtick. Could this be a sign of the inevitable maturation of poker television?
Carlos Mortensen -- Calm down folks, according to NBC's Dan Gati, Mortensen had a prior commitment and couldn't attend. It's unfortunate though. After all, the guy did become the only player in history to have won the biggest titles the WSOP and WPT have to offer. Would have been nice to see him try to add another jewel to the crown.
Nam Le -- From a pure tournament no-limit hold 'em skill standpoint, the event's most glaring omission. Nam is a quiet guy and sharing a last name with cousin Tuan doesn't help him in the name recognition department. Another quarter-finalist from a year ago, Nam has since scored an amazing five top-16 finishes on the WPT, and that doesn't count the final table he reached Wednesday night in Los Angeles. Ask any circuit regular to name their top five tournament players and his name is likely to come up.
Gavin Griffin -- This omission makes a lot more sense when you consider the invites were sent out prior to Griffin's WPT win earlier this year. Of course, that victory made him the only player in history to win a WSOP bracelet, EPT title and WPT title (the latter two in the last calendar year). The thing is, the EPT was the biggest of those wins and I have to think the NHUPC's catering to American audiences takes that win less seriously than a similar European event might. It's too bad though, the whole pink hair thing gives him character to go along with the resume.
Kirk Morrison -- With all due respect, how does Sam Grizzle make the grade while Morrison sits on the sidelines? Morrison brings three massively important qualifications to the table; 1) he's highly charismatic 2) he had a great year, with a runner-up finish to Mortensen in the WPT championship capping a four-tournament WPT cash run, which tied the record and 3) he's a great story, returning from a self-imposed exile to New Zealand to find wealth, fame and triumph. What am I missing here?
Tony Guoga -- Tony may have been a victim of Humberto's act a year ago. More style than substance as his televised poker exploits go, no one brings the trash talk better. He usually creates immensely entertaining television for everyone but his opponent -- and their friends, family, pets and pretty much everyone they've ever known. Tony's trash talk would play very well in the heads-up format, but he may have blown his chance at repeat invites when he bowed out quietly in the first round of the 2004 event against Mike Caro.
Alex Kravchenko -- Kravchenko won a WSOP bracelet, finished fourth in the biggest tournament of the year and cashed a total of seven times at the WSOP, but I can understand the snub. The man is quiet as I am wordy and seldom plays stateside outside the summer months. Still, to put on that kind of WSOP performance at least warrants a mention on this list.
Ultimately, there are always going to be unfortunate omissions from an event like this one as long as there's a limit on the number of entrants. That's a big part of what makes it fun though.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
The first weekend of March will bring poker's biggest names to Caesars Palace for the Nationals Heads-Up Poker Championship, but who is missing from this 64-player field?