Breaking down the field
I recently wrote about my excitement over the National Heads-Up Poker Championships, even getting into the snubs. Always fantastic fodder for the writer/poker enthusiast. Thing is, there are so many more things to debate when it comes to this tournament. With the bracket being released in the wee hours Friday morning, it made sense to check out some of the debatables.
My favorite picks
This isn't about the best players being invited. Frankly, a chimpanzee would know to get certain players invited to this tournament. No, these are the invitations that made my ears perk with what they meant for the tournament and for the ever-changing perception of poker in general:
Doyle Brunson: Yeah, yeah, I'm happy they invited Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey, too. It's not like there was much doubt here, but after Doyle pulled a no-show a year ago, it's good to have him back. While Hellmuth's absence last year was explained by a prior commitment, Doyle's came from a combination of fatigue and sapped enthusiasm. In the wake of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, he was feeling frustrated with poker and wasn't feeling the pull invite-only tournaments had previously offered. Apparently, his spirits are back up now that DoylesRoom is back in the U.S.
Bill Edler: The Bluff magazine Player of the Year, Edler earned that title and then some. He cashed in five WPTs, winning one and reaching the final table in another. He won a bracelet, then ran way deep in the main event. Maybe even more importantly for our criteria here, he won the third biggest heads-up tournament of the year -- the first annual Heads-Up Championships -- by beating Negreanu in the Round of 64 and Barry Greenstein in the Round of 2. One of the good guys of the game.
David Pham: Bluff and Card Player have their differences, but their respective player of the year systems chose two deserving winners. While Edler did it with big finishes, Pham did it through sheer determination, cashing in an unbelievable 16 tournaments (Card Player's system gives more weight to smaller events) including second- and third-place finishes on the WPT. The language barrier and a quiet table demeanor make him a tough guy to add to an event like this one. I'm glad performance won out. Daniel Schreiber: Better known to many as his online moniker "Rekrul," Schreiber is one of the first of what's sure to be a wave of professional Starcraft players to make the successful transition to poker, but that's not why he got the invite. Just short of his 22nd birthday, Schreiber decimated the field in the WSOP world championship of heads-up hold 'em, the second biggest heads-up tournament of the year. His selection shows a willingness by the selectors to recognize success in events broadcast by the competition, a pattern that hasn't always been followed within the televised poker community. Brian Townsend, Tom Dwan: On a personal level, I'm particularly pleased by these choices for reasons that will make themselves obvious on this Web site sometime next week. Objectively, this is a big step in the televised poker world recognizing the skill exhibited by the biggest players in the online poker world. "Sbrugby" and "durrrr" are two of the highest-stakes players in poker, and both have taken steps to adjust their games for the camera. Apparently, the camera is adjusting back.
My least-favorite picks
Writing about my least-favorite picks is tough for me politically, because interacting with the invited players (and the folks who chose them) will hopefully be part of my job for the next few decades. Still, telling you what I think is part of my job also, so a man's got to do what a man's got to do. Hopefully, the folks I name in this section will be forgiving.
The NHUPC field as presently constituted is watered down from what it could be by three primary factors: amateur qualifiers, celebrity invitees and eye candy. I understand the reasoning behind each of the three, but as televised poker matures, I can't help but wonder if the game as a whole is hindered by the celebration of lesser-deserving players than the best of the uninvited. I'm going to get into this more early next week. For now though, here are a few of the folks who wouldn't have gotten in were I doing the honors:
Clonie Gowen: Men love attractive women and will generally stay on any channel that features them. I get that. The thing is, do you really see Clonie getting serious TV time if she doesn't make a top-eight run? When Hellmuth, Negreanu, Mike Matusow, etc. are in attendance, we all know that's not happening, which really means there has to be more than looks accounted for in selecting a woman for a tournament like this one.
Clonie had two cashes in excess of $12,000 in 2007, both of them victories on NBC's own Poker After Dark, a six-player, invite-only tournament that sees a lot of Full Tilt Poker participation (generally, about half the players any given week are from FTP, Gowen's sponsor site). Fact is, she's never had a six-figure score in an open-invitation tournament. After five years on the circuit, it's time for the folks in charge to move her aside for more deserving poker players, women or otherwise.
Sam Grizzle: With the aforementioned watering down being what it is, I can't understand what was going through the minds of the selection committee when they chose Grizzle over Nam Le, Gavin Griffin, Kirk Morrison et al. Granted, there's a desire to recognize poker's past, but is Grizzle really the way to do it?
Grizzle has never won a bracelet in over two decades at the WSOP. He's best known for getting into a one-punch fight with Phil Hellmuth years ago, then following that up with some sharp-tongued barbs in the 2003 WSOP broadcast before Phil outplayed him out of his stack. He didn't score so much as one $50,000 win in 2007 tournament play and while yes, he's colorful, so is the rest of the field. If you want to recognize poker's past, bring back Billy Baxter, or better yet invite forgotten six-bracelet winner Jay Heimowitz (these two are the only players to have won bracelets in the '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s). I mean, Bodog has the line on Grizzle winning the tournament at 85-1, the same as Jason Alexander! Sorry NBC, you dropped the ball on this one.
Orel Hershiser: I'm a baseball nut and on that level I appreciate this choice, but the poker guy in me doesn't get it. I can't recall so much as seeing Orel at a celebrity tournament, and with so many bigger stars already affiliated with the game, I'd like to have seen this spot stay in-house. I understand that Michael Jordan values his privacy, but are you telling me Charles Barkley wouldn't have played? At least Pete Sampras showed up at the WPT Celebrity Invitational last year.
After those three, there's a gap as far as my least-deserving invitees go, but there's one group of invitees I'd like to see shaved down:
Tom Kelly, Hooman Nikzad and the Alicia Kunze.
Don't worry, you didn't miss a major chapter of poker history in which these were made famous names. Kelly and Nikzad won their spots at the Caesar's Palace qualifier, while Kunze won her seat online.
I understand the whole "David vs. Goliath" appeal of the amateurs sitting among the stars, but we all already know that "anyone can win on any given day." This isn't any given day. This is the closest thing we have to an all-star game (or maybe it just should be) and again, like with Clonie, these folks aren't making it on TV with so many other options to choose from. Truth is, I'd like to see all three of these seats going to pros, but I know that's not happening. Baby steps. I'd have limited the Caesar's qualifier to one spot.
Matches to watch
Last but not least, a few matchups and potential matchups for you to keep an eye on, based mostly on past history, entertainment value or general quirkiness:
Mike Matusow vs. Joe Hachem, Phil Hellmuth vs. Tom Dwan
In an otherwise quiet clubs bracket, this foursome is going to create some major fireworks. I feel badly for Joe Hachem here. If he survives the headache match with The Mouth, he may have to follow that up with Hellmuth, exhausting most of Vegas' aspirin supply in the process. Of course, Phil may not even get that far. Dwan has played as much heads-up high-stakes poker as anyone in the world over the past few months, and the two locked horns just after New Year's, with Dwan emerging victorious. The bet here is that Dwan remembers every hand, while Hellmuth calls Dwan "Internet guy" 15 times during the match.
Of course, the real dream matchup here would be Matusow vs. Hellmuth in Round 2. Maybe not for the players who have to concentrate nearby, but it'd be good times for the rest of us.
Jean Robert Bellande vs. Sam Grizzle
OK, I just finished questioning NBC's decision to include Grizzle and then this happens. Grizzle is a master trash talker, while Bellande has difficulty (a) not answering and (b) focusing on the play while talking. This probably won't make it to television, but it may get heated enough to force the cameras that way.
Phil Ivey vs. Alicia Kunze
Let me be the first to say Phil Ivey is going to lose this match (and I'll be the first to contact ESPN.com editors to change that prediction if I'm proven wrong). I don't know amateur qualifier Alicia Kunze from anyone else who tried to qualify, but Ivey just won the Los Angeles Poker Championship in the late hours Thursday night, will get next to no sleep as a result and has $1.5 million new things to think about besides a tournament in which he's a lifetime 0-3. If Ivey proves me wrong, it offers an opportunity for a saliva-inducing second-round match of Ivey vs. Johnny Chan. Two of the all-time greats going head-to-head would be something to see.
Daniel Schreiber vs. T.J. Cloutier
We need to get something borrowed and something blue into this match. This is the ultimate test of old-school savvy vs. new-school ferocity. People may not realize this, but Cloutier is actually 15 times older than Schrieber. Being an online master, though, Schreiber has played more hands.
Greenstein vs. Lederer, Benyamine vs. Harman
It doesn't really matter who wins these matches, it's going to be just like any day in Bobby's Room anyway. Granted, Howard doesn't play the big live cash games anymore, but he's been there before and he'll be there again once he decides to slow down on the business side of things. Regardless, we're going to see some great poker here.
OK, having stayed up for the bracket's release, I'm now writing this at 4 a.m., which is a little past quitting time. Be sure to check back in on Sunday, when I'll have an update on the first two days of play.
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.