- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Editor's note: Ivan Demidov's spot in the National Heads-Up Poker Championship has been given to Hevad Khan as Demidov is unable to attend.
I love the National Heads-Up Poker Championship.
There. I said it.
This weekend, the poker world converges upon and revisits one of my favorite events of the year. The NHUPC hardly qualifies as sport, given the shallow blind structure and the inequity involved in the selection process (much more on this in a moment) and it's certainly not a championship by any definition other than in name, but if you're looking for the meshing of poker and entertainment, it doesn't get much better.
Not only does the NHUPC offer us the opportunity to see the best-known and best-celebrated (but not necessarily best) players in the world getting paired off like whippersnappers at a cotillion, but it also provides endless fodder for the hungry poker masses to chew on -- why certain players got in, how those players got there and -- most fun of all -- why others were left out.
This year, after heeding some very Wise advice, the producers of the NHUPC made it even tougher than in years past to get those elusive slots on prime time national television. With a number of poker achievements now assured an accompanying NBC slot, a record six spots going to online and Caesar's qualifiers and a constant influx of talent that continually broadens poker celebrity borders, the competition to fill the bracket is fiercer than ever. Combine that with the understanding you can't make all of the people happy all of the time and the tournament selection process leaves folks like me making lists like this one for readers like yourself.
What follows is one man's opinion on the top-10 snubs for 2009. Ask another author to do the same and the list will no doubt come out similar but different. Personally, I'm curious to hear the readers sound off on who they feel is missing from this year's field; for the moment though, let's take a look at who (aside from Patrik Antonius and Shannon Elizabeth, both of whom turned down invites due to prior commitments) I feel you can make the best arguments for.
10) Todd Brunson -- An invitee in each of the show's first four seasons, Brunson didn't get the nod this time around. His 0-4 lifetime record at NHUPC likely has something to do with that, as must his preference for cash game play, but one has to wonder if the Brunson name could conceivably have suffered this slight a few years ago.
9) Michael Phelps -- This isn't really a snub. Phelps knows the poker world would gladly get on its collective knees if that got him to pick up the phone to apply for selection. The phone wasn't picked up this year, but there's reason to hope for the future.
8) Brandon Cantu -- All Cantu did this year was author the most dominant performance in any main event this year at Bay 101, paired with his holding the chip lead on Day 6 of the World Series of Poker main event before eventually finishing 20th. Along the way, he came out of his TV shell. Another year like this one and he won't be ignored.
7) Dennis Phillips -- "This year we've been fortunate," said Barry Greenstein during the November Nine proceedings. "In a way, we've had two world champions." Greenstein was referring to the fact Phillips, the chip leader heading to the WSOP's final table, put the event on his back and let the poker world ride along for those four months. Phillips was interviewed more than 200 times and managed to do good work to promote the game and give back to assorted charities in between. Phillips' story line was a central one during this year's WSOP and made him one of the most identifiable players on the planet. His $4,517,773 score for third place was the largest single cash by any player this year who didn't receive an invite.
6) Carlos Mortensen -- It's been a quiet year for "El Matador," but this is the only player in history to brand his name on both the WSOP and WPT championships. Mortensen is one of only two world champions from this decade, along with Robert Varkonyi, to not be awarded the vaunted invitation. With no offense intended to Varkonyi, Mortensen's résumé has become far better decorated in years since.
5) David Singer -- There's a reason Oscar-potential films all come out in December. Singer was about the hottest poker player in the world at the start of the summer, winning FullTiltPoker's $25,000 Heads-Up championship and following that with a bracelet. He went from the awards ceremony to the hospital, had his second child and has been very quiet ever since. If his run hadn't been swallowed by ensuing headlines about the November Nine, Peter Eastgate, et al, you have to think he'd be on the other list.
4) Nam Le -- There may not be a more widely-respected player on the tournament circuit. Le, a quiet man (you'll sense a theme here), speaks with his results. In 2008 he netted five WPT and four WSOP cashes, chief amongst them a $943,000 second-place showing at the Bellagio in October. These results have become expected of Le, who has done the same year in, year out for a while and might be one of the best players in the world.
3) Michael Binger -- He finished third at WSOP in 2006, then tied a record with eight cashes there in 2007. This year, Binger continued his masterful consistency with a remarkable 21 tournament cashes, ranking him second in Bluff Magazine's Player of the Year standings. CardPlayer had him seventh. Regardless of the disparity, everyone seems to agree he's become one of the best tournament players around, but he's yet to score that one media-intensive win that will vault him to poker superstardom.
2) David Chiu -- The WSOP, WSOP Europe, $50,000 HORSE and EPT Championship winners all gain automatic entrance into the NHUPC. Did you ever think you'd see the day where the WPT Championship wasn't held in that esteem? If you're looking for proof, I offer the omission of David Chiu from this year's bracket. Chiu won $3,389,140 for his victory in what was once a staple on the "top five most prestigious tournaments" list and has three WSOP bracelets to his name for pedigree. None of that got the invite for another very quiet man who does nothing but win.
1) Phil Galfond -- When Tom Dwan named Galfond as the only player ineligible to take him up on his challenge, it was done out of more than mere friendship. Ask any interested observer to name the best online player in the world and you'll likely hear one of four names; Dwan, Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius and Galfond. That's pretty amazing company to keep.
On top of remarkable online success in the past couple of years that's transformed the 23-year-old into a wealthy man, Galfond emerged in the live arena this year. He took home more than $800,000 in conquering one of the most star-studded fields of the year in the WSOP's $5,000 Omaha with rebuys, proving he can sit in any venue and be a strong candidate for best player in the room. Galfond has quickly earned the respect of the biggest stars of the game. All he has to do now is come out of his shell a little to ensure he'll be invited to NBC -- and everywhere else for that matter -- for the foreseeable future.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.