Commentary

National Heads-Up field of 64 is set

Updated: February 24, 2011, 5:51 PM ET
By Gary Wise | Special to ESPN.com

Today's a fun day.

The National Heads-Up Poker Championship is like the poker all-star game in that the debate and conjecture leading up to the event is as much fun, if not more so, than the event itself. Who's in, who's out, prospective matches, prospective winners … it all adds up to forum chats akin to corner bar arguments over who the best ballplayers were. That all starts today, because the list of invitees has been announced.

Duke
Stephanie Moore for NBC SportsDefending champion Annie Duke will hope to go back-to-back with another National Heads-Up Poker Championship.

A quick look at the list (in alphabetical order) before we get to the fun stuff (* denotes automatic bid):

Jason Alexander, Patrik Antonius, Eric Baldwin, David Benyamine, Andy Bloch, Liv Boeree, James Bord*, Doyle Brunson, Joe Cada*, Daniel Cates, Johnny Chan, Don Cheadle, Nicolas Chouity*, Allen Cunningham, Jonathan Duhamel*, Annie Duke*, Tom Dwan, Peter Eastgate*, Eli Elezra, Antonio Esfandiari, Chris Ferguson*, Ted Forrest*, Phil Galfond, Phil Gordon, Barry Greenstein, Bertrand Grospellier, Joe Hachem, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Faraz Jaka*, John Juanda, Gabe Kaplan, Frank Kassela*, Eugene Katchalov, Phil Laak, Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Ayaz Mahmood*, Tom Marchese*, Mike Matusow, Jason Mercier, Michael Mizrachi, Sorel Mizzi*, Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, Scotty Nguyen*, Annette Obrestad, Dennis Phillips*, Dwyte Pilgrim, John Racener*, Greg Raymer, Vanessa Rousso*, Kara Scott, Huck Seed*, Erik Seidel*, Vanessa Selbst, Emmitt Smith, Gavin Smith, Jennifer Tilly, Melburn Whitmire, David Williams and Justin Young.

Andrew Feldman's going to focus on the guys who were left out in a coming article. I get to focus on the guys who are in. So, before you ask about:

• Melburn Whitmire and Justin Young, they're the field's two qualifiers. Young is actually a very solid poker player and an argument can be made he sits in the top half of the field.
• Ayaz Mahmood, James Bord and Nicolas Chouity, they qualified by winning the WSOP heads-up championship, the WSOP Europe main event and the EPT Grand Final, respectively.
• Jason Alexander, Don Cheadle and Emmitt Smith, they're two fine actors and one heck of a running back. They also happen to bring some celebrity cachet to the thing.

You may be among the cynics who ask, "What does celebrity cachet have to do with poker?" But the answer is that as with all all-star events, the NHUPC is a spectacle first. Celebrities get the eyes on the screen and make this a celebration worth … celebrating. They contribute to the fun, as we've seen in the past, when a wide-eyed Cheadle had been paired with Phil Ivey. What made it all the more fun is that Cheadle beat him.

This year's field offers us some fun data, some fun potential matchups and of course, the fun of making predictions doomed to fall flat on their faces. Here are some numbers, some expectations and some predictions for this year's tournament.

One-line thoughts on other surprising inclusions:

David Benyamine: Playing in the big game doesn't seem like it should be enough anymore.

Phil Gordon: We love Phil at ESPN, but his numbers in recent years are nonexistent and his presence here will have the online kids crying in their cereal. That said, he did beat Dwan last year in his opening match.

Andy Bloch: Like Gordon, the FTP blanket protects one of the good guys in the game.

Dwyte Pilgrim: Wasn't sure he was on the higher-ups radar, but could make for some fantastic TV.

By the numbers:

Former Heads-Up champions: 5 (Duke, Ferguson, Forrest, Hellmuth, Seed)
Former Heads-Up runners-up: 4 (Bloch, Ferguson, Rousso, Seidel)
WSOP main event champions: 12 (Brunson, Cada, Chan, Duhamel, Eastgate, Ferguson, Hachem, Hellmuth, Moneymaker, Nguyen, Raymer, Seed)
WSOP main event runners-up: 5 (Brunson, Chan, Racener, Seidel, Williams)
Women: 8 (Boeree, Duke, Harman, Obrestad, Rousso, Scott, Selbst, Tilly)
Celebrities: 5 (Alexander, Cheadle, Kaplan, Smith, Tilly)

Stories to watch:

Eastgate's return: After announcing his retirement in 2010 and selling his championship bracelet for charity on eBay, 2008 world champion Peter Eastgate will be back in action. Will he shake the rust off? Will some time away have cleared his head? Will a strong run here renew his competitive fire?

Greg Raymer's patch situation: While he has yet to comment on the situation, Raymer's been without his former staple PokerStars badges for a while now with his status within the company still pending. If Raymer shows up without those patches, will he be wearing someone else's colors? If so, whose?

Phil Hellmuth's patch situation: The 1989 champion, formerly of UB, is still figuring out his representation status. You'd have to think poker's mega agents at Poker Royalty would like to have the situation put away in time for the exposure the NHUPC can bring.

Welcome back, Kaplan: No longer the host of GSN's "High Stakes Poker," Gabe Kaplan is free to play where and when he wants to. His former production team will be in place for the NHUPC and I'm hoping they give him some love.

Young guns trying to break into the national spotlight: Ask anyone in the game and they'll list Tom Marchese, Daniel Cates, Sorel Mizzi, Dwyte Pilgrim, Faraz Jaka, Eugene Katchalov and Phil Galfond among the best players in the game. With all of the invites getting handed out to "TV poker" stars, these guys will be fighting for their NHUPC lives.

Can the women take 2? Last year, Annie Duke one-upped Vanessa Rousso's 2009 runner-up finish, taking the title. With eight women making up 12.5 percent of the field, can they defy the odds again?

Pairings I'd like to see:

Greg Raymer versus Chris Moneymaker, Joe Hachem, Peter Eastgate, Joe Cada, Jonathan Duhamel and Daniel Negreanu. That's the gauntlet I'd like to see Raymer run en route to victory if he's not wearing those aforementioned Stars colors.

Tom Dwan versus Patrik Antonius or Daniel Cates. Dwan's been neglecting his Durrrr Challenges after reaping the rewards of their publicity. A match with either opponent should cause at least a few chuckles and maybe some awkwardness for poker's youngest megastar.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Arnold Turner/Getty ImagesEmmitt Smith will be making his National Heads-Up Poker Championships debut in 2011.

Sorel Mizzi versus John Racener. In light of the latest Mizzi scandal, this one having Racener alleging foul play in private games, these two locking horns would overload servers web-wide.

Phil Laak versus Jen Tilly. Phil finally got his bracelet while Jen's getting further and further from hers. Time for these two to square off for relationship supremacy.

Phil Ivey versus Emmitt Smith. Because he apparently needs easier opposition than Cheadle can provide.

Phil Hellmuth versus anyone. You know it's going to happen, so you might as well embrace it.

Predictions:

Last year, this tournament's history got turned on its head. Huck Seed, who seemingly couldn't lose, lost in the first round to Erik Seidel, who seemingly couldn't win. From there, brackets got shattered all around, so take this with a grain of salt, but if I'm picking the final four, they are:

Daniel Cates (after toppling Dwan), Dwyte Pilgrim (talking his way through each match until opposing heads combust), Vanessa Selbst (because her heads-up record and her recent final table record will collide in perfect unison), Eugene Katchalov (he won at PCA; this is kid's stuff).

Selbst defeats Katchalov and Pilgrim four-outers Cates in the semifinals and finally, Selbst out-talks Dwyte for the victory.

Of course, I wouldn't bet on it happening that way …

You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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