Say what you will about the National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Say that the structure is too shallow to call the event a championship or that the selection process is a little too influenced by corporate sponsorship. Say that the event, caught in an identity crisis between true championship and all-star game, chooses to be neither. In the end, it proved to be an incredibly entertaining affair that was won by the player with the best record in the history of the event.
Chris "Jesus" Ferguson has made enough money over the years that accolades and achievements have to have moved up the priority ladder for him. For a guy like that, two second place finishes -- in 2005 (to Phil Hellmuth) and 2006 (to Ted Forrest) -- couldn't have sat well. When Ferguson lost the first match in the best-of-three final to close friend Andy Bloch, his poker life had to be flashing before his eyes.
Calm, collected and always executing his plays in the exact same fashion, Ferguson saved himself. Even after Bloch took a small lead in their second match, Ferguson didn't falter, eventually hitting four of a kind after getting his good friend all-in to even things up. The third match was quick, with the win moving Ferguson's lifetime record at the NHUPC to an amazing 16-3.
Ferguson's road to the championship was not an easy one. He didn't get a pushover pairing in the bunch, starting with wins over John Juanda, Gavin Smith and Mike Matusow. Then, he survived a 7-1 chip deficit against sit-and-go specialist Jon Little in the semifinals. After that, it was only Phil Ivey, who was somehow still awake despite having won the WPT's Los Angeles Poker Classic on Thursday night. Then it was Bloch.
Bloch's path was more star-studded. He defeated two celebrities -- 2007 semifinalist Shannon Elizabeth in the first round and this year's Cinderella story Orel Hershiser in the quarterfinals. He beat Vanessa Rousso in Round 2. He beat Scott Fischman (who has now cashed in all four years the event has been held) in Round 3. He beat Huck Seed in the semis, despite Seed being 12-3 lifetime in the NHUPC heading into their match. Some would congratulate Bloch on a wonderful performance. We know better.
After the event ended, I put in a call to Dan Michalski, editor of pokerati.com. "I think," he reflected "that there's a feeling that the old generation of stars is needing to prove itself over again. Jesus and Bloch and Ivey all did that today." For Ferguson and Bloch, neither of whom has played in a WPT tournament over the past 20 months in a protest of that organization's image rights waiver, this served as a reminder to the poker world of just what it had been missing in their absence.
Ferguson's win, Ivey's remarkable stamina, Hershiser's Cinderella run, Doyle Brunson's reinvigoration, Phil Hellmuth's three-hand event these things are all going to air starting six weeks from now and they will be played and replayed after they are. Despite having followed the play-by-play closely all weekend, I'll be glued to my TV then, seeing it all play out all over again.
In a weekend full of lists and debates, I wanted to put together one more. As much as I enjoy the NHUPC, there are two things I'd like to see change for the good of the show, the good of the event, the good of the game and most importantly, the good of my viewing experience. Here they are:
Find an identity. The NHUPC calls itself a championship without allowing equal competitive opportunity. It plays out more like an all-star game, but has a skewed invitation process that includes in its criteria catering to corporate sponsors with tournament slots. I don't mind either concept, but I'd like to see the show choose an identity and embrace it.
All-star game? Great:
• Pick some of the players through pre-established criteria: WSOP champion, WSOP Champion one year removed, HORSE Champion, WSOP heads-up champion, WPT World Champion, WPT Player of the Year, Card Player Player of the Year, Bluff Magazine Player of the Year, European Poker Awards Player of the Year, EPT Grand Finale Champion, NHUPC Champion, NHUPC Champion one year removed. That should do it. Make these criteria available to the public.
• Continue to allow sponsors to fill some slots, but do so by having them submit a list of representatives with the understanding that the producers get to choose from that list. The producers could hand select, appoint a committee of poker people from across the industry or
• Pick some of the players through fan vote: Want an old-schooler who reminds us of days of yore? Hey fans, come to our Web site and participate in the "rounders" vote for one of T.J. Cloutier, Billy Baxter, Jay Heimowitz or Berry Johnston. Pick two players from our "Big Game" election, two from our "online stars" election and one from our "divas of poker" election. At least this way, you're getting representatives of each archetype the people actually want to see.
• Get rid of some of the personalities who haven't done anything in years. Guys like Ferguson, Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Brunson will give you an entertaining broadcast anyway.
This way, there are no complaints over omissions, because they had their chance. The buzz surrounding the event increases because the public has a vested interest in those selected. Web traffic explodes. Good for the producers, good for the fans.
• Open registration up. How great would a serious $20,000 buy-in heads-up tournament be?
• Increase the stack sizes and/or slow down the blinds.
• Keep your production crew down to a couple of hand held cameras on the floor until top eight. Then, produce each match as its' own episode. You want the players to get serious? Tell them they can share the screen with one other player for the hour. Now they really have something to play for. Hellmuth isn't skipping out on that possibility.
Either way, your product has more direction, giving the audience a chance to identify what the event is trying to be.
Stream the draw party online. Obviously, my suggestions all operate without budgetary concerns, but isn't the draw party really what this event is all about? The glitz, the glamour, the beautiful people all waiting with baited breaths as the draw decides their fates. You want gambling? This is gambling. You put up your $20,000 and random draw decides who's going to try to take it from you.
Steve Rosenbloom, formerly a columnist on this here sight, e-mailed Andrew Feldman and I begging us to stop calling this event "poker's all-star game," insisting the $50,000 HORSE event at the WSOP was more qualified (I actually think calling that event the all-star game belittles it).
Steve likened NHUPC to March Madness. It's an apt comparison because of the bracket, the invitation of entities that are not among the 64 most capable in their fields and the attention paid to the selection and pairing process. People love this stuff. Why would anyone think that an aspect of the NCAA Tournament that people have traditionally found so fascinating wouldn't be interesting in poker?
The EPT started streaming its final tables online this year. No hole cards, near-minimal production value. It's been a godsend to anyone interested in the tournament circuit. If you don't think people are going to be interested in the tournament circuit, why are you producing a poker TV show? (Unless you're with High Stakes Poker.) Please, NBC, let us into the party next year.
Those two suggestions aside, I wouldn't have written four columns in the past five days on the National Heads-Up Poker Championship if I didn't think it was worth that kind of attention. The fourth installment is in the books now. Congratulations to Chris Ferguson, on capturing long-awaited, well-deserved vindication. Can't wait to watch in six weeks.
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.