In a game whose crème de la crème is in constant flux, the cast of characters on the National Heads-Up Poker Championship remains mostly the same. Each year, the event seems to move a little further away from the all-star game it was once hailed as and the championship it claims to be and a little closer to pure spectacle. Invitations seem measured more by celebrity than skill or results and when you throw in more than 10 percent of the field being composed by qualifiers, it's hard to regard this as little more than P.T. Barnum's version of professional poker. It's still fun to speculate about though, isn't it?
The NHUPC gives us our biggest names (well, most of them) wrapped up into one tidy, little package, with the single most exciting variation of poker pitting them against one another with plenty of cash on the line and often a little more. The matchups make the drama and while the math says that there's a crapshoot element to heads-up play, the champions have all been worthy. That gives us reason to keep at those prediction pieces you'll see once a year.
Knowing how the field stands prior to the first round of play, (as determined by Thursday night's draw party) there are as usual plenty of fun matchups and potential storylines that could emerge from the results. I'll even throw my bracket prediction in because I'm a glutton for punishment. Feel free to do the same in the comments section if you're as susceptible to second guessing as I am.
There's more pedigree than talent in this division, with no less than five world champions (Huck Seed, Chris Moneymaker, Jamie Gold, Peter Eastgate and Joe Cada) joining two qualifiers here. CardPlayer Player of the Year Eric Baldwin has a shot at upping his status outside the community, as does the charismatic young Italian Dario Minieri. They'll have to go through the defending champion to do it, though.
Favorite first-round matchup: Huck Seed vs. Eric Seidel.
Two old-school players who have made the adjustments to the new game, these two happen to have the best and worst records in the event's history. Seed, the defending champion, is 18-4 over the five years of play, while Seidel has never escaped the first round. Both career marks have to be anomalous, so this match will either set things back a little closer to right or take the math to another level.
The Internet will go crazy if …: Chris Moneymaker beats Patrick Antonius
Moneymaker, despite being the name that launched the industry, doesn't get enough respect in online circles, while their denizens regard Antonius as an idol. A Moneymaker win here may convince some that the sky is falling and live poker is rigged.
I'd love to see this match miked up: Dario Minieri vs. Jamie Gold. Every time Jamie opens his mouth, he'll find himself raised before getting anything out.
My dream Round 3 matchup: Seed vs. Antonius
It's plausible that Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu, long friends, are the two most famous poker players in the world these days. The two headline this bracket full of star power that could see some fantastic storylines develop if things break the right way.
Favorite first-round matchup: Phil Ivey vs. Gavin Smith
There's been speculation in the past that Ivey has trouble gearing up for events like this one, while ol' G-Smith is looking for 2010 to be a turnaround year, with his twin January scores in Niagara getting him off to a good start. It'll be fun to watch Gavin trying to break Phil out of his shell, but he should be careful. If he does, Ivey might just get interested in playing his A-game.
The Internet will go crazy if …: Phil Gordon beats Tom Dwan
Dwan, like Antonius, is an online god and the rest of the world is waking up to that fact. Gordon, meanwhile, is mostly a face these days whose inclusion in this year's event caused some raised palms and rolling eyes. Gordon lacks results over the past three years as family and business life have taken the front seat, but a win for him here would be a great retaliatory tactic to take against those Internet boards who ride him mercilessly.
PokerStars can't be happy: They have Bertrand Grospellier and Eastgate facing one another in the clubs bracket, GoDaddy girl Vanessa Rousso facing Barry Greenstein in the diamonds and worst of all, Negreanu facing Jason Mercier here. All six are Team PokerStars Pro members, and the Negreanu/Mercier matchup ensures the elimination of one of their marquee guys and best chances at overall victory.
The pro qualifier: Longtime UB pro Sean Rice went to Caesar's and won the live satellite, giving him a shot at getting back into the spotlight. In order to get some TV time, he'll have to go through 2005 world champion Joe Hachem in the first round, with a potential Johnny Chan pairing in the second.
I'd love to see this match miked up: Gordon vs. Dwan. With a nod to Gavin/Ivey.
My dream Round 3 matchup: Dwan vs. Negreanu
Three more marquee names -- Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and Howard Lederer -- highlight this quarter of the bracket, but many eyes will be directed at the more diminutive Annette Obrestad. Annette's coming has been talked about ever since her win at WSOP Europe more than two years ago. This is her arrival.
Favorite first-round matchup: Phil Hellmuth vs. Howard Lederer.
Two poker power players, Phil and Howard go way back and are more than a little familiar with one another. Howard doesn't play as much as he once did, while Phil's been in a rough stretch over the past 18 months, so it'll be fun to see how pride pushes each to perform here.
The Internet will go crazy if …: Orel Hershiser beats Annette Obrestad.
Long before Obrestad won the WSOPE, she was crushing tournaments online starting at age 15. Now 21, she's looking for a strong start out of the gate and a loss to a celebrity entrant would take the air out of her coming out party in a harsh way. If she manages the win, she'll get the winner of Lederer/Hellmuth in Round 2.
I'd love to see this match miked up: Lederer vs. Hellmuth, obviously.
My dream Round 3 matchup: Brunson vs. Obrestad.
A year ago, Vanessa Rousso was the story of this tournament, defeating Brunson, Ivey, Paul Wasicka, Negreanu and Grospellier in succession before losing in the finals to Seed. This time around, the new queen is joined in the diamonds bracket by historic poker queens Annie Duke and Jen Harman along with Jen Tilly with a likely focus on estrogen instead of testosterone.
Favorite first-round matchup: Darvin Moon vs. Bill Huntress
Huntress, a qualifier, may stand as good a chance of toppling an invited player as any qualifier ever has. Moon may have heaps of heads-up experience we don't know about, but the likelihood is that he doesn't. It's a shock that the Moon man's even shown up here considering his lack of interest in media exposure and sponsorship. You have to wonder what's in it for him. Call it a life experience, I guess.
The Internet will go crazy if …: Jerry Yang beats Mike Matusow
It's not that Matusow is an Internet hero, but Yang has done just about nothing since his win three years ago while Matusow is constantly complaining about how unlucky he is. As NHUPC pairings go, he's been right. His opening draws going back over the past four years have been Minieri, Hachem, Negreanu and Eli Elezra, not exactly a group of slouches. This time, he gets a rusty Yang, then the winner of Harman/Tilly. He'll have no reason to complain if he loses.
I'd love to see this match miked up: Sammy Farha vs. Antonio Esfandiari
My dream Round 3 matchup: Harman vs. Duke. They don't like one another too much.
Antonius def. Moneymaker
Eric Baldwin def. Leo Wolpert
David Williams def. Joe Cada
Huck Seed def. Eric Seidel
Erick Lindgren def. Dan Ramirez
Bertrand Grospellier def Peter Eastgate
Ted Forrest def. Stephen Quinn
Dario Minieri def. Jamie Gold
Baldwin def. Antonius
Seed def. Williams
Lindgren def. Grospellier
Minieri def. Forrest
Seed def. Baldwin
Minieri def. Lindgren
Minieri def. Seed
Ivey def. Smith
Scotty Nguyen def. Richard Edwards
Joe Hachem def. Shawn Rice
Johnny Chan def. Gabe Kaplan
Jason Mercier def. Daniel Negreanu
Mike Sexton def. Pieter De Korver
Tom Dwan def. Phil Gordon
Phil Laak def. John Juanda
Ivey def. Scotty
Hachem def. Chan
Mercier def. Sexton
Laak def. Dwan
Ivey def. Hachem
Laak def. Mercier
Laak def. Ivey
Jesper Hougaard def. Allen Cunningham
Greg Mueller def. Eli Elezra
Chris Ferguson def. Annette Dworski
Kara Scott def. Dennis Phillips
Brock Parker def. Doyle Brunson
John Paul Kelly def. Don Cheadle
Phil Hellmuth def. Howard Lederer
Annette Obrestad def. Orel Hershiser
Mueller def. Hougaard
Ferguson def. Scott
Parker def. Kelly
Hellmuth def. Obrestad
Ferguson def. Mueller
Parker def. Hellmuth
Ferguson def. Parker
Barry Greenstein def. Vanessa Rousso
Antonio Esfandiari def. Sammy Farha
Jen Harman def. Jen Tilly
Mike Matusow def. Jerry Yang
Darvin Moon def. Bill Huntress
Andy Bloch def. Annie Duke
Paul Wasicka def. Andrew Wilson
Gus Hansen def. Greg Raymer (This was my toughest first round call)
Greenstein def. Esfandiari
Matusow def. Harman
Bloch def. Moon
Wasicka def. Hansen
Matusow def. Greenstein
Bloch def. Wasicka
Matusow def. Bloch
Minieri def. Laak
Matusow def. Ferguson
Minieri defeats Matusow, drawing out on the Mouth, leading to one of the great 'unlucky' tirades of modern times.
Keep your eyes on ESPN.com, we'll be blogging about the event as it unfolds.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.