- Bernard Lee, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the NCAA tournament underway (and congratulations to my alma mater Harvard for making the men's Dance for the first time since 1946. Go Crimson!), I'm saddened by this year's absence of poker's equivalent -- the National Heads-Up Poker Championships (NHUPC).
This single elimination tournament (until the finals, which are best-of-three) had been played annually ever since 2005, when Phil Hellmuth bested Chris Ferguson for the first crown.
Another victim of last year's Black Friday, the NHUPC canceled its 2012 version with an announcement this past October. There is optimism that the tournament will only take a brief one-year hiatus and return in 2013, but for now all we'll have to use is our imagination.
In lieu of this year's event, I've attempted my own National Heads-Up Championship for 2012. There is going to be lots of discussion and debate regarding my selections and eventual winners, but let's close our eyes, open up our imaginations and dream what may have happened.
The 64 players must be chosen to fill in the bracket. I have broken down these players into the following categories: automatic qualifiers, poker "superstars," young guns, celebrities, sports stars and at-large bids. (I also really hope that all of the automatic qualifiers from 2012 earn bids into the 2013 tournament.)
Back in 2008, amid controversy of the previous year's invitees, the selection committee determined criteria for automatic invites to the National Heads-Up Championship. The players who would've earned the 2012 automatic bids are (with players earning duplicate bids in italics):
Previous five National Heads-Up Poker Champions: Erik Seidel (2011), Annie Duke (2010), Huck Seed (2009), Chris Ferguson (2008) and Paul Wasicka (2007)
Previous two National Heads-Up runners-up: Chris Moneymaker (2011) and Erik Seidel (2010)
Defending National Heads-Up semifinalists: Jonathan Duhamel and Andrew Robl
Previous three World Series of Poker main event champions: Pius Heinz (2011), Jonathan Duhamel (2010) and Joe Cada (2009)
Defending World Series of Poker main event runner-up: Martin Staszko
2011 multiple WSOP bracelet winner: Brian Rast
Defending World Series of Poker Player of the Year: Ben Lamb
Defending World Series of Poker Heads-Up Champion: Jake Cody
Defending WSOPE main event champion: Elio Fox
Reigning World Poker Tour Player of the Year: Andy Frankenberger
Reigning European Poker Tour Grand Final Champion: Ivan Freitez
Reigning Card Player Magazine Player of the Year: Ben Lamb
Reigning Bluff Magazine Player of the Year: Eugene Katchalov
Online and NBC qualifiers: Since Black Friday, there is no online qualifier
Host venue qualifiers (2): Caesars Qualifier 1: Steve O'Dwyer, Caesars Qualifier 2:
For these qualifier seats, it is not unprecedented for a professional to win the seat. Last year, numerous pros competed in the Caesars Palace tournament with a handful making it to the final 16 and Justin Young prevailing. In 2007, Marco Traniello captured the qualifier seat into the event.
This year, I believe that more pros would have played for the seat and Steve O'Dwyer would have won one of the qualifiers (he has had a great year and also captured the first Epic Poker satellite seat). The other qualifier would still be an unknown amateur.
Based on this list, there are 20 players who would have automatically qualified. However, due to Chris Ferguson's ahem off-the-felt situation with Full Tilt, I believe that he would have passed on this year's event, leaving 45 players remaining to be selected.
Poker "Superstars" (27):
This has always been a made-for-television event. The next group of players are the poker superstars who are world-class players and fan favorites.
Here are those players (listed alphabetically):
Patrick Antonius, Liv Boeree, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Allen Cunningham, Tom Dwan, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Galfond, Barry Greenstein, Bertrand Grospellier, Joe Hachem, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Phil Laak, Mike Matusow, Jason Mercier, Michael Mizrachi, Annette Obrestad, Daniel Negreanu, Scotty Nguyen, Greg Raymer, Vanessa Rousso, Gavin Smith and David Williams
Bubble replacements: Fabrice Soulier, Carlos Mortensen and David Benyamine.
Young Guns (11):
The online generation has created numerous players who have made their marks online and live over the past couple of years. In 2011, the invites were extended to several of those players, including Andrew Robl and Daniel Cates. Here are a handful of 20-something players who I believe would have been included this year based on their popularity and/or their recent performances (listed alphabetically):
Victor Blom, Shawn Buchanan, Daniel Cates, Dan Kelly, Faraz Jaka, Chris Moorman, David Sands, Vanessa Selbst, Scott Seiver, Sam Stein and Sam Trickett
Bubble replacements: Issac Haxton, Noah Schwartz and Jason Somerville
Ever since its inception, the NHUPC has included people from the world of entertainment. In 2005, James Woods, Rene Angelil and Jerry Buss went to battle, and last year the invitees were Jason Alexander, Don Cheadle and Jennifer Tilly.
For this year's mock event, I say we mix it up with some replacements who have shown a propensity to play poker. My choices would be:
Brad Garrett, Ray Romano and Cheryl Hines.
Sports Star (1):
For the past three years, the tournament has had retired sports stars from major sports leagues.
• Emmitt Smith (2010) - Hall of Fame Running Back (NFL)
• Orel Hershiser (2008 and 2009) - MVP baseball pitcher (MLB)
This year, I would have chosen Michael Phelps, as he has played in events around the circuit. However, with his 2012 Olympics training schedule, I'm sure that he would have passed on the initiation. Thus, we would have to choose another big-name sports star. I suggest that we include someone from the NBA, which has shown that its representatives can play poker with Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion and Jordan Farmer previously participating in the WSOP main event.
My choice is arguably the best NBA player ever and truly an avid poker player,
Michael Jordan. OK, I know this is a stretch, but hey, it's my mock draft. Let a man dream a little.
At-large Bids (3):
• Marvin Rettenmaier:
For the first selection, I looked back at last year's player of the year races for Card Player and Bluff Magazines. There were only two players who made both lists: Chris Moorman (already chosen) and Germany's Marvin Rettenmaier.
• Matt Glantz:
The former financial trader has been a high-stakes cash specialist for years. However, Glantz has also been a consistent performer in tournaments in all disciplines. Additionally, he has become a prominent voice of the industry after joining the Epic Poker League Standards & Conduct Committee.
• Will Failla:
There are very few players who are hotter on the planet than the New York native. In addition to winning the WPT LA Poker Classic last August, the ever-colorful Failla has also earned almost another $600,000 since including a win in a preliminary event at the 2012 Borgata Winter Open and Heartland Poker Tour in St. Louis in March.
Bubble Players: Matt Waxman, Oleksii Kovalchuk and Galen Hall
Now that all 64 players have been chosen, I'll have a drawing party (no red carpet, though) to determine the tournament draw. Each of these matchups was selected randomly, just like they would've been in Las Vegas.
Jennifer Harman versus Doyle Brunson
Patrik Antonius versus Brad Garrett
Bertrand Grospellier versus David Williams
Barry Greenstein versus Gavin Smith
Antonio Esfandiari versus Michael Mizrachi
Phil Laak versus Tom Dwan
Allen Cunningham versus Phil Ivey
Andrew Robl versus Scott Seiver
Joe Hachem versus Marvin Rettenmaier
Martin Staszko versus Chris Moneymaker
David Sands versus Steve O'Dwyer
Daniel Negreanu versus John Juanda
Phil Hellmuth versus Greg Raymer
Joe Cada versus Paul Wasicka
Johnny Chan versus Sam Stein
Eugene Katchalov versus Scotty Nguyen
Faraz Jaka versus Vanessa Selbst
Erik Seidel versus Chris Moorman
Ray Romano versus Annie Duke
Jake Cody versus Dan Kelly
Daniel Cates versus Brian Rast
Shawn Buchanan versus Vanessa Rousso
Ben Lamb versus Caesars Qualifier #2
Pius Heinz versus Elio Fox
Huck Seed versus Matt Glantz
Liv Boeree versus Cheryl Hines
Jason Mercier versus Michael Jordan
Andy Frankenberger versus Phil Galfond
Sam Trickett versus Mike Matusow
Gus Hansen versus Annette Obrestad
Jonathan Duhamel versus Victor Blom
Will Failla versus Ivan Freitez
We'll see who is (hypothetically) crowned the 2012 NBC National Heads-Up Champion in the next article, but in the meantime enter your thoughts below and let me know who you think should emerge with the title.