Professional poker players are checking their mailboxes now that NBC has officially begun the invitation process for NBC's 4th Annual National Heads-Up Poker Championship. The first twenty invitations for the 64-player event have been issued, starting the now-traditional discussion and debate about who's in and who's out of the coveted and popular event.
It came as no surprise that the "first twenty" was replete with WSOP Championship winners, including Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Chris Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen, Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang. Former National Heads-Up champs Ted Forrest (2006) and Paul Wasicka (2007) were also represented in the first group of invitations. Five-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Ivey made the early list of invitees along with fellow WSOP bracelet holders Jennifer Harman, Barry Greenstein, Mike Matusow, Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, and Antonio Esfandiari.
WPT winners Erick Lindgren, Gavin Smith, and Jonathan "Fiery Justice" Little also made it into the first group. This is the first NBC Heads-Up invite for Little and along with the inclusion of online heads-up specialist Brian "sbrugby" Townsend, may represent NBC's growing awareness of the skill and popularity of online players. Actress Shannon Elizabeth also made it into the first twenty. Last year Elizabeth was one of the more controversial picks, but her advance to the semifinals made her selection more likely this year.
While NBC has done an admirable job of selecting among poker's top talent for its event, they have also shown some deference toward industry and celebrity players, creating opportunities for discussion among poker fans. Although experienced players, past invitations to LA Lakers owner Jerry Buss, actor James Woods, Celine Dion's manager/husband Rene Angelil and Las Vegas attorney David Chesnoff each drew fire as being somewhat controversial selections.
There are no guarantees for the next round of invitees, but it would be hard to imagine NBC would "shuffle up and deal" without its 2005 Heads-Up champ, former WSOP Champion and eleven-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth. The short list of other likely invitational candidates includes Daniel Negreanu, Huck Seed, TJ Cloutier, Erik Seidel and Carlos Mortensen, each of whom have made the invitation cut every year since the event's inception. It also remains to be seen whether NBC will give the nod to 2007 WSOP Heads-Up Champion Dan "rekrul" Schreiber. Although a relative newcomer to the B&M world, the young Schreiber's bracelet has obvious relevance and he has made a name for himself in the online poker and gaming space.
The 2008 National Heads-Up Poker Championship will take place Feb. 29th - Mar. 2nd at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and will begin airing on NBC in April.