The fifth edition of NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship kicked off yesterday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, with its typically stacked 64-player field. Along with a few online and live qualifiers, all four previous winners of the tournament showed up for another shot at the $500,000 top prize. 2008 champion Chris Ferguson was the lone defending champ to fall on Day 1, as Phil Hellmuth, Paul Wasicka and Ted Forrest all won their opening matches. Also in the field were poker legends Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, world champions Jamie Gold, Chris Moneymaker, Joe Hachem, Jerry Yang, Greg Raymer, and many others.
The field was broken into four flights, each named after suits of cards. Players competed within their brackets on Day 1, as the first 32 single-elimination matches cut the field in half. The Hearts bracket kicked things off in lightning fashion, as all eight matches in the first bracket were completed in less than ninety minutes.
Allen Cunningham was the first to fall when he was eliminated by Sam Farha. John Phan eliminated Erik Seidel in short order as well, then 2008 runner-up Andy Bloch fell to 2008 WSOP Main Event champion Peter Eastgate when Eastgate's top pair held up against Bloch's flush draw. Eli Elezra busted Johnny Chan in a big preflop confrontation when he called Chan's all-in with pocket sixes. Chan tabled for a coin flip, but the board ran out to send the multiple bracelet winner home in the first round.
After building a big chip lead early in their match, Erick Lindgren vowed to quit poker if he lost to Howard Lederer. Never one to shy away from side action, Lederer stormed back to make the match competitive before eventually falling to Lindgren. Clonie Gowen headed to the rail in Round 1 courtesy of Jerry Yang, and Scott Fischman busted Jamie Gold soon after. David Williams rounded out the Hearts bracket when he busted JC Tran, and that bracket's matchups for Saturday's Round 2 were set:
Eli Elezra v. Erick Lindgren
David Williams v. Scott Fischman
John Phan v. Jerry Yang
Sam Farha v. Peter Eastgate
The Diamonds bracket saw Jonathan Little fall early to Huck Seed, but Layne Flack was the first to book a big loss in the bracket. Flack missed his match and David Oppenheim was selected as a substitute after a driving incident involving Flack in Las Vegas early on Friday. Flack's alternate, David Oppenheim, won his opening round match against Vanessa Selbst.
EPT Monte Carlo champ Glen Chorny busted Chad Brown to lock up his Day 2 spot, and Jen Harman sent Greg "Fossilman" Raymer to the rail. Harman awaited the outcome of the Kenny Tran/Antonio Esfandiari match to determine her next opponent, and when Tran made Esfandiari disappear, he set a date with Harman for Round 2. Gus Hansen finally got the better of David Benyamine in their match, and then Brad Garrett busted Annie Duke in the battle of the network stars.
Duke, who is currently appearing on NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice," never got her game on track against the garrulous Garrett, the long-time costar of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Duke finally moved all in preflop with and Garrett quickly called with . Duke started the hand dominated and failed to improve as the board made a flush for Garrett, who refrained from telling Duke "You're fired" when he sent her to the rail. After Phil Laak finally put away Kenny Yeh in their marathon match, the Diamonds bracket was done, with these matchups for Saturday in store:
Kenny Tran v. Jennifer Harman
Phil Laak v. David Oppenheim
Gus Hansen v. Huck Seed
Glen Chorny v. Brad Garrett
The highly anticipated Clubs bracket was particularly stacked, even in an event so loaded with talent. Jennifer Tilly lost to Phil Ivey, Vanessa Rousso busted Doyle Brunson, and Daniel Negreanu busted Chris Moneymaker in just a few of the high-profile matches. The matchup of Ted Forrest against Orel Hershiser was one many anticipated, as it was Hershiser who busted the former champ last year in the opening round. The tables here, with Forrest topping Hershiser in this one.
Scotty Nguyen added another win to his already impressive 2009 statistics when he busted Hevad Khan in Round 1. Khan open-shoved with pocket nines, Nguyen called with Ac-Jh, and when the board ran out , Nguyen made trips and Khan made the walk to the rail. Paul Wasicka caught lucky to bust Nicholas Joy when he spiked a jack on the turn to catch a bigger two pair, and the former champ headed on to the round of 32. Don Cheadle and Dario Minieri rounded out the clubs bracket when they eliminated David Pham and Mike Matusow, respectively. The Round 2 Clubs bracket pairings:
Don Cheadle v. Paul Wasicka
Phil Ivey v. Vanessa Rousso
Scotty Nguyen v. Ted Forrest
Daniel Negreanu v. Dario Minieri
The fourth and final bracket of the night, the Spades bracket, was the most deliberate of the four. With over thirty minutes of action before the first elimination, the players in the spades bracket seemed content to play small ball until they picked up big hands. When the action opened up, it opened up wide, as several eliminations happened right on top of each other. Joe Hachem was first to fall when his was outflopped by John Juanda's . A couple of deuces on the board were enough to send Hachem packing.
Next, Phil Hellmuth sent Mike Sexton to the rail. The black-clad Hellmuth moved all in preflop with , and Sexton quickly called with pocket queens. The board looked good for Sexton as it ran out , but the on the river sent the Poker Ambassador to the rail courtesy of the Poker Brat. "He deserves to win this one, folks," said Hellmuth, pointing at Sexton. Referring to his own ouster last year by Tom Dwan, Hellmuth added, "Last year against 'durrrr' I said I deserved to win it, but this year it's him."
PokerStars Online qualifier Blandino Gines fell to Team PokerStars Pro Barry Greenstein, and Caesars live qualifier Jeffrey Ishbia made it through to Round 2 at the expense of qualifier Leon Yanovsky. Tom "durrrr" Dwan busted Gavin Griffin, and Chris Ferguson became the only former winner of the event to bust on Day 1. Gabe Kaplan sent Ferguson packing when Kaplan's pocket pair held up against a big draw for Ferguson. As the night wore on, Gavin Smith became one of the last casualties of the day when his A-10 got swept away by a river jack that sent Ilari "Zigmund" Sahamies on to Round 2. When Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier finally sent qualifier Fred Collins packing, the Spades bracket for Day 2 was set:
Gabe Kaplan v. John Juanda
Ilari Sahamies v. Bertrand Grospellier
Jeffrey Ishbia v. Phil Hellmuth
Tom Dwan v. Barry Greenstein
Live coverage on PokerNews continues at 1PM PT on Saturday.