The annual NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship is unlike any other tournament on the calendar. Put the game's brightest stars, a few that are fading, and a handful of celebrities in a heads-up turbo sit-n-go in Las Vegas, throw in television cameras, and add a healthy dose of prop betting and you get three days full of bad beats and bracket busters with some poker thrown in. With the buy-in up to $25,000 this year, there is serious money on the line, but all 64 of the entrants are there to enjoy the experience and the exposure. Even Phil Hellmuth didn't pout much when he was eliminated.
Day 1 featured four brackets of 16 players each. Fan favorites Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu failed to advance, while Tom Dwan, Doyle Brunson, Chris Moneymaker, and Patrik Antonius all earned spots in the Round of 32. It was a bad day for the actor/poker player. Jason Alexander, Don Cheadle, and Jennifer Tilly were all eliminated. Emmitt Smith carried the celebrities, upsetting David Williams. With both satellite qualifiers out, Smith is the only amateur poker player remaining.
The long day began with the Diamonds Bracket's eight pairings. One of the toughest match-ups of the day, Erik Seidel versus Allen Cunningham, could have been a battle to the death. Instead, it was over almost as soon as they sat down. Seidel, last year's runner up, flopped two pair and held against Cunningham's straight and flush draws to take the first spot in the round of 32. Mike Matusow and Greg Raymer kicked things off on the feature table, where Raymer efficiently silenced the Mouth. Peter Eastgate dispatched fellow WSOP Main Event winner Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, who reached the finals in three of the NBC Heads-Up Championship's previous six years. Vanessa Selbst abused Eli Elezra, and Phil "OMGClayAiken" Galfond ran over Joe Hachem.
Huck Seed has the best record in the NBC event, cashing in five of the previous six years. But this year, Seed couldn't get passed Jennifer Harman in Round 1. Phil Gordon joined Harman in ruining brackets when he upset Thomas "Kingsofcards" Marchese. Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier and satellite qualifier Justin Young were still trading chips long after the rest of the Diamonds matches had wrapped. Finally Grospellier picked up kings and put the final nail in Young's coffin.
The Clubs Bracket was up next with some of the day's liveliest (certainly liv-liest) matches. Scotty Nguyen arrived late and left early. The Prince of Poker made it to the semi-finals in 2010, but this year he only lasted a few hands against Barry Greenstein. Annette Obrestad was out almost as quickly when her flush draw bricked against reigning WSOP Heads-Up Champ Ayaz Mahmood's trip aces. In an entertaining feature-table duel, Liv Boeree bested actor Jason Alexander, but not before trading plenty of television-ready witticisms. A few feet away, Olivier "LivB" Busquet outlasted Dwyte Pilgrim, setting up Day 2's battle of the Liv Bs.
Also in the Clubs Bracket, Jason Mercier defeated 2006 Heads-Up winner Ted Forrest. Antonio Esfandiari worked some runner-runner wheel magic to delight the crowd and roll past EPT Grand Final winner Nicolas Chouity. After a slow start, current Champion of the World, Jonathan Duhamel, made quads, flopped a flush, and spiked a set to wear out tenacious qualifier Melvin Whitmire. While they were battling, Andy Bloch and John Juanda were hard at work saying "all in." Finally Bloch won two in a row to move on and make way for a new group.
In the Hearts Bracket, Michael "the Grinder" Mizrachi quickly eliminated 2009 runner-up Vanessa Rousso. Phil Laak beat Daniel Negreanu's queens, then flopped a set against his top pair to bring the feature table match to a swift conclusion. WSOPE Main Event winner James Bord took out WSOP Player of the Year Frank Kassela with little fanfare. Kara Scott was slated to play David "Viffer" Peat, but at the last minute found herself falling to Andrew Robl instead. Gavin Smith treated the afternoon like a party and was already well into the celebration by the time he beat Gus Hansen. David Benyamine busted an unusually quiet Phil Hellmuth, leaving two Hearts matches still going.
It took Tom Dwan several attempts to eliminate actor Don Cheadle, but he eventually got the job done. David Williams showed up sporting an Emmitt Smith jersey. Smith was kind enough to sign it after repeatedly sucking out on Williams to the raucous cheering of his entourage and the groans of many a prop bettor.
The Spades Bracket brought up the rear, and the deck saved its cruelest coolers for last. Faraz Jaka flopped top and bottom pair and called all in before everyone had settled in their seats. Unfortunately for the WPT Player of the Year, his opponent, Eugene Katchalov, had flopped middle set to end the day's shortest match. Moments later, Phil Ivey found himself all in with an eight on a flop. But Daniel "Jungleman12" Cates showed up with an unbeatable to give his frequent online foe a live smack down. The coolers continued when Dennis Phillips hit top set and crippled Erick Lindgren, who had flopped two pair. Lindgren fought back for awhile but to no avail.
Late lineup additions Sam Trickett and Carlos Mortensen are both known for running well, so their beats were particularly devious. Trickett was poised to end the match with a flopped straight against the Matador's two pair, but Mortensen filled up on the river to stay alive. The best hand never won a showdown, and finally, Mortensen rivered Trickett to the rail. Eric "basebaldy" Baldwin succumbed to David Oppenheim, and Patrik Antonius out-flipped Sorel Mizzi. John Racener and Chris Moneymaker stuck to small ball until Racener's top pair collided with Moneymaker's flopped straight. And finally, on the feature table, Doyle Brunson brought the curtain down on Jennifer Tilly.
After a long Round 1, players in the Diamonds and Clubs Brackets will return to Caesars in Las Vegas for Round 2 at 1:00 p.m. PST on Saturday. By Sunday morning, we'll be down to just eight.
Here are the Round 2 match-ups.
Bertrand Grospellier v. Phil Galfond
Vanessa Selbst v. Peter Eastgate
Jennifer Harman v. Erik Seidel
Greg Raymer v. Phil Gordon
Olivier Busquet v. Liv Boeree
Jason Mercier v. Andy Bloch
Barry Greenstein v. Ayaz Mahmood
Jonathan Duhamel v. Antonio Esfandiari
Andrew Robl v. Emmitt Smith
Gavin Smith v. James Bord
Phil Laak v. Michael Mizrachi
Tom Dwan v. David Benyamine
Doyle Brunson v. Dennis Phillips
Daniel Cates v. Chris Moneymaker
Carlos Mortensen v. David Oppenheim
Patrik Antonius v. Eugene Katchalov