Analyzing the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship List
Let me start by saying that in no way, shape or form is the list of the 64 entrants for the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship the best 64 players in the world. If they were the best players, we'd most likely be looking at a list that was a mirror image of the top 64 players on the Global Poker Index, seeing as how that list seems to be the most accurate way to rank players.
In 2011, ESPN's Andrew Feldman wrote, "This event doesn't feature the 64 best players in the world. It is a made-for-TV event that features names and faces that the general public recognizes, some deserving players who earned their spots based on automatic entry and celebrities who enjoy the game and could potentially move the needle."
Fabricated. That's what this list is, and that's the word everyone needs to keep in mind because, in the end, this field is made for television. That's not all bad, though, because many players in the top 64 on the GPI simply wouldn't be good TV grabs. Remember, TV poker needs to be fun.
It's also important to keep in mind that several players received invitations for the event but declined them. Often, media and fans are quick to criticize this list and acknowledge which players they felt were snubbed and which players on the list they were surprised to see. Because we aren't given complete information in regard to who was asked and who declined, we're dealing with partial information here (you know, that thing poker is entirely based upon). Two reasons many declined this year are timing and because the NBC event clashes with the kickoff of the marquee events at the 2013 Aussie Millions.
One source told PokerNews, "[The selection process is] not as easy as you think — there's lot of players with money problems, others don't like heads up, others don't like their EV, others are playing Aussie Millions, others didn't want to travel after PCA. Bottom line, it's a made-for-TV event that will never get the true top 64 players [in the world]."
The source also mentions that this event was very close to not even happening. "Understand this, the event wasn't even going to happen, then the NHL strike went on long and NBC needed some programming as they had a lot of hours to fill. They agreed to bring it back."
As PokerNews' Kristy Arnett put it: "It's great to have this amazing event back on the track. Poker on television has really taken a hit since Black Friday, and this will serve as a great reminder that poker isn't going anywhere. It's fun, going mainstream, and it's here to stay."
After I reviewed the list with some of my colleagues and searched social media, it's time to get down to business.
Who got snubbed?
With the official list for the event limited to 64 players, every year it's inevitable that there will be snubs. Because this is a made-for-TV production, when thinking about who got snubbed, one must look at the combination of the player's accomplishments and the entertainment factor he or she provides. If this were only a prestigious poker tournament set to pit the top 64 players in the world against each other, two things would happen. First, the event would most likely have a boring structure that is phenomenally player-friendly. Second, the matches wouldn't be entertaining because the most colorful figures in poker are certainly not all in the top 64 in the world, and, probably, 95 percent of viewers would be asleep by the third blind level.
When combining combining the two factors deemed most important to make the cut in this event, Tony G would be at the top of my list for snubs, but wait just one second. Tony G was invited but declined the invitation because he is in Australia for the Aussie Millions, so we can't call him a snub. Other notables who were invited but have made clear they have declined the invitation are Vanessa Selbst, Joe Hachem, Jesse Sylvia and Sam Trickett. Each of these four will be joining Tony G at the Aussie Millions.
The first great character who comes to mind as not being on the list is World Series of Poker commentator Norman Chad. To the best of my knowledge, Chad was snubbed, but I wouldn't doubt it if he were invited and declined. We all know $25,000 is a lot of money for a measly poker commentator and second anchor to Lon McEachern.
Jason Alexander is someone else who seems to have been snubbed this year. We all know he has never been the most skilled player in the field, but he certainly knows how to entertain. Festivus anyone?
Although I'd consider Chad and Alexander to have great star power and entertainment value, nothing would top having Michael Phelps play. Like Chad and Alexander, it's unclear for sure whether Phelps was invited and declined, but a source close to Phelps said he was interested but had conflicts with other appearances. It's hard being the greatest Olympian of all time, but we'd sure love to have him in the poker spotlight more and helping to promote the game.
Guy Laliberté is another nonprofessional I'd deem highly valuable to this event. I'm sure there is some way Laliberté would love to tie in his One Drop Foundation to the mix, doing something useful for the charity itself. PokerNews Senior Editor Chad Holloway said: "The man did a great thing this summer with the Big One for One Drop. The least they could have done is give him a little more exposure through the NBC Heads-Up." I agree.
And speaking of bazillionaires who love poker, you've got Bill Perkins and David Einhorn. Both played in the Big One for One Drop at the 2012 WSOP, and both would be great for this TV in their own right. Perkins is a super fun-loving guy who's outgoing, colorful and creates action when he plays. Sure, he does a lot of unconventional stuff, but if you've ever seen him in an episode of The Big Game, you'd understand why this guy is so good for televised poker. Einhorn famously donated all his winnings to charity from the One Drop event — and he's known to do this. NBC could take this story and run with it because Einhorn would surely do this again and because he doesn't need the cash.
Furthermore, it's no secret that nonprofessional players like Laliberté, Perkins and Einhorn have other high priorities in their lives, like their businesses and making real money. With the NBC event being televised and a rather quick structure, it's an event fit for them.
Enough about "entertainers" who got snubbed. Let's get down to players who should be on the list (or received an invite) simply because they are great players and have some amazing recent accomplishments.
Marvin Rettenmaier — If you're going to have Dan Smith, how do you not have Rettenmaier? The two were trading blow for blow all year in 2012, and many player-of-the-year races came down to the wire with these two. It would be a great story if they matched up again. In 2012, Rettenmaier had over $2.5 million in earnings including two World Poker Tour wins, a European Poker Tour High Roller win, and another big side-event win.
David "Doc" Sands — Sands has a streak of three years running with over $1 million in live tournament earnings and is coming off a big 2012 by starting 2013 with a bang, placing second in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure $100,000 Super High Roller.
Sands took to Twitter to voice his complaint about not being invited, so he's already said his piece. On his behalf, PokerNews' Mickey Doft commented: "The complaints that Sands is too boring for TV are absurd. Sure, he takes awhile before every decision, but several people on the list also take their time before they act and don't have made-for-TV personalities. Not to mention, his recent results are better than almost everybody that is participating."
David "ODB" Baker — This is the first of the two big Bakers in poker, and it's a shame neither is on the list. Baker had nearly $900,000 in live earnings in 2012 and was seventh in WSOP Player of the Year race. Furthermore, Baker won his first bracelet last year, made four WSOP final tables, and cashed nine times.
David "Bakes" Baker — "Bakes" won his second WSOP bracelet in 2012 and is widely considered one of the best young players in the game. I'll let my colleague Brett Collson sum up the thoughts on both Bakers.
"You'd think at least one David Baker would make the list," writes Collson. "But both being left off? Whoops!"
Philipp Gruissem — This guy is the high roller on the tournament circuit. Gruissem has over $1.7 million in live earnings in 2012 and should be a fixture in any event with a buy-in of $10,000 or more. He's hilarious on the felt and would surely talk it up for the cameras. "He also speaks better English than most poker players," mentioned my colleague Rich Ryan. "So don't worry that he's German."
Mike Watson — Watson is another player coming off an amazing year, with over $2 million in earnings. Of note, Watson won the inaugural €50,000 Majestic Roller at the WSOP Europe for €1 million and placed third in EPT Barcelona €50,000 Super High Roller for €399,500. Over the past year, Watson has been quite the live-tournament wizard.
Elisabeth Hille — If you're going to have Gaelle Baumann on the list, why not Hille, as well? What differentiates the two? I don't agree that either got picked, but if you're going to have one, you need to have the other.
Johnny Chan — I'm envisioning the chat went a bit like this:
Chan: "Do you know how big Rounders was?" NBC: "Sorry, John. We don't remember."
Patrik Antonius — Now, granted that Antonius rarely speaks and basically sits there like a robot, he's widely considered as one of the best heads-up players in the world, if not the best. His face is well-recognized by fans, and all the ladies will be gawking at how gorgeous the guy is. I understand he isn't all that into tournaments, but still he seems to do quite well when he decides to play. In 2012 alone, he banked just shy of $2 million in live winnings.
Other notable players whom we can argue as belonging on the list of 64 include Chris Klodnicki, Steve O'Dwyer, John Juanda, Dan Shak, Tom Marchese, Ilari Sahamies and Tony Dunst.
Looking at the list, one might realize that lack of some top European players, some of whom are mentioned above. From the same source as above, "International players get snubbed because this is purely on U.S. television and [the show] needs mostly English-speaking, recognizable names." Now, I can understand that reason, but poker is a worldwide game.
Who are the biggest surprises on this list?
With so many players having an argument to get on the list, who would get knocked off? Let's start with John Hennigan. Since recording his first cash in 1997, do you know how many years Hennigan has earned over $500,000? One — and that was in 2007. Since then, he's never eclipsed the $320,000 mark. Normally in this case, one would be making the argument for his entertainment value on television, but you can't even make that case here, and I don't think many in the common poker fan base even know who he is.
Jennifer Tilly is back on the list, but this list is for 2013, not 2009. John Monnette is pretty unknown to people outside the heart of the poker industry, and he has a tendency to come off as an angry man at the table; hence, his nickname, "Angry John." It would be a fairly easy argument to make for any of the people mentioned above as snubs to take the places of Tilly and Monnette.
Kyle Julius appears on the list for the first year, but I'm not sure I like this pick either. Yes, I understand Julius had a breakout year with over $2.3 million in earnings, but he didn't actually win anything. Also, he's not a face the fans recognize.
As the days of the WSOP Main Event wore on, Rob Salaburu became more and more of a polarizing figure — you either hated or loved him. He stood out with his personality, and maybe that earned him to a spot, but when it came time to shine on the biggest stage at the final table, he seemed to crawl into a shell and not perform. From that final table, three who would have been better selections are Jake Balsiger, Russell Thomas and Jeremy Ausmus — and they all finished in the top five.
Mike Matusow is another surprising selection. In the past, he's proven that he is great for television, but he's since quieted down a bit and shed his reputation as "The Mouth" on tour. Ryan commented: "Mike Matusow is great for television, but he's a bad representative for the industry because he's rumored to be out of money. While in Prague, I asked a player why he wouldn't play Matusow in open face via the phone application. 'I don't like getting freerolled,' the player responded. 'I only play people who will pay.'"
Ryan went on to add: "With the Erick Lindgren fiasco on full display right now, I don't think Matusow should've been selected."
Dan Cates, Mohsin Charania, Justin Smith, Carlos Mortensen, Joe Serock and Yevgeniy Timoshenko are six more names I'd argue shouldn't be on the list over many of the snubbed players mentioned above. "Joe Serock is a fantastic player, but I don't think I've ever seen him engage another person at the poker table," commented Ryan, and it's the same for most of this group.
It could also be argued that Huck Seed, who won the event in 2009, could be bumped from the list this year.
In previous years, many members of the list of 64 for this event have earned their way via automatic entries. This year, the producers told PokerNews that such a formula was no longer being used. Knowing that can further strengthen the argument against why many players were selected.
All in all, there are always going to be issues raised with made-for-TV events, but these events are a necessary evil for the industry, as far as the diehard poker fan is concerned. Without having these special events with questionable fields, poker wouldn't grow. It's always hard to narrow a big poker event such as this one down to just 64, but someone's got to do it, and I'm happy it's not on me.