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Top-10 facts, figures and predictions for the 2010 NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship

1 March 2010

By Gary Trask

The madness typically attributed to the month of March will get an early start this weekend when the cards go in the air for the sixth annual NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship.

The event – which pits 64 players against each other in an NCAA tournament bracket style – has become one of the more popular events on the poker calendar each year. And thanks to the attendance of the biggest and most popular poker pros in the game, each year we are guaranteed to see some delicious match-ups.

The tournament draw will take place at PURE Nightclub at Caesars Palace on Thursday night with the first-round getting underway on Friday. The best-of-three heads-up finale will take place on Sunday and then all the action will be broadcast on NBC over the course of six weeks, beginning April 18.

But before you start thinking about filling out your 2010 Heads-Up office-pool bracket, take a close look at this week's Top-10. We've gone back and broken down the results of the first five editions of the Heads-Up event and have come up with some interesting facts and figures, which helped us come up with a couple of well-thought out predictions.

I will be in Las Vegas this week to cover this year's Heads-Up Championship, so be sure to stay tuned for more stories from Caesars Palace and check out my Twitter page for more updates from the event.

10. Seidel has been silenced
With eight WSOP bracelets and $10 million in career earnings, Erik Seidel is easily one of the most accomplished players in the history of poker. But, remarkably, the one thing the future Hall of Famer does not have on his resume is a single NBC Heads-Up victory.

Jennifer_tilly

Is a Jennifer Tilly-Erik Seidel first-round match in the cards at this year's NBC Heads-Up Championship? (photo by Gary Trask/Casino City)

Seidel has played in all five of the events and is 0-for-5, an amazing stat for such a talented player. If the people that run the event have any sense of humor, they should pit Seidel against Jennifer Tilly in the first round on Friday since Ms. Phil Laak is the only other player in this year's field that has never won an opening match (she's 0-for-4). At least that way, somebody could walk away with a Heads-Up victory.

9. First-round studs
Speaking of Laak, the "Unabomber" is one of nine players in this year's field that has never lost a first-round match. And of those players with perfect opening-round records, Laak, Barry Greenstein and Huck Seed are the only ones who have played in all five events, meaning they are 5-0 in Day 1 matches.

The other players who have yet to get bounced in the first round are Vanessa Rousso and Gabe Kaplan, who are both 3-0, and Tom Dwan and 2007 WSOP Main Event champ Jerry Yang, who have each won their first-round matches the last two years. Peter Eastgate and Dario Minieri both won their first-round match last year in their rookie appearances and both were eliminated in the second round.

8. Notable names have struggled
Seidel isn't the only big-name player to endure his share of problems in the NBC Heads-Up tournament. Main Event champs Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Scott Nguyen, Chris Moneymaker and Joe Hachem have combined to go 10-23 (30%). Moneymaker comes into this year's event having lost five straight matches since winning his first-round match over Eli Elezra in 2005 and Nguyen lost the first four matches he played in Heads-Up competition before finally snapping the string by making it to the third round last year, before being eliminated by Daniel Negreanu.

Also, the brother-sister combination of Howard Lederer and Annie Duke has gone a combined 2-10 in the event with equally poor 1-5 records. And 2005 WSOP Player of the Year Allen Cunningham is just 2-4 in four Heads-Up appearances while Elezra comes into this weekend with a 2-5 mark.

Heck, even the almighty Phil Ivey is only 5-5 in his Heads-Up career, but be warned that he is 5-2 in his last seven matches –- thanks to a run to the Final Four in 2008. According to SkyBet, Ivey is the odds-on favorite – along with defending champ Huck Seed – to win the title this year at 10-to-1.

7. Defending Main Event champs have faltered
Each year the defending Main Event champion comes into the NBC Heads-Up event with much fanfare. Unfortunately for those players, they haven't been able to do too much damage. Since the tournament's inception in 2005, the man wearing the Main Event bracelet from the year before has never lost a first-round match and never made it out of the second round. We will be watching closely to see if Joe Cada breaks either of these strings.

johnny_chan

Johnny Chan is one of the many big names that has struggled at the NBC Heads-Up Championship. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

6. Impressive rookie class
Cada, by the way, is part of a very interesting group of players that will be making its debut at the NBC Heads-Up event this year. And Cada isn't the lone rookie who has a Main Event title to his (or her) name since 2007 WSOP Europe champ Annette Obrestad will be in the field this year for the first time since turning 21 in September of 2009.

Also leading the list of intriguing Heads-Up rookies is last year's WSOP Main Event runner-up, Darvin Moon. The New Orleans Saints fan said dozens of times before his heads-up showdown with Cada at the final table last year that he had only played one-on-one poker a couple of times in his career because back in Maryland they typically chop the pot when a tournament gets down to two players. But Moon more than held his own against Cada, who is known as a heads-up specialist, and actually took the chip lead before a couple of crucial mistakes did him in. It would be just like Moon to come into this weekend saying he hasn't played heads-up poker since that sit down with Cada in November.

Other rookies to keep an eye on this weekend include 2008 third-place Main Event finisher Dennis Phillips, 2009 two-time WSOP bracelet winners Jesper Hougaard, Brock Parker and Greg Mueller, 2009 Bluff Player of the Year Jason Mercier, and Kara Scott, the always-stunning poker TV host who was one of the last women standing at last year's Main Event in Las Vegas.

5. Watch out for celebrities
Each year, the NBC Heads-Up field always includes a handful of players who are known more for their exploits away from the poker table. But do yourself a favor when filling out your bracket this year and don't sleep on these so-called "poker celebrities" because -- save for Tilly -- they have done their fair share of damage.

In 2007, Shannon Elizabeth made it all the way to the Final Four and on her way she ousted players like Jeff Madsen, Barry Greenstein and Humberto Brenes. Unfortunately, Elizabeth isn't in the field this year, but there are a couple of other celebs with impressive Heads-Up resumes who will be playing this week.

We already mentioned Kaplan's success in the first-round, but what we didn't mention is that those three opening-round wins came over the likes of Todd Brunson, Patrik Antonius and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, one of the most accomplished Heads-Up players (more on that later) as well as the 2000 WSOP Main Event champ. And no matter how Don Cheadle fares for the rest of his life at the Heads-Up event, he can always hang his hat on the fact that he beat Phil Ivey in the first round back in 2007.

And Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser has made it a yearly tradition to have players he eliminates sign a baseball for him and so far the signatures he has acquired through his play at the Heads-Up include Ted Forrest, Allen Cunningham and Freddy Deeb.

4. Esfandiari has lost his "magic"
Antonio Esfandiari is one of 21 players in this year's Heads-Up field that has played this tournament every year. But since making a run to the semifinals in the inaugural 2005 event where he was bounced by eventual champ Phil Hellmuth, "The Magician" has lost his touch.

In fact, that loss to Hellmuth was the start of a five-match losing streak for Esfandiari, who has been eliminated in the first round every year since. But it says here that Esfandiari not only snaps that streak this year, but makes a deep run into the bracket.

vanessa_rousso

Vanessa Rousso has built a very strong resume at the NBC Heads-Up Championship during the last three years, including a runner-up finish in 2009. (photo by Joe Giron)

3. Vanessa Rousso is the Heads-Up Queen
Everyone remembers Rousso's surprising run to the finals of the Heads-Up event last year where she was swept 2-0 by Huck Seed in the best-of-three match. But what people may not recall is the quality of opponents Lady Maverick ran over on her way to the finals. In reaching last year's final, Rousso – who also became a GoDaddy Girl before last year's event – eliminated Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, 2007 Heads-Up champ Wasicka, Negreanu and Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier. That's the kind of "strength of schedule" that would have the men who make the RPI ratings for the NCAA basketball tournament drooling.

But it wasn't just last year that Rousso had success at the Heads-Up event. As mentioned above, she has never lost an opening round match in three appearances and overall her record is 7-3. In addition to her notable victories from last year, Rousso also has wins over Esfandiari and Erick Lindgren to her name while her only three losses have come against big names like Seed, Greenstein and Andy Bloch. Suffice it to say, Rousso will be as battle-tested as they come when the action unfolds this weekend.

2. Jesus and Seed are the Heads-Up Kings
Huck Seed and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson will forever be known as former WSOP Main Event champions, but the two players are also etching out quite an illustrious history at the Heads-Up event. Simply put, the records these two players have put up over the last five years are downright staggering.

"Jesus" is the 2008 champ, but also has made the final two on two other occasions (2005 when he lost to Hellmuth and 2006 when he lost to Ted Forrest). Overall, Ferguson has won 80% of his matches (16-4) and is the second betting choice at SkyBet for this year's event at 12-to-1, behind Ivey and Seed at 10-1. The only major hiccup Ferguson has had at the event came last year when Kaplan upset him in the first-round.

Seed, meanwhile, won last year's event in what marked his third Final Four appearance. In his Heads-Up career, Seed is 17-4 (81%) making him and Ferguson a combined 33-8 (80%). They are also the only two players with multiple Final Four appearances to their name.

1. Players to watch in 2010
Since the actual bracket with match-ups won't be released until late Thursday night at the annual Draw Party at Caesars Palace, we'll wait until Friday morning to make our official selections. Until then, here are three players we think will make some noise when the cards go in the air on Friday:

  • Tom Dwan – 16-to-1 at SkyBet: "Durrr" was our pick to win last year's Heads-Up event and he fell short when he lost to a revenge-minded Phil Hellmuth in the third round. We'll jump on Dwan's bandwagon again this year and hope for better results.

  • Barry Greenstein – 40-to-1 at SkyBet: Barry is one of the 21 players to compete in every Heads-Up event and he has never lost a first-round match. His overall record is a solid 9-5, but he's only made it past the second round once. This is the year we think Greenstein cashes a ticket to the Final Four and maybe even takes down the title.

  • Peter Eastgate – 40-to-1 at SkyBet: One thing the past winners of the Heads-Up event have in common is that they all have at least a Top 5 finish in the WSOP Main Event. Hellmuth, Seed, Ferguson, of course, each have a Main Event bracelet to their name while 2007 champ Paul Wasicka was the Main Event runner-up in 2006 and Ted Forrest, who won the 2006 Heads-Up title, was the fifth-place finisher at that same 2006 Main Event. With that in mind, we'll ride Peter Eastgate, a heads-up specialist who was very good to us and our bankroll back in 2008 when we picked him to win the 2008 WSOP Main Event.
Top-10 facts, figures and predictions for the 2010 NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Gary Trask
Gary is an expert on all things gambling. The Boston native has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years, including a few at Casino City and was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's Media Committee.

No Limit Hold'em tournaments are a favorite of Gary's, but he also enjoys a night of dealer's choice with a variety of games like Seven-Card No Peek, Guts or Five-Card Draw with a qualifier. In addition to playing cards, another of Gary's interests is golf, a game that allows his two favorite hobbies to collide quite naturally.

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