When you really think about it, the concept behind NBC's Head-Up Poker Championship is brilliant, because like any high-profile profession, the egos and pride that the top players in the sport possess are enormous. So when you put 64 of the best and most flamboyant personalities in a head-to-head setting in front of a TV audience with $1.5 million at stake, you are guaranteeing yourself some entertaining fireworks. (For proof, take look at the Top-10 moments from the Heads-Up Championship we put together last week).
As usual, this year's event – which takes place this weekend at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas -- is loaded with captivating subplots and engaging characters. Unfortunately, the TV audience won't be able to see any of the clashes until the six consecutive Sundays in April and May that the event will be broadcast on NBC. But this weekend when the actual tournament unfolds, there are 10 players we won't be able to take our eyes off. Here they are, along with their career-record in the Heads-Up event:
10. Doyle Brunson (3-3)
Let's face it, Texas Dolly isn't getting any younger. So anytime a player of Doyle's stature is involved in a high-profile event it makes for a great story if he can make a deep run. Every year at the World Series of Poker word spreads quickly the longer he lasts in a tournament because most people involved in the game would love to see him win one last bracelet and in the process tie Phil Hellmuth for the all-time lead with 11. The same goes for the Heads-Up Championship. Put it this way: NBC certainly wouldn't mind seeing Doyle make a legit bid for the title. It would be great for ratings.
9. Clonie Gowen (1-2)
We'll be watching Clonie this weekend, and not just because of her looks. In case you haven't heard, back in November Gowen filed a $40-million lawsuit against Full Tilt Poker claiming a breach of contract. But the lawsuit alone is not what makes her appearance in the Heads-Up Championship so juicy. It's the fact that in the lawsuit she named 13 of her fellow well-known Full Tilt poker pros. And guess what? Eleven of those pros that Clonie called out (Howard Lederer, Andrew Bloch, Phillip Ivey, Christopher Ferguson, John Juanda, Erick Lindgren, Erik Seidel, Jennifer Harman, Michael Matusow, Allen Cunningham, Gus Hansen) just so happen to be in the field this weekend, meaning there's about a 20% chance that she will be sitting across the table from one of them when first-round play gets underway. This, my friends, epitomizes the definition of "Must See TV."
8. Gabe Kaplan (2-2)
"Mr. Kotter" is a player to watch this week because he's the celebrity that we're betting will last the longest. There's no rhyme or reason to this pick. He just happens to be the celeb in the field that we're the biggest fan of. And besides, Kaplan was a real poker player long before it was "cool" to play the game.
Speaking of Kaplan, if you're a child of the 1970s or 1980s, you simply have to spend the next 10 minutes of your life watching this video. This is classic stuff:
7. Hevad Khan (first time in the event)
Khan is a late-entry into the field. He will replace WSOP Main Event runner-up Ivan Demidov, who had visa problems and couldn't get out of Russia. While the new Hevad Khan isn't the same as the crazy Hevad Khan from a few years ago, he's still a very talented player and he comes into this tournament running hot. Since cashing at the WSOP Main Event in July, he won the Caesars Palace Classic in October and the $1,850 No Limit Event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in January. He also placed 19th at the L.A. Poker Classic a few weeks ago. No, he won't be as entertaining as he was in the video from the 2007 Main Event below, but he'll be a threat to go very deep into the bracket.
6. Peter Eastgate (first time in event)
After coming out of nowhere to win the WSOP Main Event last year, Eastgate will have the proverbial bulls eye on his back from here on out wherever he plays a tournament. But as anyone who watched this talented Danish pro work his magic last summer and more specifically in November during the final table, Eastgate's triumph at the WSOP was no fluke.
His recent online struggles notwithstanding, Eastgate is a tremendous player who thrives on being aggressive and putting the pressure on his opponents, specifically in heads-up play, which, of course, makes him a dangerous player in this event.
5. Phil Hellmuth (6-2)
First of all, anytime the Poker Brat is playing, we're sitting up and paying attention because you never know what he's going to do or say. To see one of Hellmuth's classic meltdowns in person is just one of those things everybody should see at least once. But Hellmuth (shown at left) is even more of a player to watch this year than usual because since winning the inaugural title in 2005, he has been bounced in the first round in both 2006 and 2008. And that loss last year was especially painful since he suffered a severe bad beat with pocket aces against online nemesis Tom "Durrr" Dwan after just three hands. Hellmuth has been quoted as saying that "winning another NBC Heads-Up Championship will tell the world what kind of player I am in when it comes to Texas Hold'em." Simply put, Phil Hellmuth with a larger-than-usual chip on his shoulder is the kind of thing we don't want to miss.
4. Scotty Nguyen (1-4)
Like Hellmuth, you never know what you're going to get when it comes to Scotty Nguyen. He's one of the most recognizable players in the game and if he gets hot he's a threat to win this event, despite his limited success here in the past. In addition, it wouldn't be out of character for Scotty to show up drunk, which always makes for good TV.
3. Phil Ivey (4-4)
As reported last week here at Casino City, Mr. Ivey had a fairly decent night playing online poker last week, to the tune of $1.1 million in one session. Surprisingly, up until last year, Ivey has not had a lot of success in the Heads-Up event. After getting bounced from the first round in the first three years by the likes of David Sklansky, Chad Brown and Don Cheadle (yes, Don Cheadle!), Ivey made a sprint to the final four last year before being eliminated by eventual champ Chris Ferguson. There's no doubt that he comes into this year's event playing well. It will be interesting to see if he can ride the momentum.
2. Chris Ferguson (16-3)
"Jesus" is the most-accomplished player in the history of the Heads-Up Championship. He's got the most all-time wins and he's made the finals three times, including last year when he was crowned champion. The most impressive thing about Ferguson's resume in the event is the caliber of players he has defeated in those 16 wins.
For sure, he hasn't exactly beat up on the amateur qualifiers or overmatched celebrities that typically flood the field. Cyndy Violette, Gus Hansen, Mike Sexton, T.J. Cloutier, Freddy Deeb, Chip Reese, Huck Seed, Johnny Juanda, Gavin Smith, Mike Matusow, Phil Ivey and Andy Bloch are just a few of the players he has beaten in this event. Can "Jesus" do it again year? We're not sure, but we'll certainly be keeping our eyes on him.
1. Tom Dwan (1-1)
In his first appearance at the Heads-Up event last year, Dwan (shown at left) knocked off Phil Hellmuth after just three hands when he hit a set of 10s on the turn after Hellmuth pushed him all in while holding pocket aces. Dwan was sent packing in the next round by Mike Matusow, but he got his feet wet in the event last year and now we see him winning the 2009 title. There's no question Dwan is one of the top online players in the world. But it was his bankroll that Phil Ivey hit the hardest last week during his $1.1-million night. Here, we predict Dwan gets some sweet revenge, as on his way to winning the championship he knocks off Ivey in the late rounds.
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