All four previous champions are in the field of 64: Phil Hellmuth (2005), Ted Forrest (2006), Paul Wasicka (2007), and Chris Ferguson (2008). The last six World Series of Poker Main Event champs will be there, too: Chris Moneymaker (2003), Greg Raymer (2004), Joe Hachem (2005), Jamie Gold (2006), Jerry Yang (2007), and Peter Eastgate (2008).
Last’s year’s World Series of Poker Europe Main Event champ, John Juanda, will also be there, but the 2007 WSOPE Main Event winner, Annette Obrestad, will not, as she still isn’t old enough to play legally in an American casino. (She’ll turn 21 this September.)
The celebrities invited include Don Cheadle, Brad Garrett, and Orel Hershiser. Jennifer Tilly and Gabe Kaplan will be there, too, although both of them have some significant poker successes to go with their celeb status.
That’s 16 of the 64. Looking through the rest of the list of those invited, one sees a number of familiar names -- that is, folks who have been there for most if not all of the previous five NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championships. People like Andy Bloch, Chad Brown, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Allen Cunningham, Annie Duke, Sam Farha, Barry Greenstein, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Mike Matusow, Daniel Negreanu, Scotty Nguyen, Huck Seed, Erik Seidel, Mike Sexton, Gavin Smith, and David Williams. Other unsurprising names on the list include David Benyamine, Eli Elezra, Antonio Esfandiari, Scott Fischman, Layne Flack, Clonie Gowen, Phil Laak, Vanessa Rousso, J.C. Tran, and Kenny Tran.
Of the remaining spots, four went to online qualifiers: Fred Collins, Blandino Gines, Nicholas Joy, and Leon Yanovski. And there were two more who qualified through tourneys at Caesars: Jeffrey Ishbia and Kenny Yeh. Ishbia is an attorney and recreational player, while Yeh is a cash game grinder and part-time dealer.
All of which means when most of the participants were announced a couple of weeks ago, there were really only a few names that especially piqued the interest of those of us who follow poker closely. That Ivan Demidov -- third-place finisher at the WSOPE Main Event and runner-up at the WSOP ME -- got the invite makes sense. John Phan, two-bracelet winner at last year’s WSOP and reigning Card Player player of the year, is a good choice, too. Glen Chorny, Gavin Griffin, and Dario Minieri have been invited for the first time. And Jonathan Little and David Pham are back, too. I suppose one could argue there’s a lot that is arbitrary in the selecting of folks, but all of these guys seem deserving enough.
The remaining four participants are the ones I’m most interested in watching, though. Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier and Vanessa Selbst have both well demonstrated their poker prowess, including heads-up play. Grospellier finished runner-up at the WCOOP High Roller Heads-Up event last September, and Selbst has made it to the semifinals of the last two WSOP Heads-Up events. Both are ones to watch, I’d say. Am also interested in seeing how Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies, the high stakes regular and Chat Box Laureate over at Full Tilt Poker, makes out in the event.
Finally, there’s Tom Dwan. His new stardom thanks to the Challenge and the new season of High Stakes Poker might have been enough to get him back on. But his brutal ousting of Hellmuth in the first round of last year’s Heads-Up Championship probably guaranteed his return more than anything.
It was just the third hand of the match. Players started with 20,000 chips, and after two hands Dwan had just a tiny chip advantage. Hellmuth limped in (for 150) from the button/small blind with , and Dwan promptly raised to 1,100 with . Hellmuth reraised to 3,600, and Dwan took about 20 seconds or so before announcing he was all in. Hellmuth quickly called. The flop came , but the turn brought the , giving Dwan the set. Hellmuth could still make a flush (or spike an ace), but the turn was the and he was out.
Here’s the pair’s entire match, including Hellmuth’s postgame blubbering:
There has been some interesting chatter on 2+2 lately about that hand, including one thread in which Daniel Negreanu jumps in to say why he thinks Dwan made a pretty obvious misplay there against Hellmuth.
Says Negreanu, “The call with 10-10, that early in the match, against this ONE specific opponent -- was a MISTAKE. Not marginally so, but clearly, a major error because Durr was the favorite in the match the longer it went, and the 10-10 were simply NOT ahead of PH’s range in that situation. There is NO WAY PH was going to look stupid, on TELEVISION, that early in the match against a player he clearly felt he could trap with the best hand. Durr could have robbed him silly with little risk, virtually never calling a PH bet and won easily.”
Dwan went on to lose to Mike Matusow in the second round. Will be very interesting to see how Dwan approaches this year’s tourney, regardless of whom he faces. First prize is $500,000 -- not bad, but not such a plum compared to Dwan’s other ventures, it seems.
From what I understand, the structures remain poor for this tournament. Still has the potential to produce some interesting stories, though, so I’ll be following.
(EDIT [added 12 noon, 3/3/09]: For a discussion of some of those not invited to the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, see Shaniac’s post from today.]