Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Heads-Up on the NBC Heads-Up

Most readers of this blog probably have been hearing about the rebooting of the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship happening this week. After running from 2005-2011, Black Friday came along to turn the lights out on poker for a while, and the NHUPC went dark during 2012. But poker’s prospects are brightening here in 2013, and the event is returning.

As before, 64 players will compete in a “March Madness”-style series of heads-up matches. The names of the competing players were announced last Friday (save the one WSOP.com qualifier), and a draw party will be happening tomorrow at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to determine the brackets.

The event will play out this Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 24-26. A $25,000 entry fee is being put up for each participant (either by the player or his or her sponsor). In the past, the entry fee was $20,000, with the prize pool then topped off further to total $1.5 million. Those who won two matches to make the final 16 were guaranteed $25,000, those losing in the quarters got $75,000, the semifinalist losers each earned $125,000, the runner-up took $250,000, and the winner made $500,000.*

Here is a list of who’ll be competing:

As was the case in previous years, the announcement of the list of invitees inspired a lot of conversation about who was chosen and who was left out. Donnie Peters posted a comprehensive breakdown on PokerNews over the weekend addressing all of the “snubs” and further commenting on the selections.

Like happens with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every spring, such debates regarding the NHUPC are inevitable. And of course with poker there’s always that additional layer of discussion focusing on marketing the game and players being more or less “good for television.” As if ranking players isn’t hard enough, that additional issue regarding entertaining audiences and representing poker in the mainstream gets evoked as well to complicate further the conversation.

It’s all fairly diverting, though, and I think most agree that getting poker back on a major network represents a positive development for all. (The matches will begin airing in March.)

When I heard about the selections, I thought back to the criteria that had been previously employed for choosing players. If you recall, it was a pretty involved list that changed from year to year but usually included the previous five champions, the previous two runners-up, anyone who had cashed four consecutive years in the NHUPC, the previous three WSOP Main Event champions, and so on. The WPT Player of the Year, the EPT Grand Final winner, the BLUFF magazine POY, and others who’d achieved recent, significant poker successes were usually invited, too.

It appears that with the one-year hiatus these criteria for selecting players were probably jettisoned or at least modified considerably. For example, of the last five NHUPC champions -- Paul Wasicka (2007), Chris Ferguson (2008), Huck Seed (2009), Annie Duke (2010), and Erik Seidel (2011) -- only Seed and Seidel will be among the 64 this time.

We don’t necessarily know if Ferguson and Duke were invited or not, but I would think given both players’ current status in the poker community, it’s quite likely they were not. In fact, other than noticing a few of the more conspicuous omissions Donnie discusses in his article, the non-appearance of these two names in the list probably stood out the most for me as I first perused it.

While I know some would like the NHUPC to aspire to be more like the NCAA tourney and feature poker’s elite players and ultimately a worthy “champion,” the event obviously cannot ever realize such a goal. Even with ultra-rigorous vetting and/or selection criteria in place, the process will necessarily be imperfect. And to be honest I think it is better that there be no pretense to following some sort of quasi-objective criteria for selecting players.

(*EDIT [added 1/25/13]: Payouts for this year’s NHUPC are following a different schedule, with a total prize pool of $1.65 million: 1st, $750,000; 2nd, $300,000; 3rd-4th, $100,000; 5th-8th, $50,000; 9th-16th, $25,000. In other words, winning three matches only wins one his or her money back, and just $50,000 has been added to the entry fees.)

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