The first episode of the 2009 National Heads-up Poker Championship aired Sunday on NBC and it had an eclectic mix of poker stars and notable players from other venues.
The Championship is run in a bracket style with 64 players starting out and playing single elimination heads-up matches through six rounds until a winner is crowned. In a format akin to the NCAA college basketball tournament, the players are separated into four separate brackets (named after the four card suits).
Among the 16 playing in the so-called Clubs bracket, were legends such as Doyle Brunson and Scotty Nguyen, multiple WSOP bracelet winner Phil Ivey, and 2006 Heads- up Champion Ted Forrest, as well as more recreational players such as actor Don Cheadle and baseball Hall-of-Famer Orel Hershiser.
Unlike March Madness, there is no precise formula for how someone wrangles an invitation to this dance.
Still, it was hard to argue with the caliber of the players at the tables. Table one had Paul Wasicka against Nicolas Joy. Table two pitted Cheadle against David "The Dragon" Pham. Bracelet winner Jennifer Tilly took on Ivey, while Mike "The Mouth" Matusow had the diminutive Dario Minieri to contend with.
Hershiser challenged Forrest, while Brunson was face to face with the lovely Vanessa Rousso. Table seven had Hevad Khan against Scotty Nguyen and the feature table had Daniel "Kid Poker" Negreanu going up against the man who virtually started the poker craze, Chris Moneymaker.
Not surprisingly, the feature table was a chatty one as Negreanu uses his conversational skills to get a read on his opponent, while trying to confuse and unsettle them. So it seemed almost unfair he should start the match with A-J to Moneymaker's K-9.
Moneymaker made a standard pre-flop raise and Negreanu just called. He hit his jack on the flop and picked up two hearts to go along with his ace of hearts. It went check-check, as Negreanu slow played his top pair, top kicker.
The turn was the nine of hearts which was bad for Moneymaker. He hit a pair, and with Negreanu checking the flop, he had to figure his nines were good. Plus, the third heart on the board gave Moneymaker a draw to the second best flush. This time Negreanu led out with a bet, and Moneymaker called.
The queen of diamonds on the river changed nothing. Negreanu bet, then did something that should come with a "don’t try this at home" warning. Negreanu told Moneymaker, "I'm going to do something once. I don't do this very often." Then he flipped over one of his hole cards, the ace of hearts.
While this move is strictly forbidden in most casinos, apparently it is allowed for this tournament. And Negreanu decided to take advantage of the rule at the outset.
Negreanu kept talking, telling Moneymaker he probably had put Negreanu on that card anyway, so he might as well show it. Obviously, he was hinting that he was betting out with just a heart draw and an ace high. He told his opponent his goal was to "block a raise." Laughing, he suggested to Moneymaker, "if you raise me it's insane."
What appeared insane, at least to this observer, was Moneymaker then flashed one of his cards—the king of hearts. Then, to move this hand further out of the realm of reality, he showed his nine as well. Now the action was still on Moneymaker and Negreanu actually fake-wiped his brow after seeing the nine. It was all too strange.
Moneymaker ultimately made the call, losing a good chunk of his starting stack in a hand that was 90 percent psychological and 10 percent the cards.
And that was just the first hand.
At another table, Brunson had made a move, pushing all in on a J-A-K of hearts flop, holding J-10 for bottom pair and not much else. Much to his disappointment, the blond, Duke-educated Rousso had 10-9 of hearts for the flush, and a gut-shot straight-flush draw for good measure. Brunson needed running cards to make a full house or he was gone. But the nine on the turn ended Brunson’s day early.
Back at the feature table, Moneymaker made a solid bet on both the flop and turn of an ace-high board when he was behind Negreanu (both holding kings for second pair, but Negreanu having the better kickers), getting him to lay down the better hand. Moneymaker had a three-to-one chip advantage.
But with the chip lead in their heads-up match, Moneymaker made two bad moves.
First, holding A-6, he called Negreanu’s all in after pairing his six on the turn of a 10-2-J board. Negreanu had way over-bet the pot and it looked like a bluff, so Moneymaker made a “crying call.” But Negreanu had top pair, holding J-8 and it held up, doubling up Negreanu and giving him the advantage in chips.
Then, the next hand Negreanu raised with pocket nines and Moneymaker re-raised. Negreanu, possibly thinking Moneymaker was “on tilt” from the last hand, re-reraised enough to put Moneymaker all in. He called and turned over A-K, giving Negreanu a slight advantage.
Negreanu hit a set of nines on the flop of 4-9-Q. Moneymaker got a glimmer of hope with the jack on the turn, but the river bricked, and Negreanu was moving on to round two.
Check back for more results of the first bracket.