Editor's note: Thanks to my co-workers and ESPN.com columnists Gary Wise and Bernard Lee, Lance Bradley (Bluff), Paul McGuire (Tao of Poker), Chops Preiss (WickedChopsPoker) and Dan Michalski (Pokerati) for all their help with this column.
If anything has been ingrained into my head since the inception of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, it's that the event that airs on NBC each year is not a battle between the best 64 players in the world. Instead, it's a invitational with a mix of pros, celebrities and online qualifiers who hope to win a poker "major" (I use that term lightly, but semi-seriously) and make good TV.
I must applaud the selection committee for finally announcing guidelines for automatic bids this year, but until it reaches the poker fan's dream of having the best of the best and only the best of the best this tournament will never be perfect.
The event takes place on March 6-8 and at this point, nobody can change the field, but in an effort to make our dreams a little closer to reality, I asked some of the most knowledgeable industry insiders to join me on this venture to give their perspective (and we challenge you to do the same in the comments section).
Who should be the No. 1 seeds? Who should've been the player just left out of the field? We bring you poker's version of bracketology, and analyze and defend our results below. This tournament is poker's version of March Madness, in which No. 1 seeds rarely make the Final Four.
National Heads-Up Championship Player Rankings
Here's what we had to say after all rankings had been submitted:
Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com
• Who got it right? Chops. I think that our thoughts are pretty similar when it comes to this tournament.
• What was ____ thinking? What was Dan thinking? Negreanu, Wasicka, Greenstein all in the late 30's? Not sure about that.
• I was wrong Doyle shouldn't be as low as I ranked him, but I still feel that there are others that deserved the higher rankings. Maybe I could've been a little nicer on Dario as well.
• I was right Come on, people! David Pham almost exclusively played heads-up matches online.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament Where's Vivek Rajkumar? Not sure what it takes to earn a bid if Vivek doesn't get the nod. How about Adam "Roothlus" Levy? Of course Phil Galfond as well.
• I can't believe ____ is in the tournament Layne Flack? Really?
• Final thoughts It would've been nice if Michael Phelps was playing this year (as WickedChopsPoker reported that he would), but I guess we'll deal with the field that we have. My rankings are based on previous performances, recent play and a general need to shine in the spotlight on national TV.
Gary Wise, ESPN.com
• Who got it right? Lance Bradley.
• What was ____ thinking? What was Pauly thinking?
• I was wrong I probably should've ranked Mike Matusow a little higher. This tournament is all about exposure and that's the kind of incentive that makes him shine. This hasn't been his best tournament, but I could see him scoring a few more wins than I credited him for.
• I was right I was shocked to see David Benyamine ranked No. 3 on not one, but two ballots. Unlike Matusow, he doesn't care for the spotlight, and these stakes are a little beneath him. I just don't see that kind of run coming from him.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament There are few omissions that I'd kvetch about, but Phil Galfond not making the grade is ludicrous. Online poker isn't some amateurish level to the live game, and its stars shouldn't be shunned as such. Galfond is in the argument for best online player and he took home an $800,000-plus WSOP win this year, proving he could dominate against live opponents. It's tough to call this a championship without his inclusion.
• I can't believe ____ is in the tournament Erik Seidel is obviously a legendary poker player and I'd never slight his inclusion into any club, but with a lifetime record of 0-4 at Heads-Up, I'm pretty shocked that my ranking him 50th was 16 spots lower than the next-lowest ranking.
• Final thoughts My rankings are based on a combination of success in this and other past heads-up events, overall skill and the importance each player would place on succeeding here. I have guys like Seed rated higher than most because their records in the tournament have been incredibly strong. If this were the 2005 edition, I probably wouldn't have them that high but if we were gambling at even odds, I think this is the order I'd take assorted players at going into this event (Queue the wave of last-longer bet offers). One note: I penalized a lot of the Big Game players because they're accustomed to stakes that often dwarf these ones. I like a guy like Antonio Esfandiari bringing his A-game over Benyamine bringing his "Can we go play real poker now?" approach to the tournament.
Bernard Lee, ESPN.com
• Who got it right? Based on math, Andrew, Chops, Gary and I swap 3/4 depending on formula, Lance, then Pauly and Michalski bring up rear.
Used two formulas, based on using absolute difference of your ranking and average (for one) or composite ranking
• What was ____ thinking? Pauly: Sahamies No. 1; Minieri No. 10. Michalski: Gowen No. 15
• I was wrong I should have ranked Eastgate and Demidov lower. I originally had them in the 17-20 range. I could have maybe had Dwan slightly higher, but he won only one match last year
• I was right
Cunningham should not be ranked fifth -- he has never gotten out of the second round. Benyamine should not be ranked 11th. He finished in the fourth round last year, but not good in any appearance before that.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament Michael Binger (7th in Card Player's POY, second Bluff),
Vivek Rajkumar (Won the LAPC Heads-up and WPT title), Kathy Liebert (If Vanessa Rousso and Clonie Gowen, why not her?), Patrick Antonius, Men Nguyen, Phil Galfond (only player Dwan will not play heads-up)
• I can't believe ____ is in the tournament Ilari Sahamies, Layne Flack, Brad Garrett,
Jennifer Tilly, Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, Eli Elezra.
• Final thoughts John Phan at No. 6 -- he is the reigning 2008 Player of the Year and recently won two bracelets and a WPT title. Cunningham at No. 24 -- he has never gotten out of the second round. For the most part, I used their past records in NBC as a gauge.
Lance Bradley, Bluff
• Who got it right? I really like Lee's picks. They don't necessarily match mine, but I can see why he picked his team the way he did. The only two picks of his I don't agree with are Demidov and Eastgate in the top 10. His top 20 might be the most accurate picks of anyone in the group.
• What was ____ thinking? Michalski. Kenny Tran at 37? He didn't buy the WSOP heads-up bracelet at a pawn shop on Fremont. Seed is another guy with a solid track record in heads-up events yet Michalski has him at 36. And a former champ, Wasicka, at 39. But he has Brunson, who has written lately that he's a little tired and is showing signs of not being into the tournament scene anymore, is No. 5. Somebody's Texas loyalties may have blinded him during this process.
• I was wrong Gavin Smith. I had him ranked 33rd, but he did have a deep run in '07 and most others had him higher. He's not top-10 material, but he should probably be in the top half of the field.
• I was right Sahamies is a worse pick. I've got him at 55th. He's a cash-game junkie and plays the nosebleeds. These stakes might be a little bit beneath him, and he's much more of a wild man than the previous winners of this event. The Bellagio is across the street and his laptop connection to the big games online is probably not far away -- both physically and mentally.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament Michael Binger. He was the runner-up to John Phan for BLUFF Player of the Year last year and currently sits fifth in the ESPN/BLUFF Power rankings. Given how well math guys (see Ferguson, Chris and Bloch, Andy) do in this tournament, it's a shame that Binger isn't here. If only he were a member of Team Full Tilt.
• I can't believe ____ is in the tournament Layne Flack. He cashed in the 2007 WSOP heads-up event and that's his only heads-up cash. Last summer he won himself another bracelet, but I just think there's a few people who could have taken his seat and given us a better showing (Vivek Rajkumar or Binger). Let's hope he and Scotty Nguyen draw each other in the first round and we watch the Michelobs fly.
• Final thoughts Obviously previous performance in this event is one factor that I used to determine the rankings. But without a seeded system, it's tough to put players in any real order since it's just as likely that Chris Ferguson, the obvious No. 1 seed (right, Pauly?), could draw an online .Net qualifier in the first round as he could Andy Bloch or Phil Ivey. I guess the randomness of the matchups can add to the drama, but I wouldn't watch Ferguson play Yanovski in the first round - would you?
Paul McGuire, Tao of Poker
• Defending "Ziggy": Illari "Ziigmund" Sahamies was my No. 1 pick because the kid is plain nuts. He's from Finland, but I doubt that he's actually human. He acts like an alien. Unlike most Fins and pros from that part of Northern Europe, he's not stoic and quiet. In fact, he's the opposite and very demonstrative. He loves to trash-talk, which fits in for American TV. He has no fear and is willing to go bust at any moment, and he has several times. The ultra-aggressive adopted Scandinavian (Fins are technically not Scandinavians but Finland is considered a Nordic country) routinely plays some of the highest stakes online. Yes, he's my No. 1 pick, which means he'll get bounced in the first round.
• I can't believe that ... Vivek Rajkumar did not get an invite! The kid won the Borgata WPT event in September and the heads-up event at the LAPC.
• Final thoughts: I see that we're all in consensus that Jerry Yang gets no respect in this event. Because we all picked him so low, he's destined to make the Final Four.
Chops Priess, Wicked Chops Poker
• Who got it right? Feldman. We're close enough (or spot on) with enough picks that I actually think he's way smarter now than I did before.
• What was ____ thinking? What was Gary Wise thinking? This isn't related to his bracket; just in general, what is that guy thinking?
• Who got it wrong? Pauly. I get what Pauly was thinking and don't think he's necessarily "wrong," but I just have a different take on it. He weighed the online superstars heavier, and I think playing heads-up live, under the lights, while not multi-tabling is a different game for Dwan and Ziigmund.
• I was wrong I will admit no wrongdoing until proven otherwise.
• I was right See above.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament Patrik Antonius. There's got to be a reason not related to the selection process as to why he's not in there, but whatever it is, you figure out a way to get Patrik Antonius there.
• Final thoughts My rankings are based on (1) past success in the event (except for Ivey),
(2) past success in heads-up tournaments in general (except for Ivey), (3) success playing heads-up online, (4) ability/experience in handling "the big stage" and (5) who's running hot right now.
Dan Michalski, Pokerati
• Who got it right? I can't pick myself? But everybody else's picks are wack! Fine, I'll go with Bernard. His picks are different enough from mine that maybe he actually knows something.
• What was ____ thinking? Pauly: Hellmuth No. 27? Wise: Scotty Nguyen No. 43 and Dario No. 27? How does that work? ESPN: Putting all the unknown qualifiers at the bottom? You don't think that at least one of those random players who actually had to win his or her way into the tournament isn't better than some of the invitees and won't have the advantage of being a total unknown to everyone else in the field?
• I was wrong I ranked Kenny Tran way too low. He's actually my pick to win it all.
• I was right Orel Hershiser can't be in the 50s when he made the final eight last year. If you are going to dismiss that finish, then why not dismiss Chris Ferguson's wins? With that said, I think both these players will go out in the first two rounds.
• I can't believe ____ is not in the tournament Vivek Rajkumar. Everyone wants to see what this guy is all about. And Todd Brunson. Isn't he in everything?
• I can't believe ____ is in the tournament Huck Seed. What has he done for me lately? [Editor's note: Seed has cashed the past four years of this event.]
• Final thoughts Recent performance counts most. Experience in bad-blind-structure, TV-camera events counts. Why did I rank Clonie so high? I think she has won more "Poker after Dark" events than anyone else. She's clearly playing really well of late -- having won two big-field events. You can't win stuff without playing heads-up. Oh, and she's got some incentive to beat her former Full Tilt cronies.