There's something just right about this column. No, it's probably not my opinions below -- we all know that -- but it's the fact that this column is back after a Black Friday-related hiatus.
After the indictments that rocked the poker world, the 2012 edition of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship was canceled. While Bernard Lee tried to bring the event back to life, there was something missing from the poker world last year.
Except for the major void of online poker in the United States, the poker industry is back on track, and from Thursday to Saturday, 64 of the world's most popular and/or talented players will take to the felt at Caesars Palace once again. Each will put up $25,000 to play, and one will emerge into the public's eye as a deserving champion.
"This event doesn't feature the 64 best players in the world. It is a made-for-TV event that features names and faces that the general public recognizes, some deserving players who earned their spots based on automatic entry and celebrities who enjoy the game and could potentially move the needle."
Automatic entries weren't part of the 2013 selection process, or not clearly defined as in past years, but in any case, I believe the selection committee put together a group of players that will make this event one of the best yet. There are many new faces among the 64, including 2012 WSOP main event champion Greg Merson, 2012 EPT Grand Final champion Mohsin Charania, 2012 WPT Player of the Year Joe Serock, Joe Cheong, Shaun Deeb (who discusses his bid on the latest Poker Edge) and Viktor Blom, and only a few players on the entire list I could argue shouldn't be part of the festivities.
All that said, there are definitely some notable omissions.
Before I list the snubs, there's one major factor to remember: Players can decline the invite. There are many pros, including the dominant Vanessa Selbst, who have opted to head to the Aussie Millions instead of playing in the NHUPC. I will not list any player who I know has declined an invitation. The names below aren't the only players who failed to lock up their seat in Vegas, but they are the ones who stick out most in my mind. Remember, the goal of this event is to put on a good show and build interest in the game.
David Sands: Since the invite list was announced, Sands has been the most-discussed player when it comes to this topic. First, the résumé: $4.2 million in live tournament earnings, with millions more coming from his online play where he got his start. He finished 30th in the 2011 WSOP main event, second at the 2012 LAPC main event, fourth at the $10,000 Festa Al Lago main event in October and second in the $100,000 Super High Roller at PCA earlier this month. On the social side, he has a strong Twitter following of 19,792 and is about as vocal in the industry as it gets.
But here's the challenge with inviting Sands. He is so good at keeping himself in a robotic nature to limit tells -- let's just say he isn't the quickest to act or most talkative on the felt. That said, his on-the-felt nature shouldn't have been the deciding factor. The reason why this is a major snub is that the world got to know Sands extremely well during his WSOP run and the storyline with his fiancée, Erika Moutinho. The casual poker fan will watch the WSOP, WPT and NHUPC, and the Sands/Moutinho storyline is not one they'll forget. Sands would be recognized a whole lot more than a lot of other invited players.
(Before I finished posting this column, Sands received his invite and will replace Daniel Negreanu. While he came in as an alternate, he was still snubbed from the initial list.)
Tom Marchese: I'll admit this first: It's a snub that Marchese isn't on ESPN's The Nuts right now. While Marchese made his name known after an incredible campaign in 2010, his 2012 was equally impressive. The New Jersey native scored five major titles, including wins in the $100,000 WPT Super High Roller in May, twin victories at the Bellagio in October and another six-figure score in December at the $25,000 Five Diamond. Over the past three years, Marchese has matched Sands with $4.2 million but has probably had less TV time despite finding his way onto ESPN during his NAPT win and numerous WPT final tables.
Marchese played in the event in 2011, losing in the first round to Phil Gordon. Considering the producers of the event have a strong say in the participants, perhaps Marchese didn't shine during his first performance? Regardless, if this were solely a group of skill-based invitations, Marchese would have been a sure thing.
Editor's note: Marchese received his invite to the tournament hours before the draw party.
Shawn Buchanan: I had to double check that Buchanan was left off the list a few times. 2012 was Buchanan's third consecutive year of more than $1 million in live tournament earnings, and through three weeks into 2013, he has already earned $89,960 after an 11th-place finish in the $25,000 High Roller at PCA. After making a run at the 2011 WSOP Player of the Year title, Buchanan had four more WSOP cashes in 2012, plus he score a victory in the $10,000 PCA six-max event and a runner-up finish to Ravi Raghavan in the Five Diamond main event. Add to his 2012 live success a WCOOP final table and SCOOP victory and you have one strong argument for his inclusion.
Buchanan has been under the WPT final table lights four times since 2007 and made the ESPN-broadcasted WSOPE final table in 2011. He doesn't have a strong social following, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be recognized more times than not by those who have watched poker on TV over the past decade.
Scotty Nguyen/Sammy Farha: Here's where I might lose some support. It's surprised me that neither of these players received an invite for this event. Both are icons of the industry that even non-poker fans may recognize. When it comes to entertainment, both have done their part to seize and embrace the spotlight. If the point of the event is to attract eyeballs, a deep run for either of these two would have done the trick.
Nguyen earned $242,321 on the live felt last year, which primarily came from a second-place finish in Event 24 of the 2012 WSOP. Nguyen's most recent impact on the poker-viewing public came in 2009 when he made two WPT final tables, but when it comes to Nguyen, I firmly believe recent results shouldn't matter. Trust me, there are others on the invite list who fall into this exact same category. He has $11 million in tournament earnings throughout his career and should get an automatic bid as a legend of the game (see: Brunson, Doyle). If Heads-Up success were among the criteria for invitation, Nguyen made the final four in 2010.
As much as Chris Moneymaker has been immortalized with his 2003 victory, Farha, despite the loss, falls into the same boat. While the remark is that nobody ever remembers second place, that one tournament is the exception. Farha, who spends his time primarily on the cash game felt, remains a star to those who fell in love with the game during the boom. Farha has cashed twice in the event with a top result of a semifinal finish in 2009. The presence of the three-time WSOP bracelet winner will be missed this weekend.
David Baker: Before you ask which one, I'm saying both could be considered snubs. The "Original" David Baker does nothing but quietly rack up significant cashes. "ODB" had nine WSOP cashes in 2012, including four final tables, a 56th-place finish in the main event and one bracelet victory. He can play up the talkative role when he needs to and has no problem playing in front of the cameras. "Bakes" scored his second WSOP victory in 2012 as part of his four-cash WSOP run. He has earned $2.3 million on the tournament felt and has already cashed three times in 2013. Both Bakers are masters of all games, and both would have been valuable additions to an already tough field.
Chris Klodnicki: With more than $4 million in live tournament earnings, Klodnicki should have found his way into this event over the years. Klodnicki's 2012 tournament campaign included a runner-up finish in the WSOP's $50,000 Players Championship and a victory at the Sands Bethlehem Deepstack Extravaganza. He has found success online and on the live felt since the boom began and is probably considered one of the best without a bracelet. I would have hoped he was considered by the committee for a spot in this event.
Others I considered adding to the list: Timothy Adams, Steve O'Dwyer, Dwyte Pilgrim/Chris Tryba (both wouldn't stop talking, even after the matches are over), Brandon Cantu/Jon Aguiar (only if a first-round match was predetermined, followed by the winner facing Phil Hellmuth), Amanda Musumeci, Brian Rast and Greg Mueller. There is truly a ton of talent in the poker world, and I'm sure if the field were expanded to 128 I'd find some deserving players left out even then.
Snubs aside, I'm looking forward to an exciting few days and happy to have this event back as part of the poker calendar. The drawing party will take place Wednesday night, and the bracket and updates will be posted on ESPN.com throughout the event.