LAS VEGAS - In poker, greatness is established over time. Most old-school poker pros will tell you they don’t consider anybody to be great without at least a decade of evidence. Certainly, one three-day tournament proves very little about true, enduring greatness.
But what about six separate three-day tournaments? Maybe the history of NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship isn’t lengthy enough to tell us who’s truly great, but the tournament has at least been around long enough that it provides us with some reasonable suggestions of who’s good at heads-up freezeouts and who isn’t. We’ve now seen 163 different players compete in 378 NHUPC matches, and though we haven’t learned who the greatest heads-up player of the era is, we’ve gotten some reasonable hints.
Or at the very least, we’ve accumulated enough information to have some fun analyzing it.
So as we prepare for the seventh annual NHUPC taking place this weekend, we’ve compiled this intensive breakdown that puts the first six years of the popular single-elimination tournament in perspective. The centerpiece is a ranking of the 10 most successful players in the event’s history (first criterion: most wins; second criterion: fewest losses), and surrounding that are other bests, worsts, stats, and oddities that have emerged after six years of NBC-televised one-on-one action.
1. Huck Seed (18-5)
Seed is clearly the king of the NHUPC, with the most wins and the most cashes (five). He won the tournament once (2009) and reached the semifinals two other times, and of the five years he didn’t win the event, he’s lost to either the eventual winner or runner-up in four of them. And nobody has ever put on a clinic in the best-two-of-three finals like Seed did against Vanessa Rousso in ’09. To play all six years of the NHUPC and boast a winning percentage of 78.2, with all the variance involved in these accelerated matches (Phil Gordon once estimated that a top pro is only about a 60-40 favorite to defeat a quality amateur), is remarkable.
2. Chris Ferguson (17-5)
What is it about tall, skinny, expressionless guys that makes them so hard to beat at the NHUPC? Through the first four years, “Jesus” looked like the master of this event, with two runner-up finishes and then a championship in ’08. But he’s cooled off since, losing to Gabe Kaplan in the first round in ’09 and to Dennis Phillips in the second round in ’10 (after beating an online qualifier in round one). Still, a 16-3 record through the first four tourneys is ridiculous. His success is a testament to how hard it is to outplay a guy who never makes a mathematical mistake and is virtually unreadable.
3. Ted Forrest (11-5)
Forrest was in that discussion for the number-one spot after the first three years of the NHUPC, with one title (in ’06) and three cashes. But the wheels have come off a bit since, with first-round losses to retired baseball player Orel Hershiser in ’08 and amateur qualifier Stephen Quinn in ’10. (At least Forrest got his revenge on Hershiser in ’09.) Still, the fearless Forrest’s run from ’05-’07 was spectacular, especially his march to the championship. He beat the likes of Erik Seidel and Sammy Farha along the way, then outdueled Ferguson in the best-of-three finals.
4. Barry Greenstein (11-6)
How’s this for a sensational stat? Greenstein is a perfect 6-0 in NHUPC first-round matches. (The only other players who come close are Scott Fischman at 5-0 and Gabe Kaplan and T.J. Cloutier at 4-0.) Unfortunately, Greenstein has never managed to make a serious run at the title. Twice he’s lost in the second round, three times he’s made the money and then lost in the third round, and once he got to the quarterfinals. Because he’s never reached the semis, placing “The Bear” fourth on this list might feel a little high, but for early-round success and consistency, nobody else compares.
5. Paul Wasicka (10-3)
Wasicka is the only player among the top 10 who wasn’t really on the scene when the NHUPC debuted, so he missed its first two years—and very nearly missed the third as well. Wasicka was a last-minute sub in ’07 (eight months after he gained fame with a second-place finish in the WSOP Main Event), won the entire tournament, and has gone on to cash twice more since then. And if not for one of the worst beats in the history of the tournament against eventual champ Annie Duke, he probably would have done a lot more than just cash last year.
6. Phil Hellmuth (10-4)
Nobody has given us more memorable moments in defeat at the NHUPC than “The Poker Brat,” but Hellmuth has also done his fair share of winning at NBC’s Heads-Up tournament. He captured the championship in the inaugural event in 2005, mowing down a tough list of opponents that included the top two guys on this list, Seed and Ferguson. And Hellmuth reached the quarterfinals in ’09, along the way getting his revenge on Tom Dwan for an infamous ’08 suckout. Sure, it’s been famine the years when he hasn’t feasted; two first-round exits, one second-round loss. But the good far outweighs the bad and lands Hellmuth just outside the top five.
7. Scott Fischman (10-5)
Fischman is the poor man’s Greenstein, enjoying spectacular early-rounds results (5-0 in first-round matches, 4-1 in second round matches) but struggling mightily after that, losing four times in the round of 16 and once in the quarterfinals. And because he’s become almost invisible on the pro tour the last couple of years, Fischman was easy for the tournament organizers to leave off the invite list in 2010. Still, Fischman is one of only two players (the other being Seed) to cash in each of the first four years at the NHUPC, and his numbers—twice as many wins as losses—speak for themselves.
8. T.J. Cloutier (9-4)
Clearly, Cloutier isn’t the superstar now that he was at the beginning of the poker boom. And that’s why after just one NHUPC in which he didn’t cash (’08), he stopped getting invited to the dance. But you can’t deny the man’s credentials, with a semifinal appearance in ’05 followed by cashes in ’06 and ’07. Even in his final NHUPC in ’08 he made it to the second round, which means if he never plays this tournament again, he’ll retire with a perfect first-round record.
9. Sam Farha (9-6)
While the win-loss stats for Farha are solid, what really stands out about his NHUPC tenure is all the classic matches he’s been involved in. His 2006 loss to Ted Forrest, which featured 13 all-in-and-call sweats before it was over, is still the longest match ever played at the event. And year after year, Farha keeps finding himself in close, tough matches that last until the maximum blind level has been reached. Oh, and his results aren’t bad either, with one semifinal run and one quarterfinal finish.
10. Andy Bloch (8-4)
Like Wasicka, math wiz Bloch got a late start in the NHUPC, missing the first two years before earning his first invite in ’07. He made up for lost time though, posting eight wins in his first two tries. Bloch reached the quarterfinals in ’07, then ran all the way to the finals in ’08, besting Seed in the semis before falling to old friend Ferguson in the championship match. Two first-round exits have followed, so whether Bloch will continue to receive the invite in the future is anyone’s guess. But at the very least, thanks to two outstanding years, Bloch and his snakeskin cowboy hat crack the all-time NHUPC top 10.
OTHER STATS, TRENDS & NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS
The Champ Who Didn’t Make It: Annie Duke
With a 7-5 overall record, 2010 champion Duke just barely missed the cut for the top 10. That 1-5 hole she dug for herself from ’05-’09 was just a little too steep to climb out of all at once.
The Power Couple: Chad Brown & Vanessa Rousso
Husband and wife team Brown and Rousso boast a combined record of 13-8 in the NHUPC, and each has made an appearance in the finals. Brown lost to Wasicka in the ’07 championship match, while Rousso fell to Seed in the finals in ’09.
Best Winning Percentage: Dennis Phillips
He’s only played in one NHUPC, but by reaching the semifinals and going 4-1 last year, Phillips technically has the best success rate in the history of the event (80 percent, about two percentage points ahead of Seed).
The Ultimate Proof Of Variance: Phil Ivey
Nobody disputes that Ivey is the best poker player in the world, but somehow he’s only 6-6 at the NHUPC, including a loss to actor Don Cheadle! Ivey’s middle-of-the-pack stats prove that six years isn’t quite a large enough sample size to make any sweeping conclusions.
The Worst Record In NHUPC History: Jennifer Tilly
The Oscar-nominated actress has played every year since 2006 and made a first-round exit each time, bringing her career mark to 0-5, just a notch below Todd Brunson’s 0-4.
The Most Shockingly Unsuccessful Player: Patrik Antonius
Antonius may be one of the very best heads-up cash game players on the planet, but the NHUPC numbers tell a different story, as the aggressive Fin is 0-3 so far. The internet forum devotees nearly had a collective seizure when he lost to Chris Moneymaker last year.
The “Six Tries, No Cashes” Club: Howard Lederer & Johnny Chan
Lederer is a dismal 1-6 at the NHUPC (though it should be noted his sister started 1-5 before turning it around), and Chan is a more respectable 3-6 but has never put two wins together in a single year.
The Sophomore (And Beyond) Slump: Antonio Esfandiari
“The Magician” has done the reverse Annie Duke. He reached the semifinals the first year, but hasn’t won a match since and now holds a 4-6 record. That makes him the only player in NHUPC history to lose six consecutive matches.
Celebrities As A Group: 16-27
By “celebrities,” we mean any non-pro poker player who’s famous for something else, so that includes the likes of Gabe Kaplan and Jennifer Tilly. On the whole, they’ve won 37 percent of their matches, with Kaplan (5-4) and Shannon Elizabeth (4-2) boasting the only winning records.
Qualifiers As A Group: 5-23
Every year, a handful of unknowns get into the NHUPC by qualifying online or live at Caesars Palace, and it’s mind-boggling how poorly they’ve done. Ernie Durack is the only qualifier ever to cash (he reached the third round in ’06), and overall, they’ve won less than 18 percent of the time.
Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of ALL IN Magazine.