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Top-10 moments in NBC Heads Up Poker Championship history

10 December 2012

I've watched a lot of televised poker over the last 10 years, and at this point there are only three poker programs that my DVR is set to record: The World Series of Poker, High Stakes Poker and the NBC Heads Up Poker Championship. Unfortunately for my poker viewing, two of the three programs have been on hiatus as they lacked sponsors after Black Friday. (My wife, however, does not think this is unfortunate, as there is now ample room on the DVR to record Army Wives, Top Chef and Downton Abbey.)

Last week, however, the poker community celebrated the news that the Heads Up Poker Championship will be returning to the airwaves next year. While the lineup could change substantially, as a number of formerly sponsored pros may now find themselves without a sponsor for the event, it will still be appointment viewing for me and thousands of other poker fans.

And for good reason. Over seven tournaments, the Heads Up Poker Championship has yielded some great matches and amazing television. Here are the top-10 moments from the first seven Heads Up Poker Championships.

10. Negreanu calls for a straight flush
Facing Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss in the first round of the 2005 event, Daniel Negreanu moved all-in preflop with queen-jack, only to be called by Jerry Buss with ace-10. Nothing too exciting about that, right? While Buss is a favorite, Negreanu should expect to win this matchup more than 40 percent of the time. But the fact that he calls the exact turn and river cards is much more remarkable. The odds of that happening? A mere 1,980:1.

9. Orel Hershiser makes quarterfinals
Part of the charm of the Heads Up Poker Championship is that it features a great mix of pros and amateurs. While the amateurs usually don't advance too far, there have been a few who have made a run at the championship. One year after an amateur made the semifinals (more on that later), former MLB pitcher Orel Hershiser made it to the quarterfinals in 2008, beating Allen Cunningham and Freddy Deeb before falling to Andy Bloch.

8. Moneymaker and Seidel duel in the final
Two players who have done more for tournament poker than almost anyone else faced off for the championship the last time the tournament was held, in 2011. While Erik Seidel's loss to Johnny Chan in the 1988 Main Event was made famous in the film Rounders, Chris Moneymaker’s win in the 2003 Main Event ushered in the poker boom. Seidel ended up winning this battle as part of a run of wins in high-roller events, and later that year was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Needless to say, 2011 was a good year for him.

7. Obrestad sucks out on Hellmuth
What makes this hand classic isn't that Annette Obrestad sucks out to win; it's how effectively she needles the poker brat afterwards. And the needling may have had an impact on the match, as she busted him later in the match by inducing a terrible call.

6. Annie Duke wins in 2010
Between her involvement with disgraced online poker room and her broken promises as commissioner of the Epic Poker League, Annie Duke has her fair share of detractors in the poker community. But her win in the 2010 event put her on the map as the first (and thus far only) woman to win the Heads Up Poker title. And you can tell from the breathless reaction at her victory and the post-tournament interview just how much it meant to her.

5. Shannon Elizabeth makes semifinals
Shannon Elizabeth had the best performance yet by an amateur in this event, advancing to the semifinals in 2007 by beating Humberto Brenes. While she fell to eventual champion Paul Wasicka, Elizabeth's performance was one that got a lot of people who don't normally play poker to pay attention. And you can tell from the number of supporters behind both her and Brenes on the final hand of the quarterfinals which one most of the people in attendance were rooting for.

4. Ferguson finally wins it
Chris Ferguson's name has been tarnished through his association with Full Tilt Poker, but the fact of the matter is, he's still got one of the best records in Heads Up Poker Championship history. He advanced to the finals before losing in the championship in the first two years of the tournament, then lost in the first round in 2008. But in 2009, he came back to run the table, beating Andy Bloch in the championship match. Overall, Ferguson is 17-6 in Heads Up Poker Championship matches.

3. Emmitt Smith sucks out on David Williams
The best part of having amateurs play the pros is thinking that you could play better than they could. Never has a player been on the Heads Up Poker Championship that led me to think that more than Emmitt Smith.

Emmitt was a great running back. And he's not a bad dancer either. But he's not a very good poker player. That much was clear when he faced David Williams in the first round in 2011. But he managed to claw his way back from a big chip deficit and beat Williams to advance to the second round, leading me to believe that if I were to get an invite to the event, I might be able to do it too.

2. Phil Hellmuth vs. Tom Dwan
It should come as no surprise that Phil Hellmuth makes multiple appearances on this list, and while this moment is surely one he'd like to forget, it's the first one that came to my mind when compiling this list. Not only did Hellmuth's match vs. Tom Dwan last just three hands, but Hellmuth also suffered a major league bad beat, watching his aces get cracked by Dwan's 10s after both players got it all in preflop. Part of what makes the hand so memorable, however, is the classic Hellmuth blowup and the pissing match between the two about playing against each other heads up. It features Hellmuth calling Dwan "Son" three times.

1. 2005 semifinals feature amazing rematches
NBC couldn't have picked better semifinal matches for the first year of the Heads Up Poker Championship if they'd predetermined the winner of every match. T.J. Cloutier had the opportunity to avenge his loss to Chris Ferguson in the WSOP Main Event in 2000, and Antonio Esfandiari, who had tormented Phil Hellmuth over the past several years, faced off in the other semifinal.

The matches had a completely different feel. Cloutier and Ferguson's match played out like a reunion of old poker buddies, as the two often showed their mucked hands and joked around. The Esfandiari/Hellmuth match felt like an all-out assault, with Esfandiari needling Hellmuth at every opportunity to try to put the Poker Brat on tilt.

While Ferguson and Hellmuth ended up battling in the final, the real entertainment in the tournament's first season came in the semifinal matches.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.