Critiquing the National Heads-Up Poker Championship Field



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It is hard to believe that this weekend marks the seventh running of NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship (NHUPC). To me, it still seems like a nascent event, but one piece of evidence of its maturity is that instead of talking about how cool and great the NHUPC is, poker players and fans now tend to gripe about the field.

The complaints emanating from the poker community revolve around the failure to include more young, rising stars and the continued invitations of televised poker stars who peaked in popularity in the early to middle years of the last decade. Again, I am totally in tune with those feelings, but in my opinion, many of those grousing aren’t being honest with themselves about what the NHUPC actually is.

The NHUPC is a televised poker spectacle. Yes, it’s a heads-up poker tournament with a very large buy-in and rich prize money. But this is not like the heads-up championship at the World Series of Poker nor is it like some of the more prestigious heads-up events online.

It’s a made-for-television poker show with a structure designed to create excitement, not show off the subtle, intricate nuances of skilled poker play. It is broadcast by one of the largest television networks in the world on Sundays in the United States. It is not on cable nor is it on a niche network. NBC is trying to reach as many eyeballs as possible. As such, its producers need the show to appeal to as broad a swath of people as possible.

In 2011, putting a 23-year old online grinder at every heads-up table does not do that. While a lot of us would enjoy watching them play, the vast majority of NBC’s potential audience would get nothing out of their inclusion. A wide audience simply doesn’t know them. The participants who are known, and therefore can draw attention, are those who gained popularity during the poker boom.

As much as I respect guys like Phil Gordon for their accomplishments and contributions to poker, I tend to agree with the online poker community that they aren’t particularly relevant when it comes to actually playing poker nowadays. But to a casual fan looking for something to watch one Sunday, they are still very recognizable.

The same goes for non-poker celebrities and semi-poker celebrities. No, Jason Alexander and Emmitt Smith aren’t seriously going to compete for the championship, but they will appeal to a large number of viewers. Serious poker players may scoff at them getting invites, but the former is instantly recognizable for his role on one of the most popular television shows of all-time and any sports fan will know the latter as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and a Hall of Famer.

Plus, Smith won “Dancing with the Stars” a few years ago, so he is now known by a whole different demographic than he would have been if he were “just” a famous retired football player.

I can tell you this: if my dad is channel surfing one Sunday and sees Isaac Haxton playing Hold’em against Scott Seiver, there is no way he is stopping to watch. No offense to those two – they are tremendous players – but they aren’t known to casual poker fans. But if my dad sees George from “Seinfeld” squaring off against Chris Moneymaker, he’ll stay a while.

Keep in mind that there are numerous automatic qualifiers, which leaves fewer spots for at-large bids. And I am fine with that, as it rewards players for recent success and provides an objective set of criteria to make it easier for the producers to come up with an invite list.

Newer faces like Eric Baldwin, Dwyte Pilgrim, Vanessa Selbst, and Daniel Cates along with late substitutes Olivier Busquet and Sam Trickett are among the players who will be in the bracket this year.  I’m not saying I agree with every choice the producers made, but I give them credit for doing their best to find the right balance to appeal to the masses.

Ten years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t an avid poker player who could name a single poker pro. But then poker exploded and poker pros became televised poker celebrities. These celebrities still drive much of the audience with which NBC wants to connect.

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