With the PCA completed and the Aussie Millions in full swing, the poker world's attention was diverted somewhat over the last three days as the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship played out at Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas. Sixty-four players gathered for the event, including many of poker's elite, and after six rounds of poker it was Mike "The Mouth" Matusow prevailing, the victory culminating with a win over his long-time friend and nemesis Phil Hellmuth in a best-of-three final.
Hellmuth's near-miss prevented him from becoming the first two-time champion of the event, as "The Poker Brat" had earlier won the very first NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship back in 2005. The event had run every year since then through 2011, but had taken a hiatus during 2012 in the aftermath of Black Friday.
The renewed version of the event featured a $25,000 buy-in (up from the previous $20K), with the top 16 finishers making the money. Invitees were announced a week ago, with much discussion following regarding "snubs" and/or those declining invitations to play at the Aussie Millions or for other reasons. Two more the more notable "snubs" -- Tom Marchese and David "Doc" Sands -- ended up finding spots after both Daniel Negreanu and Jennifer Harman decided late they would be declining their invitations.
Here's an overview of how each round played out.
Round of 64
The first round took place on Thursday with each of the four "regions" -- Spades, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds -- playing out their eight matches in turn.
The Spades region saw John Hennigan, Mike Matusow, Phil Ivey, Justin Bonomo, John Monnette, Sam Simon, Barry Greenstein, and Viktor Blom all win their first matches to advance. Of those, Blom's match versus Andrew Lichtenberger took the longest, requiring nearly two hours to complete.
The Hearts region then saw Doc Sands, Justin Smith, Joseph Cheong, Phil Hellmuth, Eugene Katchalov, Chris Moneymaker, Phil Galfond, and B.J. Miller make it through to Round 2. Miller was the lone qualifier to win a seat via WSOP.com, and he managed to defeat Jean-Robert Bellande to advance.
The eight matches in the Clubs region were next played, with Scott Seiver, Jonathan Duhamel, Kyle Julius, Shaun Deeb, Chris Moorman, Dan Cates, Vanessa Rousso, and Antonio Esfandiari advancing. Esfandiari defeated Jennifer Tilly, partner of Phil Laak, both good friends of Esfandiari. Laak had lost a first-round match earlier (to Phil Ivey).
Finally the Diamonds region saw Brian Hastings, Joe Serock, Tom Dwan, Dan Smith, Eli Elezra, Doyle Brunson, Huck Seed, and Gaelle Baumann make it through, with Baumann defeating Liv Boeree in her match.
Round of 32
On Friday the 32 survivors returned to play two more rounds, with those winning Round 2 matches being guaranteed to win at least $25,000 (i.e., the price of the buy-in).
First up were the matches from the Spades and Clubs regions. In Spades, Mike Matusow, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey, and John Hennigan won their matches, while in Clubs it was Antonio Esfandiari, Dan Cates, Vanessa Rousso, and Scott Seiver advancing. Of those eight matches, Esfandiari's lasted the longest as it took him close to two hours to put away Jonathan Duhamel.
Then came the second-round matches from the Hearts and Diamonds regions. Joseph Cheong, Eugene Katchalov, Phil Hellmuth, and Doc Sands were the winners in the Hearts matches, while Brian Hastings, Joe Serock, Dan Smith, and Tom Dwan were victorious in the Diamonds region. Dwan defeated Brunson in what turned out to be the longest match of that session.
Round of 16
Play continued on Friday, with John Hennigan becoming the first one through to the quarterfinals after quickly dispatching of Phil Ivey in a hand that saw Hennigan draw a flush versus Ivey's pocket kings. Then Scott Seiver won his spot after knocking out Vanessa Rousso in a hand in which Seiver flopped a set, Rousso turned two pair, and all the chips went in on the river.
Mike Matusow then defeated Barry Greenstein after his Ah-Jc held versus Greenstein's Ac-2d following a preflop all-in. Then Dan Cates beat Antonio Esfandiari, using pocket nines to overcome the Big One for One Drop winner's Qd-8s to advance.
Eugene Katchalov would next use pocket kings to overcome the pocket jacks of Joseph Cheong. Brian Hastings then knocked out Tom Dwan after crippling him with Ah-Kh versus Dwan's Jd-6d, then claiming the last of Dwan's chips a hand later.
Joe Serock moved on versus Dan Smith, similarly winning most of his opponent's chips in a big hand (this one As-5c versus pocket jacks) before knocking Smith out shortly afterwards. And Phil Hellmuth won the last match of the night versus Doc Sands, that one ending with an all-in confrontation between Hellmuth's Kh-Qh and Sands's Ks-Qd that saw three hearts arrive among the community cards to give Hellmuth a flush and the win.
Those advancing this far were all guaranteed $50,000 paydays, but all continued to eye the $750,000 prize awaiting the player able to survive three more rounds of heads-up play.
The Spades regional final pitted John Hennigan versus Mike Matusow. Hennigan jumped out to an early lead, eventually whittling "The Mouth" down to a point where Hennigan enjoyed a close to 5-to-1 advantage. But Matusow earned a double up, then had grabbed the advantage when an all-in occurred following a 7c-5s-4s flop. Hennigan had 7s-2h for top pair while Matusow had As-6s for both flush and straight draws. The turn was the 2c, improving Hennigan to two pair, but the 8c on the river completed Matusow's straight, sending him through to the semis.
Dan Cates also led early in his match against Scott Seiver in the Clubs regional final, but Seiver chipped back to narrow Smith's lead. Then came a hand that saw Seiver all in on a 10s-6c-4s flop holding Ks-6s (pair, flush draw) versus Smith's 6d-4d (two pair). The turn was the 2c, but the As came on fifth street to give Seiver the flush. Crippled to next-to-nothing on that hand, Smith was all in on the next one and lost, and Seiver moved on.
Joe Serock jumped out to a quick lead versus Brian Hastings in their quarterfinal match, ultimately getting Hastings to commit to a preflop all-in with 5d-5s against Serock's 8c-8s. The better pocket pair held, and Serock had won the Diamonds region.
Finally, Phil Hellmuth and Eugene Katchalov remained even for the first part of their match, but after an hour Hellmuth had opened up a lead. At last the pair got all of Katchalov's chips in the middle before the flop with Katchalov holding Ac-10c and Hellmuth Js-Jd. The flop brought a ten, but no further improvement to Katchalov's hand would come, and Hellmuth had emerged from the Hearts region to secure the final semifinal spot.
Mike Matusow and Scott Seiver's semifinal match remained close for the first hour with Matusow edging out to a lead. Then Seiver won a big double-up when his 7h-7c held versus Matusow's Ac-Kc to put Matusow in the danger zone. But Matusow soon evened things again in another all-in flip when his As-Jd connected with the board to beat Seiver's 9h-9s.
Then Matusow claimed a few pots to move in front, and before long Seiver pushed all in with Js-10c and Matusow called with Ah-10h. The flop came Jh-5c-3d to pair Seiver, and he was still good after the 2s turn. But the As fell on the river, and Matusow grabbed the first finals spot.
Meanwhile Phil Hellmuth's match with Joe Serock took less time to complete. In that one Hellmuth picked up some hands early to grab an early 3-to-1 chip lead, then Serock pushed with Qh-Jh and Hellmuth called with Ac-Jc. The community cards came 8d-7h-3c-Ah-10c and Hellmuth had won to set up a finals showdown versus Matusow.
Seiver and Serock earned $100,000 each for winning four matches before falling in the semis.
Unlike the first five rounds the finals were played as a best-of-three match, with the winner due $750,000 and the loser $300,000. Predictably, there was a lot of banter between Matusow and Hellmuth, as well as a lot of talk on the rail and elsewhere regarding how this reprise of poker television was now featuring two of the more notable personalities to emerge from poker's "boom" nearly a decade ago.
Matusow grabbed an early lead in the first match in a hand in which he managed to make quad sixes versus Hellmuth's pocket queens. He increased the lead, and was still ahead after Hellmuth doubled-up with Ah-3s versus Matusow's Ad-Jd when a couple of treys arrived among the community cards.
Finally Hellmuth was all in again with 5d-5h against Matusow's Ad-Qd, and when an ace appeared on the flop Hellmuth couldn't catch up and Matusow took a 1-0 lead.
In the second match, Hellmuth grabbed an early edge, but Matusow then pushed back in front and appeared on the verge of a sweep after Hellmuth committed all in before the flop with As-Kc against Matusow's Kd-Kh. The flop came seven-high, but the Ac came on the turn to save Hellmuth, and after a nine on the river Hellmuth suddenly was ahead.
Before long it was Matusow at risk with 2s-2c against Hellmuth's 10d-10c, and when the board brought no help to "The Mouth" the match was tied 1-1.
The third and deciding match went relatively quickly, with Matusow assuming an advantage early, then increasing his lead in a series of hands without showdowns. Then came a hand in which Matusow raised, Hellmuth called, and the flop came Kd-Js-2d. Hellmuth check-called a small bet from Matusow, then checked again following the 6s turn.
This time Matusow bet a little more, and Hellmuth thought a while, commenting that he was about to fold. Then after a couple of minutes Hellmuth check-raised all in, and Matusow took some time before calling.
Hellmuth had Ks-10h for kings while Matusow had 8d-4d for a flush draw. The river then brought the Qd to complete the flush and give Matusow the win.
NBC National Poker Heads-Up Championship results:
1st: Mike Matusow -- $750,000
2nd: Phil Hellmuth -- $300,000
3rd (tie): Scott Seiver -- $100,000
3rd (tie): Joe Serock -- $100,000
5th (tie): Dan Cates -- $50,000
5th (tie): Brian Hastings -- $50,000
5th (tie): John Hennigan -- $50,000
5th (tie): Eugene Katchalov -- $50,000
9th (tie): Joseph Cheong -- $25,000
9th (tie): Tom Dwan -- $25,000
9th (tie): Antonio Esfandiari -- $25,000
9th (tie): Barry Greenstein -- $25,000
9th (tie): Phil Ivey -- $25,000
9th (tie): Vanessa Rousso -- $25,000
9th (tie): David "Doc" Sands -- $25,000
9th (tie): Dan Smith -- $25,000
The victory marks the largest tournament cash for Matusow since 2005 when he earned $1 million on two separate occasions, once for a ninth-place finish in the WSOP Main Event and again for winning that year's Tournament of Champions.