In part one, I set up a hypothetical March Madness poker tournament with 64 of the most successful poker players in the world today and played out the first-round matches of that tournament. Just as with the real March Madness, there were more than a few interesting matchups, a few Cinderella stories, and plenty of superstars players doing exactly what is expected of them when they sit down to the poker table.
Of course, the first round is only the beginning of March Madness. The longer the tournament goes on, the more unpredictable the matchups become and the less likely it is that any one player holds a huge advantage over another. Then it’s all about who catches the right breaks at the right time, whose game is the most consistently excellent, and, ultimately, who has the will to win. So who would be able to string all those factors together to come out on top of our hypothetical tournament? Let’s have a look and see.
(1) Vanessa Selbst v (9) Martin Staszko – Selbst rolled over David Steicke in the first round, while Staszko had a much tougher match against his 2011 WSOP Main Event nemesis, Pius Heinz. The Czech player falls behind early and, without any lucky breaks from the deck, can’t find his way back into the match.
(2) Ben Lamb v (7) Andy Frankenberger – Frankenberger’s game involves a higher percentage of high-risk, high-payoff plays than most players’, and against the average poker pro that’s proven to be a potent weapon. Lamb, however, matches up well thanks to his penetrating stare and his knack for making the right decision in tough spots. Frankenberger finds himself all-in while making one of those high-risk plays on the second level of the match, and Lamb hands him his walking papers when he makes the correct call.
(3) Eugene Katchalov v (6) Eric Baldwin – Katchalov’s first-round victory over Alessio Isaia was a breeze, but in the second he draws a highly motivated opponent. Baldwin, who played a lot in 2011 but had little to show for it compared to his 2009 Player of the Year campaign and 2010 WPT Championship runner-up finish, comes out with guns blazing. The chip lead changes hands a number of times but in the end it’s Baldwin who defies the seeding to come out victorious.
(4) David “Doc” Sands v (5) Phil Hellmuth – Sands has been on a roll since last year and scored a comeback win against Shannon Shorr in the first round. Hellmuth, coming off the best year of his long career, is still smarting from failing to win a record-setting 12th bracelet in three tries at the 2011 WSOP. Sands pushes Hellmuth to the limit but in the end the Poker Brat emerges victorious.
(1) Selbst v (5) Hellmuth – The Phil Hellmuth show finally comes to a close against the top-seeded Selbst. Confident and fearless, she effortlessly needles the 11-time WSOP bracelet winner; he takes it with a smile and a shrug at first but appears increasingly perturbed as the match goes on. After a misdeal when he was going to be dealt pocket aces, Hellmuth jumps from his seat and launches into a classic tirade. Meltdown ensues and Selbst wins the match in short order.
(2) Lamb v (6) Baldwin – After his upset victory over Eugene Katchalov, Baldwin is highly motivated but fatigued. Lamb, on the other hand, had a quick match against Andy Frankenberger and plenty of time to ready himself for this round. That rest comes in handy as the two play level after level, with Lamb’s sharper focus allowing him to avoid more mistakes than Baldwin
(1) Selbst v (2) Lamb – The seeding said these two players, two of the most impressive in poker over the last few years, ought to meet in the bracket final. And so they did. The end result is a heads-up match worth studying for insights into how top poker minds operate as every trick in the book finds its way into the proceedings. In the end a cooler with pocket kings against pocket queens does Lamb in and sends Selbst to the Final Four.
(1) Erik Seidel v (8) Dan Kelly – The Rio Bracket was the only one with first-round results that accorded with the seedings, but things change in the second round when Kelly eliminates top seed Seidel. The aggressive young online pro presses the preflop betting with K-K early in the match, and Seidel welcomes the chance to raise the stakes while holding his own K-K. But the board brings four hearts, matching up with Kelly’s hand to give him a flush and crippling Seidel in the process. That’s poker.
(2) Phil Ivey v (7) Steve O’Dwyer – O’Dwyer has been one of the most consistent players in the world since leaving the United States and moving to Europe to continue his pro poker career. But dominating European competition isn’t really preparation for facing one of the most formidable players ever to sit at a poker table.
(3) Jonathan Duhamel v (6) Tom Marchese – Duhamel has one of the best track records of any WSOP Main Event winner in recent years with two other wins and $1.92M in earnings since his big victory. Marchese, meanwhile, had one of the most impressive debut years in recent memory and became the 2010 Card Player Player of the Year, but was unable to repeat that level of success in 2011. In the end Duhamel, worn down from a hard-fought first-round match with Chris Moneymaker, succumbs to an aggressive and motivated Marchese.
(4) Michael Mizrachi v (5) Freddy Deeb – Few players have enjoyed as much long-term success in tournament poker as Mizrachi, and almost as few have been as consistently good for as long as Deeb. This ends up being one of the more entertaining matches of the second round, as both men bring a loose and easy demeanor – and their A-games – to the proceedings. Deeb outlasts the Grinder to move on to the next round.
(5) Deeb v (8) Kelly – Though separated in age by several decades, Deeb and Kelly have similar levels of experience; the difference is that Deeb’s took a lifetime to earn, while Kelly got his in just a few years of dominating online poker. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in the early going of this match. When Deeb gets on a roll he can be hard to stop, though, and once he finds his groove against Kelly he never looks back.
(2) Ivey v (6) Marchese – Ivey barely broke a sweat in the first two rounds against Frank Kassela and Steve O’Dwyer. For Marchese, overcoming Roberto Romanello and Eric Baldwin was one class of feat; conquering one of the most fearsome players ever to sit at the table proves to be another one altogether. Ivey’s task isn’t the walk in the park of his first two rounds, but his wealth of experience helps him win the day against the young Marchese.
(2) Ivey v (5)Deeb – It’s not the bracket-final matchup that the seeding called for, but this one proves to be highly entertaining both for the players and the fans. The table chatter during this long back-and-forth battle is classic, and the level of play is world-class. In the end Ivey is the one who makes all the right moves and advances to the Final Four.
(1) Jason Mercier v (9) Isaac Haxton – Since turning an online satellite win into an EPT title on his first try back in 2008, Mercier has made everything look easy. He does the same here against high-stakes pro Haxton, getting the best of every confrontation en route to a win during the second level of play.
(2) Sam Trickett v (10) Joe Hachem – Trickett, who has racked up 9 tournament wins and $6.3M in earnings in just four years, with most of that coming in the last two. Hachem is like an older version of Trickett, having enjoyed a similar rise to the top in 2005-06, when he won the WSOP Main Event and WPT Five Diamond Classic. In this matchup, youth prevails and Trickett’s the man with his ticket punched.
(6) Chris Moorman v (14) Dwyte Pilgrim – Minor-league champ Pilgrim scored the biggest upset of the first round when he took down #3 seed Shawn Buchanan. It’s hard enough to capture lightning in a bottle twice, but it’s even harder when doing so means knocking off the most successful online poker player in history. Moorman makes relatively quick work to move on to the Sweet 16.
(5) Daniel Negreanu v (13) Martin Jacobson – Other than a long track record of winning, one of Negreanu’s claims to fame is his ability to talk out a problem at the table and figure out his opponents’ holdings, especially against top competition. The flip side of this ability is that sometimes he gets too curious for his own good and talks himself into bad calls. Against serial EPT final tablist Jacobson, with whom he has little table experience, Negreanu falls into that trap and makes several calls with the worst of it. He never recovers from these setbacks and Jacobson advances.
(1) Mercier v (13) Jacobson – Former satellite winner Jacobson has four EPT final tables, two WPT final tables and a WSOP final table to his credit in the last three years, but a win has proved elusive for him so far. This trend holds when he finds himself up against the unstoppable force of Mercier, who takes an early lead and mercilessly grinds him down from there.
(2) Trickett v (6) Moorman – Trickett’s meteoric rise has given his resume some pretty gaudy winnings figures. Moorman’s numbers are even gaudier, but they’ve come over the long haul through thousands of online tournaments. As a result, Moorman has the edge in experience despite the two being separated in age by only one year. Along with the rest he got after his relatively short second-round match against Dwyte Pilgrim, that’s all Moorman needs to pull off an upset against one of the hottest players in poker at the moment.
(1) Mercier v (6) Moorman – Moorman looked comfortable at the table in his first three matches, as did Mercier while he rolled over his opponents. This match, unsurprisingly, is the most difficult to this point in the tournament for both players. The turning point comes when Mercier rivered a jack-high flush against Moorman’s eight-high flush, giving Mercier a 4-to-1 chip lead and the momentum he needs to progress to the Final Four.
Monte Carlo Bracket
(1) Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier v (8) Matt Glantz – Glantz is a deep thinker and a talented poker player by any measure. ElkY is more like an alien being with poker superpowers. It’s almost an unfair fight, but it’s the way the bracket lines up and ElkY moves on with another quick win.
(2) Jake Cody v (10) David Williams – Cody might be the only player ever to take a $10 online deposit and run it up into a Triple Crown; he’s certainly one of the msot successful young players of recent years. Williams, who has enjoyed success on and off since taking second at the 2004 WSOP Main Event, has been more off than on since his 2010 WPT Championship win. Both players’ form carries over and Cody moves on to the Sweet 16.
(3) Sam Stein v (6) Mike McDonald – Sam Stein had an impressive 2010 year at the live tables in 2010 but was overshadowed to a degree by another young player in Tom Marchese, who defeated him at NAPT Venetian. Since then his track record has smacked of a man on a mission with a PokerStars Caribbean Adventure final table, a WSOP bracelet and two WSOP third-place finishes, and a side event win at EPT San Remo to his credit. Meanwhile, McDonald has been one of the most consistent high-level players in the world since his initial EPT Dortmund win in 2008. The match goes long and Stein eventually comes out on top.
(4) Andrey Pateychuk v (5) Benny Spindler – After four years on the circuit, Spindler finally won his first big title at last year’s EPT London. Pateychuk, on the other hand, seemed to come out of nowhere with a deep run at the WSOP Main Event and subsequent wins on the EPT and WPT. Spindler’s EPT win came after he grabbed an early lead and held it the rest of the way, but in this match he falls behind early. That allows the aggressive Pateychuk to step on the gas and make surprisingly quick work of Spindler.
(1) ElkY v (4) Pateychuk – In theory, the kind of run Pateychuk has been on since last summer has to end at some point. In this case, it ends where so many other poker dreams have concluded: at the hands of ElkY.
(2) Cody v (3) Stein – It’s the United Kingdom versus the United States – not to mention stylish hair versus stylish ballcaps – in this matchup of two of poker’s most talented young players. The lead swings back and forth from Cody to Stein and back again throughout the course of a three-hour battle, with the all-in player winning each confrontation until Stein finds himself in the lead. He ends the match with a hero call on the river of a dangerous board to pick off a big Cody bluff.
(1) ElkY v (3) Stein – When you find yourself up against a superhuman poker player, no matter how good you are yourself you’re going to hope to run good. Stein finds himself behind the eight-ball on several occasions, but a bit of card luck at the right times keeps him in the match against ElkY. After a flopped flush holds up against ElkY’s flopped top set, Stein’s trip to the Final Four is booked.
(1) Selbst v (3) Stein – Stein’s record over the past two years has been undeniably excellent, but even with three tournament wins to his credit his heads-up resume pales in comparison with Selbst’s. Not only has she won seven poker tournaments outright since 2008, she has progressed to the semifinals of four heads-up tournament, including two WSOP heads-up championships. In a head-to-head battle, Selbst rarely makes the wrong decision – and that holds true in this case to send her to the championship round.
(1) Mercier v (2) Ivey – More than a few people have called Ivey, winner of eight WSOP bracelets and $16M, the greatest ever to play the game. If that’s the case, this is a match between the greatest of all-time and the greatest of right now. While Ivey was sitting on the sidelines post-Black Friday, Mercier was stringing together another set of impressive finishes – including his second gold bracelet – for his fourth straight year with seven-figure winnings. Neither player has an ounce of fear in his body, so this two-hour match is one for the ages. In the end Mercier gets the better of the deck and advances to the championship round.
(1) Mercier v (1) Selbst – It’s fitting that two of the most consistent players in poker would face off in the final of this poker version of March Madness. Both Mercier and Selbst had excellent results in 2011 and have already seen their success carry over into 2012. Both are seemingly immune to pressure, both have a firm grasp on how to play in nearly any situation, and both have an impressive will to win. Situations like this almost always come down to who catches breaks and who doesn’t; even the smallest bit of good fortune can make all the difference against a tough opponent. In this case it comes down to Mercier grabbing the lead for good when he flops a set of sevens against Selbst’s set of sixes. She doesn’t go broke there, but it does prove to be the last time she gets within striking distance of the chip lead. A little while later, Jason Mercier has proven yet again that he’s the best player in the world right now with a big win in poker’s version of March Madness.