March Madness begins Thursday and sports fans from all across America will spend the rest of the month obsessing over their brackets as the tournament plays out. It’s a month of lopsided matchups, Cinderella stories, and sure things gone wrong. It’s a tournament where every participating team dreams it can win it all, even the underdogs facing steep odds against powerhouse programs.
Though I’m not a huge college basketball fan myself, I do understand the tournament’s appeal. I also have a fertile imagination, which got me to wondering: if poker went over even half as well on American television as basketball does, what might a March Madness tournament for poker look like? With that in mind, I started drawing up a design for my ultimate poker tournament.
Like the NCAA basketball tournament, this annual poker version of March Madness would feature 64 players selected for the tournament by a committee of tournament directors and poker media considering a wide range of criteria to determine seeding. The Card Player, Bluff, WPT, and WSOP Player of the Year winners for the last three years would earn the only automatic bids; all other selections would have to earn their way in through excellence at the tables. Overall career results would be important, but the most recent ones would carry the most weight. And since this would be a live tournament, brick-and-mortar results would factor in far more heavily than online, with results against bigger fields being more important than success with bigger buy-ins.
The game would be heads-up no-limit Texas hold’em, and thus it would look a lot like the old NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Unlike that tournament, though, there would be no sponsor exemptions or casino host qualifiers or celebrities other than the kind poker makes. The structure of the game would also be slower than the made-for-TV NBC production, allowing skill to become a bigger factor. Only the best poker players of the last few years would be invited to take on their peers in this one-of-a-kind event. And as a rule the game’s history would be fully embraced, from little things like each bracket being named after the host site of one of poker’s richest tournaments to more noticeable touches like the featurettes about the players and their accomplishments airing between matches on TV coverage of the tournament.
Here’s how I imagine the first round of a 2012 version of this tournament might play out.
(1) Vanessa Selbst v (16) David Steicke – Selbst plays true to her 2010-2011 form and takes the match down quickly against the China-based High Roller specialist.
(2) Ben Lamb v (15) Luca Pagano – Reigning WSOP Player of the Year Lamb takes an early lead in the match and subsequently wears down Pagano, the most successful player in the EPT’s history.
(3) Eugene Katchalov v (14) Alessio Isaia – Fresh off his best year since 2007 with $2.57M in winnings and his first WSOP bracelet, Katchalov makes quick work of the Italian WPT Venice champ.
(4) David “Doc” Sands v (13) Shannon Shorr – Sands, who has more than $2.4M in earnings since last January, actually falls behind in the early going but mounts a comeback to defeat the steady Shorr, who cashed a career-best 18 times in 2011.
(5) Phil Hellmuth v (12) Doyle Brunson – 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Brunson gives Hellmuth lots of good-natured ribbing, but the only player in the world with more bracelets than Brunson walks off with the win thanks to a slow-played set of aces.
(6) Eric Baldwin v (11) Matt Waxman – The 2009 Card Player Player of the Year and former college baseball star makes the right moves at key moments and outlasts the 2011 WPT Rendez-Vous a Paris winner in a hard-fought match.
(7) Andy Frankenberger v (10) James Dempsey – Former Wall Streeter and WPT Season IX Player of the Year Frankenberger’s relentless aggression sees him fall behind several times before hitting a few big hands and getting paid on them, giving him the momentum needed to knock out the British WPT Five Diamond winner.
(8) Pius Heinz v (9) Martin Staszko – In a rematch of the 2011 WSOP Main Event final, the Czech chess master Staszko gets his revenge when the reigning world champ Heinz gets his money in way behind and can’t catch a miracle.
(1) Erik Seidel v (16) Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler – In one of the most lopsided victories of the first round, eight-time WSOP bracelet winner and all-time leading money winner Seidel steamrolls a too-tight Kessler, cracking Chainsaw’s pocket kings with 8-7 suited on the last hand of the match.
(2) Phil Ivey v (15) Frank Kassela – The second-winningest player of all-time, Ivey has impressed since getting back to the tables earlier this year; he takes out the 2010 WSOP Player of the Year in short order when a Kassela bluff goes horribly wrong.
(3) Jonathan Duhamel v (14) Chris Moneymaker – In a surprisingly close matchup of two WSOP Main Event winners, the red-hot Duhamel comes out ahead of a determined Moneymaker in the longest match of the first round.
(4) Sorel Mizzi v (13) Freddy Deeb – Deeb won their first heads-up match at the 2010 Grand Prix de Paris High Roller tourney, while Mizzi beat Deeb in that same tournament in 2011. This time Deeb gets the best of the 2010 Bluff Player of the Year.
(5) Michael Mizrachi v (12) Scotty Nguyen – A rematch of the 2006 WPT World Poker Open final, which Nguyen won. This time the Grinder, poker’s sixth all-time leading money winner, gets revenge in an entertaining match between two telegenic pros.
(6) Tom Marchese v (11) Roberto Romanello – Former EPT and WPT winner Romanello has run well heads-up recently, winning five tournaments in the last two years, but he can’t withstand the 2010 Card Player Player of the Year’s relentless attack.
(7) Steve O’Dwyer v (10) Matt Gianetti – O’Dwyer’s momentum from a career year in 2011 has carried over to 2012 with a WPT Denmark win, giving him the confidence to survive a tough match with Gianetti, the WPT Bratislava champ and November Niner.
(8) Dan Kelly v (9) Elio Fox – One of the winningest online poker players of all-time who is transitioning well to the live game, Kelly catches the 2011 WSOP Europe Main Event winner in a big bluff early on and leans on him for the rest of the match.
(1) Jason Mercier v (16) Roger Hairabedian – The 2009 Bluff Player of the Year and Global Poker Index Top 5 staple takes his fearsome game to the Frenchman Hairabedian, the 2008 WPT Rendez-Vous a Paris champ and one of the most consistent international players of the last five years.
(2) Sam Trickett v (15) Noah Schwartz – The reigning Partouche Poker Tour champion and winner of more than $5.6M in the last two years, Trickett, finds himself in a dogfight with one of Florida’s most consistent pros before winning the match on a Kings-versus-Queens cooler.
(3) Shawn Buchanan v (14) Dwyte Pilgrim – The Canadian Buchanan has been one of the most consistent players in all games for the last few years, but Pilgrim, the the fan-friendly WSOP Circuit favorite and 2010 WPT Borgata Poker Open champion, catches a few lucky breaks and rides the momentum to the biggest upset of the opening round.
(4) Scott Seiver v (13) Martin Jacobson – The 2011 WPT Championship title helped Seiver to a career-best $1.97M in winnings last year, but four-time EPT and two-time WPT final tablist Jacobson plays the heads-up match of his career to score another big Bellagio Bracket upset.
(5) Daniel Negreanu v (12) Faraz Jaka – Negreanu, poker’s third all-time leading money winner, draws a tough opening match against the highly aggressive WPT Season VIII Player of the Year, but a classic moment sees him move on to the next round when he deliberates for five minutes before talking himself into making the right call with middle pair to pick off a Jaka bluff on the final hand.
(6) Chris Moorman v (11) Olivier Busquet – The winningest online poker player of all-time (and 2011 WSOP Europe Main Event runner-up) faces off with high-stakes heads-up specialist and 2009 WPT Borgata Poker Open winner in the longest match of the first round, which only ends when Moorman flops a straight and Busquet misses 13 outs twice.
(7) Galen Hall v (10) Joe Hachem – Hall followed his 2011 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure win up a final-table appearance at the WPT Championship, but the 2005 WSOP Main Event and 2006 WPT Five Diamond winner’s drive to prove he’s still got game helps him to a tough victory.
(8) Brian Rast v (9) Isaac Haxton – Two WSOP wins (including the $50K Poker Players Championship) pushed Rast to a career year in 2011, but losing an early pot results in an insurmountable deficit against high-stakes specialist Haxton.
Monte Carlo Bracket
(1) Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier v (16) Pierre Neuville – Fresh off the second-best year of an already storied career, the Triple Crown winner and all-time leading money winner from France runs over serial EPT casher Neuville in a lopsided match.
(2) Jake Cody v (15) John Racener – Cody shows off the skills that helped win the 2011 WSOP heads-up championship to complete his Triple Crown, backing the 2010 WSOP Main Event runner-up into a corner early and never letting off the pressure.
(3) Sam Stein v (14) Carlos Mortensen – One of the brightest young stars in the game with more than $3.2M in winnings over the last two years, Stein makes quick work of the streaky Mortensen, the only player ever to win both the WPT Championship and WSOP Main Event.
(4) Andrey Pateychuk v (13) Jeff Lisandro – Pateychuk, who spun a 15th-place finish in the 2011 WSOP Main Event into an EPT and WPT title by the end of the year, stays true to form against in a relatively quick match against the 2009 WSOP Player of the Year.
(5) Benny Spindler v (12) Men “The Master” Nguyen – One of the most dangerous players on the EPT circuit over the last few years, EPT London champ Spindler takes an early lead and then manages not to make any mistakes against – or be intimidated by – Nguyen, the talkative seven-time WSOP bracelet winner.
(6) Mike McDonald v (11) McLean Karr – Coming off his best year since winning EPT Dortmund in 2008, McDonald trades the chip lead back and forth with the 2010 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star winner in a see-saw match before flopping the nut flush and outrunning Karr’s open-ended straight-flush draw on the final hand.
(7) Yevgeniy Timoshenko v (10) David Williams – In a showdown between two former WPT Championship winners, Williams shows he’s determined to make up for an off year in 2011 by bringing his A-game and defeating the 2011 WSOP Heads-Up Championship runner-up.
(8) Matt Glantz v (9) Will “The Thrill” Failla – In a matchup of East Coast grinders, career $4M man Glantz gets the best of 2011 Legends of Poker champ and Borgata mainstay Failla in a short but entertaining match.