Having already established the popularity of its own World Series, the poker world is now rolling out a made-for-television version of March Madness.
Hijacking the NCAA's format for crowning men's and women's basketball champions, NBC is backing the second National Heads-up Poker Championship being held March 4 to 6 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The winner will get $500,000 and the total prize pool will be $1.5 million with NBC adding more than $200,000 to the pot.
A field of 64 players - familiar poker professionals and celebrities with an acumen for the game - will vie in one-on-one contests building to a best-of-three finals. The tournament is scheduled to be broadcast on seven consecutive Sundays from April 16 to May 21.
Last year, Phil "Poker Brat" Hellmuth outlasted Chris "Jesus" Ferguson to win a marathon session.
Heads-up play will showcase a different style of poker from what viewers are accustomed to when the tables typically have more competitors. For instance, players will bet hands they might normally throw away - a pair of 10s that has a so-so chance of prevailing against eight other players looms large against a single foe - and reading the enemy is more important.
"Tells become much more obvious," Caesars Palace poker room manager Michael Matts said, using the poker term for unintended messages players might send about their cards. "Every action you make is under a much larger microscope."
Though most players will be required to put up a $20,000 buy-in, they still need an invitation for the privilege of competing. Most of the game's suddenly recognizable stars, such as Hellmuth, Ferguson, Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Howard Lederer and Annie Duke, are getting invitations. But local amateur Steve Dannenmann, who achieved his own celebrity status finishing second at last year's World Series of Poker and winning $4.25 million, has not been asked to play in the heads-up championship.
"It's disappointing," Dannenmann said. "My agent said that the previous year, they invited the top three from the World Series [main event] and based on that, he said that I shouldn't have a problem."
Dannenmann's big-time poker career has been brief but eventful. In addition to finishing second in the main event, he went to the final table of the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas finishing fifth. There, he got into a spat with Hellmuth over the temperamental pro's refusal to properly stack his chips - a bit of required protocol so that players can gauge the strength of the opposition.
Dannenmann chided Hellmuth for unprofessional conduct and called him a "punk." The Anne Arundel County accountant wondered if that squabble had something to do with being shut out from the heads-up tournament. Hellmuth's agent, Brian Balsbaugh, whose agency has also tried to work on Dannenmann's behalf, said the defending heads-up champ had no such input.
Actually, the invitational was assembled largely in consultation with Eric Drache, a longtime Las Vegas poker official, and a partner. Caesars Palace is awarding two seats in qualifying tournaments and one spot was up for grabs in a free Internet tournament.
"You have to understand that it's probably not the most objective way, because there isn't a set of statistics in poker that says here's the top 64," Drache said.
Naming the most accomplished 25 or 30 players might be easy, Drache added, "but when you get to the rest of the [field], everyone in the poker world thinks they should be in the top 64."
While not being entirely dismissive of Dannenmann's second-place finish in the main event, Drache characterized the WSOP main event, which last year started with 5,619 entries, as "a lottery." But together with Dannenmann's strong showing in the Tournament of Champions, it had him in contention for a heads-up spot.
In the end, though, the presence of too many top pros and the sprinkling of poker-playing celebrities, such as Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss and actor James Woods, kept Dannenmann from getting a seat.