Heads-up face off!

Mar 8, 2005 8:31 AM

College basketball has its March Madness. Tournament poker joins the fray with May Mayhem.

High-stakes tournament poker last weekend christened a new event at the Golden Nugget, where 64 top poker players squared off in the inaugural "National Heads-Up Poker Championship," which was filmed by NBC for broadcast later this spring.

When the dust cleared late Sunday night, Phil Hellmuth emerged victorious over Chris Ferguson in the final round.

The $1.5 million tournament is unique in that its format follows that of the college basketball tournament — March Madness — with 64 players competing in a bracketed, single elimination, head-to-head tourney.

For his efforts, Hellmuth took home $500,000.

This first-ever network poker series will be broadcast as a weekly, four-part offering in the month of May. The only other poker competition on network TV is NBC’s annual Poker Superstars Championship on Super Bowl Sunday, which last month attracted 8.6 million viewers.

"This unique, head-to-head, single elimination format will lend itself to compelling television as players advance through the tournament bracket," said Jon Miller, senior vice president of programming at NBC Sports. "As any poker player knows, the most dramatic phase of each game is when it comes down to the final two players. It’s in these heads-up matches that top players play their opponent more than the cards with a lot of bluffing and table talk."

Among the big name players who competed in the field were well-known Texas Hold ”˜em stars Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Lyle Berman, Chip Reese, Barry Greenstein, Annie Duke, Gus Hansen, Howard Lederer, Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, Bobby Baldwin, Phil Ivey and Greg Raymer, last year’s World Series of Poker champion.

"I think that knowledgeable poker players would think more highly of winning this event than winning the World Series of Poker," said Raymer. "It’s less about math and book strategy and more about playing the player."

In addition, the field included celebrities who are accomplished poker players in their own right: actors Gabe Kaplan and James Woods, L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Celine Dion’s husband/manager Rene Angelil.

The format for the Heads-Up Poker Championship featured 64 players, each of whom started with $20,000 in chips. In this early round, blinds started at $50-$100, and proceeded upward to $400-$800.

Just like the NCAA basketball tournament, the field was cut in half in subsequent rounds, with the final two players starting with $640,000 in chips, and blinds beginning at $2,000-$4,000 and progressing to $20,000-$40,000.