Bracket buster!

Mar 13, 2006 2:53 AM

Consummate poker pro Ted Forrest last week outlasted 63 other top players in winning the second annual National Heads-Up Poker Championship held at Caesars Palace.

The win was worth $500,000 for Forrest, a Syracuse native who now lives in Las Vegas.

Forrest defeated Chris "Jesus" Ferguson to win the championship. Ferguson, who also lost in the finals last year, took home $250,000 as the runner-up.

Only in its second season, the Heads-Up Poker Championship has become an instant "classic" with poker fans because of its unique format. Like the March Madness college basketball tournament, players are paired in brackets and advance with each victory.

The roster of contestants read like a Who’s Who in poker — virtually every big name in poker participated.

Some of the top players who were eliminated in the first round include Annie Duke (lost to Mike Sexton), Phil Hellmuth (last year’s champ lost to Chip Reese), Chris Moneymaker (lost to Tuan Le), Johnny Chan (lost to Carlos Mortensen), Gus Hansen (lost to Sean Sheikhan), Phil Ivey (lost to Chad Brown), Scotty Nguyen (lost to Ernie Dureck), and Antonio Esfandiari (lost to Barry Shulman).

Forrest’s run to the championship featured some heart-stopping, come-from-behind victories over some great players.

In the early rounds, Forrest defeated Erik Seidel, Chad Brown and Ernie Dureck.

When he reached the quarter-finals, Forrest was matched against Sam Farha, a top-notch pro known for his brutally-aggressive style and willingness to gamble on virtually every hand.

"That’s what makes Sammy so deadly is his willingness to play any two cards, right down to the river," said one of the players.

Forrest’s match against Farha was a marathon — more than three hours long and the longest in Heads-Up history.

In its early stages, Farha controlled the action and built an early chip lead — at one point, Forrest was down to $36,000 in chips against Farha’s seemingly insurmountable $284,000.

But, as in sports, they have to play the game, and Forrest kicked it up a notch. Like any veteran player on the short stack, Forrest put together a string of all-in wins that allowed him to double up several times

After getting his stack up to $80,000 Forrest went all-in pre-flop with A-4 suited against Farha’s K-9 suited. The flop came A-8-8 pairing Forrest’s ace and giving Farha a nut flush draw. Farha caught a king on turn, but the river card fell harmlessly and Forrest doubled up again.

After a few more key hands, Forrest took a $260,000 to $60,000 chip lead as blinds reached their maximum level, $8,000-$16,000.

In one crippling hand, Forrest moved all-in with wired fives against Farha’s K-J suited. The board came up 10-9-3-2-5, giving Forrest a set of fives and cutting Farha’s stack to $25,600.

Shortly thereafter, Forrest went all-in with a pair of nines against Farha’s A-3, which did not improve, and Forrest advanced.

Before meeting Ferguson in the finals, Forrest again came from behind to beat Shawn Sheikham in the semi-finals. Overall, he beat three different opponents in a 14-hour stretch.

The final round against Ferguson featured a best of three matches format. Forrest lost the first match when Ferguson went all-in with ace-high and then paired up on the river to overcome Forrest’s pair of 10s.

In the second match, Forrest won a $650,000 pot by calling a Ferguson bluff and then converted the huge chip lead.

In the decisive third match, Forrest built a sizable chip lead and then pushed all-in with K-7. Ferguson’s Q-J was never good enough through the flop and Forrest ended up with three kings for the triumph.

"I felt pretty good confidence-wise coming in, but I was a little shaky after the first match," Forrest said. "Everybody in Heads-Up was a great player and that brings out the best in me."

Forrest has been playing professionally since 1993, when he won three gold bracelets in the World Series of Poker. He added two bracelets in 2004, ranking him with the elite pros in the game.

The $1.5 million event was held in Caesars Palace’s new poker room, the largest in Las Vegas with 30 tables, and featuring a 6,000-square-foot tournament area that adjoins the main room. There also 11 colorful LeRoy Neiman original paintings of various casino and gambling scenes, 20 large-screen high-definition TV monitors, and food and beverage service for players.

The Heads-Up Poker Championship will be televised by NBC on six consecutive Sunday afternoons beginning April 16.