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NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship

A nice run, but …

by Gus Hansen |  Published: Apr 09, 2008


After a couple of disappointing first-round losses in 2006 and 2007, it was time to make an impact in 2008 – first of all, to satisfy my own competitive nature, and second of all, to convince the tournament directors that I'm not just a "pretty face," but actually belonged in this NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship!


Thursday night: The location is PURE nightclub at Caesars Palace, where 63 adversaries would try to prevent me from achieving my preliminary goal – moving on to the second round. The good news for me is that it is almost impossible to get knocked out during the public draw, and I could therefore shift my attention to the billboard where names were jotted down in the order received. The reason for my sudden interest in the pecking order was my side bets with David Williams and Erick Lindgren. They turned out to be profitable, as the coin flips went my way and I pocketed $14,500 while drinking a white Russian.

Rounds One to Three

Fast-forward to Friday evening: I'm getting ready for the real deal, facing up against poker aficionado and first-class actor Don Cheadle. With 20,000 in chips, 15-minute levels, and blinds starting out at 150-300, it was a fairly fast structure, and I think everybody, including Don, expected me to come out firing – and I did the complete opposite! Imitating Phil Hellmuth, I repeatedly limped in from the button and played small-pot poker. It worked!

Picking up more small pots than my opponent, I built up a medium chip advantage. Not long thereafter, it was all over for our movie star.

Next in line was former world champ Scotty Wynn; notice the spelling change in his last name. I learned over the week from looking at the NBC teleprompters that this was the way all of the reporters and commentators spelled his name to get the pronunciation right.

Treading somewhat unfamiliar waters by proceeding to the second round, I had to decide which approach to take. Remembering the words of the very successful Milan soccer coach from the '90s (and current England national team coach), Fabio Capello, "Never change a winning game," it seemed like the limping strategy was once again going to be my weapon of choice. What happened next just reassured me that I should follow the same path. The first words out of Mr. Nguyen's mouth when we sat down were: "I see you are already practicing your all-in move." Scotty of course meant it as a joke, but it also told me that he was expecting some fireworks from my side of the table. He was going to be sorely disappointed, and, hopefully, also would misplay a couple of hands because of my newfound love for anti-aggressive poker.

We exchanged some jabs, but the only big mistake came later on, from a totally different angle than I would have thought. The blinds had gone up and Scotty entered the pot with a standard raise. I looked down at 7-7 and decided to go for the kill – all in. Scotty took three minutes, mumbled, "I hate coin flips," and mucked 8-8 faceup. Phew! I had just dodged a serious bullet, and instead of relinquishing my chip lead, I had taken another step toward round three. The match ended shortly thereafter with K-9 versus 8-8 when I hit a 9 on the flop.

By winning two matches, I had made $25,000 in prize money, but wasn't especially happy about it. I think that it is ridiculous to pay out $25,000 in a $20,000 buy-in event, as nobody entering this tournament is trying to win $5,000. It is time for the tournament directors to adopt more of a winner-take-all payout structure. Nothing less than double the buy-in – in this case, $40,000 – should be allowed as the first payout step. By juggling the prize money differently, it also should be possible to double the first prize to a full million!

Enough money talk, let's move on to the real challenge – Phil Laak. Phil and I shared an apartment back in New York in the '90s when we were both professional backgammon players. It was before the poker boom, so there was nothing from that period that I could use against him in this match. I was expecting a more aggressive style of play than I had encountered in my first two matches, but that wasn't going to stop me from limping some more.

The easiest way to take advantage of an aggressive opponent is to hold some good starting hands; unfortunately, I didn't. Lucky for me, the flops were very generous to me, and I therefore had no problems in calling down some of Mr. Laak's suspicious bluffs. I was 3-0 and on my way to day three!


Even though at this point in the Championship I was yet to pick up a big pair, I had never been down in a match and my confidence level was seriously growing.

My quarterfinal opponent was Phil Ivey. There's not really much to say about the guy. We know each other very well, and I have a lot of respect for Phil's poker game. Although Phil might have been a slight favorite in the match, I had a game plan: I was going to continue my small-ball limping style and hopefully see some good starting hands. This is usually a requirement against Mr. Ivey. Alas, the big pairs never materialized. The three times that I did have a big hand – in this context, A-K suited, J-J, and 10-10 – Phil folded on the button as if the guy actually had the ability to look into my soul! Instead, I had to make moves with much less attractive holdings. When I flopped top pair on the 6 5 3 board and decided to raise Phil's bet, it was only to face a reraise, as he had flopped the nut flush. To make a long story short – in contrast to my previous three matches, I was never really up in this match, and my run for the title ended when he flopped another flush against my pair and lower flush draw.

The Finishing Power of Jesus

Four players were left and Phil was now my favorite to win the tournament. I guess I had forgotten the all-encompassing truth: "Nobody beats Jesus." After taking out Phil in the semis, Chris Ferguson went on to win against Andy Bloch in the finals. He is now an amazing 16-3 for the tournament – quite an accomplishment. But being the nonbeliever that I am, I am gonna be ready for the NBC Heads-Up With Jesus Challenge next year.

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