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Mike Matusow Wins The 2013 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship

The “Mouth” and Phil Hellmuth Square Off in Dream Final Match

by Erik Fast |  Published: Apr 01, 2013

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After a year hiatus in the wake of poker’s Black Friday, the popular NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship returned to Caesars Palace for its eighth running from Jan. 25-27, 2013. Once again the invitational $25,000 buy-in event drew a specially crafted field of 64, with a mixture of the game’s top players and its biggest personalities.

From young-gun online cash game stars like Viktor “Isildur1” Blom and Tom “Durrrr” Dwan to celebrities like Jennifer Tilly and Sam Simon to live pros like Phil Hellmuth and Barry Greenstein, this made-for-TV event supplied great match-ups for both casual and hardcore fans. With the field divided into the Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs brackets, everything was set to determine who would take home the $750,000 first-place prize and the title of national heads-up champion.

Thinning The Field

In a run-of-the-mill poker tournament, roughly 10 percent of the field makes the money. In this event players cashed if they won their first two matches, meaning that a quarter of the field made the money. The payouts for this event are very flat, with the majority of the prize money going to the top two finishers. For example, making the round of 16 only earned players their buy-ins back. With such an elite field, it was a given that everyone had their eyes on the top spot, but first they had to make it out of their quarter. After two full days of play, stretched even longer by the added constraints of being filmed for TV, three rounds of matches were complete and the quarterfinals were set.

The final eight featured a number of top young talents, many who have specialized in playing heads-up poker in one form or another. In the Clubs bracket, the quarterfinal matchup was between Scott Seiver and Daniel Cates, both of whom have extensive experience playing in nosebleed-stakes cash games online, frequently in heads-up games: Cates is listed as the fifth-highest earning online cash game player, with over $7 million in profits according to tracking sites. Seiver is the far more accomplished tournament player, however, with just under $7 million in live tournament earnings and $498,706 more online. Seiver was also coming off the biggest win of his career, scoring more than $2 million for winning the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure $100,000 super high roller just a few weeks previous. In the end, Seiver came out on top and moved on to represent the Clubs bracket in the semifinals.

A similar matchup was found in the Diamonds bracket with Brian Hastings and Joe Serock. Hastings has demonstrated his ability to succeed in the tournament format of heads-up play as well, winning the 2012 WSOP $10,000 no-limit hold’em heads-up championship. Still, he is best known for his exploits in nosebleed cash game tables. Most notably, he once won $4.2 million in the span of a few hours playing multiple tables of heads-up against Viktor “Isildur1” Blom at $500-$1,000 pot-limit Omaha. Serock himself had formerly focused on played heads-up sit’n’gos, and was coming off one of his best years on the tournament circuit. In 2012 he made four final tables, including two third-place showings at WPT final tables. Serock eventually moved onto the semis as the winner of the Diamonds bracket.

While these two semifinalists represented the young world of poker pros who got their start online, their opponents in the final four were the quintessential live pros: Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow. Of course, both of them are highly decorated. Representing the Hearts quarter, Hellmuth was the first player to ever win the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship when it debuted in 2005, is the only player to ever win both the WSOP main event and the WSOP Europe main event, and is the all-time gold bracelet leader with 13 in total. As the semifinalist for the Spades quarter, Matusow also brought a laundry list of accomplishments, with three gold bracelets, ten career titles and $7.5 million in career tournament earnings.

Matusow versus Seiver. Hellmuth versus Serock. As it has been in many games and sports across the history of competition, these semifinal matchups represented a battle of the old guard versus the young guns. The old school pros had already had already beat some of the best young-guns and established names on the road to this matchup. Matusow defeated Michael Mizrachi, Viktor “Isildur1” Blom, Barry Greenstein and John Hennigan. Hellmuth had survived a murderer’s row of top professionals along the way, including Mike Sexton, Justin Smith and David “Doc” Sands. In the end, Serock and Seiver could not stop a Matusow versus Hellmuth matchup in the best-of-three final showdown, and were each sent to the rail with $100,000 for their semifinal showings.

Dream Final: Matusow vs. Hellmuth

A lot has changed in the poker world in the past decade, but this final would fit right in during the heyday of the poker boom. Two of poker’s biggest celebrities, with the poker credentials to back up their outsized personalities, were set to battle it out in a televised heads-up showdown. With $750,000 and the title on the line, they got right to it.

Matusow won the first major hand of the meeting when he flopped a set of sixes against Hellmuth’s pocket queens and then turned quads. After reraising preflop and betting every street, Hellmuth moved all-in on the river. Matusow snap called and quickly revealed that he had the nuts, taking a huge chip lead as a result. Although Hellmuth briefly mounted a comeback, Matusow was able to seal the deal and take a 1-0 lead in the final.

Matusow was then able to build a lead of roughly 2-to-1 in the second match when the next key hand came up. Matusow raised 60,000 from the button and Hellmuth three-bet. Matusow moved all-in, and Hellmuth called with the ASpade Suit KClub Suit. Matusow was in a commanding position with the KHeart Suit KDiamond Suit, and was looking good to make a clean sweep after a 7Spade Suit 5Club Suit 3Diamond Suit flop. The AClub Suit on the turn turned the tables, however, and Hellmuth doubled up after the 9Spade Suit landed on the river. Hellmuth was able to close out the second match to tie the score at 1-1.

The decisive match was the quickest of the three. Matusow took the lead right away, and roughly 25 minutes into play the final hand arose. Holding a 3-to-1 lead, Matusow min-raised on the button to 32,000. Hellmuth called and the flop fell KDiamond Suit JSpade Suit 2Diamond Suit. Hellmuth check/called a bet of 30,000 and a six hit the turn. Hellmuth once again checked, prompting a 105,000 bet from Matusow. Hellmuth went deep into the tank, eventually saying, “I’m thinking of making one of the worst laydowns of my life.” Because of that statement, it was a bit of a surprise to Matusow when a moment later Hellmuth announced that he was all-in. After some consideration Matusow elected to call with the 8Diamond Suit 4Diamond Suit for a flush draw. Hellmuth held the KSpade Suit 10Heart Suit for top pair. The QDiamond Suit hit the river, and just like that Matusow became the eighth champion of this event. Jumping up and down, the man known as “The Mouth” screamed, “You gotta go for it, baby!” Hellmuth walked away with $300,000 for his runner-up finish.

Putting The Money Where The Mouth Is

“I’m on top of the world right now. There is nothing that feels better than winning a tournament. Nothing,” said Matusow after play ended.

For the win Matusow earned the $750,000 first-place prize, the title and a sparkling championship ring. Perhaps most special of all for Matusow was being able to play in the finals against a good friend in Hellmuth.

“It means a lot to have Phil alongside me. All you hear from the young kids is ‘Mike and Phil used to be good, but they can’t keep up with us kids, with our generation.’ But where are they standing today?” Matusow said, drawing boisterous cheers from the crowd that surrounded the final match.

Matusow was clearly very proud of his accomplishment. Tears came to the 44-year-old’s eyes after the final hand. Because of the fact that the event is made-for-TV, the structure is somewhat quick in order to ensure that the production remains on schedule. As a result of the faster blind structure, some have characterized this event as a little less skillful than it could be. Matusow himself admits that he felt this way, but that his mind was changed as he made his way through the field.

“The thing is, I was always worried that this was a crapshoot. But after getting this deep and playing all these matches, I thought there was a lot of skill involved. There was not really much crapshoot until two hours into a match. I think the biggest mistake people made was that they tried to play way too fast for the structure early in matches.”

It had been more nearly five years since Matusow’s last major title, winning the WSOP $5,000 deuce-to-seven no-limit single draw lowball event in 2008. In the years since then, he has been traveling the circuit less than many of the other participants in this tournament. As he characterized it, “I have only played about 40 tournaments) since then, and these guys play about 40 a week.”

Even if he has been less of a presence on the circuit in recent years, the man known as “The Mouth” has made his voice heard with this prestigious win. He also is optimistic about what his win might mean for televised poker.

“For them to get me and Hellmuth heads-up out of everybody, I mean it’s like a dream come true. Who is not going to watch that? When they’re showing the previews for it: Hellmuth and Matusow. Everybody knows who we are, so they [NBC] might have to fork over a check to me and Phil,” Matusow said, trailing off with his distinctive mischievous laugh. ♠

Bringing The Tournament Back To NBC

By Julio Rodriguez

There are two main reasons why the NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship returned to television in 2013. The first has to do with the dedication of producer Mori Eskandani and his crew at POKER PROductions, who worked tirelessly to get the show back in the NBC lineup. The second reason deals with both sides’ commitment to fun, entertaining poker programming, geared toward the casual viewer.

Televised poker exploded in popularity during the boom years between 2003 and 2010, but dozens of shows were left scrambling after Black Friday. When the Department of Justice decided to indict the owners and operators of the major U.S.-facing online poker sites, they ultimately left a hole that sponsorship dollars once filled. The end result was a long list of shows put on an unscheduled hiatus, and networks that were no longer able to carry the product.

Ultimately, Eskandani and his team were able to find a small silver lining, bringing back one of their marquee brands to television.

“We never stopped talking to the networks,” said Eskandani. “We never stopped promoting the game and talking about the positive impact it could have on a network’s schedule. I’m proud to say that we never quit, even when things looked their worst. That being said, we were also very fortunate to have a network like NBC that could see the value of the product and realize that it had an audience.”

Gary Quinn, Senior Director of Programming for NBC Sports, agreed with Eskandani about poker’s appeal. Though his main responsibility is filling open slots with niche sports entertainment, such as golf, rugby and even dog shows, Quinn reiterated the fact that his network saw an opportunity to boost ratings among their target demographic of young males, aged 18-34.

“The heads-up event is really dear to our hearts at NBC because we created it back in 2005 and it has been really great programming for us and really performed well,” said Quinn. Not only is it solid as a first-run show, but it also does well during the re-airs during late-night programming. We’ve found that the viewers just can’t get enough poker.”

Though Quinn was excited about the show, he was quick to point out that it might not have come back if it weren’t for the addition of the NBC Sports Network on cable.

“Obviously, Black Friday hurt the industry,” Quinn admitted. “It wasn’t just the players and the online poker sites who were affected, it was the programming as well. If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know for sure if the show would have come back if it weren’t for the NBC Sports Network on the cable side. That being said, it’s great content, we knew we could produce it well and we saw it as a great opportunity to bring back a fresh 12 hours of original content.”

There’s no exact science to choosing the field of 64 players, but it was important to Eskandani the show had a balanced look at the poker world that would appeal to the everyday viewer.

“We have celebrities, we have the colorful characters and then we have the world’s best players,” he said. “Does that leave a few upset people on the outside looking in? Of course. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we had chosen the top 64 players in the game today, that the field would look a little different. But then again, if we had done that, we’d be making a serious poker show for a very serious audience. Casual poker draws a casual audience and serious poker draws a serious audience. If you go out there and actually take a look around, you’ll see that 90 percent of televised poker viewers are casual. It’s just the way it is. So if we want poker shows, new and old, to get back on the air, we need to appeal to the largest demographic. There’s no denying the skill level needed to win something like this event. Just look at the list of past champions if you need any evidence. But the format is also very exciting, easy to understand, and for the most part, the audience knows who the players are. It’s perfectly suited for television.”

With the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour and Poker After Dark still on the air, Eskandani believes he has breathed new life into an industry that was on life support in 2011.

“NBC is a zillion dollar company,” he said. “They are incredibly successful and know what they are doing. They could have gone in any direction to fill their time slots, but they chose to come back to poker. If the networks can believe in televised poker as much as I do, then I believe that is a very positive sign for this industry. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is just the beginning.” ♠