The National Heads Up Poker Championship was first played in 2005 when NBC realized that interest in poker on television was strong and ratings were strong for the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour broadcasts. The 2005 tournament was filmed at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, featuring commentary from Gabe Kaplan and Matt Vasgersian. Ratings were strong and the airing caught the attention of viewers across the nation in the spring of 2005.
The semi-finals featured four world class players in Phill Hellmuth, T.J. Cloutier, Antonio Esfandiari and Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson, with Hellmuth defeating Ferguson for the title. A final with two famous players and a win for Hellmuth, one of the most interesting figures in poker, was good for ratings and increased public interest for the second event in 2006.
The event moved to Casesar’s Palace in 2006, where it will stay through at least 2012. NBC also increased it’s coverage in 2006, running a teaser for the event in April and ratings were strong. Player interest in getting into the event grew as well and sponsorship dollars for participants were plentiful as every online poker room wanted their patches to appear on national television in front of a large audience.
Ted Forrest defeated Chris Ferguson heads up, leaving Ferguson with another second place finish, a sign of things to come as the game theory expert has been a strong finisher almost every year. This was also the first year with a number of non-poker celebrities receiving invitations, including actress turned poker pro Jennifer Tilly, actor James Woods and and LA Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
In 2007 Gabe Kaplan gave up his spot as commentator and played the tournament himself. Kaplan was joined by Tilly, actress Shannon Elizabeth, actor Chad Brown and actor Don Cheadle as players who were famous for their work outside the poker world. It should be noted that Kaplan has been a professional player for many years and is well known in the high stakes poker world, though the general public knows his as Gabe Kotter from the Welcome Back Kotter TV series.
Two of the celebrities made the semi-finals in 2007, with Shannon Elizabeth losing to eventual winner Paul Wasicka who defeated Chad Brown in the final. Brown’s defeat of Gavin Smith gave him the deepest run by a non-poker celebrity so far, though to be fair Chad is more poker player than actor these days.
2008 saw an online qualifier, Alisha Kunze, who won her way into the tournament via a satellite on PokerStars. A number of previously invited celebrities returned and former major league pitcher Orel Hershiser was also invited. The final four in 2008 was very strong, with Andy Bloch beating Huck Seed in one semi-final match and Chris Ferguson defeating Phil Ivey to advance to the finals and eventually get a victory against Bloch. The win added to Ferguson’s other strong performances and many player’s believe he is the best heads up player in the world.
In 2009, actor and comedian Brad Garrett joined the tournament, and Huck Seed defeated Vanessa Rousso in the final. Rousso has gone on to become a GoDaddy Girl and with GoDaddy now sponsoring the event on NBC, she will be likely be associated with the event for years to come.
Cheadle, Tilly, Garrett, and Hershiser all returned for the 2010 tournament, along with a number of satellite winners from both live and online tournaments. Annie Duke became the first female National Heads Up Champion with her defeat of Erik Seidel in the final match.
2011 saw a live qualifier open to the public at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. NBC awarded one seat in the $300 buy-in event which drew approximately 300 entries. The final match saw poker boom poster boy Chris Moneymaker losing to Erik Seidel who cemented his place as one of the best heads up poker players in the world by winning the championship after taking second place in 2010.