01/21/2015 12:14PM

Defending champ among 10 players to watch at National Handicapping Championship

Shigeki Kikkawa
Jose Arias won last year's NHC and is a serious contender again.

The field for the 2015 National Handicapping Championship is the strongest one ever assembled, with 519 individual participants, with at least 82 having a second qualifier, and 10 former champions in the field. Let’s take a look at 10 players to watch.

Jose Arias, Bell Gardens, Calif.

Arias, a 38-year-old environmental safety engineer, made history at the 2014 NHC when becoming the first winner to emerge out of the new Final Table format. Arias is a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why: He’s smart and humble and loves the game. Even with only one entry, Arias’s attempt to defend his title is one of the stories to follow.

Eric Moomey, Aldie, Va.

The double-qualified NHC Tour winner has more at stake than anyone else in Las Vegas this weekend – he’s playing for $2.75 million if he wins, since he is eligible for a $2 million bonus. In three years, Moomey, 42, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, has gone from an unknown, to an online sensation, to one of the best tournament players in the country. “I have a shot to become a multi-millionaire this weekend,” Moomey said, “If it’s my day, I think I can do it.”

Ken Seeman, Wantagh, N.Y.

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The best tournament player you’ve never heard of is Seeman. Respected by all, Seeman has qualified for the NHC in each of his first six years playing tournaments. He has finished in the top 15 three times in the last five years. He was first on the Tour at the end of the first half, earning a $10,000 bonus, and he ended up eighth on the tour overall. Many of his competitors expect that it’s a question of when – not if – he will win a major tournament.

Paul Shurman, Dix Hills, N.Y.

Shurman is the most respected player on the tournament scene. His credentials are deep. He won the 2011 NHC Tour. He has qualified 12 years running and has an unthinkable three top 10 finishes, including a final table appearance last year. By his own lofty standards, he had a slow year in 2014. He still qualified this year, had several close calls, and won several online contests.

William Shurman, Danville, Calif.

Bill is Paul’s younger brother. In 2015, he won an NHCQualify.com outright, and finished in the top 25 in 22 separate NHC Tour events. He snuck into the top five of the first half with a fourth at Del Mar, earning $10,000 in the process. He went on to be the tour’s leader before being overtaken late. He has two entries of his own, and he and Paul will try to take their sibling rivalry to the next level.

Rich Goodall, Las Vegas

It’s a home game for Goodall, the 2008 champ. Both he and his wife Sally, a fine player in her own right, have qualified for the big dance many times and have two entries each this year. Told he was the opening favorite in the NHC betting, Goodall reached for a sports analogy, “They made Alabama the favorite over Ohio State, too,” he quipped. For his part, he would prefer to see his wife win. “It would great for our world if a lady punter took down all the marbles,” he said. The Goodalls have a nephew, Dave Wang, a 23-year old UNLV student, who qualified as well. Their family will be a formidable presence.

Brett Wiener, Clearwater, Fla.

When you look back at the 2014 NHC Tour season, the two biggest stories were Eric Moomey and Brett Wiener. Wiener held the tour lead going into the final weekend but correctly predicted that Moomey would pass him. Incredibly, this was Wiener’s first full year playing contests and while he considered his play “horrible” – he lost six contests where he has the lead going into the final race – that’s a tough conclusion to draw. Wiener had 18 top 10 tour finishes, three outright wins, and added a $50,000 win in an online contest as well. At the 2014 NHC, Wiener’s two tickets were in 10th and 15th with six races to go, but he ended up missing the cut for the final table. Brett’s wife,Sarah, also has two entries this year. With their initial NHC experience behind them, it’s easy to see Team Wiener improving in their second try.

Damian Roncevich, Honolulu

Roncevich is one of the most feared live-bankroll players in the game, and he dominated Santa Anita’s series of contests in 2014, earning two NHC qualifications in the process. He qualified for the NHC at least nine times before and has had a couple of close calls, in 2005 and 2009. The self-described “category 4 hurricane” will be rolling into Vegas looking to prove he can win the big one. “In order to win, I know I have to be a calmer version of myself,” Roncevich said, “But I still need to bring the thunder to get the job done.”

Jackie Sukanick, San Anselmo, Calif.

You may not know Sukanick’s name, but if you follow tournaments closely you know her son – former trainer and 2013 NHC Tour champ Brent Sumja. Sumja has been coaching his mom, a longtime racing fan, about how to succeed in tournaments and the partnership has been a massive success. Sukanick netted $10,000 for finishing top five in the first half and ended up fourth on the tour. “Mom has learned more than the average long-term fan could ever realize there is to understand in this awesome game we play,” Sumja said, “ But the most important thing was finding this blessing which allowed us to spend so much time together this late in life. It’s a huge win no matter what happens from here on in.”

Duke Matties, Laguna Beach, Calif.

Matties is another player with tremendous live-bankroll chops. But don’t underestimate him at the NHC – he’s also had success in mythical money contests like the Horse Player World Series. He’s a perennial visitor to the NHC, having qualified 11 times running. By his own standards, 2014 was a down year for him, but he still got two entries: one by winning at Surfside, another by finishing second at Santa Anita. He’s hoping with a lot of bad luck out of the way he can bank on a turnaround this weekend. He shared a key tenet of his philosophy ahead of this year’s tournament, “Better hit bombs in the mandatories,” he said, “It’s the only way to win.”