Time for an Extreme Makeover: Poker Hall of Fame Edition

Steve Ruddock : October 28th, 2015
Poker Hall of Fame


This week the Poker Hall of Fame selected two very deserving players for the Class of 2015, John Juanda and Jennifer Harman. Even at their relatively young age, both  are clearly Hall of Famers, and they will only pad their resumes in the ensuing years. However, their induction, and who wasn’t inducted, has sparked a larger debate in the poker world.

Essentially, people who realize poker didn’t spring into being in May of 2003, and the poker community across the Atlantic, feel the proverbial fix is in when it comes to the Poker Hall of Fame voting. This isn’t an indictment on Juanda or Harman, this is an indictment on the Poker Hall of Fame and the current nomination and induction processes in place.

Playing against a stacked deck

Before I get into the issues the Poker Hall of Fame needs to address, can we first stop with the pretentiousness some (mostly current Hall of Famers) are displaying when it comes to the Poker Hall of Fame? The notion being bandied about by a few people that the Poker Hall of Fame is some kind of sacred honor akin to knighthood by the ruling monarchy in England is absurd. Worse is the idea that the hallowed halls cannot be diluted by undeserving souls of poker’s past, or god forbid upstart Europeans. These opinions would be laughable if the source of these complaints weren’t so disappointing and effectual. The reason these opinions matter is some of these people have lifetime votes and are content to induct their peers, essentially insuring the Poker Hall of Fame continues down its current US-player-centric path in perpetuity – which is to say that people who thrived during the Poker Boom and during the early Road Gambler era are the only ones who have ever excelled at the game.

As PHoF voter Chris Tessaro noted on Twitter, ” with HOF members getting a vote, the more american-centric HOF gets, the harder it is for Non-US.” Additionally, if we keep selecting players exclusively, poker’s contributors will also be shutout. In the past three years only one contributor has been inducted, Jack McClelland.

This isn’t to say these people aren’t deserving of induction, but because they get a vote (only about 40 people get to vote on the PHoF) they’re going to (perhaps unintentionally) choose people who further validate their own induction. Look at Daniel Negreanu’s shift in thinking on the PHoF:

Negreanu in July of 2014 speaking with WSOP.com on the Hall of Fame’s issues:

Negreanu:  Well, it’s way too American-centric.  The Hall of Fame should reflect the growth of the game and the influence of other players, like overseas. So many people have done so much.

Negreanu on the voting process this year; the first year he gets to vote for Hall of Famers:

Notice is doesn’t say anything about being a nice guy, being a poker ambassador, or being well liked? It doesn’t give any points to players for their efforts to improve the state of the game. The only area where that is relevant is for NON-players. The criteria for players is based only on their skills as a player.

Numbers above all else

Because poker results are an exercise in faith, the “look at the numbers” argument is absolute bunk. We know exactly how many home runs Willie Mays hit, we don’t know how much money Erik Seidel has won playing poker. In fact we have absolutely no clue: it could be $20,000,000 or he could be in the hole $5,000,000.

Additionally, comparing the accomplishments of top tier players in 2006 to top tier players in 1986 is like comparing home run hitters in the deadball era to the steroid era. It’s unfair to these players who were the best of their day, especially the ones living in London or Paris.

The number of tournaments and tournament prize-pools have grown exponentially since 2003, as have the availability and stakes of cash games. In 1992 a player didn’t have the opportunity to travel the world and play $5,000 and $10,000 buy-in tournaments every weekend, or find high stakes cash games all over the globe. These players had to make due grinding out solid livings at the poker tables; not because they couldn’t beat the games, but because they didn’t have the opportunities today’s players have. They had to play in the games that were available, and the number of high-stakes games running around the globe was probably in the single digits.

How can a player from the 1980’s, or a player who was based in Europe, compete with the statistics of players from the poker boom? These are different eras, and each should have their own measure of success. Stats are relative to the time and place you competed. I won’t even get into sponsorships, or having an unlimited bankroll because you bought into an online poker website.

But opportunity is only one reason I feel older players, and first adopters from Europe, who had to not only beat the game but grow it, should be given more respect in the eyes of HOF voters, or at least dealt with in a different way, such as the creation of a veteran’s committee, or upping the minimum age to 50 or even 60.

And on age, it’s easy to say a player’s age shouldn’t matter, but when the induction process is far more liberal than it was in years past, and the Poker Hall of Fame only came into being in 1979, the current inductees and future generations will be overrepresented compared to earlier players if age and the backlog of top tier talent isn’t addressed.

A number of past inductees are questionable at best

The PHoF has gained legitimacy in recent years, but it’s still sort of a throwaway concept and lacking in a number of areas. Case in point, we don’t even know who many of the voters are, let alone how they voted. Frankly, if a Hall of Fame voter is unwilling to divulge their ballot they shouldn’t be a voter in my opinion.

Furthermore, let’s really examine the validity of past Poker Hall of Famers. For instance, take a look at the inaugural class arbitrarily selected by the Binions:

  • Johnny Moss
  • Nick Dandolos
  • Felton “Corky” McCorquodale
  • Red Winn
  • Sid Wyman
  • James Butler Hickok
  • Edmond Hoyle

You have one guy, Edmund Hoyle, who lived a century before the game of poker came into being. You also have three others whose contributions and/or accomplishments are largely based on poker lore:

  • Wild Bill, an average poker player by all accounts, was shot dead at a poker table -based on Tom Abdo also being inducted it appears that dying while playing poker is the easiest way to get in;
  • “Corky” McCorquodale is credited with introducing the game of Hold’em to Las Vegas -not sure what criteria that falls under;
  • and Nick The Greek was a gambler who may or may not have played a heads-up game of poker with Johnny Moss depending on who you asked. He also died broke and was known more as a gambler than a poker player.

And how about the big names that were inducted between 1980 and 1986:

  • 1980       Blondie Forbes
  • 1981       Bill Boyd
  • 1982       Tom Abdo
  • 1983       Joe Bernstein
  • 1984       Murph Harrold
  • 1985       Red Hodges
  • 1986       Henry Green

While most are talented players, other than Boyd there really isn’t what you would call a poker legend in this group.

Or, how about the stretch from 1998-2000 when no one was inducted, that was an exciting time for the Poker Hall of Fame.

The point is, the Poker Hall of Fame (as an entity that should be taken seriously) is still very new, so let’s not pretend the rules are as untouchable as the Bill of Rights. They’ve been changed many times over the past five or so years when it became obvious they weren’t functioning properly, such as the addition of an age requirement. In my opinion, it’s time for more changes.

Legend is as important as stats

To say we must look at a person’s poker accomplishments (as noted above, this is an arbitrary exercise that require a lot of take my word for its) certainly doesn’t mesh with past votes. When the founder of the Poker Hall of Fame put Edmund Hoyle and Wild Bill Hickock in, you can’t claim that it’s only about accomplishments and not personality, and poo poo people who in addition to their stats, select nominees based on other metrics. Particularly if the person falls in both the player and contributor categories: Barry Shulman, Mike Caro, Bruno Fitoussi, and Liam Flood come to mind.

Joe Beevers summed it up perfectly when he said that in his mind, “A member should be memorable and illustrious.” I agree with Beevers. It’s the Hall of Fame after all. I’d rather vote for a player with a worthy but slightly lesser resume (again, success in poker is arbitrary) if their name is synonymous with poker. Basically, is someone a mere footnote or a couple paragraphs in future poker history books?

If a person has a Hall of Fame resume their other accomplishments are certainly worth looking at and considering. And in special cases, non-Hall of Fame resumes should also be considered if the person was transformational: Chris Moneymaker anyone?

Furthermore, the suggestion that the Poker Hall of Fame voting rules are crystal clear and immutable is quite hypocritical:

  • Allowing the general public to select the 10 finalists is foolish enough, but when a select group of Hall of Fame voters can just put someone the public didn’t select on the ballot you can’t argue that the rules must be followed to the letter.
  • When the highly flawed voting process allows a bloc of voters to put in any player they want, it’s hard to take the overall process seriously.

Basically, what some people are trying to tell us is the Poker Hall of Fame is quite malleable… until the part where we vote on the two people who will be inducted. At that point it goes from being interpretational to absolute, because we wouldn’t want to lessen the accomplishments of the great Edmund Hoyle, Wild Bill Hickok, or the dozen or so other inductees who have bios that are a sentence long.

Apparently, some rules matter and some don’t.

If you really want to give the PHoF an air of legitimacy I suggest opening up the voting to more, and more diverse, people. And stop limiting the induction process to two people, or combine the Poker Hall of Fame with the European Poker Hall of Fame and the Women in Poker Hall of Fame. And make the entire thing transparent.

It won’t “water down” the accomplishment. There are only 46 Hall of Famers in the 200 year history of poker, and a good number of them are virtually unknown even in the poker world.

And let’s stop with the nonsense that inducting people from bygone eras, or from non-poker-hotspots will somehow take away from more deserving players.  If you don’t think Dick Clark and Poker Alice, or Ken Flaton and Mike Caro, or Terry Rogers and Colette Doherty, or Bruno Fitoussi and Dave Ulliott, are every bit as important to the history of poker as John Juanda and Jennifer Harman than you don’t know the history of poker (Spoiler, it began before 2003). They’re all top talents in their own unique way and they’re all worthy Hall of Famers.

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