WSOP Hall of Fame Bios: Matt Savage

Alex Weldon : September 22nd, 2015


The Poker Hall of Fame, curated by the World Series of Poker (WSOP) has announced the list of finalists for its 2015 inductees. Ten players have been nominated, from which two will be selected for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Over a period of two weeks, we’re looking at their stories and the cases for – and sometimes against – their inclusion.

For the average recreational poker fan or small-time player, Matt Savage is probably the most recognizable name in poker not belonging to a professional player. Poker is a world in which those involved with officiating and organizing are generally overlooked, except for when mistakes are made, but Savage’s high degree of interaction with the media and the poker playing public has made him easily the most visible tournament director in the history of the game.

Like almost everyone who works in poker, Savage is someone who’s always enjoyed games and sports, and began with competitive aspirations of his own, first as a would-be professional bowler, then as a card player. Playing poker proved to be a losing endeavor for him, however, so he quickly made the decision to cross over to the house side of things, first as a chip runner, then as a dealer.

Savage enjoyed dealing, but long shifts eventually caused him to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, and forced him off the tables and onto the floor. Although he was initially bitter about this forced change of role, it proved fortuitous for him, as the tournament director at his card room happened to go on vacation just at that time, allowing Savage to step in and get his feet wet in that role.

Even as a rookie, Savage managed things well enough to get positive reviews from the players in those tournaments for which he was filling in as director, so when a new casino opened up nearby, Savage landed himself a full time position in that role.

Although he found that he enjoyed directing tournaments, Savage was at the same time frustrated by what he saw as inconsistencies in how others were doing the job. He attended the World Series of Poker in 2001 with the intention of talking to other tournament directors and trying to achieve consensus on certain issues. Although he was initially met with derision, he nonetheless managed to convince a couple dozen directors to get together for a meeting; what was born out of that meeting was the Tournament Directors’ Association, as well as well as Savage’s own rapid ascent to the top of his profession.

The following year, Savage was hired as the tournament director for the World Series of Poker, a role that he held until 2004, for a total of three years running, exactly straddling the fateful 2003 World Series which kicked off the poker boom. Following his stint with the WSOP, Savage became the tournament director at both the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles and Bay 101 in San Jose.

In 2010, Savage was hired as the Executive Director of the World Poker Tour, a role which he continues to hold to this day. At the time he took over, the WPT had the unfortunate reputation of being unresponsive to player feedback. Savage, on the other hand, was already known as someone keen on listening to players and seeking to provide the product that the consumers demand, so he was brought on to remedy the situation.

In addition to his reliability and attentiveness to players, Savage is also known for his humility and flexibility when it comes to revisiting past decisions that haven’t worked out as planned, or have proven unpopular. In his role as Executive Director for the WPT, he was an early champion of multiple re-entry tournaments, but has subsequently reversed his position on the issue and has begun switching most WPT events back to a freezeout format. Likewise, the TDA, under his guidance, this year reversed their earlier decision regarding when to kill the hands of players who are away from their seats – the TDA had originally chosen to adopt “First Card Off the Deck” as a standard policy, but based on player feedback, decided to switch to “Last Card Off the Deck” instead.

Savage was already laureled for his performance as early as 2003, when in his capacity as WSOP Tournament Director at the time, he received the inaugural Benny Binion award for “outstanding service in the poker industry.” He’s likewise very likely to make it into the Hall of Fame some day, but I’m not sure I like his chances this year. Partially, that’s because poker in general continues to be in a slump, and event organizers take a lot of the blame for that, even ones as hard-working and responsive as Savage.

More importantly, though, I can’t see the panel choosing two people from the business side of things in a single year; I think we’ll always see at least one player inducted for his or her playing skills. As I said yesterday, I feel strongly that Terry Rogers is one of the strongest choices on the short list this year, and I expect that the panel will see him that way as well. Although it’s possible that Rogers might get overlooked in favor of, say, a Juanda-Harman combo, I can’t see him being passed over in favor of Savage, as deserving as the latter is, and I can’t see many people putting Rogers and Savage as their top two, and neglecting the players on the list entirely.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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