Poker Hall of Fame Announces Finalists for 2016 Induction

As happens every September, the Poker Hall of Fame has released its list of ten finalists for possible enshrinement in 2016.  In alphabetical order, this year’s finalists are:

Chris Bjorin
Humberto Brenes
Todd Brunson
Eli Elezra
Bruno Fitoussi
Chris Moneymaker
Carlos Mortensen
Max Pescatori
Matt Savage
David “Devilfish” Ulliott

hall-of-fame-logoToday’s announcement of the ten finalists follows a two-month public nomination process earlier this summer, and a winnowing of those nominations by the PHOF’s Governing Council.  As happens every year, the final decision will be made by a collective vote of living Poker Hall of Fame members and a “blue ribbon” panel of veteran poker media.  Each voter actually receives ten separate votes to distribute at will across the pool of finalists, and the highest cumulative vote-getters — the rules have been modified so that in most years, two finalists will be elected — will be selected.

This year’s honorees will be formally enshrined at a ceremony held in conjunction with this fall’s “November Nine” conclusion of the WSOP Main Event.  As to who should get the honor, that’s always where most of the public interest occurs between now and the official election announcement, later this fall.

Looking inside the list, six of this year’s finalists were also on last year’s final ballot: Chris Bjorin, Bruno Fitoussi, Carlos Mortensen, Max Pescatori, Matt Savage and David Ulliott.  For Bjorin, it’s his fifth year as a finalist, leading this year’s ten.  It’s the third time as a finalist for Fitoussi and Mortensen, while the other three are each making their second appearance.

Also making a second finalist appearance (the first was in 2015), is Humberto “The Shark” Brenes, a popular fan favorite.  And three others are making first-time appearances in the final ten: Todd Brunson, Eli Elezra and Chris Moneymaker.

In this writer’s opinion, the list is a bit odd.  Not present among this year’s final ten are two previous three-time finalists who one would have thought would not only have returned, but would have been favorites to be elected.  Those two, David Chiu and Huckleberry Seed, will have to wait until at least 2017.

As we think about who will be elected, here’s the assortment of brief bios the WSOP and PHOF have prepared for each of the final ten:

CHRIS BJORIN

Bjorin, a 68-year-old Swedish-born poker player who now resides in London, England, has earned more than $5.5 million playing poker in his distinguished career. The two-time WSOP gold bracelet winner sits sixth on the all-time WSOP cash list with 80 and ranks fifth all-time in WSOP Main Event cashes with seven. A model of consistency, Bjorin has cashed for six-figures in 19 different calendar years. He hold’s Sweden’s all-time money and cash records and is WSOP Europe’s all-time cash leader as well. He cashed six times during the 2016 WSOP.

HUMBERTO BRENES 

The man known as “The Shark” may be best known for his gregarious and outgoing personality, but Humberto Brenes has a lot of poker bite to back up all his barking. Fourth on the all-time WSOP cashes list with 86 in-the-money finishes, Brenes has been one of the most consistent WSOP performers for the better part of 25 years. What stands out among those cashes is his track record in the WSOP Main Event, a tournament he has made the money in on nine separate occasions, including a fourth place showing in 1988. That puts the 65-year-old second on the list of most Main Event cashes behind only Berry Johnston. In addition to his $6 million in tournament earnings, the winningest Costa Rican player in poker history has also played a crucial role in helping to develop the poker scene in Latin America.

TODD BRUNSON 

As the son of Poker Hall of Famer Doyle Brunson, Todd has followed in his father’s footsteps in making poker his profession, and there is no doubt the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Despite picking up the game for the first time while he was studying law at Texas Tech University, Todd eventually dropped out of school to turn professional. With nearly $4.3 million in tournament winnings, including 52 WSOP cashes and a gold bracelet, the younger Brunson has carved out his own successful career. The 47-year-old Las Vegan is best known for his mixed games acumen, choosing to spend most of his time playing cash games in Las Vegas and typically only playing tournaments that offer a variety of non-Hold’em variants. And as told in the 2005 book, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, Brunson once won $13.5 million over a two-day span in a heads-up, $50,000-$100,00 Limit Hold’em cash game.

ELI ELEZRA

Eliahu “Eli” Elezra, is a 55-year-old Israeli poker professional now residing in Las Vegas. The former lieutenant in the Israeli army picked up the game after suffering a leg injury during the Lebanon War in 1982. While bedridden, the boredom led to cards and it now leads to a finalist list for the Poker Hall of Fame. But not before several jobs and business ventures, including gutting fish in Alaska and opening 30-minute photo processing shops in Las Vegas. Elezra is mostly known in poker circles for high stakes cash game action, but with a poker career spanning 20 years, the affable Elezra has also won three WSOP gold bracelets, a WPT title, amassed 52 WSOP cashes (including 10 in 2016) and more than $3 million in tournament winnings. The married father of five is now a long-time Las Vegas resident and has been a regular in the poker scene here for two decades.

BRUNO FITOUSSI

Perhaps no one is more influential in French poker circles than Fitoussi, 57, who turned his passion for poker into a successful playing career and several other poker-related business interests. He introduced Texas Hold’em into France in 1995 at the Aviation Club de France, Paris’ most famous gaming club. He has more than $2.8 million in career poker winnings, ranking 8th all-time on France’s list. “The King” won the inaugural World Heads Up Poker Championship in 2001, defeating Amarillo Slim. His first recorded cash was in 1991. He was the runner-up in the WSOP $50,000 Poker Players Championship in 2007, securing his largest cash, for $1,278,720 and showing he was capable of playing all poker’s major variants well. But Fitoussi’s mark on the game in large part comes from getting poker on television in France and his participation and commentary in several poker shows over the years. France truly became a poker market in part due to Fitoussi’s activities to develop the game in his home country.

CHRIS MONEYMAKER 

“This is beyond fairy tale,” said Norman Chad. “It’s inconceivable!” That was in 2003 and he was talking about an accountant from Tennessee who was playing in his first live poker tournament after winning his entry into the event in an online satellite for $39. But it wasn’t just any event. It was the world championship of poker, the 2003 WSOP Main Event, where first place was $2.5 million and ESPN cameras were everywhere. It’s often said that poker is divided into two eras, pre-Moneymaker, and post-Moneymaker. And that’s all because 40-year-old Chris Moneymaker was able to capture the crown in 2003 at age 27. With hole cards being shown on ESPN for the first time, viewers at home were enamored by the “Aww shucks Accountant” who bluffed and bullied back at the pros on that fateful 2003 run. What followed Chris’ victory was a Tonight Show appearance, wide media coverage and a boom poker had never seen before, aptly now called the “Moneymaker effect.” It’s inconceivable to find someone’s first live cash in poker come with a victory and world championship, but that is the case with Chris. He’s been juggling family and poker ever since, cashing in tournaments every year since 2003, and has now amassed $3.6 million in earnings, cashing 71 different times on four different continents. Suffice to say, Chris’ victory that day changed the course of poker history.

CARLOS MORTENSEN

When it comes to tournament poker and ROI, no one besides Dan Colman can compare to Carlos “The Matador” Mortensen. The 2001 WSOP Main Event Champion has won more money on the World Poker Tour than any other player in history despite playing significantly fewer events. His almost $6.8 million in WPT earnings combined with over $3.1 million in WSOP earnings and assorted other cashes put his career earnings at almost $12 million. The 44-year-old is also the only player to have won both the WSOP Main Event and the WPT Championship event. Hailing from Alicante, Spain but now residing in Vegas, Mortensen is still one of the top players in the game, already cashing 12 times in 2016.

MASSIMILIANO “MAX” PESCATORI

Italy’s all-time money earner is the “Italian Pirate” Massimiliano “Max” Pescatori, with lifetime earnings up over the $4.2 million mark to go along with four career WSOP gold bracelets. Pescatori, 44, began his poker tournament career in 2002, and has been a steady and consistent performer ever since, with a well-rounded game that includes success in multiple disciplines. The Milan resident, Pescatori is also a noted poker author, having written two books in Italian on poker, to help strengthen and grow the game in his home country.

MATT SAVAGE 

When you think of non-players in poker, perhaps there is no more well-known figure than tournament director Matt Savage. Known for his player-friendly, feet on the floor style, Savage, 47, has directed tournaments all over the globe and for all different tournament series and casino companies and handled his duties with aplomb and style. One of the inaugural founders of the Tournament Directors Association, Savage has tirelessly advocated for standardizing poker tournament rules and has been one of the foremost innovators in terms of tournament offerings and formats. The San Jose, California native is the current tournament director at the Bay 101 Casino in San Jose as well as the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, in addition to being the Executive Tour Director of the World Poker Tour. Savage has had a front row seat to the incredible growth poker has undergone this century and has been one of the most influential men in helping the game grow and evolve to what it is today.

DAVID “DEVILFISH” ULLIOTT

Sadly the poker world lost the physical presence of David “Devilfish” Ulliott in 2015, but his legacy and influence on the game of poker is sure to live on. Ulliott is one of Britain’s most famous poker faces. A colorful character, Ulliott has a WSOP gold bracelet, a WPT title and more than $6.2 million in lifetime earnings to his name. He currently sits second on the England all-time money list and has cashes dating back all the way to 1993. You couldn’t help but notice “Devilfish” when you were seated at a poker table with him, and it was his personality that shone through on television, particularly in Europe, that made him one of poker’s biggest stars. David Ulliott was a beloved figure in poker whom was taken too soon, but not before he left an indelible impact on the game and all those he came in contact with.

Source: WSOP

I think the field is wide, wide open.  Since I’ve already tabbed Seed and Chiu (in a piece on another site), and they’re not even in this year’s final ten, I’m taking a mulligan.  So, who next?

If I had votes (and I don’t), I’d distribute them between Carlos Mortensen and Matt Savage.  Mortensen has a track record of excellence in tournaments around the globe that none of these other finalists can match.  Savage, actually the only “industry” person among this year’s finalists, is way overdue to be recognized for his work across the board.

If I had additional votes (and I don’t have those, either), I’d look at Chris Bjorin, Chris Moneymaker and Devilfish Ulliott, all for different reasons.  Bjorin was one of the earlier international stars who helped bridge the Atlantic, poker-wise, between Europe and the US.  Moneymaker, one-hit wonder or not, still deserves a fantastic amount of respect and has always been a strong ambassador of the game.  All the arguments that supported Tom McEvoy’s PHOF election a couple of years back apply in large part to Moneymaker as well, even if I don’t think I’d personally vote for Chris this time around.  And Devilfish’s huge impact on the UK and Europe poker scenes is something that’s just not receiving enough credit in Vegas, US and PHOF circles.

Bruno Fitoussi and Humberto?  Decent candidates, but not at the top of my list.  Max Pescatori, Todd Brunson and Eli Elezra?  Well, how could any one of those three truly be considered over a Huck Seed?  They’re all still active and have plenty of time to strengthen their list of accomplishments, but for these three… not quite yet.

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