Hall of Fame Poker

Strong Finalist List Under Consideration for 2017 Poker Hall of Fame Selection

It’s that time of year, when the folks at Caesars Entertainment and the World Series of Poker have released the list of ten finalists for possible induction into the Poker Hall of Fame. The list of finalists for 2017 is a strong one, led by 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Ivey, who after officially joining the “crotchety old man” club (he turned 40), is eligible for PHOF induction for the first time.

Ivey is joined by another strong first-time nominee in Mori Eskandani, the producer of such popular TV-poker programming as Poker After Dark, NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship, and, of course, much of ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker.

Eight other finalists are returning after being a finalist in at least one previous year. It’s a generally strong list: David Chiu, Ted Forrest, Thor Hansen, Mike Matusow, Max Pescatori, Matt Savage, Huckleberry Seed, and the late David “Devilfish” Ulliott.

Pescatorii, Savage, and Ulliott were finalists in 2016, and all five of the others have been finalists in at least one previous year. If there’s anything odd in this — knowing how public whim does strongly influence the shaping on any given year’s final ten — it’s that seven of last year’s finalists aren’t on this year’s final list. Among those, Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson were elected, while none of Chris Bjorin, Humberto Brenes, Chris Moneymaker, Eli Elezra, or Bruno Fitoussi made the finalists this time around.

Or maybe the final eight or nine: The public-nomination process can be presumed to produce a list that’s totally dominated by players, rather than industry folk, and the PHOF’s election committee always ensures that one or two prominent and well-qualified industry people are inserted into the process for final consideration. This year that’s Eskandani and Savage.

Last year I batted .500 in my predictions, tabbing Mortensen and Savage for enshrinement, though I wasn’t surprised when Todd Brunson got the nod along with Mortensen. This year, Ivey is widely considered a lock for election, and I concur. Between the ten WSOP bracelets and the long-time cash game success — okay, it’s the ten bracelets — Ivey’s going to go right in.

The larger question is: Who’s going to be the other enshrinee? I’ve seen some of the early prognostications floating around the poker world on the topic, and of course this is yet another, but there are a couple of facts worth considering.

First, there’s been a gentle shift in the structure of the Voting Committee. The composition of the committee, late last decade and early in this one, used to be 50% existing HOF members and 50% poker media. (This included the one year, 2009, when I cast ballots.) That’s been changed, for an indeterminate number of reasons. Now the ratio of player to media is 60:40. There are 27 living HOF members who cast ballots, but only 18 media folks on the voting committee, though there is some minor overlap.

One would expect that the shift to a player-dominated voting system would favor the election of players over industry people, and indeed thats’s been the case in recent years, in particular with the 10-ballot system and possibilities of bloc voting that exist. It is what is; while there are tweaks that could improve the PHOF election process, that’s a topic for another piece, another time.

For here, for projecting who might join Ivey this time around, it just means that both Eskandani and Savage are likely to be undervalued by the voting committee as a whole. They’re both deserving candidates, but I honestly don’t think either one gets in this year, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if either one did.

That leaves the other players, and from there, it becomes a crapshoot. Here it’s time for a bit of a sideways insertion. One of the rules regarding eligibility reads as follows: “Or, for non-players, contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker, with indelible positive and lasting results.

The key word there is “non-players”. By the strict letter of the eligibiltity criteria, some of the bad ink that certain players have brought upon themselves has no consequence whatsoever on their electability. I think some prominent players have even stressed that point in PHOF discussions, including Daniel Negreanu, if I remember correctly.

The thing is, the public-nomination serves that very purpose anyway. If a player accumulates too much stink, they never make it into the fans’ final ten. That’s why people such as Annie Duke and Chris Ferguson haven’t made the finalists list in recent years. That eligibility criterium exists for the purpose of the industry people who are inserted into the process, but for the players, the public does the dirty work. It’s more clever by half than most people realize.

That said, a few of the players on the list have some of those issues, and that happens yerar after year; poker players tend to be mercurial folk. Ivey’s got the whole edge-sorting thing out there, but his poker resume is just too strong; he’ll overcome that smoke with ease and be elected anyway.

A colorful character like Matusow? That’s somewhere closer to the borderline. He’s instantly recognizable and has a distinctive persona, plus and minus, but he doesn’t always receive enough public-nomination votes to make the top ten. In truth, his poker resume isn’t that oustanding, either, when compared to the other finalists. Four bracelets, that’s awesome, no doubt. But Pescatori has that many, too, as does Huck Seed. Chiu has five. Forrest has six. Hell, Layne Flack has six, and he’s never been a finalist. There’s just more to being a Hall of Famer than the bracelet count.

Speaking of Forrest, his poker resume outclasses Matusow’s by just a little bit when those two are compared. Yet there’s a little bit of smoke there, too. Forrest had his own legal issues in recent years with a handful of unpaid, six-figure markers spread around some casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City. Forrest was also due to be paid off on a big weight-loss prop bet by none other than Matusow, who welched on the bet, and that became part of the whole unpaid-markers story. That’s image strikes on both of them: Matusow for doing the welching, and Forrest for somehow thinking that relying on Matusow to pay his owesies was a viable financial-management plan. One’s worse than the other, but it’s not a great look either way.

Such is poker, y’know.

It’s just hard to pick one of the remaining players besides Ivey, but one of them will get the nod. For this year, I’ll toss a dart at the board and go with Chiu. The knock on him, supposedly, is his lack of long-term participation in some of Vegas’s big cash games. Such participation, however, is supposed to be an added measure of success, not a prerequisite.

Each of these players has one or two of those little gaps in their resume, here or there, which is why picking that other inductee along with Ivey is such a difficult task. We’ll just have to wait a few more days or weeks to find out what the voting committee thinks.

Here’s the link to the WSOP’s PHOF announcement, where you can find the bios of the finalists.

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