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Ambassadorship Should Matter for Poker Hall of Fame Candidacy

Earlier this week, I relayed information about the problems poker superstar Daniel Negreanu has with the Poker Hall of Fame election process. In that article, I briefly hit on a point about which I disagreed with Negreanu. Today I thought I’d take a moment to expand on those thoughts.

In a blog post on his site FullContactPoker.com, Negreanu lamented the fact that many Hall of Fame voters, be they one of the thousands of fans who submitted names in the nomination round or even the 41 final voters (21 living members of the Poker Hall of Fame plus 20 select poker media members, of which I am not one), care way too much about whether or not a player is/was a “nice guy.” A player’s “ambassadorship” plays too much of a factor in the minds of voters.

Daniel Negreanu (c) PokerStars

Daniel Negreanu (c) PokerStars

“I don’t think the HOF should be a popularity contest,” he wrote. “Being a ‘nice guy’ isn’t one of the criteria. I don’t think anyone would classify Johnny Moss or Stu Ungar as nice guys, but both clearly have a place in the poker hall of fame. Now, Tom McEvoy is most certainly a nice guy, and I think that’s one of the key reasons he was inducted last year, despite their being more qualified candidates based on the criteria.”

He went on, pointing out that only the last of the Hall of Fame criteria is the one that has anything to do with possibly being a good guy or an ambassador of that game and it states that it is for “non-players.” Negreanu added that if Howard Lederer were Hall of Fame-worthy aside from the Full Tilt Poker scandal, he would vote for him based on the criteria that were presented.

He reiterated some of his points later, saying:

I think the biggest mistake the media and others make when it comes to voting, is focusing on how good of a poker ambassador a player is. They shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter at all. Again, unless the person is being considered in the builders category. That’s where I would put a guy like Bruno Fitoussi. He qualifies on all the criteria, but mostly it’s his contribution as a pioneer in spreading the game globally and getting Americans to make the trip over to Paris before the inception of The World Poker Tour. He was instrumental in poker becoming more of a global game.

Now, I will never pretend to have anywhere close to the experience or point of view of Daniel Negreanu. He is one of the best poker players of all time and should be elected to the Hall of Fame this year, the first year that he has been eligible based on the age requirements. The most I have ever put down at a table is $100; I am a $5 Sit-and-Go player. I am as low stakes and average skilled as one can be. The closest I have ever gotten to being in Negreanu’s head was when I interviewed him over the phone several years ago (eight, maybe?). But I have to disagree with him, to an extent.

If someone was a tremendous poker player, worthy of Hall admission based on his poker exploits, but at the same time was known as kind of a dick, then there is no reason to leave him out. Mainstream sports Halls of Fame have plenty of guys in them with whom you might not have wanted to hang around. Ty Cobb, one of the top handful of baseball players ever, was known as a belligerent bigot. He got into fights with fans in the stands and he routinely slid into bases spikes up. If he were playing today and you asked teammates about him, they would probably say something like, “Yeah, he’s a total douche, but I’m sure glad he’s hitting in front of me.” But still, Cobb is in the Hall of Fame.

So no, I do not care if Scotty Nguyen got drunk on national television and was an ass to people at the table. To take a page out of Stephen Colbert’s book, I would give him a “wag of the finger,” but I wouldn’t keep him out of the Hall.

I do, however, think there are times “off the field” exploits should be considered. In the Howard Lederer example, for instance, I would feel ENTIRELY justified withholding any sort of accolades from someone who was a blight on the game. The Full Tilt customer funds scandal and UltimateBet/Absolute Poker superuser scandals were gigantic stains on the industry and not the kinds of stains that can be ignored by just flipping over the cushion. In a day and age in which we as poker players and fans are trying to convince skeptics that our game is legitimate, that poker players aren’t cheats, that poker sites aren’t criminal enterprises, that we deserve to be able to play the game freely online, what Lederer, Russ Hamilton, and others did damaged the industry. They simultaneously stole money from poker players and gave our opponents ammunition to use against us.

Even if the people responsible for those scandals were no-doubt-about-it shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame, there is no way I would ever vote for them, and, frankly, I would be disappointed in anyone who thought otherwise. I don’t care how awesome of a poker player you are – if you actively work to destroy the industry and harm poker players, then get the hell out. You certainly aren’t going to get a trophy from me.

On the flip side, there are poker players who have been wonderful people and amazing ambassadors to the game. Daniel Negreanu himself has had his image boosted because of how great an ambassador he has been, and deservedly so. He is one of the few poker players that many non-poker fans have heard of, which speaks a lot to his personality. While of course non-players should be judged on how they contributed to the growth of the game, there are also some players that are such exceptional personalities and tremendous ambassadors that they should be given credit for that. There could be instances where a player is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate (still a very legitimate candidate, mind you) but has been such a positive force in his career that his candidacy is worth bumping over the edge and into the Hall of Fame.

We need not make any of these arguments about Daniel Negreanu. He qualifies for the Hall with any set of criteria we could dream up.

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