Poker’s Old(est) Guard Rides High as Roberts, Drache Named as Newest Hall of Fame Members

Poker’s Old(est) Guard Rides High as Roberts, Drache Named as Newest Hall of Fame Members

Interesting developments this week from the WSOP, where Eric Drache and the late Bryan “Sailor” Roberts were named as inductees #43 and #44, respectively, of the Poker Hall of Fame.

The Caesars-owned Poker Hall of Fame will honor the two in an October 30th ceremony as part of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the end-of-month “October Nine” finale to the 2012 WSOP Main Event.

First the quick overview of the two, for those of you unfamiliar with either of this year’s enshrinees.  Sailor Roberts was one of a handful of Texas “road gamblers” who participated in the legendary floating poker games held across the state in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and was part of a threesome of these Texans — along with Doyle Brunson and “Amarillo Slim” Preston — who pooled their bankrolls and moved to Las Vegas to take on the high-stakes games there.

The three busted once, before reorganizing and moving om to greater fame and fortune, with all three winning the Main Event once back in the ’70s, back when it was admittedly more of a one- or two-table SNG than the several-thousand-deep circus it is today.

Drache was another regular player on the scene in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly in seven-card-stud, his specialty.  Though never a bracelet winner, Drache did finish as the runner-up in three stud different tourneys, as recently as 2009.  Drache, noted for hsi gamble, was like Brunson prominently featured in the Al Alvarez book “The Biggest Game in Town,” which was the first novel-length look at the Vegas poker life surrounding the WSOP.

Drach subsequently moved on to the organizational side of poker, and is generally credited with originating the concept of the “satellite” tournament, which in its modern form has been used both live and online to boost overall tournament attendance.  Drache is also often credited with fostering the concept of the Poker Hall of Fame itself, though that’s an idea that probably would have come about anyway.

I’d had a pretty solid track record in picking the eventual enshrinenees in each of the past four years, and I was a voter myself in 2009, when Mike Sexton was elected.  This year, I whiffed utterly. One of the oddities of this year’s election was that Drache and Roberts were both first-time finalists, while four of the other eight were returning finalists.

Those four were Jennifer Harman-Traniello, John Juanda, Tom McEvoy and Scotty Nguyen, and I figured Harman-Tramiello and one of the two foreign finalists (Chris Bjorin or Thor Hansen) as likely to get the nod.

Instead, the old guard of players that votes on these went back to the same old, meaning ancient and American, and came up with Drache and Roberts.

Now, all of these finalists are deserving, and it’s a safe bet that most of them will one day be added to the PHOF rolls.  But there’s an interesting question to ask:

Does timeliness merit its own reward.  Does having the hostorical fortune to be on the scene in the ’70s, when the WSOP itself was in its formative years and the cash-game scene of poker was taking a more modern shape, automatically grant an extra degree of renown when something like PHOF enshrinement is being discussed?

Look at this list of WSOP bracelet winners from its early years, and see what you think:

1970: Johnny Moss

1971: Johnny Moss (x2), Puggy Pearson, Jimmy Casella, Bill Boyd

1972: Bill Boyd, Amarillo Slim Preston

1973: Puggy Pearson (x3), Sam Angel, Jack Straus, Bill Boyd, Aubrey Day, Joe Bernstein

1974: Jimmy Casella (x2), Bill Boyd, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim Preston, Johnny Moss

1975: Johnny Moss, Sam Angel, Billy Baxter, Jay Heimowitz, Sailor Roberts

Doyle Brunson picked up the first two of his ten in 1976, and Moss picked up another one, but let’s look at those first six years. All told, 27 bracelets were awarded in those six years, and 20 of the 27 were won by people who’ve since been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.  Heimowitz has to be considered a serious candidate as well, and Casella is a long shot, making it possible 24 of the first 27 could eventually fit that category.

Even at 20 of 27, that’s almost 75%.  My gut tells me that’s too high — way too high.  Sure, these were many of the greatest players in Vegas at that time, but they are way over-represented.

It reminds me of the legendary Chicago Cubs infield combo of the early 2oth century, Tinker to Evers to Chance.  All three are in the Hall of Fame, despite leading the Cubbies to exactly one championship.  Their fame comes as much from being immortalized in a 1910 poem by Franklin Pierce Adams.

If you look at their statistical records, you’ll see that Frank Chance was a solid player, one of the best of that era.  HOF worthy.  Johnny Evers was pretty darn good, maybe a Hall of Famer, maybe not.  Then there’s Joe Tinker, who was was just an average, everyday guy, somewhere between Dan Uggla and Jimmy Gantner.  Nowhere close to a true Hall of Fame-caliber player.

I can’t help but think that Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts are the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” of the poker world.  Brunson is absolutely one of the all-time greats. Amarillo Slim served as a good image-maker for poker in the ’70s and ’80s … not so much later on, and he did have some nice scores.  There’s a good Hall of Fame case there, too.

And Sailor Roberts?  I’m just not sure.  Joining forces with Slim and Dolly was great for his bankroll, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s been honored as much for that association as for his own success.

Many of those voting cut their teeth during that same poker era.  It’s no wonder that this time out, they continued to lionize their own beginnings.



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