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Why Isai Scheinberg Should Not Be in the Poker Hall of Fame

Last week, Caesars Entertainment and the World Series of Poker issued a series of reminders that the public-nomination phase for nominations for the Poker Hall of Fame will soon be drawing to a close, and that fans of poker should nominate their favorites for possible consideration.  Here’s the link to the nomination page, which is always worth a visit anyway.

hall-of-fame-logoAnd as always happens — at least in recent years — there’s the annual call for the nomination and induction into the HOF of former PokerStars owner Isai Scheinberg.  This year, the chorus for the Scheinberg cause is being led by former pro player and former Stars employee Terrence Chan, with on-again/off-again Stars exec Lee Jones sounding the Isai trumpet as well.

Chan, a/k/a “Not Johnny” Chan (the nickname being a great poker tale of its own), also recently had a stint with short-lived Nevada startup Ultimate Poker, and these days is making a name for himself as a mixed martial arts fighter.  He’s highly respected both within and outside the poker world, knows several different aspects of the business, and when he says something, one is best served by paying close attention.

Chan replied as follows to the WSOP’s latest call for nominations, on Twitter:

Chan has also taken to the 2+2 poker discussion forums today to tout his case for Scheinberg’s nomination and induction, writing the following:

Campaign for Isai Scheinberg for the Poker HOF

The purpose of this thread is a call to action for the poker players of 2+2 to nominate Isai Scheinberg for the Poker Hall of Fame.

The WSOP tweeted this from its account yesterday:

“We need your help! Tell us who should be considered for Poker Hall of Fame induction: http://www.wsop.com/2015/POKERHALLOFFAME/“

In my opinion, if the man who has done more to grow poker than any other individual in the world in the past 20 years (at least) is not in the Poker HOF, it is illegitimate.

You all know the story. Poker was a niche game before the “Moneymaker Boom”, and PokerStars was one of the largest driving forces in the Moneymaker boom. The growth in the main event field following Moneymaker’s win was unprecedented. PokerStars expanded into, and created, brand new markets where there were very few poker players. Prior to 2003 there was very little poker played in much of continental Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. We have all benefitted from the company that this man built. Some people reading this made played online poker professionally, or made good money as serious semi-pros. Some made careers out of the poker industry in various ways (journalism, television, or working in b&m poker rooms). But millions of others simply found a way to play a game they found enjoyable; a place where they could play any time, anywhere (until 2011), across myriad stakes, on an enjoyable software platform run by an attentive and professional team.

Yes, I know there are political reasons why he “won’t”. Caesars does not want to bring attention to PokerStars. Doyle’s friends take precedent. And so on. (I don’t agree that it is the case, by the way, that animosity/conflict between Caesars/CIE and Stars/Amaya would preclude them from accepting Isai.)

But we know serious poker fans and poker players agree that he belongs. The original WSOP tweet got 4 favorites. My tweet calling for Isai to be nominated got 36 favorites. WSOP has 32 times more followers than I do. Nine times as many favourites for an account with 1/32nd the following. You might argue the “average poker fan” does not know who Isai Scheinberg is. That may or may not be true. But if that’s the case, it’s time to let them know.

I suspect here I’m preaching to the choir to some extent, so I’ll wrap it up here. It is well and good to tweet, post on 2+2, and so on, but us poker players often have a reputation of outrage without action. So if you agree with this post, click on the link, fill out the form, and nominate Isai. Let’s flood wsop.com with Isai nomination ballots, and see if they have the balls to once again ignore a man who has lined their own pockets with millions.


The facts that Chan cites about Isai Scheinberg are correct, and most of his assertions about the Poker Hall of Fame and its selection process are arguably correct as well.  The above by Chan is heartfelt, well-intentioned, intelligent and sincere… and it still only tells half the story.

It’s very true that Isai Scheinberg’s industry accomplishments dwarf those of many others who are already enshrined.  It’s also very true that the political and business enmity that existed between Caesars and the Scheinberg-led PokerStars of the pre-Amaya era have likely erected a permanent wall barring Isai from consideration.

Even if Caesars and Scheinberg had been behind-the-scenes best buddies, however, it changes nothing.  There’s that little matter of the outstanding Black Friday indictment still facing Scheinberg.  As most of our readers intimately know, PokerStars and two other major US-facing companies, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker, were forced to abandon the US market after the indictments against the three companies and 11 individuals (including Isai Scheinberg) were handed down in April of 2011.

The “Do No Harm” Theory of Enshrinement Eligibility

Want to get elected to a Hall of Fame of any sort, someday?  Do lots of good, important things.  And while you’re doing that, don’t do a whole bunch of bad things that wipe out the good that you’ve accomplished.  Call it the “Do No Harm” theory, a nod in the direction of the “First, do no harm” line that classical physicians were often asked to intone as part of the Hippocratic Oath.

As one can see, Isai Scheinberg has done plenty of the important things that would be important HOF enshrinement markers, if one only considered that one side of the ledger.  However, the ongoing presence of the alleged US-bank-laws violations against Scheinberg and the old PokerStars is way too much for any serious US-based HOF consideration — not only at this time, but for the foreseeable future, probably several decades.

What did Scheinberg do that would prevent him from serious consideration by the Poker HOF?  Isn’t it true that online poker was subsequently acknowledged to be okay to play by US citizens, per a DOJ opinion.  And isn’t it also true that online poker is all that PokerStars ever offered?  Yes, and yes, but the charges against Scheinberg and his company had more to do with the intentionally mislabeling of deposits and withdrawals of US players, through a shady series of third-party payment processors.

It was all done, allegedly, with Scheinberg’s full knowledge and approval, and Scheinberg has chosen not to come to the US to contest the charges, evidence about which has surfaced in several ways in the years that have followed.  Maybe Scheinberg got some bad, bad legal advice along the way but he has chosen to protect his massive fortune and not use some of that billionaire-style wealth to either battle the case in court, or to reach a settlement which would end the case against him, once and for all.  His son Mark reached a settlement with US authorities over many of the same allegations, and that was without the junior Scheinberg even being charged in the Black Friday case — threatened with charges, perhaps, but not charged.

There was once a moment in online-poker history when it appeared that PartyGaming would have to fight the “big legal fight” regarding online poker’s legality in the US.  Party cut and ran, however, when the UIGEA was passed back in 2006.  At that point that industry responsibility regarding the US market fell to PokerStars, and when the big choice came, Isai Scheinberg simply did not stand up to his responsibility.

That’s how one wipes away a whole lot of good deeds and accomplishments, regardless of how outstanding — at least, relative to its competition — PokerStars always was as a poker site.  It doesn’t matter any more; Isai has run off with his money, for better or for worse.  A US-based Poker Hall of Fame simply -cannot- consider him for enshrinement when all things are considered, including the damage to poker in general and online poker in particular that Black Friday caused.

Isai Scheinberg is far from the only possible candidate for the Poker HOF whose negatives neutralize his or her plentiful positives.  Annie Duke is another fine example, among the game’s leading, perhaps even groundbreaking, female players, but with such a disaster of a resume from her days at UltimateBet and with the Epic Poker League that she’s no longer a serious HOF candidate.  Full Tilt’s Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson could both also put forth a whole bunch of positives, but seriously?  The concept of either of them being a HOF-er is laughable, given what transpired in Full Tilt’s latter years.

I mean, if one were to consider only positive achievements as measurement, one could think Russ Hamilton, cheater extraordinaire, could be in the HOF.  Granted that Hamilton is the ad absurdium example, but the greater point about not shredding one’s own good will through misbehavior applies to all these people in one form or another.

That very much includes Isai Scheinberg, no matter how fondly he’s viewed by his former employees or other industry heavyweights.

The HOF Voting Process Does Indeed Suck

It’s hard to argue much about the lack of transparency and the “good ol’ boy” network behind the scenes of Poker Hall of Fame voting that Terrence Chan alludes to in his post.  There are way, way too many of the group of players than can generally be described as Doyle Brunson’s old cash-game cronies in the HOF, whether or not that generation of players helped establish the game of poker as a Las Vegas staple.

To be perfectly and brutally honest, the utter lack of European players or industry people in the HOF continues to be an eyesore on the Hall’s legitimacy.  This year, the recently deceased David “Devilfish” Ulliott wil receive a lot of long-overdue consideration, but European poker stalwarts such as Thor Hansen and Chris Bjorin have been finalists before, and to the best of my knowledge, have never come truly close to being voted in.

It’s been a case, for a couple of decades, of the the existing “in crowd” of the HOF’s selection committee continuing to choose more and more of their own friends and social poker circles.  It’s a self-feeding cycle, too.

International players and their absence from the HOF are the worst oversight, of course, but not the only one.  I think women’s representation to date has been more or less fair, though I think Jennifer Harman’s election to the HOF is overdue.  And of course, being Caesars-owned and operated as a promotional tool for the benefit of Caesars’ brands and properties, the HOF has always had a WSOP-centric flair to it, in terms of the accomplishments of those who are ultimately selected.

Perhaps the best comparison to the way the Poker Hall of Fame operates would be to compare it to the Veteran’s Committee in baseball.  That committee is charged with finding candidates from baseball’s older days who were overlooked by traditional Baseball HOF election methods.  However, the Veterans Committee quickly devolved into an old-timer’s “in club” of its own, with as many of the committee’s choices as not being truly questionable additions to the baseball Hall.

Now imagine that a poker version of the Veteran’s Committee was the only way in which one could be elected to the Poker Hall of Fame.  As most people in poker truly realize, that’s pretty much what the game has today.  The HOF ain’t that much and it ain’t gaining any ground.  That’s what angers folks like Terrence Chan, even if his own favored candidate, Isai Scheinberg, has serious problems of his own.

The HOF needs to be better.  Unfortunately, electing Scheinberg to the HOF is the wrong way of accomplishing that goal.  I can be disappointed in the HOF for being bad at what it does, but I cannot get behind the concept of electing Isai Scheinberg as a way to compensate for that HOF badness.

Two wrongs, after all, don’t make a right.


Leave a Comment


One Response

  1. Lee Davy

    A very well thought out, and well written piece. I enjoyed it and learned a great deal. Thanks, Lee.


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