Friday, October 19, 2012

Apples, Oranges, and the Poker Hall of Fame

As you’ve probably heard by now, Brian “Sailor” Roberts and Eric Drache are the latest inductees into the Poker Hall of Fame. The Poker Hall of Fame Governing Council made the announcement yesterday, and the Class of 2012 will be recognized in a ceremony at the “Octo-Nine” at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino later this month.

I had the honor of participating in the process once again this year, being one of the poker media who voted on the 10 finalists. Living Poker Hall of Famers also voted, and while I believe both Roberts and Drache got support from the media, my sense was that the other PHOFers were especially behind those two and likely ensured their getting in. (For more on Roberts and Drache, here’s a Betfair Poker piece about their induction.)

As in the past, I’m not going to reveal specifically how I voted. However, I will say I’m glad about the two inductees and believe both are deserving of being included among the now 44 members of the Poker Hall of Fame.

Roberts, of course, is being elected posthumously, having passed away in 1995. While Drache is still part of the current poker scene (serving as a consultant on poker TV shows, playing in events on occasion), both he and Roberts really belong to earlier eras of poker, with their contributions mostly coming before or during the birth of tournament poker as we know it.

As one of the “Texas Rounders” with Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim Preston, the most significant years of Roberts’ poker career mostly predated tournament poker, although he did enjoy success during the early years of the WSOP, including winning the Main Event in 1975. Meanwhile, Drache is being recognized largely thanks to his having served as the WSOP’s tourney director from 1973-1988, during which time he introduced the significant innovation of staging satellite tourneys to feed players into the larger buy-in events, including the Main Event. In other words, Drache is one of several who helped create and build the wildly popular variant that is tournament poker.

Today the WSOP, the WPT, and other tournaments tend to overwhelm all other aspects of professional poker, at least in terms of media coverage and the marginal place poker occupies in popular culture. Tournaments also largely influence opinions about players’ skill and thus their qualifications for recognition in something like the Poker Hall of Fame.

These days winning tournaments, especially WSOP events, rapidly promotes a player into a position of prominence when it comes to debates about his or her greatness as a player. But poker has been played for about two centuries, with tournament poker (and all of its associated statistics and records) having only truly come into prominence during the last three decades or so.

When we think of different sports and their respective histories, it’s easy to see how games change over time. The baseball being played today is obviously much different from that of even 10 or 15 years ago, let alone during the 1950s or 1920s or 1890s. That said, it’s still essentially a very similar game, and in fact produces a lot of the same statistical measurements that can be useful when drawing comparisons between players and ranking them against one another.

So while it might be hard to draw parallels between, say, a couple of pitchers like Christy Mathewson (who won 373 games from 1900-1916) and Greg Maddux (who won 355 games from 1986-2008), you can still tentatively pursue a comparison. And you can definitely talk about how each pitcher rates against others of his respective era, thereby drawing some meaningful conclusions about the greatness of each.

But with poker, there are no such stats to draw on outside of tournaments. There is no “record book” prior to 1970 -- only fading memories, stories (often embellished), and other scant evidence. And even if there were records of every high-stakes cash game ever played, it would be a mostly quixotic pursuit to try to compare one to another.

Indeed, even tourney results are only somewhat useful when talking about players’ skill and rating them against one another. There are so many variables that make even identical-looking events wildly different from one another, not to mention the variance that affects outcomes in significant ways. And, of course, the fact that lists of results generally omit all reference to non-cashes also makes the “record book” as it currently exists less than comprehensive.

In other words, everywhere you look in poker, just about every comparison you might be tempted to make requires extensive qualification. Every game, every tourney, every hand is different.

All of which is to say the debates that always surround the naming of players into various sports’ halls of fame -- debates that usually revolve around numbers and what might be considered objective evidence -- aren’t as applicable when it comes to poker and its hall of fame. Just like comparing any two poker players brings up an “apples and oranges” situation, so, too, does trying to match up the Poker Hall of Fame against other halls of fame highlight too many differences to make the comparison apt.

In the case of poker, even the numbers we do have are of limited value, which if you think about it perhaps lends an even greater importance to poker’s storytellers. I’m mostly referring to stories told by the players themselves, but also to others (the witnesses, the historians) who take up the challenge of trying to chronicle the game and tell its tales.

Perhaps it is best to think of the Poker Hall of Fame not as a collection of poker’s greatest players or contributors, but of poker’s most valuable characters -- the ones whose stories have proven the most compelling and influential and meaningful to the game and its continuing evolution.

Yeah, I know... how do we measure that?

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