Why wait? Let’s make the Hall of Fame relevant again

Time for change

It is Hall of Fame voting time again, and a select few poker watchers are presently being canvassed to decide whose portrait they wish to see hanged on the walls of World Series of Poker towers, beside the likes of Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Wild Bill Hickok. The choice this year is between a white man, a white man, a white man, a white man, a white man, a white man, an Asian man, an Asian man and a white woman. And surprisingly enough, it is one of the most diverse shortlists in years.

Poker is supposedly the great leveller, open to anyone with sufficient funds to join the game. But there’s not really much doubt that it has historically been the preserve of the white male, even if there’s no apparent reason why that should remain so.

Arguably the best player in contemporary poker is black, while the online poker operators channel enormous amounts of money on marketing aimed at women players. But certainly when it comes to the Hall of Fame, there’s almost no one who meets the criteria of inclusion who also represents one of poker’s minority player-bases. I’d say that’s reason enough to take a look at those criteria again to determine why this is so.

According to the official WSOP Hall of Fame website, an eligible player must “have played poker against acknowledged top competition”, “played for high stakes” and “played consistently well, gaining respect of peers”. For non-players (ie, industry figures), they must have “contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker, with indelible positive and lasting results”.

As of 2009, a Hall of Famer must also be at least 40-years-old, a rule introduced ostensibly to prevent the current young flavour of the month being voted in before his or her skills have had the chance to stand the test of time. And on the surface, there is nothing wrong with any of these criteria. They all seem to make sense.

However, in order to qualify under these terms, a player must have been born in 1973 at the latest and so likely started a career in or before the 1990s. That was a time when poker was a far, far different place to what it is now, and where it genuinely wouldn’t have been unusual to see table after table exclusively comprising white males. The Hall of Fame is therefore drawing from a pretty limited pool of players, and almost entirely misrepresenting what the game has now become. It’s essentially, albeit inadvertently, celebrating a more prejudiced era, which is surely not what anyone wants.

I don’t think there’s actually any good reason for the age limit on Hall of Fame inductees, so long as the other criteria are met. Indeed, I think there is something immediately Hall of Fame-worthy about some of the younger smash-and-grab merchants, who manage to play so consistently well and at such high stakes so hastily that they not only gain the respect of their peers in double-quick time, but also pilfer most of their peers’ funds in a fraction of the time they originally took to acquire. I don’t think there’s any problem in either Chris Moneymaker or Tom Dwan going into the Hall of Fame already. (It was the latter’s rumoured inclusion that resulted in the 40-year-old rule.) Both contributed more to poker in their first years as players than many thousands of others managed in an entire career. Indeed, Moneymaker did it in a single tournament.

Modern poker is so much faster moving than in the past and we may also see careers that are far briefer than ever before. Vanessa Selbst, for instance, a sure-fire lock for Hall of Fame recognition, won’t actually be eligible for induction until 2024, by which time I suspect she will have taken her millions and left the poker scene in order to follow her dream of becoming a human rights lawyer.

She will no doubt be hall of fame standard at that too, but to get her recognised for her poker exploits, we will need to rely on the voters 11 years from now to remember her. Why not just put her in now and avoid the doubt. (And yeah, Ivey is ready as well.)