If you tracked recent happenings regarding the Poker Hall of Fame, it was an interesting, intriguing year. The topline story is that Eli Elezra was the 2021 PHOF inductee. Elezra has been a finalist in several previous years, so seeing him get the nod this time around was unsurprising. It’s how Elezra received the honor that to many people (including this veteran, jaded onlooker) remains the intriguing part of the tale.
Let’s backtrack a bit. In late October, CardsChat columnist Chris ‘Fox’ Wallace authored a feature on the ten finalists for induction immediately after they were announced by the WSOP. He Tweeted a link to his story, in which he came up with money-line odds for each of the ten finalists:
It was well-reasoned, and Fox is a high-stakes regular who knows all these players, owns a WSOP bracelet himself, and knows the game quite well. And I was curious, and I read it, and when I saw that he had the late Layne Flack as a heavy favorite I knew he was off track. Fox wrote that he’d talked with several “opinionated pros and industry insiders,” but, yeah, no.
Flack getting elected was never going to happen. He was only on the list because he got a significant bump in recognition after his untimely passing earlier in the year. It had nothing to do with his qualifications, by the way; it was all about perception, both by the public and by the 30-plus living Hall of Famers who actually do the voting.
So, when Fox had Flack at -220, meaning that Flack supposedly had nearly a 69% chance of being the 2021 honoree, I scoffed. Because, Flack should’ve been a “field” bet, if only because of the way the voting process is currently constructed. The PHOF has become more clubby than ever, in the virtual control of the “Big Game” extended group of players and friends. That wasn’t Flack’s scene for many years, but it was the scene of several other finalists, most notably Elezra.
I actually didn’t think Elezra would get the nod this year; I had him pegged for enshrinement in 2022, with Ted Forrest getting the nod this time around. (I suppose Forrest will get the honor next year instead.)
Fox’s second and third “betting” choices weren’t that bad, by the way. He had poker’s Susan Lucci, tournament director Matt Savage, next, with Forrest following as the third “betting” choice. All the others he had as longshots, with Elezra mired as his sixth choice, behind Isai Scheinberg and Antonio Esfandiari.
It wasn’t that unreasonable a lineup, except for utterly missing the massive influence of what I’ve whimsically called the “Doyle bloc” for many years. (It’d be more accurate of me to call it the “Big Game bloc,” but the Doyle bloc is catchier, so there it is.)
Bloc voting evident in 2021 results
There’s no reasonable way to look at the 2021 PHOF result and to not conclude that bloc voting put Elezra into the hall. The WSOP has not, to date, released specific voting tallies for the 2021 election, other than to say that Elezra won. The public doesn’t know who finished second, third, or tenth — okay, that was probably Chris Ferguson — nor do we know by how wide a margin Elezra won.
This isn’t good. Not for the Hall, not for the WSOP, not for poker. And it’s a very obvious and expected byproduct of the changes to the PHOF voting system that were installed prior to the 2020 voting process. Those included limiting the voting to just those 30-plus living PHOF members; the parallel media-expert panel, which formerly also contributed votes, was disbanded.
The results were predictable in 2020. In 2020, the hall enshrined Huck Seed. This year, it was Elezra. Next year, it’ll be another player from Vegas, baby. Probably Forrest. It’s that bloc at work — friends voting for friends, and possibly for mutual business interests as well. The most cynical part of me notes that while Elezra is a helluva poker player, he has run aground a few times this year, if possibly due only to significant family-related expenses. Still, borrowing a stake and keeping a seat in the game is easier if you’ve got “PHOF member” tied to your name.
Oh, yeah, about those results. In 2020, the WSOP did release detailed votes for the election, showing not only that seed won, but by how much. Each voter could cast up to 10 votes, and at least 30 voters participated:
Huck Seed – 76
Matt Savage – 51
Isai Scheinberg – 45
Eli Elezra – 30
Antonio Esfandiari – 23
Lon McEachern and Norman Chad – 20
Ted Forrest – 20
Mike Matusow – 17
Patrik Antonius – 15
Chris Ferguson – 3
It’s hard to say how big a jump Seed made to be elected in 2020, since the WSOP does not appear to have released its 2019 tallies. But it’s clear that Elezra leap-frogged both Savage and Scheinberg to be elected in 2021. Such leaps are a hallmark of bloc voting, where several voters collaborate to focus their voting power behind a single candidate. It’s reminiscent of 2016, when Todd Brunson went in (alongside Carlos Mortensen), despite never having been a finalist before and while having won his only WSOP bracelet over a decade earlier. The junior Brunson is a fine, fine player, but still….
So, congrats to Eli. He’s become the 60th member of the PHOF. And that’s that.
Meanwhile, the Poker Hall of Fame itself will have to take more heat. The changes made in 2020 have had the direct effect of concentrating the voting power into the hands of a select few who share immense knowledge of the game and its players, but from an in-common viewpoint. That’s going to make the PHOF even more insular and non-representative in the years ahead.
Over at PocketFives, Jeff Walsh recently took the WSOP to task for the 2020 changes and the effects they’ll almost surely have in the long term. “Looking ahead, without change,” Walsh wrote, “the Poker Hall of Fame may keep its elitist status but will forgo its credibility. A Hall of Fame isn’t about the number of people in it, it’s about accomplishments.”
Even more pointedly, Walsh added that the current selection process “makes the Hall look and feel like an old-school popularity contest rather than a celebration of those who have made the game great.”
I agree. There are several explanations for why the WSOP might have done what it did regarding the PHOF and its election process. Perhaps I’ll return to those at a future date. None of those explanations, however, are likely to hold much water in the long run. Right now the PHOF is in need of a big fix.
(Featured image source: Haley Hintze)