Wide Open Field as 2013 Poker Hall of Fame Finalists Announced (Part 1)

The World Series of Poker released this week the list of ten finalists for possible induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, with the mix including several prominent pros, but no slam-dunk favorites for enshrinement, as has been the case in most previous years.

In this, the first of two parts, we’ll list the finalists and nominating/voting rules, and examine the first five finalists.  Part two looks at the remaining five, and wraps up with some overall thoughts on the process.

The ten finalists, in alphabetical order:

  • Chris Bjorin
  • Humberto Brenes
  • David Chiu
  • Thor Hansen
  • Jennifer Harman
  • Mike Matusow
  • Tom McEvoy
  • Carlos Mortensen
  • Scotty Nguyen
  • Huckleberry Seed

This year’s list is distinct in that the WSOP has gone with the ten players chosen through the fan-nomination process (available during the summer at WSOP.com), without adding older and often deceased players or behind-the-scenes industry veterans to the finalists’ mix.  That happened last year when Eric Drache and the late Sailor Roberts were enshrined; neither were in the top ten of fans’ votes, but were added in by Hall of Fame officials and then approved by the finalist panel.

This year’s panel of 37 voters (19 living PHOF members, 18 poker-media people) gets to vote on their preferences over the next few weeks, with the top two overall vote-getters then set to be enshrined this November.  Just for reference, here’s the official requirements for enshrinement:

  • A player must have played poker against acknowledged top competition;
  • Be a minimum of 40 years old at time of nomination;
  • Played for high stakes;
  • Played consistently well, gaining the respect of peers;
  • Stood the test of time;
  • Or, for non-players, contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker, with indelible positive and lasting results.

It’s a fun process to look at the players and conjecture as to who’s going to get the nod.  Yours truly was among the voters in 2009, the first year the current two-step election process was installed, and that year I voted for Mike Sexton and Barry Greenstein, and also correctly predicted that Sexton would be the only enshrinee in 2009, due to differences in the voting structure back then.  (Greenstein went in in 2010 instead.)

I haven’t been a part of the process in subsequent years, which for the most part is given to owners of major poker magazines and sites, but I still like to vote unofficially and ponder the pros and cons of each year’s finalists.  So let’s start that here:

Chris Bjorin

Previous Finalist Appearances: 2012

Pros: A giant of the European poker scene, Sweden’s Bjorin was one of the first Scandi pros to storm the poker world.  In a couple of decades of active play, Bjorin’s been known both as a feared cash-gamer and a veteran tournament pro.  His career tourney stats are envious, including more than $5.5 million in earnings and 68 WSOP cashes, the fifth-highest total of all time.

Cons: A lack of big tourney wins.  Despite those 68 WSOP cashes, Bjorin has only one WSOP bracelet, and that was back in 2000 in a $3,ooo NLHE event.

Betting Line: Probably still too soon.  The PHOF hasn’t yet addressed its lack of international representation, and that may hold true until more international players draw attention and they dominate the finalist’s list.  On the flip side, Bjorin is 68, and he deserves the honor more than several of the other finalists.

Humberto Brenes

Previous Finalist Appearances: -none-

Pros: Huge TV persona, courtesy of ESPN.  Brenes also has 72 WSOP cashes, which is fourth all-time, even more than Bjorin.  Two WSOP bracelets, though both were back in 1993 in small events.  Made the cash in the WSOP main event several times in the modern TV era.  Career-biggest $634,000 score came back in an early WPT event in 2004, when everyone was watching poker.

Cons:  (1) Char-r-r-r-rk!!  Geez, that’s obnoxious.  Brenes is also known largely as a no-limit hold’em player.

Other: Brenes is actually far more of a traditional gambling figure than most people realize.  Humberto and his brothers — known informally as the “Brenes Boys” — are well connected in both the Costa Rica and online gambling scenes.  Humberto is the most widely known of the Brenes brothers and a nice guy to talk to in person, much different than that hammy TV persona.

David Chiu

Previous Finalist Appearances: 2012

Pros: Solid tourney and cash-game pro, and like Bjorin above, plays several different poker disciplines.  Chiu boasts some of the most impressive numerical accomplishments of this year’s finalists, including five WSOP bracelets, over $7.7 million in career tourney winnings, and a huge $3.39 million win at the 2008 WPT World Championship in Las Vegas.

Cons: Tends to be severely underappreciated by the general poker populace.  Chiu was also formerly a “red pro” for Full Tilt, if not one of that site’s owners.  The stink from online sites’ failures has dramatically altered the lists of finalists from previous years — the likes of Russ Hamilton, Howard Lederer, Annie Duke and Chris Ferguson need not apply — but Chiu is only on the periphery of that mess.  So let’s call it a small “con” but note it nevertheless.

Thor Hansen

Previous Finalist Appearances: 2012

Pros: Like Bjorin and Marcel Luske, another veteran of the European and international poker scene.  Hansen has two WSOP bracelets, even if his overall tourney stats don’t match those of a Chiu or Mike Matusow, though Hansen has a deeper cash-game background.  Hansen also has a cool nickname — being the “Godfather” (of European poker), and there may be a sympathy factor in play as well, as Hansen was diagnosed with terminal cancer in July of 2012, given just two months to live, and he’s still with us.

Cons: Hansen’s first major US forays came courtesy of Larry Flynt, the Hustler publisher who’s had a long-time fling with poker himself amid plenty of other lifetime shenanigans.  Flynt backed Hansen for some time in the ’90s, and the poker world has taken enough bruising lately that maybe one or two or voters, out of the 37 who are voting, might hold that against Hansen.  Could that be the difference?

Jennifer Harman

Previous Finalist Appearances: 2010, 2011, 2012

Pros: Barrier-breaking cash-game player, far more recognized by poker’s high-stakes “in” crowd as an elite player than poker’s general populace.  Two WSOP bracelets, one third-place in a WPT tourney, a major role in a poker book (“The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King”), and a well-established charitable bent, including a prominent annual fundraiser for the Nevada ASPCA.

Cons: Has the TV personality of a boiled potato.  Her two bracelets at the WSOP came in 2000 and 2002, before the TV-poker era.  And she is the only major poker pro to hold the ignominious honor of being a former prominent owner of both UltimateBet and Full Tilt; Harman left UB to get in on the ground floor of Full Tilt.  Except for Mike Matusow, no one else among this year’s finalists is as potentially stained by former relationships with scandal-ridden online poker brands, despite Harman’s lack of operational input in those enterprises.

Other: Harman gets in at some point; of that I’m sure.  What I’m not sure about is if the ongoing Full Tilt situation causes potential Harman voters to click “override” and pass here for another year or two.

(The second half of this two-parter appears on Sunday, looking at the qualifications for finalists Mike Matusow, Tom McEvoy, Carlos Mortensen, Scotty Nguyen and Huck Seed.)

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