Poker Hall of Fame — Past and Present (A Photo Essay)
(Photo: Announcing final table action at the 2002 World Series of Poker)
It’s a privilege to be one of the 42 voting members for the Poker Hall of Fame.
This year’s class of ten nominees makes for one of the toughest ballots choices in history. The decision of voters is difficult, since virtually all those selected by the general public and the nominating committee are worthy of serious consideration. Looking at these names, I do believe that a majority of the nominees on this year’s list will eventually be inducted into poker’s most prestigious fraternity. For most of the people on this list, it’s just a matter of time.
One of the perks of working in poker for so long is being acquainted with many of the top players in the game, including quite a few poker legends. Over the years, I’ve managed to take a great many photographs. This was before camera phones existed, when you had to buy rolls of film and ten carefully choose the best shots. Most of these photos have never been published before, in part because I’m a lousy photographer.
That said, in the coming months ahead, I’ll post a collection of photos that I’ve snapped over the years, taken between 1993 and the present. I’ve probably accumulated 500 or so interesting photos, which is a decent collection, but nothing on par with past WSOP photographers including Eric Harkins, Larry Grossman, or Ulvis Alberts. They have thousands, if not tens of thousands of images.
Today, I’m including a mix of poker players connected in some way to the Poker Hall of Fame discussion, along with my memories of what was going on when the photo was taken.
Daniel Negreanu stands a very strong chance of becoming the first inductee in history ever to be selected in his first year of eligibility. Negreanu turned age 40 earlier this year, making him eligible for induction for the first time. No doubt, Negreanu meets, if not exceeds, all the requires to be in the Poker Hall of Fame.
I first met Daniel at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut around 1996, when he came down from Toronto to play in a tournament called the World Poker Finals. Then, I got to know him a little better at a few major tournaments held in Atlantic City. I conducted my first interview with Daniel for Card Player magazine in 1998, which I believe was the first full-length feature ever done on Negreanu. If you ask me what I’m most proud about, knowing him as I do, it’s that he’s become a very opinionated writer who is capable of constructing an argument with equal amounts of skill and passion. I tend to gravitate to people who express themselves well, in person and in writing — and that certainly applies to Daniel.
Oh yes, he’s also a decent poker player. I almost forgot.
This photo was taken in 2001 at Binion’s Horseshoe. He wasn’t nearly as famous back then. But you could sure tell he was going places. Nonetheless, no one could have guessed what a huge star Daniel would become worldwide.
I’ll post a future expose on Negreanu, with many more up close and personal photos, and even tell a few “Daniel stories.”
Here’s Mike Matusow, looking quite a bit younger. I believe this photo was taken in 1999 right after his first WSOP gold bracelet victory.
Notice the bundles of cash surrounding all the Binion’s tournament chips. Not sure what exactly happened in the photo — I have no memory of this moment. In fact, Mike was almost completely unknown as a player at the time. I just happened to be standing near the final table when he won it. Gee, I wonder if this is the only photo that exists of Mike’s first win?
“The Mouth” remains a controversial player and figure within the poker world. Blessed with an abundance of talent, he’s burdened with an explosive personality which rubs many people the wrong way.
I personally like Mike and have always gotten along well with him. I’ve never once had an altercation or argument of any kind. But I’ve also seen the other side of his personality, and understand why he has his detractors.
No doubt, Mike Matusow’s controversial status and unpredictable personality makes him a longer shot to get into the Poker Hall of Fame than some others. But based on talent and accomplishments in the game, you have to admit he belongs.
A confession: I’m rooting for Humberto Brenes to be inducted. I haven’t cast my ballot yet, but I think he deserves to be in the Poker Hall of Fame.
No player south of the border (he’s from Costa Rica) has done more for poker in his lifetime. He’s become an international star and is one of the game’s funnest players to watch. He’s been a major star in the game for two decades.
Aside from his poker accomplishments, I most admire Humberto for his ambassadorial role. I’ve seen him at international events, working within the Spanish-speaking community to help popularize the game. He’s always there, and often the last person to leave.
I snapped this photo in 2001 at the Jack Binion World Poker Open, at the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, MS. He won the Main Event that year, which was televised by ESPN. Ken Lambert (who later ran the WSOP) looks on approvingly from behind. By the way, you wanna’ know what they’re talking about? Answer — how to open and close the clasp on the gold bracelet. Every tournament I’ve worked seems to have a problem with the clasps. Even Mr. Binion appears flustered.
I’ve written about my dear friend and mentor, Jack McClelland in the past. Here’s a photo I snapped at the 1998 World Series of Poker while he was on break.
Jack did most of the announcing as the Tournament Director from 1987 through 1999. I can’t say enough good things about Jack. He’s fighting his own battles right now, which are much more serious than just a poker game. I was proud to see the poker community rally to support Jack while he’s waiting for a heart transplant.
He’s among the ten nominees this year. Yet another fine man who deserves serious consideration.
Now, looking back on some of the legends that I’ve known.
Everyone recognizes the great Stu Ungar (above) from the 1997 World Series of Poker’s final day.
I love this photograph, which shows not just Stuey’s profile, but his entire body while siting down at the table. Stuey usually had a twitch, where he’d bob his leg up and down. That went on constantly. For many years, his opponent’s tried to decipher what the bobbing meant — as though it was a nervous habit. My interpretation was that Stuey just couldn’t keep still for very long. He was a constant force and couldn’t stop moving. By the way, Stuey was totally straight on the day he won the world championship a third time. He was completely in control of himself and the final table from start to finish.
I’ve got quite a few more stories, impressions, and photos of that 1997 classic. I shot several rolls of film and will post some of my best shots later. My favorite photo in the bunch which I haven’t published yet is the only known photo of Stuey taken on the night before his victory. I’m keeping that one for a special feature.
Here’s two poker icons together for the last time. Jack Binion gets ready to raise three fingers, as if to say — “that’s three wins for Stuey.”
There’s happiness and sadness here. “The Kid” enjoys the limelight for the last time in his illustrious poker career. In fact, this was his final highlight. Stuey would miss the 1998 WSOP completely and then be found dead just five months after that.
Stuey was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame posthumously, in 2001. WSOP patriarch Jack Binion was inducted in 2005.
One of the most unusual aspects of the 1997 WSOP championship final table was having it played entirely outdoors, on Fremont Street. The street had been closed off and made into a pedestrian mall just a year earlier. Trouble was, temperatures soared to 92 degrees on a very windy day. The cards even blew off the table a few times, requiring a plastic cover to be set atop the board after it was dealt. These were not the best conditions for poker.
The ESPN television crew didn’t seem to mind much, especially since the finale raced by in less than four hours — one of the quickest finishes in history. I snapped this photo of commentator Gabe Kaplan (center) calling the action along with the late Jim Albrecht, who served as WSOP administrator for many years. Phil Hellmuth came in as a guest color commentator for a few hours.
Hellmuth was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007.
Here I am with Erik Seidel, one of the game’s quietest and most respected players. I’m not sure of the date of this photograph — but guess it was sometime in the mid-1990’s.
Erik was inducted in 2010.
Here’s another shot of Erick Seidel, this time while playing in the championship at the Jack Binion World Poker Open, where I served as Media Director from 2000-20005. This was the second-biggest tournament in the world after the WSOP in size and prize money. It dominated the entire month of January. Players came from all over the world to play in the three and a half week series.
I believe my pal Eric Harkins took this photo, but I’m not sure. He and I worked together for a number of years, along with Mark and Tina Napolitano, who owned PokerPages.com.
I took this photo of Doyle Brunson while on break at the 1998 WSOP. He doesn’t look too happy with me. This was the year Doyle knocked actor Matt Damon out of the Main Event championship. In fact, I believe that happened shortly after this photo was taken — when Doyle’s pocket aces snapped off Damon’s pocket kings.
Damon joined actor Ed Norton at the WSOP that year. They both appeared and played in the championship, promoting their new movie that was about to come out, called “Rounders.”
Doyle was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988, surprisingly nine years after the honor was created. What in the hell were they waiting for, during the first eight years where Doyle missed the cut?
An undated photograph of Billy Baxter, the unrivaled king of Lowball poker. He owns seven gold bracelets, all in Lowball. Today, Baxter plays high-stakes Mixed cash games, mostly in Los Angeles. He’s one of the few older players who seems to have kept up with the shift to a more youthful poker culture.
I’ve gotten to know Billy well over the years. He was a great help to me when co-writing the Stu Ungar biography. Actually, someone should write a biography on Billy sometime. He’s the consummate professional gambler. I mean, the real deal. Highly successful at what he does, and the epitome of class.
I pushed hard for Billy Baxter’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He successfully made it the cut in 2006.
This is a really interesting photograph because I remember taking it under some intense pressure.
At the time, cash games were not permitted to being photographed. This house rule applied just about everywhere, certainly in Las Vegas. You couldn’t even take pictures inside most casinos.
These restrictions certainly applied to the high-stakes cash games held at Binion’s Horseshoe. Somehow, I was able to get permission (this was before I worked there) and snapped this rare photo of (then) Mirage executive Bobby Baldwin playing in 1997. The Bellagio was under construction at the time, and “the Owl” liked to play high-stakes at the Horseshoe during the few weeks when the WSOP brought everyone together for the big games.
Bobby Baldwin was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2003.
Here’s 1986 world champion Berry Johnston. He’s playing a tournament here at the 1998 WSOP.
Note the unusual background of this photo. Because the WSOP had grown some by then, extra tables were added out in the valet parking area. The entrance was closed off and temporarily air conditioned, and made into a makeshift tournament room. I believe that was the WSOP set up for both 1997 and 1998.
Berry doesn’t look too happy with having his picture taken here, but he’s always been a gentleman. He made the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Tom McEvoy has gone through some changes over the years. Not just a cowboy (he’s actually from Michigan), Tom shows off a flashier side of his personality in this 2001 photo taken at the WSOP.
There was lots of debate and even some controversy when Tom was announced as an inductee into the PHOF last year. Some people thought he wasn’t as good a player as most of the legends who were already in. That might be true, but he’s still won four gold bracelet and a world championship. Isn’t that enough?
If not, then consider all his work away from the table, which (to me) carries just as much weight. Whether it was his tireless fight for non-smoking poker rooms, his many strategy books as an author, his constant presence as an ambassador of the game, or his unwavering integrity, Tom is probably more deserving in some ways than many others who made the Hall of Fame long before him.
Tom would be the first to say he’s not among the elite players, anymore. Few are. But some things are more important to the game’s popularity and health. Tom has done great things for the game and its players. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.
This photo was taken at the Horseshoe. Notice the clutter of garbage and the old phone in the rear. It’s another rare photo of Johnny Chan playing in a cash game, taken in 1998.
In a sense, Johnny Chan was like Phil Ivey is now — but 20 years ago. He was the most mystical and evasive poker player in the world for a long while.
I’ve done several things with Johnny in the past, including conducted interviews and other projects. He’s always been cooperative. However, Johnny can also be difficult to pin down. He would probably own a lot more gold bracelets had he played in more events over the years. He’s been stuck at ten wins ever since 2005, which was the year of his last win. I did the write up on his final four victories.
Johnny Chan made it into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Ooops! Not sure how this one slipped into the pile. It’s highly doubtful there’s a Hall of Fame invitation in his future.
Russ Hamilton in 1995, the year after he won the world championship.
This appears to have been taken in 2000, when Men “the Master” Nguyen was arguably the world’s most successful tournament player. He’s armed with his favorite weapon — a bottle of Corona.
Men has been dogged by charges (yet unproven) of unethical behavior, which go back 15 years ago. No doubt, these allegations have cost him any chance at being inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. I’m not sure what the best course of action for Men might be in the future. I have no idea if those charges are true about some of the things that went on in the 1990’s. But until those issues go away or Men does something extraordinary that’s positive for the game, he probably remains a longshot for induction.
This is really unfortunate because I’ve always gotten along well with Men and enjoy watching him play.
I purposely included Puggy Pearson in this thread, because he’s certainly no saint when it comes to poker and impropriety. Puggy was a notorious angle-shooter. He was also a horrible person when he ran bad, as ugly a human as I’ve ever witnessed when losing. Oddly enough, many of the things he did at the table makes him somewhat endearing, or at least interesting.
I find this to be largely hypocritical — how we keep out some poker players and induct others. Puggy made it into the Hall of Fame in 1987 (back when Jack Binion was a one-man committee).
I spent lots of time with Puggy during the last five years of his life. He was a great storyteller. I don’t know how much of what he said was true, but it sure was entertaining.
This photo looks to have been taken in 1995.
Here’s Jim Bechtel, the 1993 world champion. This photo was taken in 1997.
Several years ago, Jim paid me a wonderful compliment which I have never forgotten. Right before the start of the 2006 Poker Players Championship, Bechtel came over to me and said some very nice things about my work. I knew Jim wasn’t the most outgoing person and didn’t go around giving many compliments to people. So, that really meant something, especially right before he was sitting down to play at that epic final table won by the late Chip Reese.
Jim Bechtel probably won’t make it into the Poker Hall of Fame unless he does something really special late in life. Nonetheless, I did want to post this rare photo of the former champion because he certainly belongs in this company.
I’ve known T.J. Cloutier for nearly 30 years. I used to play poker with him regularly back in Dallas in the 1980’s. He was a great player back then. I was just a kid, who looked up to T.J. as one of the game’s greats. Who knew back then that I’d be there to see him inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame a few decades later?
I snapped this photo of T.J. at the 1998 WSOP. He doesn’t look too happy. There’s a joke in their somewhere with a craps table as the punch line.
T.J. was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2006.
I took this photo of Barry Shulman when he won his first gold bracelet in 2001. Notice the old winner boards in the background with all the top finishers’ names, which were posted up on the wall around the Horseshoe. Every poker player wanted to get his or her name up on that board, which were hand-written with a marker.
Barry probably deserves to be considered at some point. Perhaps not now, but eventually for all he’s done as a player and publisher. There’s no doubting his passion for the game and talent.
I include him in the discussion because the “contributors” to the game have been grossly overlooked. They haven’t been given enough credit. Except in rare instances, I believe an inductee must contribute to the game in some way. Barry has certainly done that, above and beyond being an excellent player.
At some point, he should at least be nominated.
Lon McEachern isn’t quite ready for the Poker Hall of Fame, yet. But his time could eventually come. Perhaps Norm Chad, also — after he wins ten gold bracelets.
I first met Lon at the Jack Binion World Poker Open back in 2001, when he came in to do a poker broadcast (which I think was his first poker assignment). Here’s a photo taken by Eric Harkins (no way my photo would turn out this good).
Looking back now, I wish I had gone around and shot a lot more photos like this one — which shows Scotty Nguyen alongside Sam Grizzle, probably taken in 2000. The table conversation was often like a comedy act. It was better than anything you’d see onstage. The insults were hysterical.
The cash games were amazing during those times — wildly entertaining. I only played low and middle stakes, but did rail a lot of the big players and huge games. I also sat behind quite a few players in huge games and sweated the action. I’ll have to tell some stories from those days, which were a blast.
I’ll end this photo segment with a shot of Mike Sexton and I, who visiting Puggy Pearson’s house in the summer of 1998.
Mike is just all-around amazing. He loves poker as much as anyone I’ve ever met. Not enough good things can be written and said about Mike.
Mike Sexton was the lone inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2009.
Note: I’ll post more photo exposes in the future — including entire sets of images taken at various poker events over the past 20 years.