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Recently, a fellow journalist asked me whether there has ever been the poker equivalent of a Babe Ruth, and whether it is even theoretically possible for poker to have a Michael Jordan. If so, he wanted to know who I thought that might be.
The answer isn't simple.
Whether there ever "has been" and whether there ever "will be" that kind of poker superstar are two very different questions. People in the sporting world readily understand that Ruth played under different conditions than Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds did, and that Michael Jordan faced athletes far more talented than George Mikan did.
The differences in poker, past and present, are even more striking.
Before we even start comparing players, we first have to acknowledge the huge difference between "money play" superstars and "tournament play" superstars. Tournaments only came into existence about 35 years ago, didn't start expanding much beyond the World Series until 25 years ago, and didn't become widely popular until about 15 years ago. They made another quantum leap about five years ago, and -- as you and everyone else has seen -- have gone nuclear in the last two years, thanks to TV exposure.
As a result of the tournament explosion, it has become almost impossible to compare achievements from different eras. In my recent report on the 2004 WSOP, I stated that Dan Harrington's feat of making the final table (actually the final four, with a third-place finish in 2003 and a fourth-place finish in 2004) the last two years, when the fields included 839 and 2,576 entries, is far more impressive than Stu Ungar's consecutive victories in 1980 and 1981 -- and (though I didn't make this next point in the story) arguably more impressive than Johnny Chan's back-to-back wins in 1987-88, simply because the fields Ungar and Chan faced were mere fractions of the size of those Harrington faced.
I didn't make the Chan point in my story because that's a much closer call. The fields were a LITTLE bigger then; and Chan nearly made it a three-peat in 1989, when he finished second to Phil Hellmuth, Jr. To me, that three year run of 1-1-2 is the most impressive feat in poker history.
The problem in evaluating poker tournament superstars goes beyond comparing eras. How do you compare an Erik Seidel, who might play 30 tournaments a year, with a Men Nguyen, who might play 300? There's considerable disagreement within the industry, and no one has yet come up with the perfect formula for determining "Tournament Player of the Year."
The more sound plans call for a system that credits achievements in tournaments as field sizes and buy-in amounts increase, and that also takes into account some kind of net adjustment where you lose points for tournaments you enter and fail to cash in. That mirrors life, where someone who enters 10 $500 tournaments and wins three winds up with a financial result considerably more impressive than someone who enters 200 $500 tournaments and wins five.
Nonetheless, any "Player of the Year" system should factor in consistency: You can't award twice as many points for winning a $1,000 tournament as you do for winning a $500 event, or for winning a 200-player event instead of a 100-player event. Otherwise, it would be almost impossible for anyone to beat Greg Raymer this year, because he won a $10,000 event with 2,576 entrants (the World Series of Poker).
Raymer would have scored so highly in both multipliers that you'd need to win five other large-field, $10,000 tournaments just to catch him; and nobody is going to win five $10,000 tournaments in a year unless they start getting held on a weekly basis -- and even then the odds against it would be overwhelming.
Because modern tournament fields are so large, it is becoming more and more difficult for one player to win multiple events in a year. When Mike Matusow busted out at the final table at the Big One in 2002, he was in tears, saying, quite correctly, "I could play perfect poker for the next 20 years and not get back to this final table."
Although there will certainly be multiple event winners (Ted Forrest already won two at the World Series) -- especially when you throw $300, $500, and $1,000 tournaments into the mix -- I think "final table appearances" are going to start needing more credit than they've received in the past. And in a country that is winner-crazy (quick, who came in second in the 1998 Super Bowl?), the public (those outside "the poker world") may find that hard to accept. It will be difficult for true superstars to score repeated wins unless we start upping the ante and offering more $25,000 or even $50,000 tournaments -- the only "fair" way to limit field size, unless you want to consider an invitational fair.
Money superstars have never been that interested in having their results known, in part because many have an aversion to paying full income taxes on their winnings and in part because the best players don't want to scare away potential donors. No one aside from the players themselves knows exactly who wins how much in a given year; so aside from reputation, there is no solid way to rank money players.
I think that most people would agree that the two most talented all-around players in poker history are Doyle Brunson (also a repeat WSOP winner, although the fields were tiny when he won) and Stu Ungar (a three-time winner; he also won in 1997). Many consider Stuey the best-ever when on his game, but most of his career was lost to problems with drugs and alcohol. Brunson has performed at a very high level in money games and in tournaments (a rare combination) over a very long career.
Whether you pick Brunson or Ungar, or argue for a Johnny Chan (great in tournaments and money play), or Chip Reese (great in money play), or Phil Hellmuth (great in tournaments) or T.J. Cloutier (great in tournaments), or Chris Ferguson (doesn't even play in money games: tournaments only!), or Howard Lederer (great in money and tournaments), the reality is that none of these players can dominate in poker the way that Ruth or Bonds can in baseball -- or the way Jordan did in basketball -- because of the randomizing luck factor.
Would you be willing to play a young Michael Jordan one-on-one? Could you pinch-hit for Bonds with a clear conscience? Could you beat Tiger Woods? These questions are rhetorical, of course. Unless the "you" is another superstar in the same sport, "you" wouldn't try.
Yet you and I and many others are quite willing to plunk down our money to try to beat Hellmuth and Cloutier in poker, because we can outdraw them. We can acquire enough skill so that if the cards run our way, we can, in one tournament, beat them. TJ was at my starting table at this year's WSOP; he lasted only a fraction of the time I did, and I came nowhere near the money.
Over the long term, the amateur poker player has no more chance against the superstar professional than he would of beating Jordan in basketball. But because the "long term" can sometimes take quite a while to establish itself, many people get false ideas of how good (or bad) they really are.
For a while, people thought that no one could dominate the pro golf tour because there were so many great players, but then Tiger came along and proved it can be done. Even though there is a little luck in golf -- does the ball that hits a spectator roll onto the green or into a creek? -- the luck factor there is tiny compared to poker.
Let's put all this into numbers. If you had tried to put "to win" odds on any given player before the 2004 WSOP, knowing that 2,500 players would start, not one single player was worth a bet at 200-1. Even though most tournament fields are much smaller, that ratio probably tells you what you need to know.
Great players can certainly stand out in poker by making numerous final tables and scoring occasional multiple wins in smaller events, and by winning large net sums of money on a consistent basis (the ultimate arbiter of all poker disputes). But you will never see a poker player winning six out of 10 200-player tournaments, let alone larger fields.
Poker has its stars. But the game's nature, which involves the randomizing luck factor, combines with the modern large-field tournaments to ensure that we will never see anyone, no matter how great, dominate the poker circuit the way Tiger Woods dominated golf for three years. If there are to be superstars, then either the public will have accepted them as such because the broadcasters have told them to, or television will have to create smaller-field events with, probably, much larger buy-ins. With a buy-in of $100,000, few duffers will apply. Even most superstars will look for backing, too; but at least then, you'll get events where the final tables are consistently strong.
Even then, luck will preclude poker from producing a Michael Jordan ... unless, of course, Michael decides to leave his private game and buy into the World Series himself.
Andrew N.S. Glazer, "The Poker Pundit," writes a weekly gambling column for the Detroit Free Press, is Tournament Editor for Card Player magazine, and is the author of the soon to be released "Complete Idiot's Guide to Poker." He also writes about poker tournaments at FinalTablePoker.com, where his e-newsletter, "Friday Nite Poker," will be starting June 25. He welcomes your questions there or at PokerPundit@aol.com.