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FAME AND CELEBRITY

By Gary Wise
ESPN Poker
July 7, 2007

Well, Phil Hellmuth is leaving the 2007 World Series of Poker with sole possession of the all-time bracelet record. On Thursday, Phil was inducted to the Hall of Fame, speaking eloquently about his love for the two men he used to be tied with, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson. Now, he’ll have to be content in the knowledge they’ll stay the men he used to be tied with.

Brunson and Chan both busted early on Day 1A. Brunson did the unthinkable, showing up late for the event of which he used to say “The worst day of the year is the day you bust from the main event.” It’s indicative of a growing trend in Doyle’s attitude towards tournaments. He just hasn’t brought the passion he did before the Safe Port Act passed, rendering moot a lot of the efforts he’d made over the previous thirty years to make the game respectable.

Chan’s exit was equally passionless. Just seven hours into play, he got caught making a vain move in an attempt to build a stack that had been reduced to just 20 percent of what he started with. Chan, once the most dominant player in the game, has been a shadow of his former self this year as he’s tried to re-equalize the lifetime bracelet race.

For Hellmuth, sole possession of the record is a mixed blessing. “When I’m done, I want to be remembered as the greatest player of all-time. For me, that means winning more bracelets than anyone.” He’s done just that, but in leaving Brunson and Chan in the dust, he’s put an end to the greatest drama the Series faced coming into this edition.

Hellmuth, for all of his faults, is a savvy man. He knows that being associated with Chan and Brunson is good for him as far as attention and the endorsements it can bring. Before the Series, he told me in earnest “I’d rather Doyle and Johnny win bracelets while I don’t than none of us winning one.” He felt that way because of his respect for the history of the game and the way it would maintain the discussion of the game’s brightest record. Now, having not yet played a hand in the biggest tournament of the year, he’s guaranteed sole possession of the record. Is it possible that No. 11 was anti-climactic?

The WSOP Poker Hall of Fame doesn’t operate the way in the same way as other games. There’s no sportswriter vote. Instead, the selection process is private and the honor is used to educate the masses by recognizing pioneers. Some bitter onlookers have called it “The Hall of Shame” because of the tactics many of the members utilized to achieve victory, but I prefer to look at the Hall as a way of enshrining the past and celebrating the evolution of the game from outlaw activity to prime-time competition.

Hellmuth wasn’t the only player enshrined this year. Joining him on stage was Barbara Enright, a lady forgotten by the fast-paced television age that insists on its lady players being young and attractive. Enright was a pioneer deserving of the honor for the things she did before any other woman did in a time where the lady players weren’t always as accepted as now.

I didn’t get to talk to Barbara after the induction, but I got a moment with Max Shapiro. “We’re as close as any married couple.” The veteran poker player, writer and humorist told me. “We’re life partners. Soul mates.”

Shapiro detailed the bullet points of Enright’s career. She was the first woman to win the ladies event at the World Series of Poker twice, taking the title first in 1986, then in 1994. The ’94 win culminated wHAT may have been the strongest two-year stretch any woman has enjoyed in tournament play. The next year, Enright became the first (and thus far, only) woman to make the final table of the main event, only getting knocked out when Brent Carter’s 6-3 off-suit felled her pocket queens. The year after that, she became the first woman to win an open-event bracelet.

While Hellmuth is obviously the more glamorous choice, and the one that will be remembered longer, Enright’s is a selection in the honor of Suzie Isaacs, Wendeen Eolis, Betty Carey and the other women who played the game before it was the sociable thing to do. These women endured crass chauvinism the likes of which would launch a thousand lawsuits in this day and age. Paving the way for a new generation of pros like Annie Duke and Jen Harman, and a newer generation of female phenoms like Anna Wroblewski and Vanessa Selbst. On behalf of every woman who’s ever played a hand and every guy who’s gotten a date at the poker table, we owe them a debt of gratitude. This is the beginning of that payment.

One thing I’m really enjoying about the Darfur event aftermath is the number of celebrities who have parlayed the experience into a main-event entry. Guys like Ray Romano, Brad Garrett and Tobey Maguire came out to support the cause, and then figured “Why not put up the extra ten grand?” , must be nice.

Thing is, the celebs only enhance the special feeling this tournament inspires above all others, and they always have. Back in the seventies, it was Gabe Kaplan and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Then, the eighties produced a number of Telly Savalas appearances. In the nineties, there was Dick Van Patten and Wilford Brimley. Now, there are a lot more names with a lot of punch to them.

Why? Well, obviously, the social acceptability of the thing, but I also give credence to the reduced entry fee. Sure, it’s still $10,000 to enter, but it’s sure not the same $10,000 it was in 1970. Top that off with today’s celebrities making a lot more than their yesteryear counterparts and the increased mobility technology has provided and you’ve got celebrities playing in the biggest event of the year.

While sitting in the media room tonight, I was greeted by Norm MacDonald (we spent some time talking poker last year), who introduced me to his friend Sam Simon. I didn’t recognize Simon’s name right away, but he was the co-creator of The Simpsons, no small deal. After the initial awkwardness of my not immediately recognizing his social importance, Sam and I started talking poker. That’s when it dawned on me that we were just two guys brought together by the game. It’s amazing, the relationships that can be spawned over a deck of cards.