October 05, 2012

Hellmuth & the Hobgoblin

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1961, Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's record for most home runs in a season. However, by that point in time, the season had been lengthened by eight games from the 154 game season played in Ruth's day. So, MLB Commissioner Ford Frick stated that, unless Ruth's record was broken in the first 154 games of the season, Maris' record would be noted officially as having been set in the longer 162 game season. The so-called "asterisk" debate stirred up great controversy, and led Maris himself to have a bitter view of how he was treated after breaking Ruth's record.

Yesterday, poker legend Phil Hellmuth became the first poker player to win both the WSOP Main Event and the WSOP Europe Main Event. The big win pushed Hellmuth into the lead for the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year award. Hellmuth's victory also extended his world record for WSOP bracelets to 13.

Or did it?

As reported by none other than poker media legend Shamus two years ago, there is (or at least was) some controversy over whether WSOP-Europe bracelets "count" as much as good old-fashioned WSOP-Vegas bracelets. Shamus even dug up a nifty quote from none other than great bracelet hound himself:

Phil Hellmuth, the all-time leader in WSOP bracelets won with 11, also chimed in on the subject this week. He was interviewed on the Hardcore Poker Show (the 9/27/10 episode) where he said he believed a WSOPE bracelet was "not the same thing" as a regular WSOP bracelet, adding that "everybody knows it's not really a bracelet."

The irony is delicious.

The debate over whether WSOP-Euope bracelets are equal in stature to WSOP-Vegas bracelets was hashed out thoroughly by poker media heavyweights BJ Nemeth and "Pokerati" Dan Michalski in the comments section of a Wicked Chops Poker post. To sum up, Nemeth noted that top poker pros did not regard WSOP-Europe bracelets as having the same prestige as WSOP-Vegas bracelets. Instead, Nemeth observed that poker players placed the greatest weight on WSOP Main Event and Players' Championship bracelets, then all other WSOP-Vegas bracelets were roughly equal in the next tier of prestige, and WSOP-Europe bracelets were yet another tier down the pecking order (often not counting as "bracelets" for bracelet prop bets). Michalski countered that if the Harrah's (now Caesars) empire declared an event a WSOP event and awarded a bracelet, then it was a WSOP bracelet regardless of the venue.

So, should Hellmuth's WSOP-Europe bracelet "count" as a "real" WSOP bracelet? As much as I love it when pesky hobgoblins come back to bite pompous jerks like Hellmuth, I nonetheless consider Hellmuth's WSOP-Europe bracelet the equal of his other bracelets (except his WSOP Main Event bracelet, of course).

If Hellmuth wants to justify changing his view as to the prestige given to WSOP-Europe bracelets, he can point to the fact that WSOP-Europe events now count toward the overall WSOP Player of the Year standings. But more fundamentally, I think WSOP-Europe bracelets are the equal of WSOP-Vegas bracelets on their own merits. Tournaments in both venues are generally among the largest in terms of buy-ins and numbers of players, and the player pools generally have greater depth and breadth of talent. Also, the WSOP-Europe events emphasize the "World" part of the WSOP. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, poker and the WSOP were dominated by Americans, and Vegas was the center of the poker world. Since the explosion of online poker, poker has truly become a worldwide phenomenon. WSOP final tables routinely have multiple non-American players, and non-Americans have won a sizable share of WSOP bracelets (including Main Event bracelets) over the past decade. Staging a WSOP series of tournaments in Europe—home to players like Peter Eastgate, Annette Obrestad, Pius Heinz, Antoine Saout, Viktor "Isildur1" Blom, and Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier (just to name a few)—emphasizes the international popularity of the game and does nothing to diminish the accomplishments of the WSOP-Europe bracelet winners.

Disparagement of WSOP-Europe bracelets seems to be an extension of the criticism that the overall proliferation of bracelet events cheapens the value of a bracelet (there were fewer than 25 bracelet events per year prior to 2001, but then exploded into more than 50 bracelet events per year by 2007). This complaint misses the mark, however. The number of serious competitive poker players also exploded in the past decade in a perfect storm of internet poker, the Moneymaker boom, and poker media coverage, making a bracelet win a significantly more difficult accomplishment than even a decade ago.

Frankly, the discussion of the relative prestige of WSOP-Vegas and WSOP-Europe bracelets is just another contrived sports fan debate. It's really no different than the debate over whether Tiger Woods' four Grand Slam wins in a row constituted a true Grand Slam because they did not occur in the same calendar year, or an argument about whether current NFL passing and receiving records can be compared to records from the 1970s and 1980s when different rules were in force. These kinds of issues make for great faux debates, full of strong opinions but ultimately pointless. At the end of the day, players can only compete in the conditions as they are, not as they were, will be, or should be. Hellmuth's poker career spans over 23 years, with WSOP results of nearly 50 final tables in at least nine different poker disciplines, not to mention five runner-up finishes to complement his 13 bracelets, earned against increasingly larger and more sophisticated tournament fields. Hellmuth's WSOP-Europe Main Event bracelet is unquestionably deserving of the same prestige as his other WSOP bracelet wins.

But, if you have Hellmuth at your table in a tournament, I double dog dare you to tell him his record of 13 bracelets has an asterisk. Hilarity will ensue!


  1. Will you maintain your position when the WSOP expands to include a WSOP-Asia, WSOP-Latin America, WSOP-Africa, WSOP-Pacific Islands, and WSOP-Antarctica? I.e., when there are, say, 500 bracelet events per year, all the with official WSOP branding, will you still consider them all equal?

  2. I draw a bright line at WSOP-Tierra del Fuego.