Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 6 -- Star Turn

Day 2 of the European Poker Tour Malta Main Event played out today. There were 468 starters in the €5,300 buy-in event (including the few who late regged at the start of play today), and from that group 90 have made it through to Wednesday’s Day 3.

One player who didn’t get to tomorrow was William Kassouf. He started today at the feature table and garnered a bit of time on EPT Live, but busted relatively early in the day in a three-way all-in. Despite the involvement in the hand of another short stack, Vladimir Troyanovskiy, who was in there with pocket deuces, the hand nonetheless uncannily recalled Kassouf’s 17th-place bustout from this summer’s World Series of Poker Main Event, as he once again ran pocket kings into an opponent’s pocket aces (this time Brian Altman was the winner).

I’ve now had a chance to see this week’s ESPN episodes of the WSOP Main Event which carried things down from 21 players to the final nine, setting up the restart that finally comes this Sunday. Many here in Malta have seen them by now, too, or at least the end of Episode 13 featuring Kassouf’s knockout at the hands of Griffin Benger (who went on to make the final nine).

Heard some table talk about the hand and situation surrounding it today, and while it’s all just a tiny anecdotal sampling it does seem as though many are “siding” with Kassouf (if this must be set up as an either/or-type debate, which it shouldn’t be), finding his behavior not nearly as objectionable as that of some of the other players who played with him on that Day 7 this summer, Benger included.

I mentioned a few days ago meeting Kassouf and finding him a friendly, likeable dude. He’s certainly drawn attention to himself in tournaments here with his table talk and gregarious demeanor, but over the course of a long eight- or 10-hour day of poker the “Kassouf experience” it isn’t quite the same as the distilled, highlight reel version shown on ESPN. He’s silent for significant periods when not in hands, and frankly when he does talk it doesn’t seem all that remarkable other than by the contrast he provides with the majority of players who these days choose to remain silent when they play hands.

There was one funny moment late on Day 1b, I recall, when an older French player said to Kassouf that “each ante is... like a movie to you.” The table broke up in laughter, and Kassouf grinningly responded “and you are part of the production!”

Kassouf is obviously very comfortable in the spotlight amid this “star turn” he's found himself taking our strange little poker world. Others have made that observation to me this week, in each case punctuating it with some version of “more power to him” for doing so.

At the start of the ESPN episode that concluded with Kassouf’s knockout and the genuinely startling, emotional eruption by Griffin Benger that preceded it, Lon McEachern and Norman Chad in their introduction once again highlighted Kassouf as the central character of the drama. In fact the show started with a whole montage of Kassouf moments interspersed with an awkward-seeming sit down between him and WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel.

“Will Kassouf is the most polarizing player of the 21 remaining,” said McEachern, and in his rejoinder Chad ticked off a list of adjectives to describe the British pro: “Too disruptive, too disrespectful, too distasteful, and too damn slow,” said Chad.

Once again making the disclaimer I’ve made before here that all we get is what we see in these sculpted, abbreviated versions of reality shown in each WSOP episode, I can’t say I agree with Chad’s list. Sure, in certain hands he’s been shown to have played “too damn slow.” Whether his play is “disruptive” or not is debatable -- as I’ve said, watching him perform here in Malta, that does not at all seem to be the case. Meanwhile “disrespectful” and “distasteful” seem even further off-base, although I suppose differing views can exist.

The Benger-Kassouf hand was incredibly interesting to watch, though, particularly because Benger had only briefly been covered at all during any of the episodes -- and never playing with Kassouf -- making his transformation in the hand from a silent statue to a raving maniac all the more astonishing to see. Kassouf’s reaction was fascinating as well, as was both players’ trumpeting before the community cards came that it didn’t matter how the hand ended, each felt as though he’d “won.”

If his pocket aces were to be cracked by Kassouf’s kings, says Benger, “it doesn’t matter -- he’s still miserable, I’m happy.” Meanwhile Kassouf says “you can’t take it... you let it get to you, you’re losing it.” Both knew the cards had essentially played themselves in the hand, but they were continuing on with another, different game in which the result of the hand wasn’t relevant.

If you haven’t seen it, someone has carved it out and posted it on YouTube. Even without having sat through the many weeks’ worth of previous episodes, it’s something to see:

In the end, I think neither of the two deserve much criticism here. It was an unusual moment for sure, and poker would be way too stressful to tolerate were it always played this way. But obviously it isn’t, which is why the hand was remarkable.

Back to business here in Malta for tomorrow’s Day 3. Check your privilege if you like, but also check the PokerStars blog.

Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 5 -- Back to Valletta

Today on the European Poker Tour I moved over onto the EPT Malta Main Event to help cover Day 1b of that one. Had the late shift, though, and so had a chance early in the day to truck back over to Valletta with my friend and colleague Howard to explore a little more.

On my first day here I only walked a short way into Valletta proper, only really grabbing a bit to eat with Gareth and not exploring the area too greatly. So it was very nice to get back over and to do so with Howard who not only has been here before but has done some actual travel writing about Malta and so provided lots of information about everything we saw.

We took a cab over that let us off at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, and we initially stepped over to the Saluting Battery that looks out over the Grand Harbour. We were there a little early for the midday salute, but greatly enjoyed the view looking back across the water into the city. Howard explained some of the history surrounding the building of the battery by the Order of St. John back in the 16th century and the story of the “Great Siege” of 1565 when the Ottomans were famously held back there.

From there we took the short walk through the very crowded streets (especially for a Monday, we thought) to St. John’s Co-Cathedral where we joined hundreds of other tourists going inside for a look.

Built in the 1570s by the Order of St. John and dedicated to John the Baptist, the exterior doesn’t seem all that immediately striking, featuring a somewhat plain style. It kind of looks like the battery, really, and I’m reading that “fortress”-like appearance might have been intended somewhat as it was built just after the Great Siege. Step inside, though, and the interior’s dazzling decoration is quite stunning, with every inch of the carved stone walls, marble floors, and painted ceilings filled with artistic expression full of symbolism and/or contributing to various narratives.

The audio guide helped explain the certain aspects such as the painted vaulted ceilings, the tombstones in the floor, and the intricate tapestries hung all about. I took a few photos, though none are particularly great (that’s one of mine up above from the battery, which you can click to embiggen). Better to watch this short video that more or less replicates much of what I saw (with a soundtrack added and minus the huge crowd):

The highlight, though, were the paintings by Caravaggio, in particular the famous oil painting of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicting his execution. (No photo/video allowed where those were, so they aren’t in the video.) It occupies the far end of the Oratory, taking up the entire wall and inviting the close study it deserves. Indeed, after a lengthy time looking upon it and discussing it, it was almost difficult to leave and look at other Caravaggios on the adjoining walls, it casts such a gripping spell.

We did leave, however, and after exiting the cathedral did some more walking. As we did I recalled how Caravaggio had also painted at least one work depicting card players, called The Cardsharps. I had that in mind because of having recently gone back over some of the history of Cassius M. Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings for an installment of Poker & Pop Culture, for which some have suggested Coolidge modeled the canines and their holding of cards after Caravaggio (and some other artists).

Not far from the cathedral is the Casa del Commun Tesoro where Malta’s first post office was once located. In the early 19th century the British used the building for certain governmental administrative work, and as a plaque on the outside explained the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge worked there as the Acting Public Secretary from 1804-1805. That led me to discuss having in the past taught “Xanadu,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” some of the Biographia Literaria and other STC works, and studying still more like “Christabel” and “Frost at Midnight.”

If I’m retracing our steps correctly, from there we circled back through more busy streets in search of a lunch spot Howard remembered, but unfortunately was closed on Mondays, then proceeded back around to the Lower Barrakka Gardens and then walked back up the coastline to where we originally began. I may get one more chance to get out and about (have one other late shift coming up, I believe), but regardless it was a fantastic opportunity to get a look around and absorb even just a small bit of Malta’s rich history.

By the time we were in the cab heading back over to the Portomaso Casino we were already talking poker again, and the day provided some interesting battles as well, the most significant of which you can read about over on the PokerStars blog. No “Great Siege” mind you, but some spirited defenses and attacks nonetheless.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 4 -- Bojang Brings It

Today’s Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event finale was kind of wild, especially during the first 45 minutes when the six players who returned were suddenly carved down to just two. In fact, the four knockouts happened within about five hands, including one double-knockout (like on Day 3), which got us thinking it could be over within an hour.

Things did settle down thereafter, with heads-up taking a few hours before at last Ismael Bojang ended up winning the title.

No surprise seeing Bojang do well. Back at the start of this summer’s World Series of Poker I actually picked the German (who lives in Austria) as my favorite to win the WSOP Player of Year. He’d already gathered 32 cashes in four years and as player of mixed games always has a chance to gather lots of POY points. The title was ultimately clinched handily by Jason Mercier, although Bojang did manage to gather nine cashes.

Watching him during heads-up play I tricked myself into thinking occasionally that as a so-called “mixed-game” guy, perhaps Bojang wasn’t quite as dominating or sure of a player when it came to no-limit hold’em. But it didn’t take long to disabuse myself of that notion, as it became evident that pretty much every decision where the results were observable, he was making the right choices.

Bojang’s heads-up opponent, the Italian Francesco Leotta, also played very solidly, it seemed, although perhaps not quite as consistently well as Bojang. Still, luck played a significant role affecting the outcome, as both players were within one card of winning only to see the other draw out a fortunate river card to survive.

We did end up finishing up by around dinner time, so I motored over to help for a couple of hours with the first Day 1 flight of the EPT Main Event before signing off and getting back to the room at a decent hour. Had some other work to do and so actually spend the evening watching NFL football and sweating my Pigskin Pick’em picks, which was kind of nice even though the games that were shown were kind of dreadful (both blowouts).

Will be back at it tomorrow helping with Day 1b of the EPT Malta Main. As always, visit the PokerStars blog to follow along.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 3 -- Double-Knockout

Another long-but-not-too-long day here as I helped cover Day 3 of the Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event.

They played down from 31 to the eight-handed final table, but kept on going in order to get the tournament down to six for Sunday. The pace was relatively steady throughout the day and night, getting us to eight-handed in good enough time. Then came a lull, and with the stacks moderately deep it appeared it might take a while to get to the end of the night.

There was one short stack -- Filip Demby -- but he’d been folding for a long while and appeared ready to do so much longer until a premium hand finally came along. But suddenly another player, Daniel Portiansky, open-pushed his below average stack, and when it folded to Demby he kind of surprised us by calling all in.

There was still another player left to act, Alexander Lakhov, and after just a short bit of consideration he called. Having the other two covered, Lakhov tabled pocket queens while the all-in players each had ace-king. The board ran clean, and boom -- we were done.

That got us out of the tournament room in good enough time to take another dining trip, this time to the bottom of the Hilton Malta right next to the casino to a Thai restaurant called the Blue Elephant.

The food was fantastic. For a starter I had the fancily-named “Pearls of the ‘Blue Elephant,’” kind of a sampler of the best starters that included chicken satay, spring roll, Thai fish cake, dim sum, crispy paper prawn, and enoki seafood salad. Then for entree I had the Massaman lamb curry with coconut milk along with Thai sweet potatoes (with cashews), and rice.

To follow that earlier one that ended Day 3, dinner was another double-knockout. I wish I’d had two stomachs to eat it all a second time.

Of that entree, the menu said “this dish was described in a poem by King Rama II.” I’ll refrain from waxing too lyrical about it, using that precedent as an excuse to get on with other things. Still, the dish was as delish as one could wish.

Both Ismael Bojang and Dominik Panka made that final six. Check the the PokerStars blog on Sunday to see if either of them can grab the IPT trophy.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 2 -- Back at It

My second day of reporting here in Malta involved my helping cover Day 2 of the Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event, a €1,100 buy-in tournament that saw 775 enter and now just 31 advancing on to Saturday’s penultimate day of play. The work has really begun.

A decent number of recognizable folks still left in this one, including Dominik Panka, Rasmus Agerskov, Ismael Bojang, Stean Jedlicka, and Cate Hall. Ole Schemion, Martin Staszko, and Pierre Neuville were among those cashing today. I’ve mentioned before how the EPTs generally speaking often feature a high percentage of good tournament players, and such can even be the case in these relatively lower buy-in prelims or “side events,” even though this one is labeled a “Main” by the IPT.

There were a lot of semi-unusual hands (runner-runner saves, straight flushes, quads, etc.), as we highlighted a little at the start of the end-of-day recap. As happens with players, though, after many years of doing it’s hard not to look on such out-of-the-ordinary happenings with a somewhat clinical eye. Which is probably a good thing, from a reporter’s point of view, as you are better able to keep track of it all.

We got out early enough to take a stroll a couple of blocks over to have a fantastic dinner at the Lore & Fitch steakhouse here in Saint Julian’s. Had a filet mignon which was excellent, and my buddies sampled some Italian beer which they liked a lot. Have already experienced some way above average eats as well as some very hospitable service, too, which has made everything more comfortable.

Still, I miss being on the farm and find myself getting bit a little earlier than usual by the homesick bug. Maybe it’s all those cats meowing that I sometimes hear even up in my hotel room, making me think of our Freckles and Sweetie, both of whom like to meow a lot, too. Was a little frustrated over the last couple of days as well knowing I couldn’t be at home to help out with things when a little bit of trouble arose on the farm here at week’s end -- nothing too major, but felt a bit helpless being five thousand-plus miles from being able to do anything.

I sometimes will refer to whatever digs I end up in while on the road my “home away from home,” but that’s just a phrase. It’s never really “home” out here -- just more or less accommodating while I’m away.

As always, head over to the PokerStars blog to follow along with this IPT and the other events happening on this here archipelago.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 1 -- Gambling with the Nuts

Day 1b of the Italian Poker Tour Main Event here in Malta was a busy one, with a big turnout of well over 500 players bringing the total field for the €1,100 event up to 775.

Work-wise the day was fun, highlighted by getting to reunite with the various folks who regularly help cover and run these European Poker Tour festivals. The Portomaso Casino is nice and the tournament room well arranged to make it easy getting around. We’re actually perched a couple of floors up from the players (see the shot above pointing up at the media section). That means we have some stairs to negotiate frequently, although escalators and an elevator help in that regard.

Not too much stands out as far as the poker goes -- it being a Day 1 flight, that’s typically the case. Probably the most memorable hand I saw involved William Kassouf getting knocked out when his pocket aces were cracked versus an opponent’s pocket fours, a four on the board doing him in.

“Gambling with the nuts,” he said (more than once) as a kind of punctuation mark on his tournament, echoing the phrase we’ve heard a lot during the WSOP coverage on ESPN.

I ended up talking to Kassouf sometime afterwards a little bit about the hand -- I’d caught part of it but missed a preflop step, and he patiently helped fill in what I’d missed. A friendly dude, as has come across at times on the shows and pretty consistently on the interviews I’ve heard.

As I was talking about earlier in the week, everyone is forming opinions about him right now, with most doing so on the abbreviated evidence of the ESPN coverage. Not to say my interaction wasn’t also very limited, but he seemed an amiable fellow.

Cutting it short as I’m still in catch-up mode as far as sleep goes. Go over to the the PokerStars blog to follow along with what’s happening in Malta.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Arrival -- What’s New, Pussycat?

Hello from the Mediterranean! I made it to Malta in one piece, once again experiencing some run good with my travels.

The overnight flight to Munich was quite comfortable. Flew Lufthansa, who have always provided a nice ride in my experience. Watched an old episode of Columbo (awesome, like they all are) and the recent film The Nice Guys starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (inconsistent, but entertaining), so was happily locked in the 1970s with Same Difference-like crime stories.

Was another short flight from there to Malta. Got to my hotel by mid-afternoon and not too long after got up with my buddy Gareth who is here to play. We ended up taking a longish walk all of the way to Valletta where we grabbed a bite to eat. Really liked getting out and looking around, given that this is a new place for me.

I’m staying relatively close to the Portomaso Casino where the festival is playing out, near the Spinola Bay and looking out on the St. Julian’s Bay. Our winding walk down south to Valletta meant circling inland around the Marsamxett Harbour and a marina past all of the many hotels, shops, and restaurants -- two or three miles, at least (although I don’t know for sure as I didn't bring my Fitbit).

Along the way we chatted a bit about the drive over from the airport and how we both saw a lot of construction and less immediately impressive landscapes and architecture than is the case in the more touristy central region of the island.

Malta is an archipelago consisting of three islands, with the one named Malta the largest of the three. I was looking online to find the square mileage of Malta (122 sq. miles) is less than half that of the city of Charlotte, with about 450,000 inhabitants or so packed in that small area.

Speaking of, the sidewalks were fairly jammed with people all of the way to Valletta, the cloudy skies not keeping them inside. We parted after dinner and I walked back alone as night descended along with what ultimately became a fairly steady rainfall, and that didn’t scatter the crowds either. The scene somewhat recalled that of Punta del Este thanks to the close proximity of the water and the many boats and yachts, although Uruguay was a lot less populated last month during its off-season.

Lots of stray cats about, including these two at left relaxing of the hood of a car.

It was over in Sliema (on the way to Valletta) I spotted the 10-foot high cat statue pictured up top as dusk was starting to settle. Reading about the statue, it’s the work of an artists named Matthew Pandolfino who put it up there in the Ta’Qali National Park about seven years ago, and apparently other artists are invited to paint it over every couple of months. (You can click on the pics to embiggen.)

After I got back I took a quick trip over to the casino to reunite with some folks and get a sense of things. Gonna pack in early here as I need to catch up sleep missed last night while flying over.

Will be helping cover the second and final Day 1 flight of the Italian Poker Tour (IPT) Main Event, a €1,100 buy-in tournament that drew 219 runners for Wednesday’s Day 1a. There’s a €10K event going on already as well, with a number of other high rollers and the Main Event coming up over the next week-and-a-half.

Check the PokerStars blog for updates from the festival. And keep checking here for other stuff from my prowling about with the Maltese kitties.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On the Move to Malta

Writing a quick one here from the airport where I’m waiting once again to begin another tourney journey. Heading to Malta this time for the European Poker Tour festival which has already begun there on the tiny archipelago just off Italy’s boot.

This’ll be a new destination for your humble scribbler. I’ll admit I don’t know a heck of a lot at present about where I’m heading.

Back during my full-time teaching days I had a colleague swing a year-long sabbatical to Malta, although I never really talked much with him afterwards about his experience. Of course, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon is one of my fave reads, although that book has about as much to do with Malta as it does falcons.

In fact, toward the latter part of my detective novel Same Difference -- which is pretty deliberately meant as an homage of sorts to Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and other hard-boiled greats -- characters joke around a little about that novel’s story and how the Maltese falcon at the heart of it turns out to be a fake. (There’s a similar reference to the even more elusive postman in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

We’ll see what comes of this new poker plot I’m embarking on, and will try to sort out the important from the trivial. As always, I’ll try my best to keep in touch here as it goes.

More later from the Mediterranean!

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Like a Boss

Been following those WSOP Main Event shows on ESPN, which have now dwindled down to the last couple of weeks prior to the “November Nine” (which actually starts October 30).

The pair of shows from Sunday (episodes 11 and 12) focused on the first part of Day 7, starting with 27 players and only getting down to 21. A ton of time was spent highlighting William Kassouf’s table talk and tanking, with the last hour in particular dominated by examples as well as the rest of the table getting increasingly upset about his “speech play” and very deliberate pace.

It’s a bit misleading, I think, to watch all of this play out in edited form as we are, although that isn’t preventing many from weighing in on Kassouf, the WSOP staff, and the other players. I will say that ESPN has managed to create a fairly compelling mini-drama out of it all, fashioning a kind of “villain” role for Kassouf (reality TV-style) over whom viewers can get animated as they take sides.

Knowing how things end up going for Kassouf later in the day, it’s hard not to foresee some sort of “karmic” climax to his performance (spoiler alert -- he runs kings into aces to fall in 17th).

The ganging up on Kassouf shown this week at times seemed every bit as bothersome as Kassouf’s own antics, but as I say, it’s hard to judge without having been there. Even being there, it would be hard to know for sure how to assess what was happening, given we can’t see players’ cards and thus can’t say with certainty whether or not they are playing their hands in “acceptable” ways (scare quotes deliberately added).

Nearly 10 minutes of the latter portion of this week’s shows were devoted to a single hand in which Kassouf opened, a player shoved a short-though-not-insignificant stack, and Kassouf had to decide whether or not to call with pocket treys. He correctly assumed he might be racing (the shover had two unpaired overcards), but his contemplation ended up getting interrupted and delayed further by other players’ objections plus a lengthy visit from floor staff.

It seemed a lot like Kassouf had successfully managed to get nearly everyone to crack -- players, staff, and perhaps some of those in attendance, too. Even Lon McEachern and Norman Chad humorously got in on it, with Chad acting as though he was being affected as well.

I’m not saying I’d have enjoyed being part of that scene, but from the outside (and through the heavily blinkered lens of ESPN’s edits) it sure seemed like Kassouf had everyone right where he wanted them, as though he were the one in charge of everything.

You know, like a boss (as Kassouf likes to say of himself). And we know how much poker players prefer to be their own bosses.

Image: “‘Like a Boss’ T-Shirt @Target LOL Spotted by Mike Mozart” (adapted), Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Poker Hall of Fame: Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson Make 52

Saw yesterday how Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson had been elected as the 51st and 52nd members of the Poker Hall of Fame. Now’s the time for the World Series of Poker to create a commemorative deck of cards featuring pictures of all 52 members.

If I’d had a vote I certainly would’ve given support to Mortensen’s candidacy, though there were other nominees I’d have probably chosen this year ahead of the younger Brunson (though he’s certainly deserving).

Mortensen is a WSOP Main Event champion (2001), and I tend to have a bit of a prejudice in favor of that select group when it comes to the PHOF. With three WPT titles, nearly $12 million in career tourney earnings, and a near-miss to make a second WSOP Main Event final table in 2013 (when he finished 10th), he was a shoo-in. That’s not even counting the highly advanced chip stacking skills that further distinguish the Spaniard (originally from Ecuador).

Todd Brunson has won a lot in tournaments as well (nearly $4.3 million, including a WSOP bracelet in 2005), although he’s much better known as a high-stakes cash game player. His notable heads-up battles with Andy Beal -- including a $13.5 million win over two days (as chronicled in Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King), then another belated reprise versus Beal in early 2015 which Brunson is said to have won another $5 million -- are legend-making and probably enough to earn him serious PHOF consideration.

I’m going to guess he got a lot of support from the living Poker Hall of Famers, and perhaps not quite as much from the media who voted. Speaking of living PHOFers, he joins his dad, Doyle Brunson, as a PHOF member, which has to be fairly unusual as far as hall of fames go, generally speaking.

The only other father-son combo I can think of in any sports hall of fame would be Bobby and Brett Hull, even if Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jr. spring to mind (Jr. got in this year, Sr. isn’t a HOFer).

In any case, congrats to both. And if the WSOP is reading, feel free to steal that special WSOP PHOF deck idea!

Image: WSOP.com.

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