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David Schoen

Unassuming Erik Seidel merits seat among poker greats

6 July 2015

Deciding on the four faces to put on poker’s Mount Rushmore is a nearly impossible task.

Many professional poker players and fans believe 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winners Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey are obvious choices, but after that, the debate over the final two spots becomes subjective.

Some prefer cash-game specialists such as David “Chip” Reese, while others side with tournament greats like Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar. There also are the modern-day online giants.

But no discussion of poker’s greatest players would be complete without including Erik Seidel.

“If not for a few hands made infamous in ‘Rounders,’ we might be talking about Seidel as the G.O.A.T,” said Ty Stewart, executive director of the WSOP.

Without the fanfare of many of his contemporaries, Seidel ranks in the top three on poker’s all-time money list and is one of the most respected high-stakes tournament players in the world. The eight-time WSOP bracelet winner will be part of the field when the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship begins at noon today at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center.

The Main Event, which will pay the top 1,000 finishers, runs through July 14. The nine remaining players return Nov. 8 at the Rio’s Penn &Teller Theater for the three-day final table that will be broadcast live on ESPN and ESPN2.

“The Main Event, it’s a different kind of challenge because you have to get through 7,000-plus players and you have to be realistic in a sense that you have to know that chances are you will never make the final table,” Seidel said. “It’s always a fun event to play, and it’s always fun to see the results of it. But I have to be somewhat realistic and know that going in I just have to try to play well and hope that the cards run over me.”

Seidel was a successful backgammon player in the early 1980s at New York’s famed Mayfair Club and started to take an interest in poker during trips to Las Vegas for backgammon tournaments. When he lost his job on Wall Street after the stock market crash in 1987, the New York City native began spending most of his time playing poker at the Mayfair.

Seidel did so well in the cash game that several Mayfair regulars encouraged Seidel to join them in Las Vegas for the 1988 WSOP and paid for most of his buy-in to the Main Event. Seidel went on to finish as the runner-up to Chan, who claimed his second straight title.

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I went out, and there wasn’t a great distance between my game and the people I was playing with, which was nice to see,” Seidel said. “For me, it was a big moment because it gave me a certain amount of confidence that I could do it, and that I could play. I hadn’t really felt that way about my game before that.”

Seidel backed up his deep run in the Main Event with three WSOP bracelets from 1992 to 1994. By 1995, Seidel quit his job on Wall Street and, at the suggestion of his wife, Ruah, moved to Las Vegas with his family “for a five-year experiment, (to) see if I could make it as a poker player.”

Seidel added his fourth career bracelet in 1998 when he won the $5,000 buy-in No-limit Deuce-to-Seven Lowball event. Later that year, a new, younger generation of poker fans was introduced to Seidel when “Rounders” was released.

The film painted Chan as the gold standard by which all professional poker players were measured, and Seidel’s loss 10 years earlier was used to illustrate the point. During one memorable scene, Matt Damon’s character pops in a VHS tape of the 1988 World Series and watches with reverence as Chan traps Seidel on the final hand.

“I guess when I first saw the script, I remember feeling like, ‘What the hell? I’m portrayed as a donkey here.’ But there’s a lot of truth to that, too,” Seidel said. “I was an inexperienced player, and there was no question that Chan was a better player than me at that time. They certainly have artistic license, but I don’t even think that they used it.”

Seidel reached the Main Event final table again in 1999, finishing fourth, and has gone on to become one of poker’s richest players while collecting more bracelets than all but five players in history.

The 55-year-old Las Vegas resident has $25.4 million in live tournament earnings and trails only Daniel Negreanu ($30 million) and Antonio Esfandiari ($26.4 million) on the all-time money list, according to Global Poker Index’s Hendon Mob Poker Database.

Yet, Seidel doesn’t have Brunson’s signature cowboy hat, Ivey’s stare or Negreanu’s charisma at the table, and he hasn’t won a WSOP bracelet since 2007. Though Seidel’s no-limit game is widely praised by fellow pros, he is easily overlooked by casual poker fans when debating the greatest of all time.

“You play as well as you can, and you hope to have good results,” Seidel said. “I really don’t get caught up in that whole discussion very much. It’s nice to be in the conversation for sure, but I’m not vying for that kind of title. I’ll leave that to the other guys.”

Seidel was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2010, and he overcame a major hit in 2011 when the U.S. Justice Department accused Full Tilt Poker’s directors of defrauding players out of more than $300 million.

Seidel, one of the online poker site’s sponsored pros, said he and the company’s other shareholders had no knowledge the company was allegedly being run as a Ponzi scheme.

“It was a very ugly and disappointing episode for a lot people,” Seidel said. “You don’t really know when you get involved in something like this how much, when you’re attached to a company that way, how much your own reputation can be affected by somebody else’s misdeeds. That was certainly an eye opener.”

Seidel has cashed in every WSOP since 1991, including four events this summer, and has 92 career in-the-money finishes at the WSOP; only Hellmuth has more with 113. In recent years, Seidel has focused on the high-roller tournaments that feature many of the world’s best players rather than trying to add to his bracelet total against massive fields.

Seidel topped 70 other players to win the European Poker Tour’s €100,000 buy-in No-limit Hold ’em Super High Roller event in April at Casino de Monte Carlo for more than $2.2 million. He also finished second to Andrew Lichtenberger in the $25,000 buy-in event at the Aria High Roller IX on May 30, earning $354,000.

Seidel took seventh in the $500,000 buy-in Super High Roller Bowl event at Aria on Saturday and collected $860,000.

“For me, I’m way more concerned with earning a living than with getting bracelets,” Seidel said. “I would rather have won the tournament in Europe than win three bracelets. That was a very big tournament for me. The money was significantly better than pretty much any of the bracelet events this year.”

Seidel had a front-row seat during poker’s evolution over the past four decades and is still finding success, even as the game is increasingly dominated by young, online players. With no plans to stop playing, Seidel figures to have several opportunities to enhance his already illustrious career.

“Every year the competition gets harder, which is true of pretty much everything,” Seidel said. “I just hope that I can continue to be competitive and continue to be able to find edges.”
Unassuming Erik Seidel merits seat among poker greats is republished from