Player of the Year? I Don’t Care

Daniel Negreanu just won WSOP Player of the Year for the second time. That’s a great accomplishment, he’s a great guy who’s great for poker, and I’m very happy for him. But it doesn’t change the way I think about him as a player, and I doubt it changes the way any other serious poker players think about him. I already knew that he was one of the best tournament players out there, and I would have thought that whether or not he clinched this title.

Simply being in contention for it was proof enough of that. Actually winning it doesn’t make him the best of the best, nor even the one who played the best this year. There is no objective way of measuring who is the single greatest poker player, nor for that matter is there even such a thing as “the single greatest poker player.” What the various Player of the Year rankings actually measure is which of the best players in the world have been running hottest of late and also playing the most aggressive schedules.

I imagine they’re good publicity for the game. Sports fans like rankings and statistics, and they give television commentators something to talk about and tournament administrators something to promote. Such rankings have even proved a good way to translate daily happenings in the poker world into the kinds of items that can get a little traction in the mainstream media.

I’ve got nothing against such rankings as a publicity tool, but as a player, I don’t care and I don’t think they actually measure anything important in a particularly meaningful way. So I have to laugh when I see players who are clearly ego-invested in seeing their name move up a notch or two on those scales or getting into heated arguments over how exactly those rankings are determined or which bracelets are “real” bracelets, etc.

It reminds me of Lisa Simpson’s anxiety when Springfield’s teachers are on strike and there’s no one to pat her on the head and tell her what a good student she is: “Look at me! Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!”

Poker frustrates our innate sense of justice. People – maybe Americans especially? – like to see a clear correlation between skill, hard work, and success. It doesn’t always happen that way in poker, and even the best sometimes doubt themselves. I can understand the desire to have some objective, external assurance that you really are one of the best. I just don’t think such a thing is possible, and it surprises me to see players who surely know better acting as though these rankings were anything more than an extremely rough approximation whose primary objective is to serve the agendas of media organizations and tournament organizers, not to settle the unsettleable argument about who is really the best.

4 thoughts on “Player of the Year? I Don’t Care

  1. FWIW, some obvious counterpoints:

    (1) A high luck component doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care how sensible the POY metrics are. There’s a lot of short-term luck in baseball, too, but the structure of the World Series matters a lot.
    (2) A POY award’s function as a marketing tool depends in part on its sensibility–again, see the World Series example.
    (3) A high luck component doesn’t mean that 1st and 4th places in a POY race aren’t quite different evidence for how good someone is.
    (4) High-buyin poker tournaments require similar enough skills that “best in the world at high-buyin poker tournaments” probably is well-defined.
    (5) Many of the people who know the most about tournament poker care about the POY, which is evidence that I have reason to care about the POY.

    Probably I agree with your OP more than not, even if I could imagine arguing the other side. But I don’t think it’s quite as clear as you make it seem.

  2. “There is no objective way of measuring who is the single greatest poker player”

    I think you’re confusing ‘objective’ with ‘accurate’. Just because there is a bigger luck aspect than something like winning the Super Bowl that doesn’t mean that the WSOP POY is not objective. It also doesn’t mean winning the Super Bowl is an always accurate measure of the best team in football. An example is in Super Bowl XL where almost every time Seattle made a big play it was reversed by a phantom penalty (one of the refs later said he had a lot of sleepless nights cause he affected the outcome of the game). So the worse team that day got lucky. But my point is both WSOP POY and the Super Bowl are both objective and there is a luck aspect in both as well.

    So is it the fact that luck is a bigger part of the equation the reason why you don’t care about the POY? Even if there was a way to reduce the luck aspect of winning POY to a similar amount that would be required for a less skillful team to win a Super Bowl (I don’t think that came out right, but you know what I’m trying to say) I would hypothesis that you still wouldn’t care. And since it wouldn’t affect your own game or how you play them when involved in a pot you probably shouldn’t.

  3. Interesting post and I wish I had more time to be more detailed … but …

    Lets take a look at golf .. Is it better with Tiger at #1? Of course, just look at the TV ratings. It is of great importance that Tiger is a factor when it comes to how much they can charge for commercials, try to keep tournaments sponsored and for the betterment of all the other golfers as well. Poker’s ‘cut’ (ie final table) is a much smaller dose of players than what golf presents to us on a Sunday, but if Tiger is in the top ten TV goes through the roof. The PGA uses this to get paid … and more importantly for Tiger, he gets paid as well in golf as well as outside golf.

    I like to look at motivated people .. I think if golf tournaments paid less then the competition would actually be more since players would have a higher concentration level to be forced to ‘make a living’ like the older golfers had to (ie Jack, Gary & Arnie).

    I think the Mizrachi Family was very motivated to score some cash when they made their ‘family’ run at the WSOP. From some sources (and to a certain degree Michael himself) they needed cash, played motivated poker and scored big IMO.

    Would it be difficult to say that Daniel’s ability to remain ‘on top’ of the Poker Stars world needed a bit of a boost? Poker has a much more difficult ‘Sunday’ to make than golf … only 10 max, if not 6 make it to the TV final tables. How do you think that the POY title looks when Daniel goes to Poker Stars and negotiates his annual sponsorship deal?

    I dont know nearly enough about poker player ‘real life finances’ but having sponsors around to cut down on a person’s actual expenses must look real good to the bottom line.

    True, knowing the formula, ramped up schedules and the ability to play in most tournaments without much outlay can skew the result for sure. But when dealing with a motivated person, whether it be for personal or ‘longer’ term finacial stability one has to applaud the effort and wonder what kind of poker we would get out of more of the players if they were in position to atain this goal as well. Daniel would probably be the first to admit that he played quite a few hands (maybe whole tournaments) with a different mind set in order to put himself into a better position to reach this feat. Is that better poker? The results say yes … but I still look back at the motivating factors and a person’s ability to see the bigger picture associated with achieving those goals rather than just simply ‘running hot’ or ‘rising to the occasion’.

    It’s a bit all over the map like a usually am but here it is .. GL

    • > I think if golf tournaments paid less then the competition would actually be more since players would have a higher concentration level to be forced to ‘make a living’ like the older golfers had to

      Both golf and poker have gotten much harder as more money came in, and thus. more people who could viable chase it.

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