I've written in recent weeks of the historic and unique nature of the accomplishments of Matt Matros and Phil Ivey. Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi probably surpassed them both last night with a feat that will be remembered as long as poker is worthy of memory.
Mizrachi took down the Poker Players Championship last night, earning $1,451,527, poker's most coveted trophy and a bracelet in the process. This alone would be historic, even if the Grinder didn't have the résumé he does. After all, Hal Fowler (1979), Jamie Gold (2006) and Jerry Yang have their place in the record books even though their non-main event-win poker accomplishments don't amount to much. Putting your name on certain lists ensures you'll be remembered, and when it gets engraved on the Chip Reese trophy, we know it'll be evoked for years to come. Of course, Mizrachi did a little more than that.
Mizrachi's win indelibly put his stamp on the second-most prestigious annual event on the poker calendar because it was his second victory in the event. He's the first player to have won twice, and he accomplished the feat over the course of three years. The event has been around for only seven. It's not that we didn't think it would happen; with the fields as small as they are, we knew there would be a repeat champion at some point. We just didn't think it would happen so soon, or in a case where the two wins came in this kind of proximity to one another.
It's pretty obvious that this accomplishment at least merits discussion amongst the great individual achievements in WSOP history, but as always, we need a little context to understand why and to give fodder to the debate over just where it falls in that discussion.
That's right, the five other champions of this event have combined for one other cash and no other final tables. Of course, there are sample-size issues here, but it does show us how tough it is to thrive in this particular field. More:
OK, that one was too easy, I get that, but money is a big part of how we keep score. More:
Two thoughts here:
• Bloch (who is tied with Greenstein for the most cashes in the event with four), Hanson and -- I suppose -- Deeb are the ones who have come closest to duplicating what the Grinder's done here, and none of them was particularly close. Giving full credit to what finishing second and third in this event means, neither Bloch nor Hanson was able to seal the deal even one time.
• Just four players have managed to make the final table at this event twice with a proximity that's closer or equal to that of Grinder's two victories.
When David Singer managed his back-to-back, it was hailed as monumental. Not greatest-of-all-time monumental, but at least a big enough deal to evoke discussions of Dan Harrington's back-to-back main event final tables in 2003-04 against larger-but-softer fields. That's lofty company for a guy who finished sixth twice. The Singer sample is important because it gives us some context of how highly strong finishes in this event are held, and while Mizrachi's wins weren't consecutive like Singer's final tables, we can all probably agree that the wins, because they're wins, are the more impressive, especially considering the money that comes with them. Singer won $411,840 and $337,440 for his finishes. Not shabby, but not $3,000,000 either.
So, we've established without doubt that within the confines of the Poker Players Championship, this is the greatest feat of all time. With those confines removed, things get a little murky in a barbershop debate kind of way. Different people are going to weigh different criteria in measuring greatness, so we can't say for certain what ranks where. Because of the scope of this event and the esteem in which it's held, we can more or less ignore the life of all individual annual events save the main event.
In the history of the main event, there have been four players who have won more than once:
Note that all four players managed consecutive victories amongst their multiple wins. With due respect to Moss and Brunson, men who were absolutely dominant in their respective eras, as feats go, theirs obviously pale in comparison because of the numbers involved. When we compare Ungar's and Chan's runs, Chan's comes out ahead because, (A) the field sizes were larger in his consecutive victories than those of Ungar's, (B) Chan's fields are also more advanced, as will happen with a maturing game as years go by and, (C) while yes, Ungar did manage a third series win 16 years after his second (and yes, just winning the main event three times is in the greatest-of-all-time discussion), as feats go, that's cancelled out in some ways and surpassed in others by the fact that in 1989 (178 entrants), the year after his second straight victory, Chan made it back to heads-up play. Sure, you can hold it against him that he let 1989 champion Phil Hellmuth out of Pandora's box, but getting one elimination from three straight world championships, as least as I'm going to argue it, has to be the greatest WSOP feat of all time.
So, how does Grinder compare to Chan? He probably comes up a little short, but there are at least a few points in his favor:
1. The buy-in was bigger.
2. The winnings were greater (Chan won $625,000 in 1987, $700,000 in 1988 and $302,000 in 1989).
3. Grinder's wins came in an eight-game format as opposed to a single-game format.
4. The fields were better educated. The extra quarter-century poker players have had to get educated represents leaps upon leaps. There weren't a whole lot of books out there in 1987, and the percentage of players who believed in them was probably quite a bit smaller. Brunson's Super System was published in 1979 and is still invaluable, but with each new resource that is released, a layer of sediment is added to the foundation of the poker community's knowledge. Throw in the number of hands the average player has played, the learning tool hole-card cameras have offered and the dialogue the Internet has provided to knowledge-thirsty players and we're talking about a lot of sediment. Grand Canyon sediment. There wasn't a whole lot of sharing of ideas going on in the pre-Internet age.
On the flip side, the arguments for Chan:
1. He had to go through more players.
2. The achievement of back-to-back wins has intangible value in debates like this one. Ask yourself if Grinder's feat would be more amazing were it accomplished in consecutive years and you'll probably find yourself agreeing with the sentiment.
3. Chan's accomplishment spans three events, not two.
4. The main event is the main event. The $50,000 is as close as it comes as prestige goes, but as close as it comes doesn't mean equality.
I asked a member of the poker media to compare the events in which Grinder and Chan accomplished their respective feats. He said, "Chan did it in the seventh game of the World Series. Grinder did it in Game 3." I liked the analogy.
The context of the main event is probably the straw that broke the camel's back for the Mizrachi argument. I think what Mizrachi did might actually be harder, but harder isn't the only measurement of greatness. Losing out to Chan's 1987-89 run hardly strips an achievement of historic status. The $50,000 is now, and for some time to come, Mizrachi's event. His performances in that tournament, even if not the greatest, are certainly amongst the nominees for that honor.