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Erik Seidel Enters Poker Hall of Fame

A Quiet Superstar’s Great Career

by Stephen A. Murphy |  Published: Dec 24, 2010


With an adolescent rebel-without-a-cause attitude, a young Erik Seidel terrorized the Manhattan subways with other delinquents and their array of spray cans. He trespassed on forbidden grounds, often running from cops and other authorities to avoid getting into trouble.

It seems almost preposterous to imagine now, but one of the most soft-spoken and polite players on the poker circuit, and the most recent Poker Hall of Fame inductee, used to be kind of a badass.

“We got into various kinds of trouble,” said Seidel with a laugh when asked about his childhood and group of friends. “Luckily, I don’t remember anything too disastrous.”
Yes, this is the same guy who Doyle Brunson said has “the best all-around disposition of anyone in poker.”

Ask practically any of the big-name pros what they think of Seidel, and the answer will almost always be glowing with praise, both about his character and his abilities.
With eight World Series of Poker bracelets and more than $10.3 million in tournament winnings, Seidel was all but guaranteed a spot in the Poker Hall of Fame. Quietly and determinedly, he has compiled one of the most impressive tournament poker records in history.

Yet, the casual fan doesn’t know too much about him. Never a glutton for the spotlight, Seidel simply plays the game he loves, avoids controversy, and speaks kindly about his peers. He doesn’t make a scene when someone sucks out on him at the table, nor does he boast endlessly about his abilities like so many players do today.
After more than two decades in the high-stakes poker world, with stellar results both before and after the poker boom, there’s no denying that he is one of the game’s greats. But a few decades ago, when Seidel was growing up in New York City, it hardly seemed like he was destined for greatness.

Lost, Immature, and Searching for Direction

For much of Seidel’s childhood, he grew up without a father figure in the home. His parents split up while he was still an infant, and his mother didn’t remarry until he was about 7. That marriage lasted about seven years, so by the time that he was 14, his mother was left alone again to raise him and his brothers.

“It’s always a struggle when you have a single mother living in the city,” said Seidel. “There were pretty long periods when she didn’t have any money, even though she was working a lot. Raising three kids in the city was tough.”

Seidel speaks proudly about what his mother was able to do for him and his brothers.
“To this day, I honestly don’t know how she pulled it off,” said Seidel. “Fortunately, she had very strong views about education, so she wanted to make sure to get us into good schools even when it was difficult for her. I think that was critical. Even though I didn’t do particularly well, I at least was around smart kids and good teachers.”

Even with a better learning environment, Seidel far from excelled in school.
“I was not a particularly good student; I was just a lazy kid,” Seidel admitted. “My focus was elsewhere.”

That focus was often on whatever the neighborhood kids were up to, and as he got into his teenage years, it was often graffiti and various other mischievous deeds.
“There was a group of the neighborhood kids who were graffitists. We used to get into trouble on the trains,” said Seidel. “We would sometimes go up to the yard. There was an abandoned train station at 92nd Street, so we would sometimes go there, and sometimes got run off.”

Looking back on his childhood, Seidel admits that he was a pretty immature kid, right up into his teens.

“I was probably not headed for much,” Seidel reflected.

But, fortunately for him, his life was about to change — all because of a little game.
Finding Motivation in Life, Thanks to a Game

Seemingly out of nowhere, a game that had been around for years had been thrust into the public consciousness, thanks to a wave of new media coverage. Youngsters were taking up the game in droves, playing for money and talking strategy at every chance they got in an attempt to get better and to patch their leaks. A select few did so well that they decided to drop out of school to play tournaments in Las Vegas, Aruba, Monte Carlo, and other select cities.

Sounds like a story you’ve heard before, doesn’t it? Well, this wasn’t the poker boom of the 2000s. This was the backgammon boom of the 1970s.

After 60 Minutes did a story on the game that featured World Backgammon Champion (and future poker player) Paul Magriel, a ton of new people took up the game, fascinated by the intricacies and strategies involved. Pretty soon, even Sports Illustrated and The New York Times were running features and a regular column on the game. People just couldn’t seem to get enough of backgammon.

“Unlike chess or some other games, there is so much luck that [a novice] might actually have a good chance of winning against a more experienced player,” stated backgammon champ Herb Gurland.

Like many kids his age, Seidel was fascinated by this world and eager to get better. Fortunately for him, he happened to be living in the backgammon capital of the world.
“At the time, New York had all of the best backgammon players in the world,” said Seidel. “It was the spot to learn. It was a pretty exciting place to be for someone like me, who was trying to learn the game.”

Seidel started going to the nearby Game Room in New York, a recreation center with tons of backgammon players. It was there that he met the man he first saw on TV, Magriel.

Seidel was introduced to Magriel by a friend, and pretty soon, the man who was considered, quite possibly, the greatest backgammon player in the world began personally mentoring the young Seidel.

“He was just this wonderful, generous guy who loved to talk about and teach backgammon,” said Seidel.

As Seidel became more and more immersed in backgammon, he became less and less interested in his rebellious ways with the boys around the neighborhood.

“I was still a pretty immature kid, and I sort of came into this world and got to be around a lot of older people, a lot of really smart people, and for me, that was my college education,” said Seidel. “I feel very fortunate that I was kind of rescued by the games world.”

The Magic of the Mayfair Club

Although Seidel got his start at the Game Room, it wasn’t long before he moved over to hallowed grounds.

The Mayfair Club is revered by many of the big names in poker today. It was the most prestigious of all the underground poker clubs in New York before being shut down in 2000, and it produced a number of elite poker pros, including Stu Ungar, Howard Lederer, Jason Lester, Steve Zolotow, Mickey Appleman, Jay Heimowitz, and fellow 2010 Poker Hall of Fame inductee Dan Harrington.

Before it became New York’s most famous poker club, the Mayfair was just a bridge club. Once backgammon became more popular, the location offered both bridge and backgammon. It was there that some of the top minds in the games world discussed strategy and played for significant money.

“You really had a lot of smart and interesting people coming in from all walks of life, but everyone was pretty educated. You just had this core of brilliant backgammon players,” said Seidel, referencing Magriel, Jason Lester, Billy Horan, and Roger Low. “You’d talk about plays and why you wanted to make those plays. It was an incredibly fertile environment for learning.”

With this group around him, Seidel continued to get better, and pretty soon, he was making some decent money from the game. Although he was never a particularly good student, Seidel was in college, because that’s what was expected of him. But as more money came in, he became less and less interested in academia.

“I had the distraction of backgammon, and I was starting to do really well and was making a lot of money playing,” said Seidel. “So, I said to myself, ‘I’m making a lot of money now, and it is really difficult to do both, so maybe I will take a break.’ I was kind of hoping that I would go back, but I never did.”

And that was the end of Seidel’s schooling — but it was hardly the end of his education.

“Whatever I missed out on in college, a lot of it was filled in by spending time with all of those smart people in the Mayfair Club,” said Seidel.

Although a young man could make a modest living playing backgammon, it was hardly as lucrative as poker is today. Seidel estimated that the best players made around $50,000 a year, as opposed to some poker players making more than $1 million in a calendar year today. So, when Seidel realized that he could get a full-time job because of his Mayfair connections, he jumped at the opportunity.

The Perils of Wearing a Suit, and a New Game in Town

“There were a couple of people I knew through backgammon who were working at Paine Webber, and somehow, I went up and interviewed for a job there,” said Seidel. “They recommended me, and I began working in the mortgage department with those two guys.”
In a lot of ways, Seidel was comfortable in his new job, but there were ultimately a few things that led him to look elsewhere.

“I felt that if I was working in a corporation like Paine Webber, I was always going to be underpaid, because I didn’t really have the type of dynamic personality that would get me more money, even though I was fairly good at what I did,” said Seidel. “That was part of my frustration with the job.”

Seidel originally decided to take a leave of absence to work on his weight (he always felt uncomfortably skinny and wanted to focus on working out and gaining a few pounds), but when he was scheduled to go back, he realized that he didn’t really want to work there anymore. So, he moved on to his next career, following the footsteps of another friend and becoming a stock options trader on Wall Street.

It was around that time in Seidel’s life when he began to pick up a new game — poker.
“I was in Las Vegas for the World Amateur Backgammon Championship,” said Seidel. “At Magriel’s suggestion, I picked up a [David] Sklansky book, which at the time was like $3, on limit hold’em. I read that book and tried to play $1-$2 poker, and by some miracle, I won. It was definitely not because I was any good. That kind of sparked my interest, and when I got back to the Mayfair Club, I played a little bit for really small stakes with friends who were real poker players, one of whom was Steve Z [Zolotow].”

It wasn’t long before poker grew substantially in popularity at the Mayfair, but it all started with a few low-stakes games amongst friends.

“We played for small money with backgammon chips,” said Seidel. “That game grew as more people got interested, and that’s how the Mayfair game developed.”

Slowly but surely, he began making money through this new hobby. Just as his poker prowess began to grow, his financial stability took a major hit with the 1987 stock market crash, which wiped out his employer.

While he was without a job, he decided to take poker a little more seriously so that he could keep paying the bills.

“I was cautious for a while, and played only when the game was really good,” said Seidel. “There was one player who was a pretty big fish, so whenever he was in the game, I would play. I picked my spots for a while, and eventually got good enough to play when he wasn’t in the game.”

Pretty soon, Seidel was hanging with the best of them in New York, playing $25-$50. And it wouldn’t be long before his friends who had helped him get into Paine Webber and then onto Wall Street convinced him to go to the World Series of Poker.

The Most Famous Runner-up in Poker History

1987 was a breakout year for the Mayfair poker gang. Four of the game’s regulars finished in the final 11 in the main event of the World Series that year, with two players — Lederer and Harrington — making the six-handed final table, finishing in fifth and sixth place, respectively.

It was Lederer who first began really pressuring Seidel to go to the 1988 WSOP.
“Howard was really supportive, saying, ‘You really should go out to the World Series and try it out. You’re going to love it. There’s value there,’” Seidel remembered. “Howard’s just the most supportive friend in the world, and he was really encouraging me.”

Flattered but still not convinced that he was ready, Seidel resisted the temptation at first. But then came one of those beautiful rushes.
“I wasn’t really thinking about playing the World Series, but a little while before it started, I had a huge winning streak; in two weeks, I made $70,000, which was a lot of money for me at the time,” said Seidel. “I was just crushing the game, and decided to give it a shot.”

Still conservative with his money, he decided to sell about 70 percent of his action to various backers, including Zolotow and Horan. Ironically, Lederer ultimately decided not to buy a piece of Seidel, despite his enthusiasm.
Seidel, of course, went on to finish second in that tournament, losing to Johnny Chan in a final hand that was immortalized by the movie Rounders.

Making a Living While Supporting a Family

After the bankroll boost and confidence builder of his main-event finish, which paid Seidel and his cohorts $280,000, the New Yorker continued his great streak. Less than three months after the main event, in one of the first big tournaments after the WSOP, he defeated a young kid by the name of Phil Hellmuth for another six-figure score.

Seidel laughed when he recalled beating the then-braceletless Hellmuth.
“That was a very funny experience,” he said. “He was Phil Hellmuth even back then — a very confident kid even before he won.”

It wouldn’t be long before Seidel found the victory circle at the World Series, as well. In three consecutive years, from 1992 to 1994, he won a World Series event.
By that time, he was back in the working world, as well, selling options again. But he didn’t enjoy the trading floor.

“I never liked it. I didn’t like being on the floor and the competitiveness of it, and the yelling and standing all day,” said Seidel. “And my wife knew that I didn’t like it. Fortunately for me, she said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to do it, why don’t we try playing poker? We can move out to Vegas as an experiment. If you like it, we’ll stay.’ That was in ’95.”

Seidel had met his future wife, Rouah, years prior at a restaurant-bar in New York, after playing poker one night.

“My first impression was that she was way too pretty for me,” said Seidel. “We got to talking, and at the time, we both were in love with the same album, which was Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. We ended up hitting it off right away, and we’ve been together ever since.”

Seidel acknowledged his wife’s even-keel demeanor when it comes to gambling.

“She’s a pretty amazing gal. She has the heart of a gambler,” he said. “She has seen a lot of swings, and has always taken them well. She’s never been too upset when we’ve lost a lot, and she’s never gotten too giddy when we’ve won a lot.”

With Rouah’s support, Seidel packed his bags and headed to Las Vegas.

His poker success only grew from there. He wound up doing very well in cash games — specifically, a regular pot-limit Omaha game with Brunson and Chip Reese — and he kept adding to his bracelet collection, winning WSOP events in 1998, 2001, and 2003.
Although Seidel was having great success, he always feared that he would eventually go broke and not be able to take care of his family.

“I’ve always had this fear of going broke. I don’t know if there was ever a time that it went away; it’s certainly a lot less now, but for the majority of my career, I was always concerned that I was going to go broke,” said Seidel. “The pressures of having a family and playing poker … it’s a lot different than being single and just being able to win or lose. I’ll tell you what the scariest thing was; it was when my second daughter came. I was really freaking out, thinking, ‘Am I really going to be able to pay for both of these kids and bring them up by playing poker?’”

Despite his fears, and unlike a great number of big-name pros, Seidel never went broke; and after 2003 came and the industry boomed, it was pretty much assured that he never would.

New Era, More Success

Seidel is a member of Team Full Tilt, and has served the site as one of its most accomplished representatives. Although chosen for his impressive record in years past, he has continued to perform in the modern era.

A lot of players who were big names prior to 2003 have had trouble adjusting to the more aggressive style of play that developed after the poker boom. Even someone like Chan, who was considered the greatest player in the game in the late ‘80s, has had modest results in the past seven years.

Seidel, on the other hand, hasn’t slowed down a bit. Only five players (Phil Ivey, Jeffrey Lisandro, Allen Cunningham, Barry Greenstein, and Daniel Alaei) have won more bracelets than Seidel since 2004, but even away from the Series, he has racked up some impressive results.

In 2004, the first year that poker pros really benefited from significantly larger fields and prize pools, Seidel killed it at the Festa al Lago, winning a $2,500 event and a $3,000 event, for $175,347 and $217,839, respectively, and then finishing fourth in the $10,000 main event, for $165,000.

In 2005, he won his seventh bracelet, in a $2,000 no-limit hold’em event in which he topped a field of 1,403 players to earn $611,795.

After nine cashes in major events in 2006, Seidel enjoyed three big tournament paydays in 2007. He finished runner-up in the Aussie Millions high-roller event, for $400,000, won his eighth WSOP bracelet in a deuce-to-seven lowball event, for $538,835, and made the final table of the WPT Spanish Championship, for $71,426.
If the bar was set too high going into 2008, no one informed Seidel. He made two huge scores that year — a win in the WPT Foxwoods Poker Classic, for $992,890, and a runner-up finish in the Aussie Millions main event, for $880,000.

In 2009, he made two prestigious final tables — the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event at the World Series, and the $15,000 Bellagio Cup — for more than $325,000 combined.
This year, Seidel has quietly compiled another solid campaign. He won an Aussie Millions pot-limit Omaha event, for $107,085, finished runner-up in the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, for $250,000, and reached two WSOP final tables, for more than $127,000.

The Game Today

Although Seidel admits that he prefers poker’s current situation, since it is so much more lucrative for him, he remains nostalgic about the old days.

“I did enjoy it back in the day when you showed up at a tournament and knew everybody in it, and if you didn’t know two people at your table, it was a great table,” said Seidel. “There was no TV, and people weren’t jumping around, screaming. It was just if you played well, you made money. There were no personalities trying to gain TV exposure.”

While it’s difficult to walk through the Rio during the WSOP without hearing a poker player boast about his skills, Seidel remains modest and quiet about his abilities.
“I think that a fair number of these guys are truly delusional about their relative gifts,” said Seidel. “You often hear that you can’t be great without having a huge ego or something like that. I don’t buy that. I don’t think it’s a helpful or healthy thing. Some of these guys with huge egos would be completely broke if it weren’t for being propped up by money they’re receiving from other things.”

One thing that Seidel does love about today’s poker environment is the challenge and the influx of bright minds to the game.

“There certainly weren’t too many kids coming out of Ivy League colleges back then. Chip [Reese] was really unusual in that sense,” said Seidel. “Now, it’s normal to see kids from Brown, Yale, Harvard, and MIT, and they’re all interested in the game. That didn’t exist years ago, and I think these guys are taking it to a higher level.”
Even though he acknowledges that the game is getting tougher, Seidel insists that poker remains “live” because there is still so much to learn. While choosing not to name names, he said that a number of young so-called pros today will probably not make it in the long run.

“A lot of them have had a really good streak, but you can see that because they’re not fundamentally sound, they are going to get weeded out,” said Seidel. “Only the best are going to survive. Plenty of these young players I’ve played with are not going to make the cut. Their naked aggression is just not going to hold up.”

When asked which young players he really respects, Seidel started with a popular one: “I think ‘durrrr’ (Tom Dwan) is a fantastic player, and always fun to watch. He’s creative and brilliant, and able to lay hands down. I think he’s on the cutting edge of aggressiveness, but he’s so smart and so good that he can get away with it, whereas people who don’t play at his level — which is pretty much everyone else but Ivey, maybe — would not be able to survive with the same level of aggressiveness.”
Seidel also mentioned Phil Galfond, Scott Seiver, and Andrew Lichtenberger as young pros whose games he admires.

What the Future Holds in Store for Seidel

Seidel’s career accomplishments have landed him in a tie for fourth place in all-time WSOP bracelets won, and eighth place on the all-time tournament money-winning list. And, he is a threat to assume the top spot in both of these prestigious categories someday.

Seidel is cautious about putting too much stock in either category.

“I don’t know if I want to get too caught up in either one of them. Obviously, they’d both be nice, but I don’t know how healthy it is to think about stuff like that,” said Seidel. “Yeah, it would be fun to pass Phil [Hellmuth], but I don’t think that’s going to happen, or at least I think Ivey [who is tied with Seidel with eight bracelets] is going to get there first, for sure.”

Even now, with a decorated career that has seen him garner more than $10 million in tournament winnings, Seidel remains humble.

As for his future in the game, Seidel said that he is just going to keep playing, as long as he keeps enjoying it as much as he has in the past.

“I am hoping that I will continue to like it for a long time, that I’ll enjoy competing, and that I’ll be able to compete, because the game is getting tougher and more dynamic,” said Seidel. “I just hope that five or 10 years from now, I will still be good enough to compete, and still have the interest in it. If I don’t, I guess that’s not the worst thing, either. I’ll just find something else.” ♠

‘Action Dan’ a Hall of Famer

By Justin Marchand

Not too bad for a part-time player.

Joining Erik Seidel in sharing poker’s highest honor this year of being inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame is former backgammon champion, chess master, author, and poker superstar Dan Harrington.

The 64-year-old retired lawyer has spent a lifetime transforming his competitive game skills into financial success.

He has accumulated more than $6 million in lifetime tournament winnings. More than half of those winnings have come at the World Series of Poker, where “Action Dan” has played only a part-time schedule for the past two-and-a-half decades.

Harrington’s breakthrough year in poker came in 1995, when he won two bracelets at the World Series, including the main event, in which he bested 272 opponents and banked $1 million.

He then “retired” from poker. From 1996 until 2003, he tallied only nine tournament cashes. Instead, he focused on building his business, Anchor Loans, into the largest private real-estate lending institution in the United States.

Harrington says that he returned to the felt only after he started watching poker on TV in 2003. “I said to myself, I remember how to play that no-limit hold’em, and I know how to play it better than they know how to play it,” he recalled. “That’s what got me out of retirement and playing again.”

His coming-out-of-retirement effort was one of the most impressive accomplishments in the modern poker era. He made back-to-back main-event final tables in 2003 and 2004, finishing third and fourth, respectively.

While his on-the-felt accomplishments alone certainly qualify him for Hall of Fame honors, it’s also his contributions away from the tables that opened the door for him.

One of the Hall’s criteria is that a candidate for induction “must have contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker with indelible positive and lasting results.”

While Harrington doesn’t act as an ambassador of the game by traveling the world and attending poker events, his poker-publishing background is unrivaled in the business. Through its reach, Harrington has brought global exposure, and sophisticated study, to the game.

In 2004, he shook up the poker-publishing world by releasing the three-volume Harrington on Hold’em series. The comprehensive treatise, co-written by Bill Robertie, became the bible for all serious tournament-poker students.

That series, and the follow-up Harrington on Cash Games two-part series, sold, according to publisher Two Plus Two, 720,000 copies combined, for more than $22 million in book sales.

These well-written, authoritative books introduced many advanced concepts to beginning poker players, causing many of them to take up and invest in the game.
The author of modern poker’s bible is not done yet, however, as, according to Two Plus Two, another Harrington tome is expected in 2011.

Interestingly, one of the most vocal critics of his publishing endeavors was his old friend, fellow New York City Mayfair Club games player and 2010 Hall of Fame compatriot Erik Seidel.

“Erik took a good review off Amazon, sent it to me, and said, “F—- you, Harrington!” And a few days later, he took another good review off Amazon, sent it to me, and said, “F—- you again, Harrington!”

This, of course, was all in good fun. At the induction ceremony, held in conjunction with this year’s main-event final table, Seidel said, “It’s an extra bonus for me to be going in with Dan Harrington. We have played together and have been great friends for my entire poker career.”

With this year’s two inductions, the Hall of Fame now consists of 40 of poker’s most influential people.

The eight other finalists for induction consideration this year were Chris Ferguson, Barry Greenstein, Jennifer Harman-Traniello, Phil Ivey, Linda Johnson, Tom McEvoy, Daniel Negreanu, and Scotty Nguyen. ♠