Lending History a Helping Hand For Hand

The other day I was researching some poker history for work and I stumbled upon this.  It is the official coverage form the 1995-2000 Main Events.  Being a nerd for poker history, I had a field day looking through these notes and announcements. You could sense how small the poker community was back then. Even the chip count lists and payouts were peppered with inside jokes and nicknames, the transcribers seemingly unaware of how, in less than a decade, everything would change.

Far and away the best part of this discovery was uncovering the hand-for-hand action transcribed via shorthand by Tom Sims.  I was unfamiliar with Sims prior to this week, but now I am fairly certain he is my poker media hero.

Thanks to Sims, we are able to see how the legendary Stu Ungar played every single hand of the the 1997 Main Event final table.  As someone who had heard of Ungar’s genius, but never seen it in action, being able to get a sense of how he played was an incredible treat.

And we wouldn’t have that history were it not for Sims.  According to Melissa Hayden, Sims would speak the hands into a micro-cassette recorder and later write them up.  It had to be an arduous process, but Sims seemed to understand how you can’t really ascribe a value to having that information.

Another project I found particularly worthwhile was “The Andy Bloch Project”. Bloch agreed to play guinea pig for Sims as Sims tracked every single hand Bloch played in the ‘97 Main Event.  All 648 of them.  That number alone is very telling.  In the first level of play alone, Bloch saw 95 hands of poker.  No one is keeping such extreme tabs these days, but in the 2012 Main Event, I’d be hard pressed to believe someone saw 50 hands over the course of a two-hour level, let alone nearly twice that.

You would also think that 648 hands must have gotten Bloch pretty far in this tournament. In reality, it didn’t. Sims estimates that when Bloch busted during Day 2, he finished in approximately 44th place.  That year there were 312 Main Event entrants. The top 36 made the money, so to compare it to this year’s Main Event, Bloch basically made it to Day 3.

As the shot clock in poker debate gets some traction this month, this document helps to firmly illustrate just how much faster the game can be played. Again, I reiterate that we would not have this information and these precise numbers were it not for the diligence of Sims.

Which brings me to my point. In 1997 a man with a micro-cassette recorder created one of the most compelling, colorful, and thorough pieces of content I have ever seen. His efforts between the Bloch project and the final table, in my mind, have more long-term value than any of the coverage generated at this year’s series. Yes, we have our archived live streams, which capture the mood, people, and action of the final table, but, aside from the Main Event final table and the Big One for One Drop final table, documented by ESPN, we have no precise records of hands played, flops seen, cards shown down.

I think we have come a long way in poker coverage, don’t get me wrong. The early day action, the growth of chip count coverage, and the incorporation of Twitter all add a lot to the history books.  However, it is time we stepped it up with hand-for-hand of every major final table.  The WPT already does this and, as a result, they are able to offer a wealth of statistical information that can only be estimated on other tours and at the WSOP.  While we have gained a lot in our ability to immediately report what is happening, we seem to be losing sight that these updates are the official record of these events and have a shelf life and utility that extends beyond the day of the final table.

Opponents of hand-for-hand have told me “color” is lost in the shuffle and that staff restrictions make it too difficult to pull off.  This is why Sims is my new poker media hero.  His work from this era shows you how even a shorthand version of hand for hand can offer a wealth of color and historical value and that it can be done without a laptop.  All you need is a micro-cassette recorder and a willingness to document everything for history’s sake.

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