“Second place is just the first loser.”
                              -- NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt


      Wandering the hallways of the Rio this summer will be a few dozen poker players attracting little attention.  Despite winning in excess of $40 million collectively at the World Series of Poker alone, few of these players will be stopped and asked for their autographs.  

      Despite the fact that each played outstanding poker and outlasted hundreds, and in some cases thousands of other players in the most grueling poker competition of the year, almost none of their photographs will be hoisted up inside the tournament room.  Despite each player’s unquestionable supporting role in the evolution and popularity of poker, few enjoy endorsement deals.  And despite at one time having come within just a hand or two of winning poker’s world championship, few will be sought out by the media.  Instead, most of these players will wallow around the WSOP for weeks at a time in near-anonymity.

      Many of their names were forgotten a very long time ago.  Names like -- Don Holt, Glen Cozen, Howard Goldfarb, Dr. Bruce Van Horn, John Strzemp, Kevin McBride, Perry Green, Rod Peate, Frank Henderson, Tuan Lam, and several others, too.  They are the forgotten brigade of “would-be” world poker champions who finished second in the WSOP Main Event [1].

      How their lives would have been different and poker might have changed had just a card or two along the way turned out differently.  What if Kevin McBride had been dealt the higher full-house and defeated Scotty Nguyen in 1998?  How would Stu Ungar’s legacy be different if John Strzemp had won the 1997 championship?  Would Johnny Chan be as highly-regarded today had he finished second to Frank Henderson back in 1987?  Would Dan Harrington have become one of poker’s best-selling authors in history had he not defeated Howard Goldfarb in 1995?  Then, there is the even bigger Chris Moneymaker question.  How might poker be different today had Sammy Farha won instead in 2003, putting Moneymaker on the losing bench with the likes of Steve Dannenmann and Darvin Moon?  Would the poker boom have still happened?

      Readers may struggle to muster up much sympathy for these players, who collected six-and seven-figure payouts in a single poker tournament.  But almost without exception, every second-place finisher I have ever spoken to in the years since has revealed a lingering sense of disappointment for failing to win [2].  

      In some cases, that disappointment has lasted for years, and in some cases -- decades.  Crandell Addington, who now lives in San Antonio, finished runner-up twice in the Main Event back during the 1970s.  He’s since gone on to become a multi-millionaire several times over in the business world, but still talks about the void of never having won the world championship.  Like former high school athletes still haunted by dropping the winning touchdown pass in a football game played years earlier, some memories never fade away.

      If you don’t believe this, ask anyone who finished second in a WSOP gold bracelet event about the hands he or she played at the final table, and you are likely to bear witness to an astonishing moment of mental clarity and ability to recall from memory.  Most of these second-place finishers couldn’t tell you what they ate for dinner the night before, but just as sure as there are 52 cards in a poker deck, most of them are able to recite the faintest details of poker hands that were played 5, 10, 15, 20, and even 25 years ago.

      Sadly, most of these players are aware they will never get that chance again.  The further removed they become from opportunity the more conscious they are of the ticking clock which looms over all of us who aspire to prominence.  Still energized by his recent success, last year’s runner up may actually believe he can eventually come back again and win the big one -- and perhaps he will, someday.  But after a few more years pass and the realization of just how hard it is to outlast 6,000 poker players becomes the prevailing outlook, memories of finishing second become a mental albatross which gets weightier by the year.  Newcomers to poker and those who have never cashed in the Main Event often fail to understand the daunting task that lies ahead, in order to win.  But those who came within the flick of a dealer’s wrist of becoming the world poker champion know all too well how tough it is to actually win.

      Consider the case of Frank Henderson, who finished second in 1987, when Johnny Chan won the first of his two world titles.  Had things gone just a little differently back then, Henderson’s image might be up on a banner at the Rio alongside the likes of Moss, Brunson, and Ungar.  But Henderson now walks the hallway and is unrecognized, except by a rare few who remember what happened on that May afternoon at Binion’s Horseshoe 23 years ago.  World Champion Johnny Chan signs countless autographs when he shows up for at the WSOP.  Runner up Frank Henderson can’t remember the last time he signed an autograph for someone.

      Pretty much all that remains for second-place finishers are memories of hands that were played, sometimes captured in grainy newsreel footage and in an occasional photograph showing us when we were all younger, healthier, and still naively ambitious.

      As this year’s WSOP approaches, take just a moment to think about these competitors – gentlemen, all.  If you see one of them, say hello.  Acknowledge them for who they are and what they accomplished.  It might even be interesting to discover something new if you ask them about their experiences.  Almost without exception, each player learned something that might prove to be helpful to you.  Not today, perhaps.  But if and when the time finally comes, when you are sitting at a WSOP final table playing for a gold bracelet, the advice of someone who has sat in your seat before and lost might actually be more beneficial than hearing from someone who won [3].

      At times, poker can be a cruel and impersonal game.  But it can also be an invigorating experience.  In 2010, let’s all make an effort to show these aspirant champions some respect.  They’ve earned it.  And, it’s the right thing to do.
 
Footnotes:

[1] It should be noted that although most second-place finishers are not particularly well-known, a few are, in fact, poker legends.  Among those who have finished second are Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Crandell Addington, Johnny Chan, T.J. Cloutier, and Dewey Tomko.  All are members of the Poker Hall of Fame.

[2] Steve Dannenmann remains the only player I have never heard express any disappointment.  In several interviews he’s given since his second-place showing to Joe Hachem in the 2005 Main Event, Dannenmann has repeatedly stated that his priority was not necessarily to win the world championship, but to enjoy the moment and opportunity.
 
[3] There are numerous examples of this.  For instance, Tuan Lam, the 2007 runner up, very likely has more to teach us about how to adjust strategy and discuss how he might play his hands differently, than the actual winner that year, Jerry Yang.