Collecting Autographs from Poker Players – A Fun New Hobby
Back when I was a young boy growing up in Baltimore, just a few blocks away from Memorial Stadium, my summer days were spent hunting autographs at the old ballpark.
Scoring signatures from Frank Robinson, Don Baylor, Jim Palmer, or Davey Johnson on a baseball card—or better yet, a brand-new ball—was the highlight of my boyhood experience. I still have that memorabilia proudly displayed in my den, because for me, anyway, collecting autographs was always much more than a hobby.
Fast forward forty years and my passion for baseball is still strong, but since then, I’ve immersed myself in the world of poker.
Aside from my Little League exploits from long ago, baseball has been rendered a spectator sport at best. With poker, on the other hand, I’m able to watch top pros work their wonders on television, before firing up an online poker tournament or heading out to the casino for a little cash game action.
There’s something to be said for a sport that lets fans play on the same field as their heroes, and perhaps no other game offers that level of interaction like poker can.
To that end, I started a new summer tradition over the last decade or so—visiting the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas to soak up the greatest spectacle in poker. If you’ve never been to the Rio casino in June or July, you’re missing out on a truly special scene for poker fans.
For six weeks, day in and day out, the greatest players in the game walk the halls, entering dozens of tournaments throughout the series in search of that elusive WSOP gold bracelet. Legitimate superstars like Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth the “Poker Brat,” Phil Ivey, Antonio Esfandiari, and countless others call the WSOP home throughout the summer, transforming the Rio into poker’s version of summer camp.
It may not match the dizzying heights that baseball autograph collecting once did, but ever since the “poker boom” brought the game mainstream, player autographs have become a hot commodity. You can check out eBay anytime to find signatures from the biggest stars on sale for a hundred dollars or more.
I’m not a seller by trade, however, and the poker autographs I’ve collected over the years are simply an extension of my lifelong obsession with signatures. Each one offers a link to an indelible memory—a meaningful conversation with the signer, the context surrounding our meeting, and the emotional satisfaction of scratching another name off my list.
I try to spend at least two weeks at the WSOP every year, usually spreading my experience out over a pair of one-week excursions. These trips aren’t devoted to autograph hunting, of course, and if I have anything in common with the pros, it’s that I come to play. But between my humble schedule of satellites and the occasional $1,000 buy-in bracelet event, I love nothing more than exploring the cavernous Amazon Room or Pavilion area for autograph opportunities.
I’ve put this page together to provide up-and-coming signature hounds with a primer on adding poker signatures to your collection. The advice offered here is a bit subjective, I’ll admit, but as I prepare for my fifteenth pilgrimage to the WSOP next summer, I can confidently say that few folks out there know more about the hobby than myself.
The Most Prolific Signers in Poker
I bleed orange and black, and the Orioles were always my prime target at the ballpark, but I was always happy to add an “enemy” signature to my collection.
So, when I headed down to the field before batting practice and asked Oakland Athletics second baseman Davey Lopes to sign my Topps card, nothing was out of the ordinary. Except for his reply, that is…
Lopes told me he “doesn’t sign that stuff” and basically told me to buzz off. Granted, I was a bit older than the average autograph seeker by 1982, but telling a teenager to get lost was still a rough way to approach the situation.
I’ll never forget Lopes’ dismissal on that day, so I’d like to teach you a few tricks of the trade to avoid a similar fate when you’re on the lookout for poker signatures.
If you’re new to the hobby, my advice is to get your feet wet first by sticking to the sure things. And in terms of poker royalty, two players rise above the rest when it comes to signing autographs–Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu.
Anybody reading a page on poker autographs should know all about Hellmuth and Negreanu, who rank among the most successful, decorated, and profitable players in poker history.
Hellmuth has staked himself to a healthy lead in the WSOP bracelet race with fourteen, four more than his closest competitors in Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, and Doyle Brunson. He’s made the money in an astounding 326 tournaments over his thirty-year career, amassing more than $21 million in live earnings over his illustrious career. And through his infamous “Poker Brat” persona, broadcast to the world through WSOP and World Poker Tour (WPT) telecasts during the boom, millions of recreational players have been introduced to the excitement of No Limit Texas Hold’em.
As for Negreanu, his six gold bracelets in WSOP competition are certainly impressive, but “Kid Poker” prides himself on leading the all-time tournament earnings list with over $35 million in winnings. The self-styled ambassador of poker, Negreanu uses table talk and banter, along with an uncanny ability to read opponents, to illustrate the skill inherent in successful play. And as a regular in the biggest cash games in Las Vegas, Negreanu competes at the highest level in all of the non-hold’em variants (Seven Card Stud, Omaha, Lowball, etc.).
If eventual Hall of Famers like Palmer and Robinson were the heroes of my youth, Hellmuth and Negreanu are definitely deserving descendants to that legacy.
One would assume that pros who have attained “celebrity” status in the poker world would shy away from signing, but in this case, the exact opposite is true.
In his autobiography, “Poker Brat,” Hellmuth described his longtime nemesis on the felt—and friend away from the tables–when talking about Negreanu’s fan-friendliness:
“Negreanu has an amazing reading ability, and he is the most popular poker player in the world.
Daniel is fun to watch!
And he signs more autographs, and takes more pictures than anyone else. I thought that I was good with the fans, but Daniel signs all day long during poker tournaments!”
You can get a glimpse of Negreanu’s amenable autograph style here as he signs for fans during the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Stars tournament in 2010. And as a fan who has several Negreanu signatures stashed away, I can attest to Hellmuth’s story in every respect.
Negreanu isn’t just willing to sign; he actively seeks out fans along the rail who have been waiting to meet “Kid Poker” in the flesh. And believe it or not, Negreanu is the type of celebrity who seems to remember these brief encounters vividly. Crack a joke, tell him about your favorite hockey team, or simply shake his hand, and when you meet him years later, Negreanu will recognize your face.
That ability to relate on a human level with strangers he’s never even met before is admirable, to say the least, and it’s led to Negreanu’s widely accepted role as poker’s ambassador to the public.
The importance of interacting with fans seems to have rubbed off on Hellmuth, too, as the formerly reclusive “Bad Boy of Poker” has emerged from his shell over the last decade. You know all about his blowups and rants, usually directed at amateur players who just cracked his big hand, but when Hellmuth steps away from the tables, his demeanor couldn’t be more different.
Humble, mild-mannered, and happy to oblige an autograph seeker at every turn, Hellmuth has blossomed into an ambassador in his own right. Can’t believe it? Check out Hellmuth taking time to sign for a young woman at the 2007 WSOP, all without even breaking stride as he rants to his father about rival Mike Matusow’s play.
Signing for adoring fans isn’t anything new for Hellmuth, however, as he mentioned during a 2005 interview with reporter Chris Yandek:
“Well, I am the ‘Bad Boy of Poker.’ I don’t really have to shake anybody’s hand. I can just be like John McEnroe in his heyday and say ‘forget it,’ but I do.
Everyone who asks for an autograph, I give them one. Anyone who wants to shake my hand or pose for a picture I do it.
It becomes a different world when you sign so many autographs and get mobbed all the time. I am not going to ever complain. It’s nice. It’s kind of a job to shake hands and do autographs.”
Between Hellmuth and Negreanu, both of whom are at the WSOP daily and for the duration of the series, you should have no trouble getting your poker autograph collection started in style.
From there, you’ll need to know the lay of the land to procure signatures from poker’s rank and file pros.
Recognize the Rhythm of the Room
Snagging a signature from a superstar like Hellmuth or Negreanu is certainly a thrill, but seeing dozens of other fans doing the same thing does tend to take some of the shine off.
If you’re like me, you probably have a few lesser known pros, or even just people in the poker industry, whose autograph you’d love to add. Personally, I’m big on the WSOP-Circuit grinders like Maurice Hawkins and Ari Engel—younger players who tour the country playing in smaller events. But whoever it is you’re chasing down, the trick is to be smart about the circumstances surrounding that fateful engagement.
Obviously, when you see your favorite player seated in a live tournament, this isn’t the time to tap them on the shoulder and distract them from the game. In fact, the WSOP has security guards and railings on hand specifically to prevent that sort of intrusion.
You’ll need to hang back and wait for a scheduled twenty-minute break, which occur every few hours during the course of a tournament day. Just look for the TV screens looming overhead with a clock counting down, and you’ll be able to time the upcoming break down to the minute.
The Rio is home to thousands upon thousands of people during the typical WSOP day – players, fans, media members, dealers, floor staff, cocktail servers, and more. And when the scheduled break finally arrives, thousands of people immediately begin streaming for the restrooms or outdoor smoking patio to make the most of their twenty-minute respite.
If the player you’ve been watching stands up just ahead of the break before striding away briskly (or even sprinting, in some cases), take this as a cue. Their bladder may be about to burst, or perhaps the nicotine cravings have kicked in. Whatever their reasons happen to be, many players don’t appreciate anybody—fans or fellow pros alike—taking up precious minutes of their break time.
I always try to keep an eye on my autograph target in the minutes before the break begins. If they seem ready to roll, so to speak, and eager to beat the bathroom lines, I know asking them for a few moments of time will probably result in a brusque brush-off.
On the other hand, when a player hangs around to stack their chips or make small talk with somebody else at the table, I know they’re not in any hurry. This situation is rare when compared to the break-time rush I described above, but it does happen more than you’d imagine.
Many times, players are simply absorbed in the adrenaline rush of a deep run. The last thing they want to do is disrupt their momentum, and for some, the break comes and goes without them ever leaving the tournament area.
These situations are as good as gold for an autograph seeker. A player who isn’t in any rush to leave almost always has time to sign, especially if they’re lesser known figures who aren’t exactly being hounded by hordes of fans.
Extending this concept, I always try to keep track of my target’s chip stack in the minutes before an autograph opportunity arrives. Players who are winning are far more likely to stop and sign than somebody who is short-stacked and in a surly mood.
If their table is close to the rail, this process involves nothing more than eyeing their stacks and making a mental count. Pros tend to keep their chips in stacks of twenty, so you just need to know the value of each colored chip to make the rough calculations.
To track a player seated far from the rail, I advise using the PokerNews app on your smartphone. PokerNews is the leading tournament-reporting site, and they send a team with dozens of chip counters and live bloggers to the WSOP. If your target has any sort of reputation in the poker world, their chip count will be regularly updated via PokerNews reporting.
Whatever method you use to track their chip counts, knowing how a player is performing on the felt is a major predictor in how they’ll behave off the felt. As you might imagine, a player holding a huge chip lead is likely to be happy and eager to share in their excitement. And even if they’ve done nothing more than make a big comeback, anybody who has recently dragged a few pots their way should be wearing a smile.
If the timing is right, you can even get players who have a ton of chips to take a minute or two out of the bathroom break to sign. Like I said, they’re in such a good mood at that particular moment that rejecting an autograph request just doesn’t seem right.
Conversely, if you notice your target has recently dropped a chunk of their chips or suffered a brutal bad beat, common sense dictates leaving them alone for the time being.
Remember, a WSOP tournament day spans twelve hours or longer, and there’s always more than one tournament running. You’ll have plenty of opportunities throughout a trip, so it’s best to avoid making a bad impression by asking for an autograph right after a player had their pocket aces cracked.
Dinner Break Combines the Best of Both Worlds
Along with the twenty-minute breaks interspersed throughout the tournament, all players get to take an hour-long dinner break with a few levels to go in the day.
The dinner break is prime autograph-seeking time at the WSOP for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, the extended length lets players take their time. Rather than rush by you in a frenzy to reach the bathroom in time, pros are strolling through the Rio hallways en route to the restaurant areas. And if you’ve ever been to the WSOP before, you know those Rio hallways are seemingly endless, as the tournament area is located far from the main casino.
With a walk in front of them that easily takes five minutes, and with nowhere else to go, even a relatively unfriendly player is likely to sign during the dinner break.
Making the dinner break is also an unofficial signpost in the tournament’s day, signifying that you’re nearly to the finish line. For most pros, reaching the dinner break is just one step in a long process toward making the final table, but it usually means they’ve accumulated chips thus far.
Finally, given the late-day timing of the dinner break, it often occurs right after players make the money on Day 3. In any poker tournament spanning several days, surviving long enough to lock up a cash is a meaningful moment. All the hard work has literally paid off, and from there, it’s a freeroll to the big payouts waiting at the final table.
Many of my most elusive poker autographs have been snagged at that perfect nexus point, with the player still celebrating their cash while walking to dinner.
The Tools of the Trade
Collecting autographs as a baseball fan comes easy because the medium has already been provided by the game itself. You can get a baseball signed—just make sure they stick to the sweet spot–or up the ante and go for a signed bat or jersey. And while the popularity of baseball cards has waned in the modern era, they’re still the perfect place to put a signature.
It’s not that easy for poker fans, so you’ll need to be creative when deciding what you’d like signed.
For superstar celebrities like Hellmuth and Negreanu, a copy of their latest book is always an attractive option. Hellmuth’s signature black hat or a hockey jersey for Canadian puck-head Negreanu offer interesting alternatives.
But for the majority of poker players out there, you won’t find merchandise or memorabilia so easily. For these cases, I like to carry around a few fresh decks of Bicycle brand playing cards.
Bicycle cards are the original, and they sport a clean, crisp look, complete with plenty of white space for a signature to fit.
I know a ton of poker fans who have Barry Greenstein’s book “Ace on the River” autographed by the “Robin Hood of Poker,” and that’s a perfectly fine collectable—but it can’t beat my ace of spades Bicycle card signed by the man himself.
Collecting autographs from poker players is a fun way to connect with many pros. Not all of them will sign, but with the right attitude and persistence, you can quickly build your collection.