2015 – The Year in Poker, Part 4: In Memoriam

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As we enter the final week of the year 2015, it is time to take a look back at some of the great moments of the past year and maybe even some of the less popular times.

For all the frivolity, riches and personalities who made 2015 a fun ride, the poker world also lost some people that will never be replaced. While this isn’t a comprehensive list (writer’s note:  Paul “Eskimo” Clark, who was not included in this list when it was initially published, passed away in April at the age of 68), it does remind us that our time is short on this mortal coil and, above all else, to enjoy those around us and our activities until our time is nigh.

That suddenness of mortality kicked the poker world in the teeth just as the New Year began. Poker journalist ‘Diamond Flush’ passed away in January after fighting cancer for many years. She was an unbiased journalist in that she neither accepted nor sought out any type of accolades for her work in the poker industry, preferring to remain anonymous to the general poker public. ‘Diamond Flush’ was remembered in a particularly surprising way, being feted at the iGaming North America awards as Operator of the Year in March. The poker world lost a great voice when it came to coverage of the industry.

In March, one of the “good guys” in the game of poker and Hollywood left our embrace. The Simpsons creator Sam Simon succumbed to colon cancer at his Los Angeles home at the age of 59. While mostly notable for his efforts in entertainment, Simon was also known for his penchant for poker. He cashed 27 times in the tournament poker arena, including six times at the World Series of Poker, and earned some cash for his efforts. He was more interested in the people around the game and animals, however, and used his fortune to support charitable endeavors such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, VA, were renamed the Sam Simon Center in 2013.

The start of April brought arguably the saddest loss of the year. British poker legend David ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott played his final hand on Earth after an extended battle with bowel cancer. Only 61, the raconteur Ulliott overcame a difficult early life to become one of the “poster boys” of the poker boom, first as the overwhelming star of Late Night Poker in England and then in the United States on the World Poker Tour and the WSOP. The rakish charm of Ulliott reached everyone he touched whether they were on the felt or around the tables and his passing stunned many in the poker community.

In May, one of the poker world’s “grinders” went to the game in the beyond. Robert ‘Uncle Krunk’ Panitch passed away in his sleep at the age of 63 from a heart attack. While he wasn’t known to those whose only connection to poker is through television, Panitch was able to put together a solid career on the felt. He captured the title of the WSOP Circuit Main Event stop in St. Louis in March 2014, earning his second WSOP ring. Panitch also finished in third place in the 2013 WSOP National Championship, earning his career best $156,743 of his $469,362 in career earnings.

In June, one of the voices of the early WSOP broadcasts – and the father of one of poker’s best known announcers – laid down the microphone for the next great trek. 86-year old Dick Van Patten, who served as the announcer for the WSOP Championship Event from 1993 to 1995 and is the father of current WPT announcer Vince Van Patten, would expire having lived a very full life. Better known for his acting exploits on such television fare as Eight is Enough and his 27 appearances on Broadway, Van Patten still had a connection to the game through his previous work and his son’s connections to the business.

August brought news of the passing of one of the original wunderkinds of the online poker world. Chad ‘lilholdem954’ Batista passed away at the young age of 35 after fighting difficult health for much of his life. Once considered one of the best online tournament poker players in the world, Batista was arguably one of the people most affected by the 2011 “Black Friday” shutdown of online poker in the United States. Although he was able to go to Mexico to compete online, he never acclimated to having to leave the U. S. and his beloved dogs to ply his trade. Batista wasn’t just an online player, though; he earned almost $1 million from live tournament play in his career.

Another character of the game cashed in his chips in September. While some nowadays may not remember the name Ellix Powers, his run during a 2004 WSOP final table entranced a captive audience that couldn’t get enough of his antics. Giving “the business” to such notables as T. J. Cloutier, An Tran and eventual champion John Hennigan, Powers made the most out of his seventh place finish (at one point, an exasperated James McManus said he was “disrespecting” the game of poker with his antics). Powers, who passed at the age of 57, only made about $125,000 for his entire tournament career, but his memory will stay with many.

December would deal a double dose of sadness for the poker community. In Las Vegas, longtime poker advocate and former Poker Players Alliance Nevada state director Dianna Donofrio-Trigatzi fought to the end against cancer, something that she had been battling as she became an advocate for the game. Born in 1946, Donofrio-Trigatzi worked in the casino industry under such luminaries as Poker Hall of Famer Jack McClelland and former WSOP Tournament Director Robert Daily before embarking on her work with the PPA.

On the East Coast, the poker community was hit hard by the passing of Frank Vizza. A staple at many of the Atlantic City casinos and their poker rooms, Vizza racked up an impressive 24 cashes in a nine-year period, earning over $700,000 in that timeframe and perhaps even more through plying his cash game skills. His biggest achievement on the felt was a championship on the WSOP Circuit, but the record books of both the WSOP and the WPT note Vizza as a longtime participant in their events.

While they may be gone, these people would have wanted the games to go on. In their memory, we pause for a second before the next card hits the air.

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