11/18/2015 1:12PM

Fornatale: Player nicknames add intrigue in contest world


The poker world is full of nicknames. Just looking over the top 10 on the career money list, you have Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, Erik “Seiborg” Seidel, Phil “The Phenom” Ivey, Sam “Tricky” Trickett, Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth, Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi, and John “JJ” Juanda. That leaves only two of the top 10 money earners without nicknames: Daniel Colman and Martin Jacobson.

I’m not saying there’s a direct correlation between the number of nicknames and poker’s popularity, but I can’t say definitively that the two concepts are unrelated either. Maybe we need more nicknames to make handicapping contests more mainstream. Fortunately, we have a little bit of a head start on this project.

Tommy “Hammer” Massis is the hottest player in the contest world, having won the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge and the Del Mar November contest in the last month alone. His moniker is well earned: He’s not afraid to hammer his preferred combinations in live-bankroll contests. He crushed a $4,000 exacta in the BCBC and won Del Mar with a $9,000 win bet. “We call him Hammer because that’s how he bets,” said his friend Ray Arsenault.

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The TV show “Horseplayers” introduced many viewers to three nicknames, all of which have stuck to one degree or another. There’s Kevin “The Brooklyn Cowboy” Cox, Christian “The Guru” Hellmers, and Michael “Million-Dollar Man” Beychok. Cox is unmistakable between his New York accent and hat choice, Hellmers’s decision-making process is fueled by New Age belief, and Beychok’s name is literal: He’s the only contest player to win $1 million in a single event (the National Handicapping Championship’s first prize has since been quite sensibly lowered to make the event less top-heavy).

Years ago, when I first interviewed David Gutfreund for my book “Six Secrets of Successful Bettors,” he told me he was trying to disassociate himself from his nickname, “The Maven.” Despite this plea, I don’t think I’ve heard a contest player call him by his given name in the decade since. And he was spotted at the Saratoga tournament wearing a hockey jersey – his trademark look – with the letters M-A-V-E-N emblazoned across the back. Some nicknames stick even when you don’t want them to.

A personal favorite nickname is Stephen “The Undertaker” Thompson. Thompson, a funeral director in Lebanon, Pa., makes a habit of burying his opponents in tournament play. He’s a seven-time NHC qualifier who sits fourth on the NHC Tour leaderboard. I love it when he wins because I get to make WWE-related references.

Emily Gullikson is known online as “Mayhemily,” a name that fits this onetime roller-derby star turned handicapping aficionado. Gullikson has had a quiet year – in part a result of draconian gaming laws in her native Arizona. But she’s a threat to bring the mayhem in any contest she’s in – she consistently comes up with horses who look dirty on paper but find a way to run well.

Another name I really like was given to Ricky Zimmer by tournament legend Randy Gallo: “The Quiet Assassin.” Zimmer is no stranger to major tournament success: He won the Wynn tournament in 2011 and has qualified for the NHC every year he’s tried. Zimmer stands out in this age of computer programs and posses of friends who sit together because he’s a lone wolf armed only with a pen and a Daily Racing Form.

Speaking of posses of friends who sit together, regular NHC Tour players Jonathon Kinchen and Nick Tammaro both have nicknames within their group that have yet to catch on in the wider contest world. Kinchen is known as “Johnny Stacks” (sometimes #johnnystacks), a reference to his betting alter ego who is never afraid to fire, to a fault. The name is often used with irony (overbetting a short-priced favorite might be called “a typical Johnny Stacks move”). Tammaro is known as “Nicky the Boss,” a name given to him by Kinchen’s son but somehow evocative of the personality of a “Sopranos”-obsessed guy from Texas by way of South Brooklyn.

The father-son combination of Chris and Alex Larmey seems ripe for nicknames. Chris is frequently seen wearing a baseball cap and is known for his ability to find longshots. Maybe “Cap Man?” Alex is a captain in the Army Reserves who won a Bronze Star for heroism in Afghanistan. He has the word “relentless” tattooed across his chest. Is “Capt. Relentless” too on the nose?

As you can see, when it comes to the creation of nicknames, I’m good at recording them but not so good at conceiving them. So, I put it to you, dear readers, to help me in my quest. Whether it’s in the comments on DRF.com or via Twitter, let’s come up with nicknames for all these players we see on our leaderboards week in and week out.