Flush With Success

When do five cards mean millions of dollars? When you're playing in the World Series of Poker. Just ask one of the year's finalists, North Miami Beach's John Spadavecchia.

Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.

-- Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal

It's not the money," scoffs John Spadavecchia.
Not many men could brush off a million dollar payday as convincingly as Spadavecchia, a 55-year-old grandfather and Joe Pesci look-alike. But there's something about his delivery that makes you believe him. Maybe it's the unwavering mahogany eyes. Maybe it's the raspy, dispassionate speaking voice. Maybe it's the photographs of his grandkids on the wall unit behind his desk. Or the snapshots of his black Mercedes roadster and his sleek red-and-white Scarab cigarette boat affixed casually to the wall above the dozen or so certificates documenting his poker-playing accomplishments of the last half-dozen years (a first-place finish and $72,000 prize in a seven-card stud tournament at Caesar's Palace in 1989, another first place and an $88,000 win from a no-limit Texas hold 'em contest at Caesar's a year later). Maybe it's the way he pronounces Binion's Horseshoe (he calls the casino "Been-yan"). Maybe it's the jewelry that hangs from his neck and adorns his wrist and fingers, particularly one chunky fourteen-karat gold bracelet Spadavecchia won in the 1991 World Series of Poker deuce-to-seven, no-limit tournament.

Then again, maybe Spadavecchia is bluffing. It is, after all, what he does best. Maybe it poses little challenge for a man who has made it to the final table at the World Series of Poker Championships to convince a reporter living paycheck to paycheck that a million dollars is merely a fringe benefit, that what really matters to this Oakland Park Italian marble and tile importer is to be recognized as one of the best in the world.

"Nobody likes to lose," Spadavecchia expounds. "The kind of poker player I'm talking about, you're playing with the best in the world. When you get knocked out of this tournament, it's the worst thing that could ever happen."

Whether he likes it or not, a man's character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in life.

-- Anthony Holden, Big Deal

Four days of grueling, high-stakes poker came down to this: the final table of the 1994 World Series of Poker Championships at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Binion's, one of Glitter Gulch's oldest, most storied, and least commodious casinos, was packed with spectators, tournament also-rans, and self-important media types. Dozens of high-stakes competitions are waged annually around the world, but the World Series of Poker is the biggest of them all, a three-week, 21-event extravaganza culminating in a four-day, no-betting-limit Texas hold 'em shootout (referred to reverentially as the Big One) to determine the world champion. A million dollars in cash was awarded to the victor, and to celebrate the tournament's 25th anniversary in 1994, Binion's sweetened the pot with an only-in-Vegas kicker A the champion's weight in silver ingots. And if you had asked any of the 268 card sharks in attendance (a record field) why he (or she -- Las Vegas pro Barbara Samuelson eventually placed tenth, the highest-ever finish by a woman) ventured here from one of the four corners of the globe, just like John Spadavecchia, he probably would have told you it wasn't the potential financial windfall that reeled him in, but the prospect of seeing his name on one of those heavy gold bracelets that says "World Champion."

The green baize table stood alone in a special rectangular section of the casino that had been cordoned off from the crush of spectators. A clutch of Binion's armed, beige-uniformed security guards kept watch. Dozens of press photographers and TV cameramen jockeyed for position. Three dour players and one fresh-faced dealer (the dealer wore a white cotton shirt with a distinctive, ribbonlike Binion's bow tie) occupied seats at the table. Only the dealer faced the crowd. Onlookers had two choices -- stare at the players' hunched backs or follow the action on one of the pair of oversize television monitors flanking the table.

Of the six finalists who started the day, only these three remained. The festivities had begun, in true prizefighting fashion, with a weigh-in. Russ Hamilton, a 44-year-old full-time poker pro from Las Vegas who bears a passing resemblance to the late comedian John Candy but with actor Sydney Greenstreet's darting deadpan eyes, had tipped the scale at 330 pounds. Both the casino and the player had been chagrined to learn that Binion's didn't have enough silver bullion on hand to balance Hamilton's beef. But Hamilton's embarrassment had been at least partially offset by the fact that at $5.40 an ounce, the wholesale price of silver at the time, his heft represented a potential $28,512 precious-metal bonus.

Hugh Vincent, a 178-pound retired CPA from Palm Beach Gardens who describes himself even today as "the rankest of amateurs," had led the tournament with over a million and a half dollars in chips when play had commenced at 10:30 a.m. He had, in other words, amassed more than half of the money in play throughout the entire tournament, giving him an intimidating stockpile of ammunition. By 1:00 p.m. only Hamilton and the 174-pound Spadavecchia were around to challenge Vincent's supremacy. The other three finalists had been eliminated in less than two and a half hours. Vincent looked the part of the quintessential flinty Florida cracker as he pulled his Binion's World Series of Poker souvenir baseball cap down low on his forehead, sucked on an ever-present cigarette stub glowing between his fingers, and peered out from over his mountain of chips like a sniper with a cozy perch and a bottomless supply of bullets.

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