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.

Hamilton chipped away (no pun intended) at Vincent's commanding lead and found himself comfortably ensconced in second. Spadavecchia clung to third place tenaciously, looking, to quote a New Yorker reporter, "as if he had just walked out of a Scorcese movie: a creased face with a lot of mileage on it, dark hair, dark patterned shirt, gold watch, gold bracelet [the 1991 deuce-to-seven championship prize], gold ring."

Vincent and Hamilton did their damnedest to crack the Miami tile man. "I was low chips all the time," Spadavecchia proudly recalls now. "They wanted to knock me out but they couldn't do it."

The five-and-a-half hour three-handed standoff that ensued broke nearly every record in the World Championship's quarter-century history. Never before had three players dueled each other for so long without somebody being eliminated.

"We had the 'blind' up to $25,000, $50,000. That's how much you had to ante," Spadavecchia recounts. "It was the biggest blind ever in the World Series of Poker, and it was the longest that three guys ever played without one being knocked out."

"I was really impressed with John Spadavecchia's ability to hang on with such a small amount of chips," compliments Binion's poker room manager and World Series of Poker tournament director Jim Albrecht. "He was extremely skilled at money management."

After trying unsuccessfully to polish off the marble importer for more than twice as long as it had taken to blow away the other three finalists combined, Vincent and Hamilton negotiated a compromise. "We made a deal," Spadavecchia admits. He isn't exactly bragging, but you can tell he's gratified to have pulled off such a feat. An agreement was reached among the three finalists that no matter how they finished, the prize money would be divvied up based on how many chips each held at that exact point. They would continue to play for the title, but the monetary outcome already was decided.

"The only thing left was the glory," claims Spadavecchia. "Hugh Vincent got the most money. When we made the deal he had the most chips, and we went by chip value. He had over a million. Million-one, million-two, something like that. I had about 700,000. Hamilton had about 800-some-odd thousand. Nobody was gonna make more money or less. Everything was settled A how much I would get, how much Hugh Vincent would get, and how much Hamilton would get. When we signed the W-4 for the IRS, [Vincent] got the most money. I ended up with $508,000. I had another deal with somebody else for $50,000. I tipped about $7,000. That's a pretty good tip. So, after tipping and everything, I took home about $450,000."

Shades of the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal! The World Series of Poker fixed! Russ Hamilton went on to win the tournament officially, pocket the silver dollars, see his name engraved on the bracelet, and have his photograph mounted on the wall with those of past champions. But Hugh Vincent took home the biggest check.

"He's obviously a real good poker player," Vincent says of Spadavecchia. "I can only remember a couple of hands against him. I remember a few hours before he got knocked out I had a pair of sevens and he made a higher pair. On the hand where he got knocked out I had a pair of sevens again and I asked him, 'Do you think you can do it again?'"

Spadavecchia admits to no regrets, but in the same breath says, "I had [Vincent] in my grasp but I let him get away from me. I was in one pot, there was $1,200,000. I had him but I didn't play him. I made a, uh, not a mistake, but I made a bad fold. I folded my hand and I had him. And then I had him back out a coupla times and he lucked out, he drew out on me [pulled needed cards against imposing odds at the tail end of a hand]. You need skill to get there but to win you need a little bit of luck, too, and I didn't have none at all."

"Son, no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this: Someday, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider."

-- Damon Runyon, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown"

John Spadavecchia was a seven-year-old boy growing up on the streets of the tiny town of Molfetta in the south of post-World War II Italy when he got his first earful of cider. But it didn't take him long to learn how to make that jack jump. "When you're a kid you pick up quick," he explains. "After the war, we did anything to make money. I learned how to play poker from the older kids." He's been playing ever since.

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