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.

Although he has won several major tournaments, including that 1991 deuce-to-seven World Series crown, Spadavecchia regards his third-place finish in the 1994 World Championship as the crowning achievement in an eight-year professional poker career that began when he entered and won an amateur tournament against 300 other competitors while on vacation in Aruba with his wife, Cecilia.

"I used to shoot dice in the Bahamas," Spadavecchia recalls. "I preferred poker, but in those days it was hard to find a game unless you went all the way out to Vegas. Then I heard about this big amateur hold 'em tournament in Aruba. We decided to go there on vacation mainly so I could enter. It was the first time I ever played hold 'em, first time I ever entered a tournament. And I won."

But winning a major amateur tournament disqualifies a player from entering future amateur tournaments. Like it or not, Spadavecchia had become a professional after only one outing, the poker equivalent of a victorious Golden Gloves boxer jumping into the ring with a ranked pro. He took it slowly at first, entering only one or two tournaments per year. But first-place finishes in Amarillo Slim's tournament at Caesar's Palace in 1989 and 1990 combined with a few in-the-money showings in contests at the Golden Nugget and Binion's convinced the North Miami Beach resident to pick up the pace. After his 1991 deuce-to-seven (a version of lowball) triumph at the World Series of Poker, he began seriously accelerating the transfer of his marble and tile business to his three sons' control so that he could concentrate on poker. "I've been gradually doing that for the last three years," he notes. "I've been in the tile business, a general contractor, I built homes. I been in this business I guess twenty-some-odd years." (Ironically, the master poker player and former contractor does not have much of a head for numbers. He rounds nearly everything off to the nearest "some-odd.")

Since last May's World Series, Spadavecchia has entered tournaments at the Bicycle Club in California and Foxwoods in Connecticut. In December at Foxwoods he finished second (out of about 50 participants) in the $10,000 no-limit hold 'em event, and fourth and seventh in $2000 contests. Spadavecchia says he's itching to get back out to Vegas at the end of April for another shot at the Big One.

"When you make it to the final table, the last five and all that, everybody knows you," he elaborates. "It's recognition. You're playing with the best in the world. They have an edge on me. They play all year round. That's all they do. I play three or four times a year. To win the World Championship of the World Series of Poker you need a lotta strategy, lotta patience, lotta endurance. You're playing four days straight, fourteen, fifteen hours straight. There's a certain amount of people that have to be knocked out and then it stops."

Final-table opponent Vincent concurs. "It was getting tiring by the last day," Vincent says. "It was like a circus with all the lights and everything."

Spadavecchia has his own word for the elimination process: straineous. "It really drains you, but that's why it's the toughest poker game in the world," he continues. "While I was playing I was okay, I was bright as anything, but as soon as I got knocked out I was dead. All my strength was sapped. I had lost a lot of weight."

Despite the fact that during the tournament all his meals and beverages are comped (as well as his room), Spadavecchia does not consume any alcohol and adheres to a strict low-fat, high-fiber diet over the four-day stretch. But there is little else the poker king of North Miami Beach can do to prepare for battle save practice against his computer. "I have a World Series of Poker simulation program," he reveals. "It's not the same thing as actually playing, but it puts me in the right frame of mind. You cannot go out there if you are not mentally just right. You have to blank everything else out. I have a wife, a business, kids. Everybody has things that take their concentration away. But you're just throwing your money away if you're not 100 percent into it."

"Business is tough," he contends, "especially when you gotta deal with a lot of people, take a lot of chances. But I would say it's much more stressful playing poker. One bad decision cost me half a million dollars."

But it's not the money....
For most white-collar professionals, wheeling and dealing their way to the top, the art of bluff is an everyday occupational hazard. To politicians, it is an essential part of their bag of tricks. The most successful politicians, by definition, are those who have bluffed most effectively, perhaps most often, and have been "called" least.

-- Anthony Holden, Big Deal

Anthony Holden is an English author (Olivier, Charles, Prince of Wales), classicist (translations of Aeschylus's Agamemnon and Mozart's Don Giovanni), and former newspaper columnist (London Sunday Times and Observer). He is also an unrepentant poker nut who took a year off from writing to play cards professionally in tournaments from Morocco to Las Vegas, including two appearances in the Big One, where he finished 90th (out of 167) in 1988 and 111th (in a field of 178) in 1989. While there are no hard data to confirm the supposition, it would seem safe to assume he is one of the few men in the world who has translated Greek Pastoral Poetry into English and beaten Amarillo Slim at poker.

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