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.

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.

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.

John Spadavecchia never has heard of Anthony Holden, but he implicitly understands and agrees with the Englishman's above statement. "They tell me I'm very hard to figure out," the expressionless American declares. "I can play for hours, the tightest player in the world, and when I come in I have a hand, and then all-a-sudden I come in and I don't have no hand, I've got nothing, but they think that I still have a hand. That's what you gotta do. Make them always guess. That's the main thing. If you play the same way, you're gonna get eaten up.

"You might have a lucky streak and you have a lot of chips, but then if you play more, you're gonna give it up," the expert warns. "You're gonna lose it all. They gonna get you. I see it all the time. People think they have me. I give up my hand, I give up my hand, and then all of a sudden they give it to me in one shot. I know exactly what they're doing. They're stealing and stealing and then one time they gonna try to steal and I'm gonna trap 'em. Maybe I let him keep raising and I don't raise, I just call. I let him put his money in and then all of a sudden he's got too much in, he can't get out anymore. When I hit him he's gonna put his money in. And I have him."

According to the cardsharp, "No-limit poker is 60 to 70 percent bluffing. Forget about being a math genius. You have to be able to read people, to make your move at the right time, because, you know, one mistake and you're out."

Hugh Vincent, the man who took home the most money from last year's World Championship, basically agrees. "I don't memorize a lot of numbers, but you need a rough idea of what the odds are," Vincent advises. "You can't take the wrong end of the bet very often and come out ahead. You've got to be able to recognize, at various times and under the circumstances of the moment, what are playable hands. I had the best of all possible worlds last year. Every time I got called I had the winning hand, and the few times I didn't get called I didn't have anything."

Vincent and Spadavecchia became friends after their record-setting showdown. "My wife calls him John Spaghetti-O," Vincent chuckles. "It pisses him off."

"I met his wife, he met my wife," says Spadavecchia. "We sat at the same table in Foxwoods twice, but he got sick and left there early. He played good last year in the World Series. He bluffed me out twice. But he's not going to do it again. I know him better now."

"I don't really have a strong impression of John's strengths and weaknesses," assesses Vincent, "except to say that playing him's a little like trying to figure out the truth in the O.J. trial. But I suppose I almost have to go back out [to this year's World Series] and give the boys a chance to get some of their money back."

The difference between a poker player and a gambler is a crucially simple one. A gambler, be he one who bets on horses or sports events, on casino games or raindrops running down window panes, is someone who wagers unfavorable odds. A poker player, if he knows what he is doing, is someone who wagers favorable odds. The one is a romantic, the other a realist.

-- Anthony Holden, Big Deal

"I'm trying to train my boys," Spadavecchia reveals. He and Cecilia's three sons range in age from 24 to 30. To the average Joe, the thought of a man training his children to gamble is, well, bad parenting at best. But Spadavecchia is nothing if not a realist. While the youngsters show promise, the elder Spadavecchia's adversaries needn't lose any sleep over an emerging family dynasty just yet. "They're tough players, you know, but they cannot be competing with world-class players," their father explains. "But they get into it. Like anything else, if I'm in there, then they wanna come and play, too. I did take them to New Orleans a couple times. They came pretty close and then they choked. They had a hand and didn't play it right."

He makes a convincing case that no-limit poker tournaments are games of skill, not chance. "I used to shoot craps just for a little fun sometimes," he allows, "to take frustration out when I get knocked out. But that's strictly, um, a crapshoot. But that's exactly what it is. I like to play games that involve skill, and poker, especially tournaments, is one of them. I can play blackjack, count cards, but it's very boring. You can't make too much money doing that. And if they see you counting, they'll take you right out. I prefer poker tournaments. I can play a good side game, you know, win a lot of money, but I enjoy tournaments because there's more skill involved. Side games you can always dig in your pocket and get more money out. In the Been-yan World Series of Poker, everybody starts with $10,000 in chips. No rebuys. You run outta chips, you out."

As for this April's upcoming World Series, he says, "That's the most known in the world. You don't win all the time, but you have to spend money to make money. If you can come in the Big One, you know, close...it takes...a tremendous...it might not happen again but I'm gonna try it this year again.

"It's a challenge. It's an accomplishment," Spadavecchia muses. Then, after brief reflection, almost as an afterthought, he adds, "Plus, there is money involved." For the first time in more than an hour, John Spadavecchia's poker face betrays the hint of a smile.

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