Silver Bars To The Comeback Kid

Silver Bars in Weight

As the 1990’s progressed, theWorld Series of Pokercontinued to grow and expand. During this period, the number of entrants ballooned to 350 players, and as this number increased year after year, the Horseshoe wasn’t properly prepared for it. The poker room had to be expanded, but that wasn’t near enough to handle the increased traffic, and poker tables ended up having to be set up in other parts of the casino and hotel, including the valet parking area and even the main entrance of the hotel. They also ended up moving the final table off location to accommodate the increased attention and fans that the tournament was getting.

The 1994 WSOP was the twenty-fifth running of the championship, and to commemorate the milestone, Jack Binion offered the winner of the main event his weight in silver. Among the finalists, most were on the slim side, with only Russ Hamilton, weighing in at a pudgy 330 pounds, presented a big threat to Binion’s pocketbook. Hamilton’s heavy weight was no accident, as he had a huge appetite and ate his way through the final table, polishing off opponents as easily as he was polishing off his steak, pancakes, hamburgers, and fries.

On the decisive hand, right after finishing up another big meal, he got dealt pocket queens. He hit a set on the flop, but decided to slow play it. His opponent, Hugh Vincent, had nothing, but caught a draw on the turn, and pushed all his chips in the middle on a semi-bluff. Hamilton eagerly called, and when Vincent missed on his draw on the river, he was pretty much toast. Hamilton finished him off on the next hand, and took home $30,000 in silver to go along with the million dollar top prize and the world championship gold bracelet.

This was Hamilton’s first and only bracelet win at the WSOP. However, that was far from the end of his notoriety, as years later, he would be hired by Ultimate Bet as one of their resident pros. He then made his way onto 60 Minutes as the man primarily held to be responsible for the poker room cheating its players out of a total of $22 million. Ultimate Bet eventually ended up refunding the money back to its players, but over a decade later the site still is held in disrepute over the scandal.

1995 was the year of Dan Harrington, whose much tighter play at the table set him apart from the looser style of his competitors. He earned the nickname “Action Dan” for his lack of action, similar to calling a big man “Tiny.” Harrington made his first final table at the WSOP main event back in 1987, and in addition to winning it all in in 1995, would go on to make several more final tables at the event down the road as well. He also went on to write what most consider the best instructional series of books on tournament play, which have had a very significant influence on the landscape of online tournament poker in particular.

The 1996 final came down to Huck Seed, Men Nguyen, John Bonetti, and Dr. Bruce Van Horn. Most felt that Van Horn, a medical doctor who only played poker a little on the side, was completely out of his league against these three very seasoned poker pros.

After outlasting seven time bracelet winner Men Nguyen, who went out fourth, and three time bracelet winner John Bonetti, out in third, all that was standing in Dr. Van Horn’s way was Seed. It’s hard to imagine a more apt name for a country boy than Huckleberry Seed, who in fact did come from a farming town, Corvallis, Montana, population 443.

When play came down to the final two men, Van Horn had a comfortable 2 to 1 chip lead. Holding AJ, he faced an all in preflop raise from Seed, which he called. Seed had pocket queens, which held up, turning the tables and giving Seed the 2 to 1 lead now. It didn’t take long for Seed to finish off the doctor, dashing his hopes to be only the third amateur ever to win the world championship, and earning Seed the million dollars.

It had been 16 years since Stu Ungar had won back to back WSOP main events, and about that long since he competed seriously. Around that time Ungar had become a serious cocaine addict, which really took its toll on him. Stu also had a serious gambling problem and every time he made money from poker he would quickly lose it on sports betting and the like. In 1997, he was not only broke but in debt, but his longtime friend and fellow poker player Billy Baxter decided to loan him the $10,000 buy-in on the long shot that he’d be able to win it again after all those years.

On the first day, Ungar would fall asleep at the table, and felt that he just couldn’t do it. After some encouragement from his friend, who wasn’t about to see his 10 grand go away that easily, he managed to survive the first day. He then managed to get a good night’s sleep for a change, and his natural poker brilliance started to take over. For the first time in years, he had his wits about him, amassing a huge chip lead..

He then proceeded to run over the competition at the final table, winning the championship for the third time and splitting the million dollar prize with his friend Baxter, who had confidence in him when no one else did. He dedicated the win to his daughter Stefanie, whose picture he kept at his side throughout the tournament for inspiration. The Kid had now become the Comeback Kid.

A year later, Baxter offered to put up the $10K entry fee for Ungar again, as he had blown his share of the winnings on drugs and sports betting, but Ungar’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he was simply too embarrassed to compete anymore. In the subsequent months, he was seen begging for money at Las Vegas poker rooms, where he would then use the stake money to buy crack.

It wasn’t long after that when he was found dead in a sleazy motel room, his body no longer able to take the abuse he inflicted upon it for all those years. In spite of making over $30 million at the poker tables in his lifetime, he died penniless and a collection had to be taken up to pay for his funeral.