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The World Series of Poker - Part V

by James McManus |  Published: Sep 18, 2008


By 1997, at least 12 of the 21 bracelets were captured by foreign-born players, confirming that the Texas gamblers' reunions in Reno and Las Vegas had evolved into an authentic World Series. (We must say "at least" because a birth certificate has never been required.) The next year produced at least 10 non-American winners, with the championship bracelet going to Thuan "Scotty" Nguyen, a 35-year-old pro sporting gold chains and Buddhist medallions to go with his curly gelled mullet. Two decades earlier, he had escaped in a small boat from Communist Vietnam. He, his younger brother, and a dozen other refugees were chased by a police cruiser and spent 23 days lost at sea, almost starving to death before a passing Taiwanese ship finally picked them up. Six months later, he finally arrived in California. We may never find a better example of the dominant immigrant's poker gene expressing itself in America.

The following day, however, another Nguyen brother still in Vietnam was killed in an automobile accident. Since receiving that horrible news, Nguyen has refused to wear his championship bracelet, though he now has three others from which to choose.

In 1999, three of the final seven finishers in the main event hailed from Dublin, including the winner, carpet manufacturer J.J. "Noel" Furlong. The champion's nickname referred to his birth on Dec. 25, 1937, though it was the horse trainer and racing fan's last name that secured his place on the WSOP's unofficial all-name team. The debonair 65-year-old George McKeever took seventh and Padraig Parkinson, a fierce but good-humored Irish pro, finished, as he put it, "t'ird."

Parkinson used his prize money to finance a move to Paris, but he arrived back at Binion's the following year determined to win the damn thing. At 42, he had committed to a regimen he admitted would never have occurred to him in his younger days. Eating less meat and getting more regular exercise were the easy parts, he said. A devoted imbiber of spirits, he woke up on Jan. 1 with a hangover, but resolved not to touch a drop until the main event ended on May 18. "If you want to be a champion, I t'ink you have to behave like one," he said, with no small regret in his voice.

So, after being dominated by sons of the American South in its formative years, by 1999 the World Series had crowned champions from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Boston, Grand Rapids, China, Vietnam, Ireland, and two from Iran. And in the first event of 2000, limit hold'em with a $2,000 buy-in, Hieu "Tony" Ma, another Vietnam-born maestro, defeated a record field of 496. The other names at this final table proved yet again what a melting pot the poker community had become.

A few days later, Jerri Thomas, a 41-year-old commodities trader from Hamilton, Ohio, won the $1,500 stud bracelet. Her victory was all the more impressive because she had given birth to her second child only three months earlier. Clearly back in shape both mentally and physically, she wore a close-fitting, red hooded sweatshirt, a diamond necklace, and her big diamond engagement ring to the final table, where she began play far behind the chip leader. As her husband, Harry Thomas Jr., and 3-month-old Harry III looked on from the stands, she coolly dispatched her seven male opponents. Her sister Mel and 12-year-old son, Mark, helped Harry with the baby-sitting, but during the 15-minute breaks granted every two hours, Jerri took "Trey" to the women's room herself for a diaper change. The Thomases' teamwork paid off in other ways, too. Harry had taught Jerri to play stud seven years earlier, and by 2000 they were only the second married couple with a WSOP bracelet apiece. (Max and Maria Stern were the first.) Harry, a Cincinnati developer who won the $5,000 stud event in '85, underwent a quintuple bypass in September 1999, when Jerri was five months pregnant, but he fully recovered. As devout Christians, the Thomases credited Danny Robison, their Bible course instructor, for fundamental guidance with their poker games, as well. Harry emphasized that he and Jerri try to compete only against people who play for sport or entertainment, not from financial necessity.

"This has been a dream for a long time," Jerri told reporters while being photographed with the bracelet. "I don't think the layoff really hurt me. Harry getting well was such a blessing, and the baby has brought so much joy into our lives that maybe it helped. It has really been a wonderful year."

And then, on May 5, Jennifer Harman took home the no-limit deuce-to-seven bracelet. Because of this variant's degree of difficulty, the event drew only 30 entrants and paid just five places. Yet the deuce (in which the lowest hand wins, and aces and straights both count as high) is a title that poker pros covet almost as much as the "Big One." No satellites are spread for it, which serves to exclude nonprofessionals. Only the fourth woman to win a World Series bracelet (not counting women-only events), Harman became the first to take a no-limit contest. The lean, blond 36-year-old exuded the aura of a cute but naive li'l sis, but opponents who read her as such were in for some expensive lessons. Her short-sleeved Lycra tops revealed a Y-shaped scar on her left triceps, earned while protecting a friend's child from one of her ornery Australian blue cattle dogs. Even when Harman was not in a hand, the fine blond hairs along her forearms bristled with static, though she still often sighed like a frustrated schoolgirl. Her nerves had been steeled in nightly high-stakes games with the likes of Brunson, Reese, Howard Lederer, Chau Giang, and Annie Duke, but until the previous week, Harman had never played no-limit deuce. Neither had Duke, for that matter, but that didn't faze either one of them. They took a 10-minute lesson from Lederer, Duke's older brother, and put up their $5,000 apiece.

In his wrap-up report on the deuce, Andy Glazer risked political correctness citations by referring to Harman as "a stunningly beautiful woman," then hastened to remind his readers that he'd called a male player "ruggedly handsome" three reports earlier. Glazer was somehow able to post these insightful and punny 4,000-word accounts within a couple of hours of each event's final hand. Before he sat down at the keyboard, the former Atlanta defense attorney hovered above the final table with a gray legal pad, furiously jotting down chip counts and bets, in the meantime devising his narrative and headline – "Mom Defeats the Seven Studs," for example, above the story of Thomas' victory. As far as the runners-up were concerned, the headline of another witty reporter, Mike Paulle, was a pip more emasculating: "Snow White Fends Off Seven Dwarves."

Fending off dwarves or studs, it had taken Thomas and Harman only nine days to double the women's bracelet count of the previous three decades. And then, in the $5,000 limit hold'em event, Melissa Hayden came within a couple of hands of making it five. The red-maned Manhattan photographer ultimately lost to Jay Heimowitz, a Budweiser distributor from Bethel, New York, who captured his personal fifth. Heimowitz also had finished third behind Brunson and Ungar in the main event of 1980, when he took pocket aces all in against Brunson's pocket jacks but got beat.

Aside from the former champions, the male player generating the most buzz was Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. Long and exceptionally lean, with 3-foot chestnut locks, a full beard, and Jesus-like features, Ferguson proved to be almost freakishly photogenic in his poker regalia: a Black Stallion cowboy hat adorned with silver medallions, and wraparound mirrored shades in whose reflection the action on the table was regularly captured by photographers. Was he Richard Petty's hippie nephew? The rhythm guitarist of the Youngbloods? Actually, the 37-year-old stock trader and swing dancer from Pacific Palisades had been toiling studiously that spring at UCLA, completing work on his Ph.D. in computer science and game theory. In the meantime, he had managed to crossbreed poker's traditional Marlboro Man persona with its nonsmoking, more halcyon L.A. component. Modest and soft-spoken in spite of his worldly success, when filling out questionnaires, he listed his occupation as "student," despite having just been named Best All-Around Player at the California State Poker Championship back in February. Here at Binion's in May, he already had reached three final tables and won the $2,500 stud event.

Continuing the brainy-guy trend, the bracelet for $1,500 Omaha was captured by Ivo Donev, a 40-year-old chess player from Rousse, Bulgaria. His father, I.M. Donev, had been the national champion of Austria and later trained the East German chess team in the early 1980s. Ivo won the Moscow International Youth Tournament in '89 and quickly rose to the rank of International Master. His final step up to Grand Master was impeded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, during which chaos and inertia ruled for three years in the chess world. In '92, Donev and other young players tried to revive the game in Bulgaria, but, as he said, "Somehow the magic was gone." Two years later, he emigrated to Virginia with his wife and daughter. To support them while studying electronics, he taught for an online chess school, offering students close tactical analyses of the Fianchettoed King's Bishop, the Maroczy Bind Formation, and the Hanging Center, all for $30 an hour. Unchallenged by the level of chess competition he found in his adopted country, he decided to take up an American game. Already steeped in a training discipline that used books and computers, Donev found it natural to learn poker by studying Sklansky and Malmuth, Cloutier and McEvoy, and Super/System, and by practicing on Wilson Turbo software. Playing at Binion's in crisp, white button-down shirts, Donev was a picture of masterful concentration, in contrast to some of his opponents, with their loud shirts and motormouth prattle, chest hair twinkling with jewelry. Salt-and-pepper hair neatly groomed, Donev kept his lucky blue-and-gold tie in a neat Windsor knot at all times.

Poker's evolution made even more headway when 23-year-old Phil Ivey took home the $2,500 pot-limit Omaha (PLO) title, becoming the second African American with a World Series bracelet. (The first was Walter Smiley, a Gardena pro who took the $5,000 stud title in 1976.) Playing out of Atlantic City, Ivey had been on the tournament circuit for less than a year, but his triumph was hardly a fluke. Four weeks earlier, he had become the youngest titleholder at the World Poker Open in Tunica, winning a hold'em event and cashing in three others. In the PLO event at the Horseshoe, he had to come back from a 400,000-85,000 deficit to defeat Amarillo Slim Preston, all the while pointedly ignoring Preston's "friendly" verbal jousting, designed to distract his opponent and pick up a read based on how he responded. In 30 years of World Series play, during which he had won four bracelets, Preston had always finished first after making a final table.

The straight-shooting Glazer toasted Ivey's achievement that night on "Poker doesn't belong to white American males anymore. Poker books, computer programs, and worldwide legal cardrooms with codes of conduct have cut the head off the 'good old boy' network, even if the body does keep flopping around for a while. Poker now belongs to anyone with the brains, guts, and nerves to play it, and there's something about that level playing field that feels great, even to a white American male writer."

Next: the 2000 main event.


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