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No Call on Scotty Nguyen Magnifies Flaw in WSOP Rules

WSOP Tournament Rules Concerning Player Behavior Often Ignored


Scotty NguyenHe cursed. He berated. He gloated. He scolded, steamed, and insulted. He drank beer after beer after beer and shouted when they weren’t coming fast enough, and Scotty Nguyen did all of this on the way to winning what many poker players consider the most prestigious tournament of the year.

Nguyen may have won the 2008 $50,000 World Series of Poker H.O.R.S.E. event, but many believe his behavior and intimidation tactics clearly violated the World Series of Poker’s own rulebook, while tournament officials did nothing but watch and cringe with the rest of the crowd.

For his part, Nguyen seems to understand the consequences of his behavior, and he responded to fans in a comment on a article about the event (scroll down to the long comment on Aug. 20). His expansive comment reads, in part:

“I would like to apologize to all my fans for the disappointment I have caused in the H.O.R.S.E. event. For that I would like to express my sincerest apology. I would like to ask for understanding of what really took place,” Nguyen wrote. “All I would ever be sorry (for), is how the fans feel about me, I would never be sorry to beat those players.”

The WSOP, trying so hard to legitimize itself as an American sport through a well-polished broadcast prominently featuring sponsorships with major companies, admits that the matter of rule enforcement and consistency needs to be addressed, and it promised a re-examination of its protocol when contacted by Card Player.

WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel is on vacation and unavailable for comment, and Harrah’s released this paragraph when asked to comment for this article:

“All players at the WSOP must conduct themselves appropriately. We obviously have some work to do on this matter. With that in mind, a process has been under way since the end of the WSOP to re-examine the rules related to player conduct and the enforcement of those rules. We will have something more substantive to say on this matter well before the start of the 2009 WSOP.

The rules on player conduct are clear, but how to punish rule-breakers is up to interpretation.

Section IV of the 2008 WSOP tournament rules is titled Player Conduct and Tournament Integrity. This chapter contains 11 subsections that warn players that Harrah’s won’t tolerate any kind of questionable behavior, ranging from cheating to abusing fellow players. Violate the rules, and Harrah’s is allowed to implement penalties at the sole discretion of floor personnel.

Michael DeMichele Michael DeMichele, the main target of Nguyen’s tirades, said the only time a floor person came over to give any of the players warnings was when Nguyen’s talk about his desire to face Lindgren heads-up became detailed. Noting Nguyen’s behavior, DeMichele really wasn’t sure if what Nguyen was doing was breaking written rules.

“There probably could’ve been a couple of points where I could have requested penalties, but I don’t necessarily like to do that,” DeMichele said. “I could handle myself. I could take the berating well and still apply my best game, but what happened to me certainly wasn’t fair, and it would’ve been nice if I had had someone to help me out.”

Someone should have jumped in, and DeMichele didn’t need to ask. Nguyen was in clear violation of at least two written sections:

35. Any player who directs any profane and/or abusive language at another player, dealer, or tournament staff member or who makes any profane and/or abusive comments about another player, dealer, or tournament staff member will be penalized in accordance with Rules No. 31 and/or 51. In particular, the use of the so-called “f-bomb” and “c-bomb,” as well as derivatives of those and similarly offensive terms, will subject the offending player to penalties if they are directed at or refer to another player, dealer, staff member, patron, or official of Harrah’s or the WSOP. In Harrah’s sole and absolute discretion, it may impose at any time a zero-tolerance policy for profane language whether directed at another person or not.

And also:

38. Player or staff abuse will not be tolerated. A player may incur a penalty up to and including disqualification for any abuse toward another player or staff member, and the player could be asked to leave the property. Repeated etiquette violations, such as touching another player’s cards or chips, delay of game, and excessive chatter, will result in penalties.

The World Series of Poker has published the entire rulebook online (PDF).

As repeatedly stated throughout the rules document, though, penalties are made at the sole discretion of the floor staff, so implementation of the written rules can vary from event to event. This wasn’t the only moment during a WSOP event this year that a former champion received what some might feel is preferred treatment. Phil Hellmuth had a penalty removed after he complained about it during an event.

When contacted, DeMichele spent a good portion of the conversation apologizing for his early behavior, which the players translated as gloating. This wasn’t the case, DeMichele said, and it was a lesson he will take with him.

“Let me say, I just wanted to have a good time and be happy-go-lucky, and I didn’t realize how my actions were affecting others,” DeMichele said. “I certainly didn’t mean to rub it in anyone’s face that I won a pot and they lost it. I was just trying to have a good time, and I didn’t realize I was offending anybody, so I apologize about that. And immediately after I realized that I was offending people, I stopped. I really don’t want to get under everyone’s skin. Poker is about having fun for me.”

A collage of Nguyen’s Lowlights is available through YouTube, and viewers are harshly taking Nguyen to task in the comments section there. Immediately after the broadcast, Card Player received e-mails complaining about Nguyen’s antics. Poker forums across the Internet are boiling over with condemnation of Nguyen, and people are also wondering why tournament personnel didn’t jump in and penalize “The Prince of Poker.”

Erick LindgrenWSOP announcer Norman Chad repeatedly cracked about Nguyen’s drinking ability (the jokes took a tinge of sadness as the show went on) and made it clear to viewers that Nguyen’s behavior was out of line, but hardly anything was said about tournament officials needing to step in and curb the outbursts through warnings and penalties. In fact, if Erick Lindgren wasn’t caught whispering into an official’s ear after one of Nguyen’s outbursts, viewers most likely wouldn’t even know that officials have the option to try to curb this kind of boorish behavior.

Haunted by the Past?

Nguyen watched the broadcast Tuesday night and said he regrets that he was portrayed as a drunk and vehemently denied that he is more than a casual drinker. Nguyen says he was not, or ever is, drunk, and his portrayal during the ESPN broadcast was not accurate. He says that what viewers didn’t see was that most of the beers were taken away before they were half empty, but during the broadcast, Nguyen is shown red in the face and furious that it was taking so long for his cocktails to arrive.

“Where’s my f---ing cocktail, man?” Nguyen was shown yelling, his hands in the air in frustration after watching a chunk of his chip stack go away. “What’s up with this, man? Does this table wait forever? F---, enough is enough, man. We play in this game, we wait for a f---ing cocktail?”

Even one of his friends, Todd Brunson, felt compelled to comment on broadcast through an online poker forum. Brunson said it was so obvious that Nguyen was melting down, that he forced him to have a smoke-break during play.

“Scotty was under a lot of pressure to win. While he almost always drinks while playing, I’ve never seen him drink that much either at or away from the table. I also think the time issue caught up with him. The final table went well into the morning, and once you start drinking like that, you’re going to crash if you stop,” Brunson wrote. “It’s hard to defend him after the display [he] put on, but Scotty truly is a nice guy and a gentleman gambler 99.9 percent of the time. ESPN just caught him during that 0.1 percent when he went freakin’ crazy.”

DeMichele also thinks that the more beer that went into Nguyen, the worse his behavior became.

“Scotty’s behavior was completely uncalled for, in my opinion. I think that he became belligerent as he continued to drink. I know that I had offended the table earlier on, but I think he wanted to pick a target to fight with,” DeMichele said. “There were times when I went into the VIP room (during breaks) and many famous poker players had told me that that this is a normal thing for Scotty. At final tables, he likes to get into the heads of others and berate them and beat them down mentally, and that the best thing I could do is try to fend him off without looking bad on TV myself.”

Take a Bow

Nguyen admits that DeMichele’s bowing after a hand got to him and brought out the emotions that he had felt while suffering a major meltdown during last year’s main event, when he went from second in chips to out the tournament with 11 players left. Nguyen said one of the reasons he let himself play so badly to be knocked out last year was that he bottled his emotions and kept his mouth shut.

“I let the player get under my skin [in 2007], and I didn’t say anything at all, and I got knocked out. I made a big mistake just because of the fans,” Nguyen said. “All my life, I’ve tried to give the fans what they want, what the need, a good game, The Prince of Poker that they know. But you know, [the 2008 H.O.R.S.E] event was too big to keep my mouth shut. If you want to get under my skin, I want to get under yours back. That is my game plan.”

He wasn’t going to let the same meltdown happen as last year. With four players left, Lindgren finally stopped DeMichele’s rush with a big hand, and when he did, he took a table bow and made a comment to the crowd critical of DeMichele’s bowing and hamming it up. Nguyen took that as a cue to teach the youngster a lesson on poker etiquette and proceeded to verbally abuse DeMichele for the remainder of the match. Nguyen called DeMichele names, directed the infamous F-bomb at him repeatedly, berated his play, showed his hands to the crowd while still in a hand, and made it public that he wanted to face Lindgren heads-up.

Later in the match, Nguyen got on Lindgren’s bad side, as well, after getting visibly angry and berating Lindgren for raising a bet, because he said he was working to protect Lindgren’s hand against DeMichele. Lindgren told Nguyen that he wasn’t aware that he was doing that and made it clear that he’s not on “Team Scotty” — and never will be.

After Lindgren was knocked out, he embraced DeMichele and told him to “Go get him, man. Make Chip proud.”

Chip ReesePlayers who knew Chip Reese before he passed away in December 2007 respected him for his steady demeanor, respect for the game and its players, and kindness and his humble attitude, among many other things. Harrah’s honored the memory of Reese, who won the inaugural $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event in 2006, by awarding a trophy for this event in his honor.

During the last hand, a hold’em hand that Nguyen won by having a better kicker to his ace, DeMichele, in an attempted humbled moment, said to Nguyen that he’s probably too young to win the event and that he doesn’t deserve to win such a prestigious bracelet.

Nguyen didn’t hesitate: “You don’t, baby.”