Personality conflict in the $50,000 HORSE
It took all of three days to make an institution out of the $50,000 HORSE event at the World Series of Poker.
When the event debuted in 2006, it was heralded as the solution to the problems that had arisen with the main event in the eyes of the old guard, namely a minefield effect -- due to overwhelming numbers of amateurs in the ranks -- that seemingly couldn't be overcome. The HORSE event, with a ludicrously high buy-in, remarkably deep stacks and a plethora of games, each equally capable of punishing weakness, assured that there would be no flukes that the best man would win. Chip Reese's win in year one served as proof.
This Tuesday night, poker's newest grand old tradition will be airing on ESPN complete with a grand new tradition. With Reese's passing, poker lost one of its true greats, and the man who in the minds of poker fans had become synonymous with that 2006 HORSE victory needed to be recognized. Thus, the man who you'll see crowned champion during Tuesday's broadcast will win the memorial trophy named in Reese's honor.
This year's final table roster, like those that came before it, did not disappoint. When the dust settled on the fourth day of play, the field of 148 had been whittled to eight. Amongst the eight were the eventual winner and runner-up in the WSOP player of the year race (Erick Lindgren and Barry Greenstein, respectively), two former world champions (Scotty Nguyen and Huck Seed) and a bona fide poker pioneer (WPT founder Lyle Berman). However, as you'll see Tuesday, what should have been a celebration of poker's finest past and present turned bitter in an incident that's sure to be talked about for a long, long time.
Scotty Nguyen has long been one of poker's greatest heroes. The 1998 main event champion, Nguyen came into this year's WSOP with four bracelets to go along with one WPT title and a remarkable seven final tables on that circuit. As recognized as Nguyen is for his skill, he's also grown into a larger-than-life character that's become an ambassador for the game. The shades, the mullet, the gold around his neck, his use of "Baby!" and that resounding cackle combine to make Scotty more than just a great poker player.
Michael DeMichele first achieved public awareness with his third-place finish in the 2006 U.S. Poker Tour. At 23 (Scotty, at 46, is twice DeMichele's age), DeMichele's often mistaken for the similarly-aged players of the online generation. In actuality, he's a product of both the live and online poker worlds. Live play provided the spark and the original push for knowledge; online play provided a community and the groupthink that helped advance Michael's education and allowed him to help educate others.
The contrasts between Nguyen and DeMichele are plentiful. Scotty is the old-school, street-toughened, flamboyant son of a foreign land who learned the game by feel and grit. DeMichele is the straight-laced, new-school pro with a learning curve accelerated by book learning and an attitude that, contrary to those of the past, says it's best to share your knowledge of the game for mutual benefit. With their differences so apparent, it's no wonder their personalities clashed at the HORSE final table.
"I was accumulating chips really fast," said DeMichele in a recent interview, "and my friends in the crowd would go wild every time I won chips. I was celebrating in a way that I think was rubbing the other players at the table the wrong way. I think a lot of the other players took offense when I turned to the crowd and smiled at their cheers. A couple of the players told me my celebrations were rubbing them the wrong way and I apologized. I told them 'I'm sorry. Please don't take offense,' and I think they accepted that apology. I stopped playing to the crowd after that."
"Scotty, though, held this bad blood against me," DeMichele continued. "I don't know why, we've played together a lot, but he held this against me. I even said on camera more than once that I didn't want to have a beef with anybody. I just wanted to get along with everyone. He started drinking at dinner break, drinking a lot. That made him belligerent. Being the lowest-profile player at the table made me the easiest target."
Having a Michelob in hand is a part of the Nguyen caricature, but the feeling was that Scotty, who couldn't be reached for comment, went way over the line with the booze and the abuse at this year's HORSE final table. Just less than a year earlier Nguyen bowed out of the WSOP main event in spectacular fashion, going from third in chips to elimination in under half an hour. His demeanor since had been noticeably darker, a quality augmented by the beer. His assaults on DeMichele were just part of a display that DeMichele would go on to describe as "a disgrace to the game." These are not words an ambassador wants to be associated with.
"He took the joy of playing this final table from me," said DeMichele. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive the guy for that. This was an incomplete experience. I wanted to have fun at the final table. I have a bitter taste in my mouth. It's unfortunate that he did that."
What effect will Nguyen's cantankerous performance have on his legacy? It's hard to say. For a guy who has long been synonymous with good times, it may create a permanent flaw in the public's memory. Of course, there are also the twin matters of how the final table of the second-biggest tournament of the year plays out and who will win the inaugural Chip Reese memorial Trophy. All together it should make for some riveting television. Be sure to see how it all plays out this Tuesday night.
The HORSE event airs on Tuesday, Aug. 19, from 8-10 p.m. Complete TV information.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his poker observations in his blog here.