At 11:35 a.m. the morning before Day 5, I walked outside to the smoking section of the Rio. I'd seen Scotty Nguyen walking out there and I didn't need any other excuse. When I found him, he was talking with Huck Seed.
You'd be hard-pressed to find two more different characters. Scotty stands 5-foot-7, and Huck is 6-7. Scotty wears gaudy jewelry and a greased up prototype mullet of power. Huck's hair is short and dries the old-fashioned way. He wears a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. Huck comes from an upper-middle class American background. Scotty comes from as far away from that as is humanly possible.
Nguyen's tale is the American dream. Born in Vietnam, he floated out to sea in the search for liberty at just 13 years old. The gas ran out and the boat was adrift for more than a day before being discovered and taken to Hong Kong. "When I was out there on that boat I was too young to think about it. We were all out there, together. The adults knew we were in trouble, but I was too young to know any better."
Death never entered his mind, a befitting fact for a man who chooses to live life to its fullest every day.
From Hong Kong, Scotty made his way to America, became a poker dealer, learned from the beats of others and then went pro himself. He earned his happy ending in 1998, when he won the World Series of Poker championship, goading his final opponent, Kevin McBride, "You call this one, it's all over, baby." He did and it was.
Seed's story begins on the Mississippi River in the 1800s. That's where Mark Twain set his now famous tales that brought to popularity one Huckleberry Finn. It was that famous rascal that Huck's father fell in love with, ultimately leading to his son's name. It's hard to believe Seed, the son of intellectual Californians, has been caught up in this world for almost 20 years now, since he barely looks a day over 30. Still, it was he who backed Brad Daugherty's 1991 WSOP victory, and his has been an important presence since.
Seed is a tough nut to crack (groan). I interviewed him on camera before the penultimate day of play in the $50,000 HORSE, asking him "What does winning this event mean?" He answered, "It means the winner has all the chips," then smiled as I disintegrated, speechless under the lights. That's his sense of humor. He's a quiet man, often lost in the lack of expression he exhibits at the tables. He shouldn't be.
Beneath that exterior is one of the more fascinating characters in poker lore. A boy champion whose skill is only transcended by his will to gamble. This is a man who once won a bet by playing five rounds of golf in one day, and who had the fortitude to shoot a better score in each round. He possesses all of the qualities of the classic gambler. Ready and waiting for the right bet to come along, always looking for those few percentage points for an advantage and willing to put everything he has on the right bet at the right time. Televised poker displays excitement in the form of yelling, self-admitted buffoons capturing the camera's interest. The expressions they exhibit sum up the craziness of Seed's life.
Seed and Scotty. They're the last two world champions standing as of the start of Day 5, and with those titles, our greatest hopes for a champion with pedigree. We need one. The succession of Varkyoni, Moneymaker, Raymer, Hachem and Gold has done its job. It's shown the world you don't need to be a TV pro to win the big one, and in doing so inspired the folks at home to throw down their stack of high society to play in the "Big One." Now's the time, though. We need a name champion.
Why now? Here are a few reasons:
• Renewed interest in televised poker. Having a guy who the world already knows win this thing will give the fans a reason to go back to their TV sets.
• Proof of skill. With so many anti-poker arguments being based on the luck element, it sure would be nice to be able to point a finger at the world champion and yell "See?!?!?"
• A new story. Even though Raymer and Hachem were not in fact amateurs, their lack of familiarity to the public has led to the same story being told for five years. We need a new story to tell when talking about the champion.
• An old story. A win by a familiar face will remind us of the times that made them familiar. Revisiting our past revisits our foundation and celebrates our evolution. (I know, I'm a broken record on this one.)
Of course, it doesn't need to be Scotty or Seed. There are plenty of names left who'd make the old-schoolers happy with a championship run. Guys like Humberto Brenes, Lee Watkinson and Kirk Morrison. Even young balla Daniel Alaei, who represent the days of old either by virtue of having been there or carrying on the traditions. Those guys, though, don't bring the magic that a repeat champion would.
When I saw the two champions talking as Scotty pulled on a cigarette, I asked them if there was any kind of fraternity amongst the former champions. Scotty, who calls everyone "baby" in part because he can't remember their names, told me "I don't even know who they all are. Huck and I are friends, though. I see him, and I call him Huck, baby."
The baby was for me. He doesn't know my name. Neither one was feeling any additional pressure because of their past titles, but the similarities in approach ended there.
"I can feel it, baby," Scotty told me, head held high, walking slowly, with confidence, every bit his cool self. If the first few hours of play were any indication, he really was. By 3 p.m., he'd moved into sixth place on the leader board.
For Huck, it was just another day at the tables. "I've been playing really badly, but I feel pretty good today. I think I'm going to play well." If he'd been playing so badly, how was he still around? "Well, the rest have played worse." Everyone's a critic.
These two represent the past with their accomplishments and the game with the way they carry themselves. Poker isn't just a deck of cards. It's a lifestyle, an escape from the mundane, and an existence of ups and downs more exciting than the biggest Hollywood blockbuster. They may both come from completely different worlds, but Huck Seed and Scotty Nguyen both represent that, while also happening to be owners of the single most sought-after trinket in the industry: a main event bracelet. Personally, I hope in the end it comes down to them playing for another one. It's time for a champions' champion.