The World Series has given us some of the most dramatic moments in poker history, and some of the most captivating quotes, too. In 1998, a Vietnamese man by the name of Scotty Nguyen took down the biggest tournament in poker – the World Series of Poker Main Event. In beating Kevin McBride, he did more than simply win a million dollars. He captured the imagination of the nation when his famous line: ‘You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby!’ was broadcast all over the television channels for days. But what if Kevin McBride had found the fold button and come back to take the title? What if Nguyen didn’t… well, win?
Following his WSOP Main Event title (his second bracelet victory), Scotty Nguyen racked up a total of five WSOP bracelets in a career worth over $11m in tournament winnings. Not only has he become a legend in poker, but he’s also coined a reputation built on that fateful final hand in 1998 and the quote that made his name. Oh, and Nguyen is the only poker player in history to have won both the WSOP Main Event and $50,000 Player’s Championship bracelets. That’s poker, baby!
Kevin McBride was never to reach the Main Event final table ever again after his maiden appearance against Nguyen. Forgotten as the ‘fall guy’ in one of the most replayed poker clips of all time, McBride was the eternal poker bridesmaid. Of his entire lifetime poker winnings, his runner-up finish in 1998 constituted over 77% of them. Was McBride ready to have become World Champion? Would he have made the most of his hour in the spotlight?
McBride’s understated personality would have fit more with the players who followed him into the record books rather than those who preceded him. In 1996, it was legendary prop bettor Huck Seed who took the title. In 1997, it was the uniquely charming Stu Ungar. Nguyen taking home the gold in 1998 undoubtedly maintained the image poker of those previous years, which was that winning the WSOP Main Event turned you into a larger-than-life superstar. McBride’s name would have aligned more with the following years’ winners – Noel Furlong, Chris Ferguson, Carlos Mortensen, and Robert Varkonyi. Poker may well have lost a little of its glamourous global appeal if Nguyen hadn’t become the first winner from Asia since Johnny Chan a decade before him.
Perhaps the biggest change to history if Nguyen hadn’t won the tournament would have been if he’d crashed out early in the Main Event. Nguyen didn’t have all of his action in 1998. There was a player who invested a third of his satellite buy-in, and who ended up with this own biggest cash during the first decade of his career. We’re talking about the one and only Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow. It may not seem a big deal now, with Matusow having gone on to cultivate his own stellar career, but Matusow’s share of Nguyen’s winnings in 1998 was $333,333. It was enough to propel him into more higher entry tournaments than he previously played, and still wouldn’t be eclipsed in terms of a monetary amount until seven years later in 2005.
Would Matusow have been less of a player? Hardly. But would his bankroll have inhibited him from developing at the speed he did if Nguyen had crashed out instead of flying high? Quite possibly. Matusow’s level dropping would have had a knock-on effect on poker in general, and the quieter, more reserved nature of the players who were similar to Kevin McBride could have flourished, too. No Nguyen and a quieter Matusow? Some poker fans wouldn’t mind that parallel universe. In our current climate of sanitized showmanship, poker has become more respectable as a mind sport rather than a game. Seen as a skill game rather than a gamble, could the future of poker as we currently see it have been accelerated by the events of 1998 changing?
Try as I might, I can’t imagine Scotty Nguyen not winning the WSOP Main Event. In every other What if…, I’ve been able to see a totally different reality for both players. But in my opinion, Nguyen was destined to become who he is today. If you speak to him in Las Vegas, it’s going to be a conversation broken up by interactions with others. I met Nguyen and attempted an interview two years ago. He was entertaining, called me baby and was asked for an autograph or a chat every ten yards as we walked and talked through the labyrinthine corridors of the Rio. Nguyen famously went broke after winning his first bracelet, and I believe if he hadn’t won in 1998, he just would have won it another year. Kevin McBride may have pushed on and become a torch-bearer for the industry, but I don’t think it was likely. I think he would have stepped back from the limelight, more a Pius Heinz or Scott Blumstein that a Scotty Nguyen or Stuey Ungar.
Some legends are blessed with a career that they’ve crafted painstakingly over the years. Others have it thrust upon them. For Scotty Nguyen, I honestly think he captures both parts of that equation. He’s immortal in poker history now thanks to the perceived destiny his win in 1998 seemed to fulfill. But he has a legacy thanks to his continued belief that the next big win is right around the corner. It’s the only way he knows how to be – that it’s never gonna be over, baby.
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