Memory Hole: 7 Strange and Disturbing Lowlights from WSOP History

9 min read

Since its inception in 1970, the World Series of Poker has attracted some of the world’s biggest characters. People who are a little different. People who see the world not quite the same way as most, who understand the intimacy and endearment behind the word “degenerate.”

2020 WSOP Main Event
Poker’s biggest spectacle will be returning soon. (Image: CardsChat)

As the 52nd WSOP gears up, here’s a look back at some of its strangest moments.

Eskimo Clark strokes out

Eskimo Clark
Paul “Eskimo” Clark in healthier days at an event in New Orleans. (Image: WSOP)

Paul “Eskimo” Clark was a giant, smelly curmudgeon, who would race to the Golden Gate during 15-minute breaks at the WSOP for a half-dozen 99-cent shrimp cocktails and make it “back just in the nick of time to post his blind before the next hand was dealt, despite having thousands of dollars in his pocket when he could have ordered something and had it delivered,” wrote former WSOP media director Nolan Dalla, after learning about Clark’s death in 2015. 

A WSOP vet and bracelet holder in a 1989 Razz event, Clark nearly bit the big one at the table in 2007. 

The WSOP was already facing some bad media for the roasting temperatures in the tents set up outside the Rio to house the massive crowds, when Clark collapsed, bringing paramedics to his side. Then, he collapsed again a few days later in the Amazon Room while going deep in the $1,500 Razz event.

He was the chip leader when he fell to the ground twice more, prompting calls to WSOP lawyers, who drew up a contract absolving the organization of liability if upped and died during the event. Clark signed the deal before he was allowed to resume play.  

Pokerati was there amid the chaos. “I don’t know why, he just started twitching and shaking,” the site reported one onlooker as saying. Despite the incident, Clark refused to leave, telling paramedics “I’m the chip leader. I’m not going nowhere,” according to the Las Vegas Journal. 

It turned out that Clark suffered 14 strokes, several as the final table played on. His friend Barracuda said half his body was numb as he stumbled into fourth place with no recollection of how he got there. 

Russ Hamilton pigs out

russ hamilton
(Image: PokerFraudAlert)

The fact that poker fat man Russ Hamilton made a pig out of himself at the 1994 WSOP Main Event final table wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew him as the world’s biggest poker cheat. 

Hamilton, who bilked UltimateBet players out of $18 million by using software that allowed him and others to see opponent’s hole cards, won his only bracelet by taking down the Main Event. 

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Binion’s WSOP gave the winner their weight in silver. Hamilton already weighed 330 pounds, but that didn’t stop him from scarfing down plate after plate of food during the final table to get as much silver as possible. 

Pretty gross, eh? Silver was around $80 a pound in 1994.  

Phil Hellmuth crashes a racecar in the parking lot

Hellmuth race car
(Image: PRweb)

Hellmuth, whose bad poker table manners earned him the title of Poker Brat has long considered himself to be the “John McEnroe” of poker, calling out bad plays, players, and ruling that he thinks have unjustly hindered his ability to win crucial hands.

Whether you agree with him or not, with 15 WSOP bracelets to his name, Hellmuth has earned the right to be called whatever he wants, no matter how much he whines when people don’t listen. Hellmuth’s signature attention-seeking move of showing up an hour or more late to WSOP events morphed into bona fide scenes with costumes and props as ridiculous amounts of online poker money flowed into the series in the mid-Aughts. 

In 2007, the same week he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, UltimateBet ponied up enough cash for a racecar and a full Phil Hellmuth-branded fire suit. During a photo-op days before he was to start the Main Event, Hellmuth made national news by slamming the stock car into the concrete base of a light pole while screaming around the Rio’s parking lot. 

Was it truly an accident? Or was this another lie funded by UltimateBet? Almost immediately, UltimateBet released a press release claiming it was truly an accident and not some sort of viral marketing campaign. “I’d be amazed if he was able to play poker today after such a high-speed collision,” eyewitness Brian Balsbaugh of Poker Royalty stated in the release. “He had severe whiplash.”

Balsbaugh was Hellmuth’s agent at the time and his client was fine. 

Two days later, Hellmuth showed up for the Main Event — late, of course — dressed like a racecar driver, even going so far as carrying a motorcycle helmet. He took a limo to the Rio this time. 

Hey, he already had the costume. 

Scotty gets soused

Scotty Nguyen
(Image: World Poker Tour)

“I told you he was thirsty,” deadpanned announcer Norman Chad as Scotty Nguyen went ballistic on a Rio employee who has insulted the 1998 Main Event champion by not bringing him enough beer.

This exhibit of bad behavior was doubly cringe-worthy because it took place during the final table of the 2008 $50,000 HORSE event, named in honor of the recently deceased Chip Reese. 

As the star-packed table moved through the night, and bottle after bottle of beer moved through Nguyen, the champ’s mood darkened and he turned mean. Tensions between ultra-competitive Erick Lindgren and Nguyen ramped up when Lindgren needled the “Prince of Poker” after winning a hand of Razz. 

Scotty let the slurred F-bombs fly. “I’m really taken aback by Scotty’s table manner tonight. It’s as if an outer layer has been pulled off and we’re seeing the inner Scotty, and it just isn’t pretty,” Chad said during the ESPN broadcast. 

It didn’t matter. Nguyen steamrolled the table for his biggest poker tournament win: $1.99 million. He later issued an apology. 

The Mouth melts down

Mike Matusow WSOP 2016 backer

Nothing beats watching a loud-mouthed bully get their comeuppance, and watching Mike “The Mouth” Matusow break down in tears after spending the last several hours agitating Greg “Fossilman” Raymer is *chef’s kiss* sublime. 

“I have big cojones. You have little cojones,” Matusow says in a fake Mexican accent before offering Raymer an “I’m just joking bro” handshake, which the eventual 2004 Main Event champ refused. Raymer then got partial revenge by catching a flush on the turn after Matusow called a raise for two-thirds of his stack on a very bad board for middle pair.

The normally tranquil Raymer raised his arms in a “yes” as Mikey justified his call, which began the end of his Main Event run. Not long after that, Matusow was sent to the rail in tears after his AK lost to AQ, and those who feast on Schadenfreude rejoiced. 

Stu Ungar blinded off

Doyle Brunson Stuey Ungar
(Image: WSOP)

Stu Ungar has come to represent genius wasted. The three-time Main Event champ’s tales of drug abuse and gambling addiction are sad reminders of the pitfalls that have swallowed many, many great poker players. 

Ungar will forever be exhibit #1. 

In 1990, Ungar was again at rock-bottom. His friend and eventual Poker Hall of Fame member Billy Baxter took pity and staked him in the Main Event. Ungar began the tourney by doing what he did best, winning pots. He became the chip leader after the second day, and a favorite to win his third Main Event title. 

Ungar dealt with the pressure by overdosing on drugs in his hotel room, leaving his huge pile of chips to be blinded off. He still made the final table, finishing ninth for $25,000. 

“Ungar had many failures as well. During the 1990 Main Event, Billy Baxter saved his life. Baxter had become Ungar’s most loyal backer during his later years,” a bio said. “On the morning of the third day, with the tournament approaching the final table, Ungar couldn’t be found. Baxter had secured Ungar a room at the Golden Nugget across the street from the Horsehoe. Armed with a security guard, Baxter got into his room and found him unconscious on the floor, suffering a near-fatal overdose. Ungar was rushed to a hospital while his chips were being blinded off.  His chip stack was big enough that officially he took ninth and never played a hand that day.”

Baxter said Ungar never apologized or offered to refund the buy-in. Although he swore not to back Ungar anymore, Baxter was talked into staking him again in the 1997 Main Event. Ungar was the last player to register. 

Of course, he won it. 

A year later, as the Main Event was about to begin at Binion’s Horseshoe, Ungar was suffering so badly from drug addiction he couldn’t defend his championship, pulling out at the last minute. He died of an overdose in a cheap Vegas hotel room in November of the next year. 

Vinnie Vinh goes AWOL

Vinny Vinh's Chair
Troubled pro Vinny Vinh had a big stack, but otherwise was absent on Day 2 of a 2007 tournament. (Image: Tao of Poker)

Ungar wasn’t the only person to disappear during a WSOP event. In 2007, Vinny Vihn’s empty chair at a $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em event reminded everyone how harsh the poker lifestyle can be for those with addictive personalities. 

Vihn was second in chips when he disappeared. His chair finished 20th.

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