Several years ago I visited Russ Hamilton with a group of friends at a beach house in San Diego, where he was recovering from his stomach surgery. Russ said, "Tommy, I'm going to tell you a story I've only told to a handful of people… it's about why I don't think I really won the 1994 WSOP title. There was some sort of divine intervention that happened, where my Mom who had passed away two years earlier, helped me win the title." I never forgot that moment, sitting by the Pacific Ocean, as Russ began to tell his spellbinding private story. I got the chills listening to the sequence of events that unfolded for him before and during his four-day championship event.
I called Russ last week and met him at his office in Las Vegas, now fourteen years after his historic 1994 WSOP Main Event victory. He agreed to be interviewed about his remarkable behind-the-scenes story, one that very few people have ever heard. The mystique of winning poker's greatest prize has never been more riveting than what happened to Russ Hamilton. The best way to tell his story is to just listen, as Russ reflects back in time and shares it with us in his own words:
I was real close to my mother, and my mother had died two years before the 1994 WSOP. I had always told my Mom one of my main goals in life was to win the WSOP Main Event someday. In the 1994 WSOP I wasn't doing well in any of the side games or tournaments in the beginning. I was having a bad tournament. About four days before the WSOP Main Event, I would go home every night, and my ritual was I would get into the spa, then the pool, and back into the spa just to relax. So I'm sitting in the hot tub, and all of a sudden I look up in the sky and zoom… a shooting star zoomed across the sky. I hadn't seen one, and I had been in Las Vegas since 1985. Nine years and I never saw one in Las Vegas before. I said, "Wow, look at that!" I went to bed and didn't think anything about it. The next day I go down to play at the Horseshoe. Later that night I get home and go through the same thing. As I'm sitting in the hot tub, zoom, there goes another shooting star. I thought, "Wow that is two nights in a row. What is going on?"
The third night in a row I get home from the Horseshoe and get back in the hot tub to relax. I'm looking up in the sky and in no time at all the third shooting star shoots across the sky. I thought to myself, "What is going on here. As I was sitting there in the hot tub I was thinking about my mother and things I've done through life, so I said "Mother, is that you? Give me another sign." At that same instant, zoom, there goes another shooting star!" After seeing no shooting stars for the nine years in Las Vegas, all of a sudden there were ones three nights in a row, and when I asked my Mom to give me a sign the fourth one zoomed by. I literally got goosebumps all over at the thought of my Mom trying to communicate with me! The spa must have been 110 degrees, and all of a sudden it felt like it was 40 degrees. The pool really seemed cold after that. I dried off and went to bed, and just kept thinking about what had just happened. This was three nights in a row now, before I asked for a sign and this is what happened!
During these three nights of shooting stars, things began to pick up for me at the Horseshoe. I placed third in a no-limit event, and got down to four-handed with the chip lead in the $2,500 Buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event just before the Main Event. I was so sick with the flu, as we went to the back to make a deal. I took the most money as the chip leader. Huck Seed took the next amount, Lindy Chambers, and then An Tran. I told the guys I'm so sick I can't stay any longer… I don't care about the bracelet. We've cut up the money and made a deal. When we go back out there I'm going all in on the first hand. If I win, I'm going all in on the next hand. I'm going home… I'm out of here… I'm done. Huck won the first hand and went on to win the tournament. I went home and didn't come back for two days.
When I did come back I didn't play anything, but watched Puggy Pearson play Sammy Farha from Houston. Puggy looked up at me and said, "You want a piece of me, kid?" They were playing Omaha Hi/Lo Split 8 or better.
I said, "I sure do. Give me 25%!"
Puggy said, "Okay, sit behind me and sweat me." I'm sweating him and sweating him watching him play. All of a sudden, this guy walks up to the table that I haven't seen in about six years. We used to start a $75/$150 Omaha Eight or Better or a $5/10 Pot-Limit Omaha game every night at the Horseshoe for years. This guy would come to town three or four months and play in the smaller games, but used to sit behind me and sweat the bigger pot-limit games I would play in. I never knew his name. This guy was a prospector for gold.
The night I was sweating Puggy he walked up to me and said, "Hi, Russ, how are you doing?"
I said, "Where have you been? How have you been doing?"
He said," Oh, not so good." Then he sat down and continued, "I'm not running too good. Would you do me a favor?"
"What?" I asked.
He handed me this small gold coin….It was a one-dollar gold piece. He asked, "Would you give me $100 and hold this for me? I'm going to go out and play some poker and try to win a little money. If I win I'll come back and buy my coin back."
I asked, "How much is the coin worth?"
I said, "Here is $500. Forget the $100. If you want it back I'll hold it in my shirt pocket or my box for you. You can get it back any time you pay me back."
He said, "Thanks a lot." I'm sitting there sweating Puggy and never thought a thing more about it. It's getting late, as it was about 11:00PM and tomorrow is the WSOP Main Event. I planned to go home by midnight or 1:00 AM. All of a sudden the guy comes back, and says, "Russ, I did real good. I got in a $5/10 game and won a few hundred. Then I got in a $10/20 game and won $500 more. Then I got in a 20/40 game and won $1,500. I'm so happy… thanks a lot. I really appreciate your help. Here is $500 for the gold coin. Good luck tomorrow in the WSOP. I'll see you tomorrow. Best of luck to you."
I said, "Thanks, I'll see you tomorrow." I sweated Puggy for another 45 minutes and told Puggy, "OK Puggy, I'm going home".
Puggy said, "Okay, kid, I'll tell you tomorrow how we did.
I said, "Oh no, Pug, I'm cutting out right now… I'm not going for that. That's like seeing Bob Stupak at the cage tomorrow after he gets first count."
Puggy laughed and said, "Okay, kid, and paid me about $7,000." That night when I got home, I didn't see a shooting star. The WSOP Main Event was to start in the morning.
The next day I go down to play the WSOP, and it is about ten minutes before the tournament is to start. All of a sudden, the guy I saw last night shows back up. He walks up to me and says, "Russ, listen, when you go in today, take this silver dollar and put it on your chips. When you order a drink, tip the cocktail waitress and give her the silver dollar. Good luck, today, as I'm really pulling for you!"
I said, "Okay, thanks," because I'm superstitious.
When I ordered a water or Diet Coke, I can't remember which, the waitress brought it over and I tipped her the silver dollar. She said, "Wow, this is a real silver dollar… thanks!"
I smiled and said, "Yep, it is a real silver dollar. It is going to bring me good luck. I'm tipping you with it."
She said, "Thanks, Russ." On the first day I started out with $10,000 and ended up with $10,000. I just never got a hand. Just never got a spot. I go in, and someone would come over the top. I didn't gain anything, but I was still in with what I started with. I go home, get in the hot tub, and there were no shooting stars.
The next morning I go down to play the second day. The same guy comes up to me again, but this time, he gives me two silver dollars. He says, "Russ, take these two silver dollars and when you order a drink tip the cocktail waitress both silver dollars." I said okay, and when she came over to give me my drink, I tipped her both silver dollars.
It was the same cocktail waitress I had before, and again she said, "Wow, this is two silver dollars today. I love this! Thanks a lot, Russ!"
I sat down and played. Needless to say, at the end of day two, I was the chip leader with $234,000! I started out with $10,000 and at the end of the day two I had $234,000! I remember it like it was yesterday, as John Bonetti bluffed off his chips to me. We both had about $110,000 in chips right on a break about halfway through the second day, and he bet off about $100,000 to me when I had the nuts. Bonetti's team he played with….Herb Bronstein, Mansour Matloubi, and some others were sweating him. I had something like the 9-7 of clubs, and flopped an 8-6-5 with two clubs. Bonetti bet $15,000 into me, as I waited about two minutes and called. The turn brought the two of hearts. Bonetti bet $30,000 into me. I waited one minute and just called. On the river came another blank and he fired another $60,000 into the pot. I raised him his last $7,000 and he couldn't call a $220,000 pot! He had been bluffing all the way as he threw his hand away. He told them he had two kings or something. No way could he not call that size of pot if he did have two kings, in my opinion.
Photo courtesy of Russ Hamilton</center>
I go home that night, and get into the spa. There were no shooting stars, so I go to bed. I get up the next day, go down for the third day. I walk in again, and here is the guy. He walks up to me again and says Russ, here is a dime. Put it on your cards and keep it on them all day. At the end of the day, keep it in your pocket. I said, "OK." It was also a silver dime. At the end of the day, I struggled… I mean, I struggled to get to the final table. I had about $200,000 after starting with $234,000, but I made it. The chip leader had about $1,400,000, and with six people, I was in fourth or fifth place in chips. The chip leader had more than half the chips out of $2,500,000. I'm happy, as I made the TV show for the final table at the WSOP!
So I go in the next day to play in the final table with this dime in my pocket. Now I'm looking for this guy. Sure enough, he walks up and gives me a silver dollar and a piece of paper. He says, "You got the dime?" I said, "Yep." He said, "Let me have it." I give him the dime. He tells me to take the silver dollar and use it to toke the waitress when you order a drink. After you do that, then you can open the note.
I said, "Okay." Now he had my attention, as I never had a note before.
He said, "Good luck today."
I said, "OK, but it isn't going to be easy today… the chip leader has seven times my chips."
He walked away saying, "Well, good luck. You can do it!" I started to play wondering what was in the note. I quickly ordered a bottle of water, as I couldn't wait to open this note. I wasn't going to do do anything differently than what he told me to do! When she came with my water, I toked her the silver dollar, and immediately opened this note. I'll never forget what this note said: When you get the two Queens, the tournament will be over. I've got goosebumps just remembering what that note said. I folded the note and put it down, and began playing all day long. I'm playing really good, just like I was when I made the Hall of Fame final table three years in a row. We first lost Robert Turner in sixth place, then Al Krux in fifth, Vince Burgio in fourth, and John Spadavecchia in third place. Now it was down to me and Hugh Vincent from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, heads-up!
We were about even in chips as we played back and forth. He had broke two people at the same time at our final table, but I felt I had a tell on him. All of a sudden I reach down, peek at my hand, and have the two black queens! I've got like $1,200,000 and he has about $1,300,080. So we were real close. This was the first time I saw pocket queens in the whole final table, as I glanced over at the note that was folded. I couldn't believe it! Could this possibly be the key hand? I looked up at him and here he is eating a cheeseburger, like he could care less about this WSOP. I had a tell on him and everything is at stake! Here he is eating a cheeseburger right now! I thought, my God, as the flop comes Q-9-6 that is rainbow. I flopped top set, so I checked to him and he checked back. Now the next card comes a blank. I decide to make a big bet of about $400,000. He looked at me and moved all in on me. He had a double-buster straight draw with eight outs. He made a play, where people think he made a horrible play, but he had something that might push me off top pair with a kicker with his huge all-in bet. It wasn't that bad of play. On the river the board paired for my full house! I had almost all of the chips with those two black queens in the hole, and just like the note predicted, the tournament was over. He only had about $100,000 verses my $2,400,000! The last hand came with my K-8 versus his 8-5, as the board read 8-2-6-10-J. My dream came true… I won the WSOP Main Event!
Now the cameras were closing in, my friends and fans are going crazy, and I reach down to grab my note to put it in my pocket. I'm looking everywhere for this guy, and he is nowhere to be seen! I toke like $30,000 to floor men, dealers, security, and this guy that was with me everyday for four days with his lucky coins and unbelievable note that nailed the key hand for the whole tournament. There is no way this guy isn't going to get at least a $20,000 tip from me out of that $1,000,000 first place! I never saw the guy again, though. He never came to congratulate me or shake my hand or anything. I've never seen him again! For those two years I couldn't get over losing my Mom; somehow I felt she had something to do with me winning. I couldn't let go thinking about her all the time those two years she passed away, and a calmness replaced me inside, knowing my Mom helped me reach my goal. I don't think I really won that tournament, but my Mom's divine intervention made it happen instead. The guy just vanished and in our celebration at the steakhouse, the note disappeared as well.
As I sat in Russ's office listening to him go back in time, reflecting on what he feels was his miracle win in 1994 at the WSOP, he began to tear up at the end, thinking about his beloved Mom. Russ Hamilton is one of poker's class acts from A to Z. Stay tuned for some extra fun tidbits in Part 2 of his story, as his victory in 1994 celebrated Binion Horseshoe's Silver Anniversary of the WSOP. In Part 2 you will also enjoy two golf stories that are true, which occurred at Augusta Golf Course where the Masters is played every year! Russ Hamilton pulled off an amazing feat, playing on Augusta's famous golf course, that no other human being on the planet has ever done!
The Cab is Parked,
Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is TSStarbuck1@aol.com.