The Cuban Missile Crisis
In October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. For a week, the US blockade of Cuba had been preventing Soviet shipments of missiles from reaching the island and as a result, the two superpowers were on a collision course. Messages were exchanged between the White House and Kremlin, both looking to avoid full-scale conflict. Back-channel communication was attempted but when a US U-2 reconnaissance jet was shot down over Cuba, an all-out war with cataclysmal consequences seemed inevitable.
Then on October 28, with the specter of a nuclear holocaust having been raised, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev informed US President John F. Kennedy that work on the missile sites in Cuba would be halted and that the missiles already there would be returned to the Soviet Union. In return, Kennedy committed the United States to never invade Cuba.
a revised version of history suggests that it was a more complicated and essentially wise decision
This action was framed as a humiliating Soviet capitulation and it is generally believed this incident played an important part in Khrushchev’s ultimate fall from power in October 1964. However, a revised version of history suggests that it was a more complicated and essentially wise decision. Khrushchev had been given secret concessions by Kennedy who promised to withdraw the nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles that the US had in Turkey. He had also taken the world from the precipice of an existential catastrophe.
“All Over Baby”
For my third iconic World Series of Poker hand, I have chosen one of the most cinematic moments in poker history. It has long been filed under the category of ‘professional player dupes recreational player with speech play,’ but that description has never been sat well with me.
“You call, it’s gonna be all over baby,” said Scotty Nguyen, going to Kevin McBride as he stood over him, sipping his beer. Undoubtedly, it was a provocative thing to say and Nguyen wasn’t lying. Moments later, McBride said “call, I play the board” and it was all over with Nguyen crowned champion of the world.
In reality, it was an exceptionally tough spot for McBride who had battled admirably against the game’s elite for five days. Far from the capitulation as it has been subsequently portrayed, I think that it was actually a very good long-term decision.
Born in Nha Trang, Vietnam on October 28, 1962, the same day that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, Scotty Nguyen has one of those epic poker origin stories. Due to the fighting in Vietnam, another Cold War proxy conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, his mother sent him out of the country, initially to Taiwan and then later to the United States.
he steadily improved through his early 20s until in 1985, something clicked
A rebellious teen, he spent little time in school and was eventually expelled, allowing him to dedicate more time to underground poker games. At 21 years old, he became a dealer for Harrah’s. This gave him his first steady income, which helped to fund a gambling addiction. Nguyen was a self-confessed ‘poker fish,’ but he steadily improved through his early 20s until in 1985, something clicked.
As the legend goes, he dealt a no-limit Hold’em tournament in Lake Tahoe and played cash games all night. He spun up a bankroll of $7,000 which he then took with him to Las Vegas. There, he turned it into over $1m in cash games with the likes of Johnny Chan and Puggy Pearson, before eventually losing it all back.
The Big Dance in 1998
The WSOP crowned 21 champions in the Spring of 1998, including Doyle Brunson, Farzad Bonyadi, Chau Giang, Donnacha O’Dea, David Chiu, Erik Seidel, TJ Cloutier, Patrick Bruel, and Daniel Negreanu. The preliminary events were well attended and the big dance continued the trend of breaking its participation record as 350 players ponied up the $10,000 buy-in.
As the tournament progressed, the ‘dead money’ did what dead money does. Grizzled gamblers, hardened poker professionals, and two movie stars by the names of Matt Damon and Edward Norton fell by the wayside. However, one enthusiastic amateur was quietly making his way through the stacked field. The cream usually rises to the top but, after five grueling days on the felt, Kevin McBride, a 43-year-old management consultant and father of four from Boca Raton, found himself in an incredible spot.
On the final day, McBride was in a five-way affair between the owner of a Wisconsin trucking company, a businessman from San Diego, a former tight end in the Canadian Football League turned bonafide poker legend, and a charismatic Vietnamese-American poker professional who had spent the previous decade oscillating from filthy rich to stone-cold broke.
Jimmy Stewart genius
Five years before Moneymaker, McBride was ‘The Everyman of Poker,’ dressed unassumingly in a pair of blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and canvas sneakers. At one point, he tried to wear sunglasses at the table but took them off, confessing that he just couldn’t see. The Tampa Bay Times covered the event and took note of his demure and self-effacing demeanor.
“McBride seems to glow with the halo of a redeemer…
His high forehead gives him an open look that vacillates between earnestness and Jimmy Stewart genius.”
After just a couple of hours of play, McBride had done the improbable, eliminating all three players to get heads-up with the chip-lead against Nguyen. He had 2.2m of the 3.5m chips in play. “Each one of those [10K] chips represents a body they had to go over to get here,” said Binion’s tournament director and announcer Jack McClelland as they set up for the denouement of what had been a gripping contest.
McBride and Nguyen had locked up $687,500 but it was a cool million dollars for first place. For the afternoon, they fought a war of attrition with Nguyen coming out on top in the majority of the battles. McBride was whittled down, won a chunky one but then was whittled down some more.
At the start of the hand, the blinds were 20,000/40,000 and McBride was the effective stack with 530,000 chips, just over 13 big blinds. He had the button and he opened to 80,000 with Q♥️T♥️. Nguyen called with the J♦️9♣️.
The pot was 160,000 and the flop came 9♥️9♦️8♣️. Nguyen checked, McBride bet 100,000 (62% of pot) and Nguyen called.
With a pot of 360,000, it came the 8♥️. Nguyen checked, McBride bet 100,000, and Nguyen called.
On the river, the pot was 560,000 and it came the 8♠️. Nguyen moved all-in for 250,000 effective and after those immortal words “you call it’s gonna be all over baby,” McBride made the call, declaring he was playing the board.
The pre-flop action from both players was fine but on balance, I think McBride’s hand makes it a better limp candidate. On the flop, Nguyen is right to check to the aggressor and while the bet isn’t wrong per se, McBride does have a nice check back hand as he could be winning, he has a decent draw and it would be a bit of a disaster to get check-raised off this holding. As played, Nguyen has a slam-dunk call as his hand is extremely strong, doesn’t require much protection, and he should be looking to keep his opponent’s bluffs in.
The board is double-paired on the turn and again, Nguyen should have no leads. A small bet from McBride has some merit but I prefer a check on this street too. Facing the bet, Nguyen is absolutely right to just call. He has a strange hold on the hand.
a modern solver won’t just make the call that McBride does, but it will actually call with 100% of its range
The stack-to-pot ratio (SPR) on the river is 0.44:1 and this is crucial to the equation when a third eight comes. Nguyen’s shove lays McBride a compelling price as he needs to be getting a chop less than half the time. Fascinatingly, a modern solver won’t just make the call that McBride does, but it will actually call with 100% of its range.
Modern solvers offer us a glimpse into a game theoretical approach to poker and sometimes can be used to produce a revised version of poker history or at least ask questions of the previously accepted version. Poker in 1998 was certainly in a different paradigm that does not resemble poker today so it is not a completely fair lens through which to critique hands. There is also the danger of demythologizing one of the most famous hands in poker.
That said, this particular hand has always nagged at me. Unquestionably, it is still a great tv moment but it does not fit the ‘chump being vitiated by the wily provocateur’ narrative. McBride does not warrant the derision that he has received down the years for ‘losing his head’ under pressure.
“I consider myself a risk-taker,” said McBride to the reporter from the Tampa Bay Times, “but they’re measured risks.” This river call was a measured risk but unfortunately for McBride, on this occasion, Nguyen had the goods.
“The one who loses his head no longer cares about his hair.” ~ Nikita Khrushchev