Poker player Huckleberry Seed remembers the good days in Vegas and losing his head on drink and drugs

Thirteen years ago Huck Seed stood on top of the poker world, a card-playing prodigy who had just won the WSOP Main Event

Huck Seed glides across the casino floor like a spectre. Standing 6’6” tall, dressed in knee-length shorts, often sporting a chinstrap beard, looking like a hick rather than a poker assassin, Seed seems beyond it all. He appears aloof and vaguely uninterested. But appearances are deceptive. Seed, now 40, once ranked as a poker wunderkind. At age 21, playing in his very first tournament, a $300 event, he won it handily. A year later, buying in for $5,000, he got to heads-up against Stu Ungar before busting out with A-Q to Ungar’s A-K. In 1996 Seed became WSOP Main Event champion, and over the years he’s emerged as a king of the screwball prop bet. Seed has wagered on everything from spending 12 months without shaving to being able to stand in the ocean for 18 hours straight.

In a game where players work prodigiously to increase their profiles, Huck Seed has long gone in the opposite direction. But, despite his seemingly wilful desire to cruise below the radar, Seed’s recent achievements grab attention: final-tabling last year’s $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament and winning this year’s NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Those in the know depict him as a master of one-on-one tournament play, a belief that’s borne out by Seed having more wins at the NBC event than any other player.

When I approach Seed with a query about what makes him so good at this form, he smiles goofily and laconically replies, ‘Who says I’m so good? The sample size is way too small to know for sure. Maybe I’m just lucky.’

It’s not the response I wanted, not the response I expected, and not the response you’d get from many other players – who are often only too happy to tell you what makes them so great. Sitting in the food court of Caesars Palace, a day before he will win the tournament’s $500,000 first prize, Seed comes off as the most self-aware man in the game.

Young Talent

Poker came to Seed when he was just five years old. He and his dad, a writer who shilled in a small Californian cardroom called the Key Club, used to compete for matchsticks on the kitchen table. The house games were Five-card Draw and Lowball. A man of unconventional thoughts, Huck’s father held him back from kindergarten for two years, tutoring him at home and figuring that Huck would be a late bloomer who’d come into his own as he wrapped up high school. It didn’t work. Education administrators immediately recognised young Seed’s intelligence and moved him up to the proper grade.

Nevertheless, by the time he graduated from high school in small-town Montana (the Seeds moved there from urban Oakland, CA), Huck was intelligent enough and suitably athletic to land a basketball scholarship at California Institute of Technology, a top American university with a god-awful basketball team. Seed befriended a young poker fanatic by the name of Konstantin Othmer who was working on a strategy book for Seven-card Stud. ‘We had these economic experiments where we did trading simulations on the computer,’ recalls Seed. ‘Whoever did well on the experiment would get 100 bucks or something. Then we would take our winnings and go play low stakes poker in the nearby cardrooms. By my second year of college, after the first trimester, I was playing a lot of poker. That’s when I decided to take off a year so I could concentrate on the game.’

He played low stakes Stud, learning about poker and building a bankroll. Back then, in the late 1980s, it was unusual to see someone who was only 18 or 19 utterly consumed by poker. ‘Today,’ says Seed with a veteran’s smirk, ‘if you’re 20, you’re already old to some of these internet kids.’

By the age of 22, with thoughts of college long forgotten, Seed’s skills got up to speed. ‘I played $400/$800 at the Commerce,’ he says, pointing out that some of the biggest steady action back then was in southern California, not Vegas. ‘I played the highest no-limit Deuce-to-Seven game with the toughest no-limit players of the day: Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and Billy Baxter. Back then, nobody thought a young player could survive, which was a big advantage for me. I proved myself and began to get a lot of respect.’

Towards The Edge

Though Seed has a knack for science, statistics and computer analysis, he’s never considered himself much of a mathematical player. He says his success at poker stems more from abilities to read players, understand circumstances and devise ways to get opponents to make mistakes. It’s the difference between playing mind-blowing improvisational jazz and note-for-note classical renditions. He’s great at recognising other people’s strategies and exploiting them on the fly. The skill allowed Seed to beat the cash games. But, back in the early-to-mid 90s, when it came to winning a WSOP Main Event – a goal of Seed’s at the time – he was his own worst enemy.

Born with an addictive personality and paralysing shyness – he overcame the latter by systematically striking up conversations with strangers in shopping malls – Seed had a habit of overdoing things. When it came to playing poker during World Series season, he got completely embroiled. ‘Typically, I went to Las Vegas for the Series, stayed in a hotel, and did nothing but play [in the cash games] and sleep for a whole month. Then the Main Event would come and I’d be burned out from playing too much poker. I’d play good for a day in the Series, then I’d get tired and just blast off my chips.’

But 1996 was different. ‘I had a place in Vegas and a girlfriend,’ Seed remembers. ‘I played racquetball with Gus [Hansen] every day, ate right, exercised, hung out with my girlfriend. I was in such a balanced groove for the Main Event that I was able to play well every day. Gus, a guy I knew from backgammon, stayed with me during the Series and sat behind me as I played. He bet on me to win it and so did Doyle Brunson. I remember Doyle recognising the fact that I was among the chip leaders without getting into many big hands. Winning the World Series was a goal of mine, but I didn’t see it as that big an accomplishment. Now, with so many studious players in the field, it’s harder to win than it used to be.’

Soon after acing the biggest tournament of his life, Seed briefly stepped away from poker. By then he had already established himself as a man who’ll accept almost any prop bet – even going so far as to play former NBA pros heads-up at basketball. But following the 1996 World Series, Seed went into training for a running wager and toned down his poker hours. Brunson bet $100,000 that Seed would not be able to run a mile in 4 min 30 secs. Seed spent a year training and studying running. A series of injuries did not help his situation, and he could only muster 4 min 38 secs. Brunson was paid off.

Over the next four years, Seed managed to cash and win tournaments around the world. In an effort to keep from getting bored he learned games like Razz and Omaha, managing to win a WSOP bracelet in the former. But even as he beat poker, he came to feel as if he was not beating the game of life.

Now viewing his extreme shyness as an early symptom of depression, Seed explains that chemical imbalances ramped up in his brain. He became dysfunctional. Sleep cycles got screwed up, he’d doze off in tournaments and bluff off chips after his eyes opened. Even worse, drugs and alcohol became increasingly integral. ‘I first got into drugs after I turned 30,’ he says. ‘My mindset was that I would try different drugs just to try them. I did about every drug around – except heroin and acid because they weren’t available. But I did coke, ecstasy, crystal meth, marijuana…’

In short order, Seed went from boy wonder to complete mess. Forget about pulling off seemingly impossible prop bets – he couldn’t beat soft games of poker. During the period in question, I remember running into a friend outside a club in downtown Manhattan. He told me that Huck blew in, shocked everyone by sitting down at a game that should have been too cheap to consider, and promptly went through whatever he had on him. More constructively, there was a stint in Costa Rica during which he meditated and ate raw food. But the bad outweighed the good during the early 2000s. Seed wandered the earth like a somnambulist with frequent flyer miles.

At one point, friends forced him into rehab, but he checked himself out after a few weeks. There was psychiatric counselling, stints of sobriety, and binge drinking. As a testament to Seed’s native abilities, he still managed to win over half a million dollars during the six or so years he was out of it. ‘It wasn’t until about three years ago that things got better for me,’ says Seed, referring to becoming sober and somehow managing to keep his depression tamped down. Nevertheless, he says, the lost years ‘did a lot of damage. Depression eats up your memory. Your body gets out of a negative past by tearing up your memory.’ He shakes his head and softly says, ‘When the depression hit, I went way down. I couldn’t function. Then when I came out of it, I was lost. My game has gotten a lot better over the last few years, but it’s nowhere near where it was.’

Back In The Game

What’s sad for Seed is his timing. As internet poker blew up, he went out of his head on drugs and drink and mental illness. He missed out on the generous paydays that benefited the Hellmuths and Lederers and Fergusons of the poker world. Now, though, with the big NBC heads-up win under his belt, he’s talking about getting a publicist, putting himself out there, and seeing where it all takes him. Even this interview is something Seed would not have bothered with five years ago. In 1996, after winning the World Series, he turned down an offer to appear on the Late Show With David Letterman. ‘I don’t know Letterman,’ Seed says today. ‘Why would I want to hang out with him on TV?’

Letterman might still be unappealing, but Seed is coming around about online poker. Initially he viewed it as something other than the card game he loved. Sitting at the computer and gambling seemed highly unappealing. ‘I still think there are more interesting things to do on a computer than play poker,’ says Seed in a measured tone. ‘But I now like multi-tabling. It’s fun. I’m still experimenting, but I can comfortably play five or nine tables of $5/$10 no-limit. It can be a nice earn.’

Seed’s not buying into a whole lot of live cash game poker these days – ‘Playing every day with the same people makes for the most in-depth, skilful, interesting form of poker,’ he acknowledges – but he’s enjoying tournaments and expresses pleasure at having recently won the Canadian Open Poker Championship (for nearly $101,000). That said, Seed seems resolute about not burning out again or allowing the game he loves to become the 800-pound gorilla in his brain. ‘I had self-esteem problems,’ he says of the bad old days. ‘I grew up feeling good about external things. Now I try to feel good about being me, not about winning a tournament or beating nine games at once.’ He hesitates for a beat and allows it to sink in. Then he adds, ‘At least that’s the goal.’

Seed vs Stu

Back in 1991 when Huck Seed finished second to Stu Ungar at the Queens Poker Classic in Las Vegas, Seed was 22 years old and admittedly outclassed by his more experienced foe. Throughout the tournament, says Seed, ‘I was scared to death of being in a pot with him. I watched him real closely and saw him running over the game and doing all these amazing things to people. When we got to heads-up, I just tried to blast all-in before the flop. It seemed like my best strategy.’

Maybe so, but Seed still had to settle for second place. After the tournament, says Seed, ‘Stu complimented me on my strategy. He said, “You knew that if you had to play small pots against me, you would have no chance. By playing all-in before the flop, you gave yourself a one in three chance instead of no chance.” For Stuey, that was a super compliment.’

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