Tuesday, July 19, 2016 | 3:03 a.m.
They call him “Tommy Gun” at the Aria poker room.
The rest of the poker world found out why opponents bestowed that nickname upon Qui Nguyen on Monday night at the Rio, with 15 players remaining the World Series of Poker Main Event. Nguyen fired off a rapid succession of bets to end tournament lives all around him.
The 39-year-old local mounted an onslaught that totaled three eliminations in six hands. That was enough to secure a $1 million payout and a chance at the $8 million first-place prize when the final table in poker’s world championship commences on Oct. 30 at the Penn & Teller Theater.
“Today I was running hot,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen went from having the third fewest chips of the remaining 27 players at the beginning of Monday’s Day 7 to second most of the final nine at the end, finishing with just short of 68 million.
For Nguyen, it felt like about time something went right at the WSOP. The Vietnam native had forged a successful career as a professional poker player mostly through cash games since moving to Las Vegas from Florida more than 10 years ago.
He was first a fixture at Bellagio, and more recently at Aria, in games with blinds as low as $1-$3 and as high as $10-$20. But the bankroll he built up would always take a hit in two other arenas — baccarat tables and World Series of Poker events.
The latter was more frustrating, because Nguyen believed he was capable of performing on the game’s biggest stage.
“Usually I try to get in the money and never get in the money,” he said.
Nguyen came in 54th for a $9,029 payout in a $1,500 buy-in WSOP tournament in 2009, but he had no other in-the-money finishes. He had also never played higher than a $2,500 buy-in event, so he decided this was the year he wanted in the $10,000 Main Event.
Nguyen entered a $565 satellite tournament and then a $1,100 one, failing to win a Main Event seat in either. It wasn’t until his third try, another $1,100 satellite, that he prevailed.
Family members thought he should sell the $10,000 entry, but Nguyen felt no pressure and was determined to give the Main Event a shot.
“It’s just $10,000,” Nguyen said. “I lost a lot more in baccarat.”
It was hard to imagine Nguyen losing at anything Monday. His heater started against Tom Marchese, the most accomplished remaining player coming into day 7, when both were in the blinds.
Marchese shoved all-in when he made a flush on the river with Jack-10 as his hole cards, but Nguyen had a better flush with Ace-King. The very next hand, a short-stacked James Obst went all-in with pocket 5s. Nguyen called with pocket 10s, and his massive lead held up.
Less than 20 minutes later, Nguyen deliberated for several minutes after a raising war that concluded with Mike Shin going all-in. Nguyen ultimately decided to call with pocket Queens, which won a coin-flip-like proposition against Shin’s Ace-King.
“Only in small tournaments,” Nguyen said when asked if he had ever knocked out three players so swiftly. “Not in a big tournament.”
The rush gave Nguyen the chip lead, though he later relinquished it to Cliff Josephy, who finished with 74.6 million.
Unlike Nguyen, the 50-year-old Josephy stayed near the top of the leaderboard for the last six days of the tournament and said everything had gone near perfectly.
“I have some tough competition,” Josephy said. “But if the cards keep falling the way they fell today, they’re all in trouble.”
Josephy has an advantage as he’s seated to Nguyen’s left, meaning he’ll be able to see what the player with the second-most chips does before acting throughout the final table. Josephy is also the most experienced player left, as a two-time bracelet winner.
He’s even won the Main Event — just not as a player. A former stockbroker from New York, Josephy is known as one of the top backers in poker.
His most famous windfall came from financing Joe Cada’s 2009 WSOP Main Event victory to claim a share of more than $4 million.
“This is what you dream about,” Josephy said. “The dream isn’t to have someone at the final table and win it for you. The dream is to be there and win it yourself.”
Josephy mentioned that he had a lot of preparation in store for the three months before the final table. Nguyen has a different plan, as he said he wanted a break from poker to spend more time with his wife and son.
There’s one other thing he’ll look to avoid.
“Now that I have this money,” Nguyen said, “I hope I don’t play baccarat any more.”