Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016 | 6:45 a.m.
The previous eight world champions of poker had, to varying degrees, turned the game into a science.
Each winner since the World Series of Poker Main Event went to the delayed “November Nine” final table format was a 20-something professional who honed his skills through playing millions of hands of online poker. The experience set into motion their eventual championships by imbuing them with intimate knowledge of concepts like calculating hand ranges and making decisions based on expected value, all meant to cut down on the variance intrinsic to a card game.
Poker at its core, however, remains a form of gambling. For a reminder of that fact for the first time in nearly a decade at the WSOP, it took a 39-year-old local who was more likely to be found at a high-stakes baccarat table than a poker room before this summer.
Qui Nguyen, originally from Saigon, Vietnam, eschewed new-school principles like optimal game theory and the independent chip mathematical model for classic staples such as instinct and aggression over the last three nights at this year’s final table. It worked to perfection for Nguyen, as he claimed the $8 million first-place prize and the world championship bracelet early Wednesday morning at the Penn & Teller Theater inside the Rio.
“It feels amazing,” Nguyen said. “I don’t know how to say it because I don’t believe it. I just tried to do the best I can.”
The poker world was almost as excited as Nguyen after a total of 18 hours of play and 364 hands at the final table. The early consensus was that this year’s November Nine was the best one ever to watch.
That was almost entirely because of Nguyen, a previous unknown who bluffed and raised sometimes seemingly without much reason through the final table. He thrilled viewers as much as he tormented competitors — especially Gordon Vayo, a 27-year-old San Francisco resident who battled Nguyen heads-up for a Main Event record 181 hands over eight and a half hours.
“He’s a great feel player and that’s something, to be honest, I’ve struggled with in my career — going up against really tough feel players,” Vayo said. “Because my game is so rooted in this game theory and technical stuff that it’s a little bit difficult for me to put myself in their shoes and decipher what they’re doing.”
Nguyen was wild ever since winning his way into the $10,000 buy-in event, which attracted a total field of 6,737 players, by prevailing in a $1,1000 buy-in satellite tournament this summer. He kept the same style for the first two days of the final table, and stuck to it again from the beginning of the last session.
On the first hand Tuesday night, Nguyen called off 50 million chips with Ace-4 against opponent Cliff Josephy, who went all-in with Ace-Queen. Josephy, who ultimately finished in third for $3.4 million, held onto his big advantage in the hand to make for the first of many times Nguyen had to rebuild after adversity.
And it wasn’t always self-inflicted due to poor decisions. Nguyen had an 82 percent chance at an elimination the first time he called a Vayo all-in bet.
Vayo committed his entire stack with Queen-5 of clubs after a flop of Queen-7-5 with one club. Nguyen had a dominant Ace-Queen, but Vayo hit two consecutive clubs to stay alive.
“They gave me bad beats but I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up,’” Nguyen said. “I held up my chin and kept telling myself that. I just tried to do the best I could for a show.”
Vayo, who entered heads-up play with a lead but lost it for good after 12 hands, cut his deficit to as low as 37 million chips before Nguyen again ramped up his pressure. Nguyen got up to more than 300 million chips to Vayo’s 30 million chips before scoring the bust out.
The decisive hand came when Vayo shoved his dwindling stack all-in with Jack-10 of spades, which was no match for Nguyen’s King-10 of clubs.
“I felt like I was more a part of the Qui show, to be honest,” Vayo said. “And he really deserves it. I did a lot of preparation for this final table, a lot of calculation and ICM work and what I couldn’t prepare for was the Qui factor.”
Nguyen often laughed and smiled in between hands at the table, but briefly broke down in tears while posing for victory photos. He said he was too exhausted to begin allocating the prize money.
But a representative said Nguyen, who was sponsored by the Marines on Tuesday night, would donate a portion to the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps injured veterans. ESPN’s broadcast repeatedly mentioned that Nguyen’s son, 5-year-old Kyle, had begged him to buy a new house with a swimming pool.
A priority will be staying away from the baccarat tables, where Nguyen has admitted to losing thousands of dollars in the past. He’s found a better way to satisfy his thirst for gambling.
“He was willing to do things that very few people are and adopt this very bizarre strategy that almost no one plays really these days anymore,” Vayo said. “It was almost like a blast from the past. I’m so disconnected from people playing like that it was tough for me to re-evaluate why he was doing what he was doing. I don’t know if he had a set strategy coming in or not. I don’t think he really did. I think he was just adapting every hand, being very reactive and I think he just has a phenomenal feel for the game.”