Qui Nguyen Steamrolls His Way to 2016 WSOP Main Event Championship

I have watched all or much of the World Series of Poker Main Event final table every year for more than a decade now, dating back to before the November Nine was even a thing. While it is always neat to witness poker history, the biggest problem I have with watching the final table is, quite frankly, that it is boring. Watching hour after hour of poker can be excruciating. And as much as getting to watch it in person twice is an experience I will never forget*, that is even worse in a way because you don’t get the benefit of seeing hole cards or listen to television commentary. That said, this year’s final table was really solid; the play, on the whole, was excellent and the players were all quite likeable. Last night, in particular, was fascinating, as Qui Nguyen used an aggressive style of play that most of us would be too scared to try to beat back his opponents en route to the 2016 WSOP Main Event Championship.

I’m not going to go through what happened during all three days of the November Nine, but rather start with the third and final day, when only Nguyen, Gordon Vayo, and Cliff Josephy remained. Here are what the stacks looked like to start Tuesday’s action:

1.    Qui Nguyen – 197,600,000
2.    Gordon Vayo – 89,000,000
3.    Cliff Josephy – 50,000,000

Josephy, at 50-plus years old, was both the oldest and most experienced poker player at the table. The chip leader to begin the November Nine, he was the favorite to win it all. He quickly found an opportunity to make a move, getting into a raising tug-of-war with Nguyen on Tuesday’s very first hand until he was all-in with A-Q suited. Nguyen ended up calling him with A-4 and doubled him up.

After that, though, Josephy ran into trouble, getting coolered when his set of Deuces ran into Vayo’s set of Treys. Shortly thereafter, Josephy was eliminated in third place.

The story of the night was the contrast in styles between the 39-year old Nguyen and the 27-year old poker pro, Gordon Vayo. Vayo went into heads-up play with a 200.3 million to 136.3 million chip lead, but it was Nguyen that went on the attack. In heads-up poker, you have to raise pretty much every time you are on the button and conventional wisdom is that the aggressor is going to see the best results, but Nguyen was pushing the envelope, riding the line between properly aggressive and reckless.

2016 WSOP Main Event Champ Qui Nguyen Image credit: WSOP.com/Jayne Furman

2016 WSOP Main Event Champ Qui Nguyen
Image credit: WSOP.com/Jayne Furman

Nguyen obviously raised just about every button, but he was unafraid to bet and raise on any street, no matter how little his hole cards connected with the board. He was generally more than happy to call a pre-flop raise so that he could try to outplay Vayo post-flop. On the other side of the table, Vayo played very passively – likely by design – as he waited for big hands in order to trap Nguyen. Nguyen wanted to whittle down Vayo’s stack, Vayo wanted to grab Nguyen’s chips in huge chunks.

ESPN commentator and poker pro Antonio Esfandiari made an interesting observation that Nguyen played more by instinct and savvy, as opposed to Vayo , who was more mathematical in his approach. At the same time, Nguyen never really got out of line, at least to the point where he got into trouble.

One of the biggest hands of the night was just the 27th of heads-up and the heads-up match lasted nearly 200 hands. Vayo raised to 4 million pre-flop with A♦-9 and Nguyen made the call with Q♣-5♣. The flop was A♣-T♠-9♣, giving Vayo two pair – a monster hand heads-up – and Nguyen a flush draw. Nguyen checked, Vayo bet 3.7 million, and Nguyen check-raised him to 9.7 million.

Before continuing, allow me to point out that this is a great example of how aggressive Nguyen was. Most people would probably just call there, but Nguyen wanted to make Vayo nervous. Of course, he didn’t know Vayo had a stacked hand.

Vayo made the call and after the K♠ was dealt on the turn, Nguyen ramped it up with a 27.7 million chip bet. Vayo called. The river was a killer: the K♣, giving Nguyen his flush. He almost immediately shoved all-in, putting Vayo to a decision for the tournament. Vayo was pained. He knew he likely had the lead on the flop and probably the turn, so the question was whether or not Nguyen had gotten there on the river (plus, Vayo’s second pair was counterfeited). After nearly seven minutes in the tank, he folded, unwilling to call off his chips.

Nguyen now had a 229.7 million to 106.9 million chip lead and from then on, he was in control. While Vayo was calm and cool the entire time and stuck to his strategy, it seemed (to my amateur eye) that that hand truly made him realize, if he hadn’t before, that Nguyen was willing to do anything.

A similar hand came up later, but this time, Nguyen didn’t have it and still put Vayo to the test. Vayo folded.

The rest of the heads-up match was a showcase of Nguyen’s aggression. He was relentless, giving Vayo no room to breathe, regardless of whether or not Nguyen had the goods. He ran fairly well, often hitting hands on the flop or turn, but he was the master of scooping the pot before showdown. Vayo kept trying to bide his time and wait for Nguyen to overcommit himself, but Nguyen really never slipped up. Even the few times he did spew a few chips, it wasn’t so bad that he gave Vayo life.

It was slow steamroll. Nguyen chipped away at Vayo’s stack and Vayo kept holding him off just enough so that he still had hope for a comeback. But the whole time you watched, you knew it was inevitable that Nguyen was going to win. It was like when a volcano erupts and the lava flows just inches per minute toward a neighborhood. You know it’s coming and there’s nothing you can do about it; you just hope it stops before it engulfs your property.

Vayo made a late run, doubling up after getting into desperation mode and then taking a sizeable pot to get to within reasonable striking distance, but Nguyen went back to figuratively slapping the chips out of Vayo’s hands. The final hand was largely academic. Nguyen raised pre-flop with K♣-T♣ and Vayo moved all-in for 53 million with J♠-T♠. A King flopped and it was all over.

Amazingly, this was Qui Nguyen’s first WSOP Main Event. Previously, he had only one WSOP cash for $9,000. Now the former Alaska nail salon owner with his Rocket Raccoon cap is poker’s world champion.

2016 World Series of Poker Main Event – Final Table Standings

1.    Qui Nguyen – $8,005,310
2.    Gordon Vayo – $4,661,228
3.    Cliff Josephy – $3,453,035
4.    Michael Ruane – $2,576,003
5.    Vojtech Ruzicka – $1,935,388
6.    Kenny Hallaert – $1,464,258
7.    Griffin Benger – $1,250,190
8.    Jerry Wong – $1,100,076
9.    Fernando Pons – $1,000,000

*One of the oddest, “how did fate lead me to this” moments of my life was at the final table of the 2006 WSOP Main Event. I was standing just a few yards away from the table with Johnny Chan, 2005 WSOP Main Event sixth place finisher Scott Lazar, and ESPN producer Andrew Feldman (really, I was with Feldman, and he knew everybody, so by default, I was kind of chatting with Chan and Lazar for a short time). While we were watching Jamie Gold table-talk his way to victory, Lazar pulled out a deck of cards and did a magic trick. Johnny Chan picked a card, Lazar did his thing, and we were all wowed. It’s a silly story, but I’ve always found that moment of my life to be so entirely random and wonderful.

Featured image credit: WSOP.com/Jayne Furman

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