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Qui Nguyen Wins It All in the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event

39-Year-Old Amateur Steamrolls Final Table To Win $8 Million and the Championship Bracelet

by Erik Fast |  Published: Dec 07, 2016


For the first time since 2007, an amateur player has won the World Series of Poker $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event.

Qui Nguyen, a 39-year-old former nail salon owner and baccarat player from Las Vegas, had only 13 live poker tournament cashes totaling less than $45,000 in earnings, to his name prior to making the 2016 November Nine. After outlasting a field of 6,737 players, he secured the title of poker’s 2016 World Champion, earning his first gold bracelet, and $8,005,310 for the win.

“I’m so excited. I don’t know what to say. I just tried to remind myself to never give up, to never give up. It was tiring, it was tough, but I wanted to stay aggressive and never give up and thankfully for me it worked out,” gushed an exhausted Nguyen, just moments after emerging victorious.

Here is a look back at how the final table of the 2016 running of the biggest poker tournament in the world played out.

The November Nine Return

The final nine players were decided late on the night of July 18, when short-stacked Josh Weiss hit the rail in tenth place. Two-time bracelet winner Cliff Josephy (74.6 million) would enter the final table as the chip leader and betting favorite, with Nguyen as the second largest stack with 67.925 million.

In the three months between deciding the November Nine and the resumption of play the remaining players hired coaches, worked on their games, and some even played in and won notable poker tournaments. Gordon Vayo, a 27-year-old poker pro from San Francisco, took down the $2,500 buy-in River Poker Series main event for $587,120 while Belgian poker pro and tournament director Kenny Hallaert won a $500,000 guaranteed online tournament in September.

On Oct. 30, 104 days after the November Nine were set, the final nine returned to the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino to play down to a champion. After only a few orbits the first elimination went down when short-stacked Fernando Pons of Spain moved all-in with the ADiamond Suit 6Club Suit and was called by Cliff Josephy’s KHeart Suit JClub Suit. The man known as “JohnnyBax” to the online poker community came from behind to make three kings by the river, sending Pons to the rail in ninth place with $1 million for consolation.

The next player to go was New York-based poker pro Jerry Wong. The 34-year-old picked up pocket jacks and got all-in preflop, only to find out that he had run into the pocket queens of Vojtech Ruzicka. He failed to improve and was eliminated in eighth place, earning $1,100,076 for his deep run.

Former video game pro turned poker professional Griffin Benger was the next player sent to the rail. The 31-year-old Canadian who came in as one of the shorter stacks spent the majority of the day folding.

“I didn’t really get a lot of opportunities to play, which was disappointing because I wanted to give my friends and family something to cheer about,” said Benger after hitting the rail.

He didn’t win a single pot until the 59th hand of the final table, but it was too little and too late. Just over an orbit later he picked up the ASpade Suit 9Spade Suit and got all in against Gordon Vayo’s pocket tens. Benger failed to make the best hand and hit the rail in seventh place, picking up $1,250,190 for his seventh-place showing.

The final bust out of the first night of final-table action came when Kenny Hallaert raised from under the gun and was three-bet by Qui Nguyen in the cutoff. Hallaert then moved all in and was snap called by Nguyen, who held the ASpade Suit ADiamond Suit. Hallaert was in rough shape with the AClub Suit QClub Suit. The 37-year-old Belgian flopped a queen but improved no further and was eliminated in sixth place, taking home $1,464,258. After the hand concluded play was halted for the night with the chip counts for the final five as follows:

Qui Nguyen — 128,625,000
Cliff Josephy — 63,850,000
Vojtech Ruzicka — 62,250,000
Gordon Vayo — 58,200,000
Michael Ruane — 23,700,000

The Final Five: Ruzicka’s Bluff and Nguyen’s Ascension

The remaining five players returned on Halloween day and, despite the spooky circumstance, none of the players seemed particularly scared to play.

On just the fourth hand of the night Michael Ruane got all-in preflop and was called by chip leader Qui Nguyen. Ruane was ahead with pocket eights to Nguyens pocket sixes. The board kept Ruane in the lead and he doubled up. With that, Nguyen’s lead was decreased and the other four players’ stacks became closer in size. It seemed as if it might be a long night, until the next big hand arose.

With blinds of 500,000 – 1,000,000 Gordon Vayo raised to 2,300,000 from the button. Vojtech Ruzicka three-bet to 8.15 million in the small blind and Vayo made the call. The flop brought the QClub Suit 8Diamond Suit 3Club Suit and Ruzicka bet 6.15 million. Vayo just called and the turn brought the 7Heart Suit. Ruzicka bet again, this time for 11.4 million. Vayo called once again and the 5Spade Suit completed the board. Ruzicka moved all in for Vayo’s stack of 27.85 million and Vayo quickly made the call with the 8Spade Suit 8Club Suit for a flopped set of eights. Ruzicka had the ASpade Suit KDiamond Suit for just ace high.

After the hand Ruzicka was left with less than one big blind while Vayo doubled up to take the chip lead with over 108 million chips. Ruzicka was eliminated on the next hand and the Prague-based poker pro earned $1,935,288 for his firth-place finish.

The final four players battled it out for another 50 hands before another elimination took place. Ruane, who began the day with a much-needed double up, had dwindled back down to only 13 big blinds. He moved all in with the KHeart Suit QHeart Suit over the top of Qui Nguyen’s under-the-gun raise. Nguyen called with the AHeart Suit JSpade Suit. The board ran out 9Spade Suit 9Heart Suit 2Spade Suit JClub Suit 8Diamond Suit and Ruane hit the rail in fourth place, earning $2,576,003.

The final three played a total of 11 hands before play ended for the night, with Qui Nguyen holding more than half of the 336.6 million chips in play. The stacks for the final day looked as follows:

Qui Nguyen — 197,600,000
Gordon Vayo — 89,000,000
Cliff Josephy — 50,000,000

The Rise and Fall of Johnny Bax

The top three finishers in the main event were all guaranteed at least $3.4 million paydays; life-changing money. While the top prize of $8 million dollars was even better, at this point the players could be excused for worrying a bit less about laddering up for the next pay jump and instead giving it everything they had to try to capture the title, the bracelet and the honor of being poker’s 2016 world champion.

On the very first hand of the third night Cliff Josephy five-bet all in with the ADiamond Suit QDiamond Suit over the top of a button four-bet from Qui Nguyen. Nguyen made the call with the ASpade Suit 4Club Suit. Josephy made a full house on a AClub Suit QHeart Suit 7Club Suit 3Spade Suit QSpade Suit board and doubled up to over 100 million in chips.

Josephy, easily the most accomplished player coming into the final table with two gold bracelets and years of experience in the biggest online tournaments as “JohnnyBax,” now had more than 85 big blinds to work with. The betting favorite before play resumed seemed back on track to win his third WSOP title. Josephy’s surging comeback narrative was short-lived, though, as just four hands later he lost one of the biggest pots of the tournament.

Josephy raised to 2.5 million on the button and Vayo called from the small blind. Qui Nguyen three-bet to 7.7 million and both his opponents called.

The flop brought the KClub Suit 3Club Suit 2Spade Suit and Vayo checked. Nguyen bet 9.9 million and Josephy made the call. Vayo made the call as well and the pot swelled to over 53 million. The 4Diamond Suit hit the turn, prompting a check from both Vayo and Nguyen. Josephy bet 21 million and after a few moments of thought Vayo moved all in for about 75 million. Nguyen quickly folded and it was back around to Josephy, who looked a bit pained but ultimately made the call with the 2Diamond Suit 2Club Suit. Vayo had flopped a higher set with the 3Diamond Suit 3Spade Suit and Josephy was in horrible shape, needing to hit a one-outer to avoid a devastating blow to his stack. The 6Diamond Suit improved neither player and Vayo surged into the chip lead while Josephy crashed down to only eight big blinds.

Josephy was able to double up a few times, but ultimately he was just left too short and eventually lost with the QDiamond Suit 3Diamond Suit against Nguyen’s KHeart Suit 6Diamond Suit all-in preflop. The 50-year-old poker pro earned $3,453,035 for his third-place finish, the largest score of his career. He now has nearly $6.1 million in career live tournament earnings.

A New World Champion Nguyen’s It His Way

And just like that the final heads-up battle was set, with Vayo holding 200.3 million to Nguyen’s 136.3 million in chips. The title, bracelet, and $8 million top prize hung in the balance, and the $3.3 million difference between first and second place definitely had an impact on the play. Vayo, the more experienced of the two players, seemed particularly aware of the stakes and played quite cautiously.

It took only nine hands for Nguyen to pummel his way to the chip lead, starting off by winning seven out of the first nine deals. From that point on Nguyen never relinquished the lead. It had taken 182 hands for the nine-handed final table to be whittled down to two players. It took 182 more to determine a champion. Nguyen and Vayo battled it out for eight hours, with Nguyen steadily building his lead before Vayo would finally find a spot to regain some chips and keep his hopes alive.

At approximately 3:30 a.m local time the final hand of the tournament was dealt. With blinds of 1,500,000-3,000,000 with a 500,000 ante, Nguyen raised to 8.5 million from the button. Vayo moved all-in for 53,000,000 from the big blind and Nguyen made the call with the KClub Suit 10Club Suit.

Vayo was in rough shape with the JSpade Suit 10Spade Suit. The flop came down KDiamond Suit 9Club Suit 7Diamond Suit to give Nguyen top pair and the two poker combatants stood side-by-side, arms draped over each other as they gazed up at the screen showing the flop camera. The 2Spade Suit on the turn left Vayo needing a queen or an eight on the river or it was all over. The 3Heart Suit on the river sealed the deal, securing the pot and the title for Nguyen who let out a small cheer with fists raised before going over to Vayo and embracing the runner-up. Vayo earned $4,661,228 as the second-place finisher.

Confetti streamed from the sky and lights and cameras flashed as Vietnamese-born Nguyen became the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event champion. The Las Vegas resident, married, and a father of a four-year-old son, was clearly exhausted and overwhelmed as he was awarded the championship bracelet in front of a crowd of friends chanting his name. ESPN host Kara Scott had to remind him to lift the bracelet aloft, which he did with a smile on his face as the reality sank in.

Qui Nguyen might have come into the final table as the “guy in the raccoon hat” for many fans of the WSOP television coverage. By the time it was all over, he had proven himself to be a deserving world champion who used an aggressive style to perfection, steamrolling a table full of experienced players to capture the biggest title in poker.

“With millions of dollars, I didn’t think a lot about winning and losing,” Nguyen told a scrum of reporters just moments after winning it all. “I was just thinking… ‘Don’t make a misstep at all.’ In a tournament, you can’t make a misstep. If you make a misstep, you’re done.”

Nguyen had less than $45,000 in live tournament earnings prior to entering this year’s WSOP main event. Now he has more than $8 million in career earnings, a WSOP bracelet, and title of poker’s 2016 world champion. ♠