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Fearlessness at the WSOP Main Event Final Table

by Preston Oade |  Published: Dec 07, 2016


Qui Nguyen is not confused about his profession. He’s the only one of the November Nine to identify himself as a “gambler.” He beat seven poker pros and one amateur to become a champion.

A successful gambler bets with an edge. Nguyen knew his edge was fearlessness, and he played that strength all the way to the bracelet. While others played not to lose, he played to win it all.

Nguyen was the most frequent aggressor and the strongest chip accumulator. With 22 players left he was 20th in chips, but relentlessly chipped up while others wilted under the increasing pressure. He started the final table second in chips, lost some big pots, but continued to increase his stack by building pots and fearlessly stealing them.

ESPN commentator Antonio Esfandiari repeatedly said he was baffled by Nguyen’s play. After showing weakness on the turn, Nguyen would tell an inconsistent story by strongly betting the river with nothing but a burglar’s guts. Esfandiari explained why his opponent should know he was bluffing, but it didn’t matter. His fearless heart was greater than his opponent’s reads. He knew them and understood their fear.

It reminded me of Doyle Brunson’s reply to the question, “What stakes do you like to play?”

“Whatever stakes make my opponents uncomfortable,” said Brunson.

Like Nguyen, Brunson is a professional gambler. His main gambling edge is nerves of steel. He doesn’t choke. Neither does Nguyen. Both instantly smell weakness and ruthlessly exploit it.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in heads-up play against Gordon Vayo, who was systematically ground down by Nguyen’s constant aggression and seemingly intimate knowledge of his opponent. Vayo seemed to be his accomplice, with a transparent and passive trapping strategy that perplexed the WSOP commentators.

Vayo apparently thought he could outplay Nguyen after the flop, but repeatedly proved that he couldn’t. His evident strategy was to win a few huge and decisive pots by patiently waiting for Nguyen to be overly aggressive. But Vayo was too predictable, betting or check-calling when he had it and folding when he didn’t. He mainly played his cards, while Nguyen relentlessly hammered him with almost any two cards and his bigger stack.

It was passive-poker versus power-poker with a predictable result. Nguyen used the button to build big pots and win them after the flop with position. Vayo let him, while simultaneously failing to build pots when he had the button. Vayo limped too often on the button and failed to build pots with the better hand.

On hand no. 263, for example, Vayo checked the button with QSpade Suit 5Spade Suit and Nguyen checked his A-8 offsuit from out of position. The Q-7-5 flop gave Vayo two pair and a backdoor spade flush draw. Nguyen checked. Clearly holding the better hand, Vayo checked rather than build a pot.

Nguyen checked the 10Spade Suit on the turn. Vayo finally bet half pot, and Nguyen called. Nguyen tried to steal the pot on the river by representing a flush with a value bet bluff when the third spade hit. Vayo raised with his rivered flush, and Nguyen folded.

Enlarging the pot preflop on the button would likely have resulted in Vayo getting more value from his hand. Overall, Nguyen built his pots, and Vayo didn’t. It’s the difference between a tournament survivalist and a chip accumulator.

Hand no. 268 was another example of Vayo’s passive trapping strategy. With a starting pot of 4.4 million with the blinds and antes at 1,200,000-2,400,000 with a 400,000 ante, Vayo had 118 million compared to Nguyen’s 218 million. Nguyen raised to 6.7 million on the button with JDiamond Suit 5Diamond Suit. Vayo called with QHeart Suit 9Diamond Suit and hit top pair on the 9-4-2 two-club flop. But he checked, apparently counting on Nguyen to build a pot for him.

Nguyen obliged, betting 9.7 million with nothing but position into the 14-million chip pot. Vayo just called with top pair, making it a 33.6 million pot. The turn somewhat predictably brought an overcard to Vayo’s top pair, a ten. Vayo checked his second pair and called Nguyen’s 27.7 million turn bet, swelling the pot to 89 million.

The river was a five, giving Nguyen third pair with his J-5. But Vayo had the better hand with Q-9.

This was what Dan Harrington calls an “inflection point.” Vayo – who started the hand with 118 million, was now down to 73 million. Taking the pot would give him 162 million compared to Nguyen’s 182 million. But Vayo checked the best hand! Nguyen bet 73.2 million, putting Vayo to the test for all his chips, exploiting the $3.4 million difference between first and second place.

Vayo – who put himself into this situation by check-calling the flop and the turn with the better hand – went into the tank. He finally folded, leaving himself with 73 million compared to Nguyen’s 273 million.

It was a pivotal hand that allowed Nguyen to continue using the power of his big stack. Nguyen clearly wanted to build pots and see lots of flops with position, while playing small ones out of position. Vayo let him.

Vayo continued to play a passive strategy on a short stack, bleeding chips by limping on the button rather than pushing all-in as the first one into the pot. When he did push, Nguyen knew he had a hand and would just fold. Esfandiari called it a “slow, torturous death.”

The last hand was a mere formality. Nguyen put Vayo all-in before the flop with KClub Suit 10Club Suit on the button. Vayo called for his last 19 big blinds with JSpade Suit 10Spade Suit. Nguyen flopped a king, and it was over.

Nguyen and Vayo are classy players who got along very well, bringing credit to themselves and the Main Event. But it was a mismatch heads-up. Nguyen – playing his first WSOP main event – is an aggressive chip accumulator who played the stacks and his opponent. Vayo didn’t seem to realize that his passive trapping strategy was transparent and predicable.

Vayo’s edge was his superior tournament experience and highly disciplined play. So apparently he used a strategy that he and his top-flight coach, Tom Marchese, thought had the best chance of success in heads-up play against a self-identified “gambler.” Yet Vayo clearly couldn’t match Nguyen’s fearless heart.
The professional gambler beat the poker pro. Fearlessness beat discipline and experience. ♠

Preston Oade ( wrote “The Art and Science of Poker Tournament Selection,” a Kindle book available on Amazon. Playing mostly online, he has been rated by OPR in the top 1.2% worldwide. His published live tournament wins are $195,394. A retired lawyer, he has successfully argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.