Qui Nguyen storms to the WSOP Main Event chip lead during a night of November Nine surprises
31 Oct 2016
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
Instead of Cliff Josephy, with his Hollywood looks and giant chip stack, running over the table as many expected, Qui Nguyen quickly became the story of the first night of the November Nine inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
He doesn’t have a catchy online screen name or Twitter handle, or a gaudy career-winnings total. Maybe that’s why Nguyen received very little attention heading into Sunday night, even though he held the second-biggest chip stack.
But on the very first hand of the night, the 39-year-old Las Vegas resident with just one WSOP cash worth $9,029 to his name overtook Josephy. That set the tone for a night that saw him never fall below second place on the chip count, and ended with Nguyen and his now-signature raccoon hat sitting behind the biggest stack in the room with 128,625,000 chips, more than double Josephy's 63,850,000.
Looking back, it’s difficult to fathom why Nguyen, who listed his profession to ESPN before the Main Event as "baccarat player," wasn’t given more of a chance to do what he did on Sunday night and seriously contend for the game’s most prestigious prize. He was only the third choice on the betting market (+380), behind Josephy (+190) and Gordon Vayo (+375), but quickly showed that his style of play was going to help make him a serious factor.
While that may have come as a surprise to oddsmakers and most observers who seemed to expect the professional gambler to have too much “gamble” in him to survive very long at this talent-rich final table, it was not a shock to his small but spirited section of fans in the upper level of the Penn & Teller Theater, wearing red “Team Nguyen” t-shirts.
“Qui’s a gambler, and gamblers don’t have any fear,” said Nguyen’s friend Vincent Hua, who got to know him while playing baccarat with him on a near-daily basis for the last seven years. “But poker players do. And that’s why Qui’s doing so well. He’s not afraid.”
Another good friend of Nguyen, Kevin Nguyen (no relation), told us that his buddy loved the fact that nobody was giving him a shot to win.
“He said he likes it because there’s no pressure on him,” Kevin said. “He believes in fate. He thinks if it’s meant to happen, it’s going to happen, but he’s out there having fun and he’s playing great.”
Kevin said he was surprised when Nguyen told him that he wouldn’t be playing any poker or getting any coaching during the 103-day break before the final table.
“I was like, ‘Bro, are you kidding me? You’ve got to do something to get ready,’” Kevin said with a hearty laugh. “I was shocked. Those guys he’s playing are true pros. They’ve got a ton of experience. A lot more than Qui. But his exact quote to me was, ‘I got here with my game and because of my instincts and I’m going to live and die with it here.’”
Nguyen was coy when he was asked how he prepared for the final table, saying with a wide smile, "I did some gambling, but not poker. I just don't really want to get into all of that."
But he did admit that the lack of attention he received heading into Sunday night didn't bother him the least bit.
"Hey, I knew coming in that anything could happen at the table," he said. "I got some cards and played well. I hope I can do it again tomorrow night."
As for Josephy, the online legend known as "Johnny Bax" put a positive spin on a night that didn’t pan out like he or his raucous legion of followers expected.
"It was frustrating not having any cards at all," he lamented. "I had queens once when I stole the blinds early. I had ace-queen once and that pot got checked down. I only hit one flop all day, so to have over 60 million in chips is a thrill. I mean, I'm in the hunt and I had a dead day. So it's all good."
While Nguyen's play was the biggest surprise of the night, a close second was Vojtech Ruzicka. The 30-year-old pro from Czech Republic was thought of as a true threat if he managed to accumulate chips, but that wasn’t considered likely because he entered with a chip stack more than 47 million shorter than Josephy’s. And when, as expected, short stack Fernando Pons was the first player eliminated 16 hands into the night, Ruzicka suddenly had the biggest two stacks — Nguyen and Josephy — to his immediate left.
Undaunted, Ruzicka started to get some cards and knew precisely what to do with them. Before long, he seized control of the chip lead for a good portion of the night before finishing the evening just behind Josephy with a stack of 62,250,000 chips.
“Vojtech is playing pretty much perfect right now,” said Griffin Benger after he was eliminated in seventh place. “He’d be my bet to win it all. He’s got the stack and he’s getting cards.”
After he was the second player to exit right, finishing in eighth place, Jerry Wong added, “Vojtech is a boss. He’s always been a boss online and he’s playing like a boss right now. He’s got the chips to put a lot of pressure on the other guys, and I think they are all starting to feel that pressure.”
Checks and raises
Since Pons, a Spaniard, doesn’t speak English, he wasn’t asked to take part in the customary bust out interview with the media after Josephy sent him to the rail about an hour after the cards went in the air Sunday night.
But Wong more than made up for the lack of quotes and material for the folks on press row, as he gave a very gracious and entertaining media session just moments after finishing in eighth place.
Wong, a 34-year-old from Brooklyn who now has 20 WSOP cashes to his name, said that he was rooting for his “buddy” Vayo to win, but added that Nguyen was playing “gangsta” and “pushing people around.”
When he was asked what it’s going to be like to be recognized in public now that he made the WSOP final table, he shrugged it off by saying, “Nah, c’mon dude, nobody’s going to remember the guy who finished eighth at the final table.”
And, finally, when he was asked what he planned to do now that he had been eliminated, Wong jokingly (we think) whispered into the microphone, “I’m going to the Rhino,” referring to the popular Spearmint Rhino gentlemen’s club here in Las Vegas.
While the pockets of fans for each player were loud and boisterous when a hand went their favorite player's way, this was unofficially the most sparsely attended opening night of the November Nine final table we have seen in five years covering the event.
Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people from lining up for a general admission seat many hours before the public was welcome to enter the Penn & Teller Theater. First in line this year was Linda Pepin from Seattle, who specifically made the trip to Vegas to visit her brother the same week of the final table.
“I came last year for the first time and had a blast, so I wanted to be here this year and get the best seat,” said Pepin, who arrived at the Rio at 11 a.m., some five hours before the Penn & Teller Theater doors opened. “I just love the atmosphere. It’s exciting. I’ve been looking forward to this all year.”
Notable poker players and personalities in the crowd included Liv Boeree and her boyfriend Igor Kurganov on the Benger rail, along with Marc-Andre Ladouceur. Sitting with the Josephy section wearing a “Team Bax” t-shirt was 2013 WSOP Main Event champ Ryan Riess, and doing the traditional “Shuffle Up and Deal” honors were 2016 Poker Hall of Fame inductees Todd Brunson and Carlos Mortensen.
Although he didn’t make it to the November Nine, the polarizing presence of William Kassouf was still felt here at the Rio. His epic hand with Benger in the final ESPN episode of the WSOP Main Event was lingering as a hot topic of conversation and was prominently featured on the near-live telecast.
When Benger was asked what he learned from the November Nine experience, he said with a smile, “Be careful what you say on national TV," while adding that since the controversial hand aired on ESPN he's been getting "a lot of hate mail, but that comes with the territory with something that controversial."
Antonio Esfandiari chimed in during ESPN's coverage last night saying, "I miss William Kassouf. Granted he was a little over the top, but I miss him because he was so entertaining to watch."