WSOP Main Event heads-up match delivers giant contrast in styles and plenty of fireworks
2 Nov 2016
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
The mano a mano portion of the 47th edition of poker's most prestigious event will long be remembered for a number of reasons, most notably for the length of time it took to complete; an array of inconceivable hands; and that it pitted against each other two men of completely different looks, personalities and styles.
Once Cliff Josephy was eliminated in third place less than 90 minutes after three-handed play began inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino Tuesday afternoon, WSOP officials wheeled out and dumped a pile of cash on the table, with the gaudy 2016 Main Event bracelet sitting on top. Nguyen and Vayo then proceeded to sit there until 3:19 a.m., when the 39-year-old Las Vegas resident at long last put away his opponent to collect the $8 million first-place prize.
The heads-up match featured the jovial and flashy Nguyen, with his neck tattoo and a reputation more for his exploits at the baccarat table than poker. With just one previous WSOP cash to his name, he donned designer shades, red pants and a blue jacket with a diamond-encrusted dragon on the back -- and his now-infamous orange and black raccoon hat.
Standing in his way was Vayo, wearing a neat collared sweater and tan pants, looking the part of his millennial generation to perfection. Despite being the youngest November Niner at 27 years old, Vayo has been playing professionally for 10 years and had the most previous cashes of any player at the final table, with 27, and nearly $600,000 more in career WSOP earnings than Nguyen.
Vayo held a 64 million chip lead entering heads-up on the 196th hand of the final table, and you had the feeling that his pedigree and level-headed style of play would ultimately consume Nguyen's ultra aggressiveness and lack of experience in this spot.
Eight hands into heads-up play, Nguyen had bewildered Vayo and bluffed his way to the chip lead. The lead bounced back and forth like an NBA game for a few hands before Nguyen became the big stack on the 207th hand and then never relinquished it.
On the 364th hand of the final table, nearly 10 hours and after cards went in the air on Tuesday afternoon, Nguyen's king-10 suited survived Vayo's jack-10 suited, setting off a wild celebration inside the Penn & Teller Theater.
Nguyen, who became the oldest player to win the WSOP Main Event since 40-year-old Jerry Yang took home the bracelet in 2007, wasn't considered a serious threat to prevail entering the final table, even though he had the second-biggest stack. But he quickly won over the live crowd and his fellow November Niners with his unpredictable and aggressive approach to the game.
"It's hard to pinpoint his strategy because he just kind of plays every hand unique," said the ever-gracious Vayo moments after the final hand. "I don't think he has necessarily a set strategy, and I'm not saying that's a negative. I just think most people are not able to adapt to every hand and make so many correct assumptions and correct plays over and over again, and he was able to do that. So, it was very difficult to figure out where he was coming from."
"He's unreal," added Josephy. "He's tough to play against. He's not as easy as everyone thought he was going to be. I never thought he was going to be easy. Everybody was saying, 'Oh, you got this guy.' And they were all proven wrong."
Nguyen was swarmed by his adoring fans on stage for the bracelet ceremony and then spoke to the media about what winning the Main Event meant to him.
"I haven't really thought about the money yet, because I was never really sure how far I would go," he said with a huge laugh. "But I know I don't have to play baccarat anymore. I'm going to be playing a lot more poker, that's for sure."
Looking back at our Top 10 numbers you need to know about the 2016 WSOP Final Table, we have these facts, figures and trends from the November Nine Era to report:
- Josephy became the seventh chip leader in the nine years of the November Nine format to fail to win the bracelet. The only big stacks entering the final table to prevail have been Joe McKeehen (2015) and Jonathan Duhamel (2010).
- Nuguyen became the first player from the second chip position to win the Main Event and only the third to even make it into heads-up play.
- This marked the eighth time in nine years that the winner did not have a WSOP bracelet to his name before taking down the Main Event, and the sixth time the winner had two or fewer previous WSOP cashes.
- Nguyen joins Riess (2013) and Pius Heinz (2011) as the only players to win the Main Event after trailing when heads-up play began.
Joining the Josephy rail on Tuesday night was PokerStars.com pro Jason Somerville. The founder of the wildly popular "Run It UP" video/live stream series on Twitch arrived in Las Vegas early Tuesday morning after hosting a "Run It UP Reno" event at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino.
"I wasn't going to miss seeing one of my best friends with a chance to win the world championship," he said, referring to Josephy.
The 29-year-old Somerville said he's known Josephy, a fellow Long Island native, for 10 years, and he's had a huge impact on his career.
"He was the first person in my life who I saw as an adult with a wonderful life and a balanced life between poker and family," Somerville said. "He had it all. And as a young player trying to make a go at it in poker I looked at Cliff and said, 'I want to be like him someday.'"
Somerville said he was "heartbroken" that Josephy couldn't pull off winning the Main Event bracelet, but is hoping his friend uses the attention he's received for making the November Nine by becoming even more of an ambassador of the game.
"Cliff has been absolutely crucial for the development of online poker and he's given a start to so many players in my generation, including Gordon Vayo," he said. "It's amazing to think that Gordon wouldn't be here without Cliff. And there's so many people that can say the same thing. Cliff has been behind the scenes for so long, so it's nice to see him get in the spotlight a little bit. We need more people like him in the game."
Also on Josephy's rail was his new friend Monty, a three-year-old French bulldog whom Josephy went over to and patted a couple of times when his tournament life was at stake, including the hand that eliminated him.
The dog's owner is Jay Farber, a Las Vegas resident and 2013 November Niner who finished second to Ryan Riess, who was also in Josephy's cheering section all weekend. Farber is good friends with Chance Kornuth, one of Josephy's coaches for the final table, and they asked if they could use Farber's house to run simulations.
"Cliff was over the house quite a bit and, naturally, he and Monty really bonded," Farber explained. "Cliff told me, 'You've gotta bring him to the final table.' So, here we are."
Until the last few months, Farber had never met Josephy in person, but came away very impressed with him as both a player and a person.
"I had always heard Cliff was a great guy," he said. "He definitely exceeds that reputation. He's one of the nice guys in the game. It was a pleasure to get to know him and to be able to help him prepare for this."
The moment that delivered the biggest blow to Josephy's chances on Tuesday night came on the sixth hand. With a stack just under 85 million and holding a pair of deuces, Josephy painstakingly called Vayo's all-in bet for 75.1 million after a K-3-2 flop. Vayo flipped over pocket threes, meaning Josephy's only out was a two on the river, but his prayers were not answered. He was suddenly down to eight big blinds as Vayo took over the chip lead from Nguyen.
Josephy, who was eliminated 11 hands later, said he was "very close" to folding in that spot.
"If he had played a small pair out of the small blind yesterday, I would have easily folded it due to his image and his reputation and my perception of him," Josephy explained, referring to a hand from Monday night's action. "But he folded a small pair on the cutoff yesterday, so it was easy to remove small pairs from his range. And then the way he played the hand he had to have a set of threes. But I didn't have him on threes, so it's so hard to fold, really hard. I couldn't fold it."
On the ESPN coverage, Antonio Esfandiari said it was a hand Josephy, "couldn't get away from," but Phil Hellmuth called it a "clear fold," adding that Josephy's team told him earlier in the day that the plan was to "fold hands to Vayo."
Somerville was more on Esfandiari's side of things when we asked him about the hand.
"It's so tough," he said. "I mean, it's three-handed. King-3-deuce; that's the safest flop you could ask for with deuces. It's really tough. Can you lay it down? I'm sure Cliff will be asking himself that question for the rest of his life."