Former nail salon owner and failed professional baccarat player Qui Nguyen won the World Series of Poker Main Event early Wednesday morning in Las Vegas, claiming the top prize of $8,005,310 and a gold bracelet after a nine-hour heads-up session that was the longest in tournament history.
Wearing a raccoon baseball cap throughout the final table, the 39-year-old Nguyen eliminated San Francisco poker pro Gordon Vayo on the 364th hand of the final table – almost 200 hands with just the two of them at the felt with the first place prize money splayed between them in giant bricks of $100 bills.
The native of Vietnam emerged from a field of 6,737 in the $10,000 No-Limit Hold ‘Em Main Event, the final and most prestigious in a series of 69 World Series of Poker tournaments.
Down to his last opponent – and holding a more than 5-to-1 chip advantage – Nguyen was dealt a king and 10 of clubs.
Vayo got a jack and 10 of spades.
The first three community cards came out, and among them was a king to give Nguyen a pair.
Two blanks followed and Nguyen was the winner – the oldest Main Event champion since 2007, ending a streak of eight straight 20-somethings to claim the title. The two players hugged, confetti fell from the sky, and Nguyen’s supporters bounced over the rail to celebrate with him.
“It’s so exciting,” Nguyen said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Vayo earned $4,661,228.
Earlier in the session that began on Tuesday night, Cliff Josephy was eliminated in third place and collected $3.45 million.
In addition to one of the biggest prizes in poker, Nguyen receives a $50,000 bracelet made from 427 grams of white and yellow gold and more than 2,000 diamonds and rubies totaling more than 44 carats. The centerpiece opens like a locket to house the hole cards from the winning hand.
The last nine players were already paid $1 million – ninth-place money – when the field was winnowed to a final table of nine over 11 days in July. After waiting three months to meet again as the “November Nine” – moved up one week this year to avoid a conflict with the election – they played down to five on Sunday night and down to three on Monday.
Josephy, a 50-year-old former stock broker, was the oldest player at the final table and a two-time bracelet winner. With the money between them, Vayo and Nguyen said little to each other over almost nine hours, though with each all in from Vayo they stood together at the rail, away from the table, to watch the cards come out.
Vayo’s chip stack rose and fell, but Nguyen used his larger stake to put pressure on his opponent and frequently forced him to fold better hands. With some luck and good timing, Vayo was able to prolong play but he spent most of the time on the verge of elimination.
Still, he matched his best-ever finish at the World Series of Poker and earned three times as much as his total previous tournament earnings.
Vayo, 27, was the youngest player among the final nine.
Josephy arrived at the final table on Sunday night as the chip leader. He started Tuesday night far behind, in third place, but doubled his stack to more than 101 million chips on the first hand.
Soon, he was down to about 10 million. Despite petting his dog at the rail for good luck, he was eliminated when he went all-in with a queen and a three; Vayo had a king that paired when the first three community cards were dealt.
Heads-up play went back and forth until Hand 207, when Nguyen won a 30 million chip pot and the lead. Two hands later, with 83 million already in the pot, Nguyen moved all-in with a flush; Vayo took seven minutes to think about it before folding his two pair.
Nguyen methodically used the pressure of a bigger chip count to cut away at Vayo’s stack before he was forced to go all in four times in nine hands. On Hand 298, Nguyen called the raise of 52 million chips, putting Vayo at risk, but he took the pot when back-to-back spades gave him a flush.
Two hands later, he won a 66 million chip pot with a full house to increase his stack to 143 million – only 49 million behind Nguyen.
But again his pot was eaten away by the blinds, the mandatory bets that force players to enter pots or risk watching their money slowly disappear.