Timing is everything, especially in poker, and you couldn’t do much better timing-wise than Qui Nguyen did Sunday night at the 2016 World Series of Poker main event final table.
Nguyen dominated much of the early action and owns a sizable chip lead with just five players left in the hunt for $8 million and poker’s most coveted title.
It started as early as it possibly could have, as Nguyen four-bet Cliff Josephy on the very first hand with just A-4, setting a certain tone for the rest of the night. He led for the majority of the Day 1 action, though there was a stretch where he traded the top spot with Josephy and another when Vojtech Ruzicka went on a massive run. In two big hands late in the evening, however, Nguyen gave himself the inside track to the title.
When it comes to getting pocket aces, as Nguyen did on the final hand of the night Sunday, he really couldn’t have timed it much better. With blinds having just increased to 500,000/1,000,000, Kenny Hallaert raised in early position and Nguyen three-bet to 5.7 million in chips. Hallaert moved all-in and Nguyen instantly called and showed his As-Ad. With 73.65 million in the pot, Hallaert needed a miracle with As-Qc to keep his tournament run alive, and while he did get one queen on the flop, it was simply not to be.
Nguyen had kind words for Hallaert shortly after dispatching the Belgian pro.
“He’s a really good player,” Nguyen said. “But the way I was using aggression, he didn’t believe me, because I always play my position [at the table]."
For his part, Hallaert didn’t regret the move that ultimately led to his main event demise.
“I’m happy about my play in this tournament and at the final table,” Hallaert said. “When you start the final table in fourth, you hope to at least finish fourth, and I wouldn’t say it’s a huge disappointment, but I had hoped for a little bit more.”
As far out ahead as Nguyen is going into Monday’s action, the knockouts early on at this final table were an equal-opportunity and stunningly efficient affair. Four of the five remaining players have an elimination under their belts (with Michael Ruane the lone exception), and only once was a short stack able to get all-in and secure a double up rather than an elimination.
Fernando Pons was the short stack coming into this final table, and while he was able to get a few shoves through, he was the first player to get called all-in at this final table. Josephy's Kh-Jc was slightly behind to Pons' Ad-6c, but kings on the flop and river locked in Pons’ fate as the ninth-place finisher.
Jerry Wong might have come in as the second-shortest stack by a fair stretch, but he made the most strides among the short stacks to improve upon his lot in this tournament. He doubled through Hallaert with ace-high holding against king-high, but just as he climbed past a tumbling Griffin Benger in the chip counts and looked to be on his way up, Wong got caught in a bad spot as he essentially shoved all-in over a raise and a three-bet with pocket jacks, only for Ruzicka to show up with pocket queens to send Wong out with an eighth place finish.
As they battled to not be the next one out, Benger and Wong made their own fates all the more likely.
“Me and Griffin were both kind of competing,” said Wong, “because we were both in last place and tried to proceed cautiously and not bust.”
This pot was the highlight of a tremendous surge from Ruzicka, who for a good chunk of the day’s play had made the biggest move of anyone at the table. In fact, during a particular stretch, Ruzicka won 10 out of 32 hands. His star started to fade somewhat as he started butting heads with Gordon Vayo over some big pots.
Vayo, the youngest player at this final table at age 27, bided his time early and watched his stack decrease before turning it all around. The comeback was kick-started at the expense of Benger, who had about as miserable a time as far as cards go as he possibly could have imagined at this final table. It took until Hand 59 of the day for Benger to drag a single chip, and even then it took an all-in with no calls to make it happen.
Benger’s second shove wasn’t quite so lucky, as his As-9s was behind Vayo’s pocket tens. A nine-high flop increased Benger’s outs to six total cards, but with no help on the turn and river, the third-shortest stack to start the day made it three straight players going out in that same order.
For as tough a day as he had to sit through, Benger approached the podium for his post-bustout interview with a smile on his face and added a lot of levity (along with a hint of sarcasm) to his responses.
“I practiced a lot of folding,” Benger joked. “I don’t know if you noticed a lot of techniques I used.”
Still, there was little denying a sense of frustration underlying his final table experience.
“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play, which was disappointing,” Benger said. “I wanted to give my friends and family something to cheer about, but unfortunately the cards weren’t going in my favor today.”
For Vayo, this pot was quickly followed by the first of several confrontations with Ruzicka -- the biggest in that sequence, in fact. With both players holding ace-ten suited (Ruzicka in clubs, Vayo in spades), Vayo turned an ace-high flush and grabbed a big pot when Ruzicka bluffed into him twice.
In Vayo’s mind, the clashes with Ruzicka are likely to have just begun.
“[Now that] we’re down to where we are now, I think that Vojtech and I will be two of the more active players at the table,” Vayo said. “I think it’s just kind of inevitable that we’re going to play some big pots. I think he’s a phenomenal player, so it’s definitely not like I’m going out of my way, but we’re five-handed and everyone who’s left is great.”
Before winning the biggest pot of the night, Nguyen had set the previous benchmark as well when Ruane mistakenly thought Nguyen was on a bluff on an ace-high board. Ruane called a big flop bet with his gutshot straight draw, only to have to fold as Nguyen bet his Ad-Kd again on the turn. That pot sent Ruane tumbling to the bottom of the chip counts, and he’ll start Day 2 of the final table with 20 big blinds. Each player among the five remaining had his peaks and valleys, but the late-day action dramatically changed how Monday and Tuesday could play out.
For Josephy, who started the day’s action as the chip leader, there’s hope that riding out a bad run of cards mostly unscathed will lead to some big opportunities with just five players remaining in the main event.
“It was obviously incredibly frustrating, but I didn’t let it get to me,” Josephy said. “I managed to take a few pots that I didn’t deserve, sort of like they took some pots that they didn’t deserve. We’ve all had our good days -- some had them early in the tournament, some on Day 5 and 6, I had a monster Day 7. These kinds of days happen -- it didn’t bother me at all, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
The final five will be back at it at 4:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, with the broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. on ESPN2 and WatchESPN. When the dust settles, only three of those five players will have advanced to Tuesday with their hopes of a world title intact.
Chip counts and results
1. Qui Nguyen - 128.62 million in chips
2. Cliff Josephy - 63.85 million
3. Vojtech Ruzicka - 62.25 million
4. Gordon Vayo - 58.2 million
5. Michael Ruane - 23.7 million
Kenny Hallaert - $1,464,258 (Out in 6th place)
Griffin Benger - $1,250,190 (Out in 7th place)
Jerry Wong - $1,100,076 (Out in 8th place)
Fernando Pons - $1,000,000 (Out in 9th place)