Gordon Vayo rode incredible run from short stack to the November Nine

Gordon Vayo rode an improbably run of cards that took him from being one of the shortest stacks with two tables left to the third-largest stack at the 2016 World Series of Poker main event final table. WSOP / Jayne Furman

No-limit hold ’em has been described by Tom McEvoy, the 1983 World Series of Poker main event champion, as “hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.” Players often fold hand after hand, waiting for that one critical moment to pick up a massive pot.

Players rarely get to enjoy the experience an incredible rush of cards, and if they do, it’s far rarer still for it to happen at the perfect moment during a tournament.

Twenty-seven-year-old Gordon Vayo experienced the rarest experience of them all in a situation most couldn't even dream about on Day 7 of the 2016 WSOP main event, as he hit an extraordinary one-hour rush of cards at the absolute perfect time.

Vayo started Day 7 in 17th place out of 27 remaining players, and the San Francisco native rode a short stack for the first several hours of play on that deciding day. Entering dinner break, Vayo was still sitting in 17th, but that was a much larger problem with only 18 players left; his stack had dwindled to 6.475 million chips, which was only 16 big blinds at the time.

Immediately after returning from dinner break, the colossal avalanche of cards began; within 18 hands over the course of about an hour, Vayo did the unthinkable.

  • Raced for his tournament life: In the fourth hand after dinner break, Vayo’s 10s-10d survived Jerry Wong’s As-Qc (Vayo doubled to 13.6 million)

  • Pocket rockets take off: Two hands later, Andrew Christoforou (18th place) shoved Ah-9h into Vayo’s Ad-Ac (Vayo climbed 22.55 million)

  • Diamonds crack aces: Three hands later, Vayo’s Ac-Jd bested William Kassouf’s As-Ah with a turned flush on what would eventually be an ace-high, five diamond board (Vayo got up to 28.675 million)

  • Big blind special: Seven hands later, Vayo flopped the nut straight with 8s-6s vs. Wong, who rivers lower straight (Vayo climbs further to 36.525 million)

  • "Big Slick" eliminates Niwinski: Two hands later, short stack Michael Niwinski (15th place) four-bet shoved Ac-Jc into Vayo’s Ah-Kc and the board was a clean runout for Vayo (whose stack grew to 44.7 million)

  • Aces make a chip leader: Three hands later, Vayo’s As-3c outlasted Cliff Josephy on an ace-high flop. This caps a run during which Vayo went from 17th to the top overall stack with 47 million

“It was just totally surreal,” Vayo said. “In the most crucial level of the tournament right after dinner, I ran the hottest I have ever run in my life in one level in any tournament ever. Incredibly, I was 17 of 18 and then suddenly 1 of 14. I felt that this was just not real.”

Two hours later, Vayo’s Ac-Kh eliminated John Cynn and his Qh-10c in 11th place to keep Vayo’s momentum rolling. Ninety minutes later, Vayo and Michael Ruane called Josh Weiss’s 1.5 big blind all-in from the blinds. After the dealer revealed all five-community cards, Ruane’s two pair officially eliminated Weiss, locking in the roster for the 2016 November Nine. Vayo enters the 2016 WSOP main event final table in third chip position with 49.375 million, behind Josephy (74.6 million) and Qui Nguyen (67.925 million).

“I am extremely thrilled. It has always been a pipe dream to make the November Nine, more so than a goal,” Vayo said. “As a professional poker player, to set your goal upon reaching the November Nine is so infeasible it would be a disservice to yourself because it’s a not direct representation of your skill. Nevertheless, I am still a little in shock to be one of the final nine players.”

Incredibly, Vayo’s best luck wasn’t constrained to that incredible run on Day 7, as a Day 6 hand that could have been his demise changed his fate on the turn of a single card. Vayo cracked Jonas Lauck’s As-Ad with his As-Kc with only 38 players remaining; after a Qs-10d-3d flop, the dealer turned the Jh and a 9s followed on the river to lock up the double.

“So many times, you see this type of unreal hand happen to everyone else,” Vayo said. “Well this time, it happened to me, and when it did, I didn’t know how to react. I had already resigned myself that my tournament run was over. Then all of a sudden it happened. I just remember having a physical reaction, a jolt to my body. Making the November Nine pales in comparison to the emotion I felt after this hand. I was on positive tilt and felt that I was on a complete freeroll.”

After the WSOP main event, Vayo just returned home to San Francisco to rest after an exhausting week of nonstop poker playing.

“It was such a mental marathon that you were just exhausted,” Vayo admitted. “Even making the November Nine didn’t even kick in to me for like a week. I just needed to sleep, and eat, and drink and time to recover.”

Vayo’s run-good did not wear off after making the 2016 November Nine. Less than two months later, on Sept. 5, the 27 year-old captured one of the biggest tournament titles of the second half of the year -- the 2016 WinStar River Poker Series main event. Outlasting a field of 1,054 entries, Vayo earned the victory and took home $587,120 after a five-way deal.

“Just incredible,” Vayo said. “I guess the November Nine run good persists!”

Vayo started playing poker over a decade ago, another product of the Moneymaker Effect. Many of his friends began watching poker on TV and became swept up in the initial poker boom. Eventually, this led to Vayo playing poker online.

“A lot of my friends became interested in poker, and we just started playing home games in friends’ basements,” Vayo remembered. “We watched the poker shows on television religiously. Then, a buddy of mine, who was a little more serious in poker, introduced me to online poker. At first, I was hesitant because I thought that online poker was just rigged. But watching him play and his success led me to try playing online.”

In 2005, Vayo gave his buddy $50 to $100 so he’d transfer Vayo that money to his online poker account. He ran his bankroll up to $200 to $300 several times, but inevitably, he’d go broke. He finally put it together and ran it up to a few thousand dollars on one such run, and after that, he’d never looked back. Initially, he played cash and sit n gos, but a year or so later, he discovered multitable tournaments.

“I was so naïve that I literally didn’t know that MTTs existed on online poker,” Vayo said.

In the fall of 2006, going into his senior year in high school, Vayo committed himself to playing MTTs online. As he progressed, he became more and more successful; he’d ultimately have a six-figure year, which led to him focusing more and more on poker.

“I was playing quite a bit, and I was making a good amount of money at the time,” Vayo said. “I had rented out a two-bedroom apartment on my own to play poker and have weekend parties and even bought a car.”

Due to his high school’s open campus policy, Vayo and his friends would go to his apartment for lunch and play online poker. While his friends would return for class after their lunch break, Vayo would typically stay in his apartment and play afternoon online tournaments, often not returning to school that day.

“I actually catered my entire senior year schedule around being able to play poker late at night,” Vayo said. “I start a little later in the day around 10 a.m. And of course, I would leave early.”

However, in April 2007, this dedication turned disastrous when he was expelled from high school, just six weeks before graduation. It was one of the most shocking moments in my life.

“One day, I showed up late for the umpteenth time. Then, I was called into the principal’s office and was just expelled. It was really weird. It was almost nonchalant,” Vayo said. “I was so in shock at what had just happened. It was totally surreal. I didn’t see it coming. I had never been suspended. I knew I wasn’t going to go immediately to college as I wanted to travel the EPT circuit, but I also wasn’t looking to get expelled from high school.”

His parents, who were both educators, were not pleased when he was expelled. However, as Vayo continued to have financial success with online poker, his parents were resigned to his poker career, realizing that it was a skill set and not just a degenerate habit.

After recovering from the initial shock of his expulsion, Vayo committed himself to poker. Feeling that this decision was unfair and harsh, Vayo has used this moment as his motivation to become the best poker player he can be.

“I have always had a chip on my shoulder ever since I was expelled, because I felt I was so young and the school administration could have handled the situation better.”

Shortly thereafter, Vayo turned 18 and he began to travel to Europe to play EPT events, while continuing to rely on online poker as his primary source of income, playing both cash and tournaments. Over the next several years, Vayo continued to make a solid living playing online poker and traveling all over the world.

Black Friday changed his world on April 15, 2011, along with millions of other U.S.-based online poker players. In addition to having his main source of income shut down by the U.S. government, he had received a nice score just before Black Friday, which boosted his account to over six figures on Full Tilt.

“It was pretty devastating from a financial perspective,” Vayo recalled, “And also with respect to my future, and how it would affect my life as the majority of my poker playing was online.”

After Black Friday, like so many other online pros, Vayo decided to transition to live poker -- but it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions, to say the least.

“Having recently turned 21, I decided to play more live poker after Black Friday, which allowed me to play a little bit more live than I would have [before that point],” Vayo said. “But the transition from online to live was much more difficult than I had expected. It took me longer than average to transition from online to live. In my first year at the WSOP, I had only one cash in 21 events. It was pretty brutal. Nevertheless, it was not devastating from a career perspective, and I knew that I had a lot to learn.”

Since that difficult 2011 WSOP, Vayo has diligently worked on his game and has become a prolific casher at the WSOP. His 26 career cashes include two final tables; he finished fourth in a 2012 $1,500 6-max no-limit hold ’em event, and he was the runner-up in a 2014 $3,000 6-max no-limit hold ’em event. With his success occurring in even years, his personal expectation was set prior to his arrival this summer.

“Most of the WSOPs (2012 and 2014) that I had done well in, I had success at the beginning of the summer during even years,” Vayo said. “So I thought, being another even year, I might have another great start. But when I didn’t have much luck at the beginning of the summer, I kept telling myself that this is the year where I can hopefully do well at the end of the summer. And, of course, it all came together in the main event.”

In addition to playing live tournaments, Vayo currently plays poker almost every day, mostly playing live PLO. He primarily plays locally in the Northern California area, and travels to Canada to play in the bigger online poker series throughout the year. Prior to the November Nine, Vayo decided to focus his efforts solely on live no-limit hold ’em.

“I purposely haven’t play any PLO, as I’ll have plenty of time to play PLO after Nov. 1,” Vayo said. “I played as many live no-limit (hold ’em) tournaments as possible without getting burnt out. I needed to stay in top focus and no-limit (hold ’em) tournament form. During this last month, I haven’t played as much, focused on studying for the final table.”

In preparing for the WSOP main event final table, Vayo hired a coach who was actually along for much of the ride back in July; well-respected poker pro Tom Marchese, who finished 14th, will be along for the rest of the ride with Vayo.

“I’ve always respected Tom’s game a lot,” Vayo said. “I’ve always liked his table presence, being laid back and even-keeled. I felt he would be a great teacher and able to fine-tune my game. Also, I thought that our personalities would gel well together. It has been really great.”

As he prepares to head back to Las Vegas for the 2016 November Nine, the San Francisco native feels he is fully prepared to face the other eight competitors. With his family and friends coming to support him, Vayo is confident in his ability and will not worry about the result.

“Whatever happens now is just gravy,” Vayo said. “I am so fortunate to be here no matter what happens. My approach will be the same as it was back in July. Never get too high or too low, to be calm and take things one hand at a time.”

Entering the 2016 November Nine, Vayo will be able to draw upon the kind of previous WSOP final-table experiences that only Josephy and Kenny Hallaert share, as he tries to navigate the most important final table of his career.

“It is not that the other players will not have the experience, but as for myself, the prior WSOP final tables cashes will be hugely beneficial,” Vayo said. “Every final table has allowed me to become more and more comfortable in the moment. Previously, I had felt that the moment distracted me from trusting the process. I won’t let that happen on October 30. I’m definitely going to make sure that I will be ready.”