Nov 11, 2016
Gordon Vayo: From Broke to $4.7m WSOP Runner-up
By RTR Dennis
When the 2016 WSOP Main Event concluded, champion Qui Nguyen drew most of the attention. After all, the Vietnamese immigrant and former nail salon worker won $8 million and has a very interesting backstory.
But lost in all of this was the impressive rags-to-riches tale of his heads-up opponent, Gordon Vayo. Finishing second place and earning $ 4,661,228, Vayo won’t be remembered as the champ here. But the 27-year-old has a unique story worth telling, which we’ll discuss below.
Expelled from High School
At first glance, nothing stands out about Vayo’s rise to becoming a poker pro. He grew up in Bloomington, Illinois and, like many future pros, began watching the WSOP in his early teens.
But where Vayo’s story becomes unique is in high school, where he regularly skipped class to play hours of online poker.
Vayo isn’t exactly the role model that most teens should emulate. But skipping class worked for him as he made enough money to buy a BMW and rent an apartment where he threw parties.
The good times came to an end, though, when his school’s principal expelled him for skipping too much class. Vayo was devastated, but leaned on his poker skills and drove straight to Las Vegas, where he took a plane to Europe.
Vayo Went from Boom to Bust
Given that Vayo was only 18 and couldn’t legally play poker in Las Vegas casinos, he sought big games in Europe.
One big change that Vayo quickly realized while playing in Barcelona is the importance of one’s table image. He was used to online poker, where pros often multi-table and make money without crafting an image. The big games in Europe were different, though, since less hands are played, and players have more time to analyze each other.
“Online is a very technical game. It’s all game-theory-oriented,” he told TIME Magazine. “Live, you have to deal with the human element. It’s very reactive.
“Prestige comes from doing well in live circuits. I had no concept of the value of money.”
This point was driven home when Vayo began playing European cash games with a friend. They played amazing for a while, earning almost $700,000 together in a few days. This led to lavish trips around Europe, where Vayo and his mate ordered caviar, room service, and rented a villa in Corfu, Greece.
But the good times came crashing down when they lost nearly $1 million in six weeks.
In debt and without a high school diploma, Vayo headed back to his family’s home in Illinois. He spent the next six months multi-tabling low-stakes online games while re-building his bankroll and paying off debts.
Things were going well for him again, and he was on pace to make $250,000 in annual online profits. But in April 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice cracked down on the world’s largest online poker sites (a.k.a. Black Friday). According to TIME, this made it tough for Vayo to even earn $60,000 a year.
“Poker has a way of checking your ego like nothing else,” he said.
Vayo moved to San Francisco and dedicated more of his time to the live circuit since the internet scene wasn’t as lucrative.
A Career-Changing Finish
Vayo only had a handful of cashes prior to Black Friday. But this quickly changed in the 2012 WOP, when he cashed five times, including a $121262 payout for finishing fourth in a $3k Omaha event.
Vayo would hit another big score at the 2014 WSOP, when he finished second in a $3k Six-Handed NLHE event and collected $314,535.
Despite the success, Vayo insists that nothing about poker is as glamorous as movies like Casino Royale make it out to be. “The majority of your life is spent in dark rooms,” he said.
Life may not be so glamorous for most poker pros, but it was hard telling as Vayo sat across from Nguyen with TV cameras rolling in the WSOP Main Event. The two battled for nearly seven hours as Vayo tried cutting into Nguyen’s chip advantage.
He ultimately fell short, but the $4.7 million consolation prize feels like victory for a guy who, just several years ago, was broke and trying to find his way.