- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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The whole "anyone can win" thing in poker isn't really true. If you've played poker only a handful of times and don't usually get the jokes your friends tell while you're looking at your hands, the likelihood is that no matter how good the cards are, you're just not going to make the deep run at the World Series of Poker. Still, even if you are deprived of experience and possess only some solid brain matter, you really do have a shot. That's what we love about the game.
1979 WSOP champion Hal Fowler was calling off a third of his stack, drawing only to a gutshot (allegedly while slightly inebriated), in a time before most players had read "Super System," but wasn't a dumb man. Chris Moneymaker only managed to win after hoping to lose an online satellite. Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang may not have been the most personable guys in the world, but both had heads on their shoulders. Experience is helpful, but in the main event, it hasn't been the divider between men and boys it's made out to be.
When you turn on your television and click over to ESPN for this Tuesday's broadcast of the World Series of Poker, you're going to see the next inexperienced, every-man success story in the world's biggest tournament when you lay your eyes on Soi Nguyen. Midway through Day 7, his name sat at the top of the leaderboard in this, the fourth live tournament he'd ever entered.
Nguyen's tournament experience doesn't reflect on his overall gambling history. Nguyen's family was among the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to make their way to California in 1975 when he was 2 years old. With an extended family including 12 aunts and uncles on one side making the trip together, he found himself engulfed in Vietnamese culture despite his California surroundings.
"Growing up as a Vietnamese kid, it's in our blood to gamble," Nguyen said. "Our biggest holiday is New Year's and we celebrate for three days. The kids are given red envelopes that they go to aunts and uncles with and they put money in. I'd get the money in the envelope and be playing blackjack or poker within minutes, playing for three days in a row. I've been gambling since I could remember."
With the bug in his system, some advancement was inevitable. He graduated to poker in his teen years. "I started playing poker when I was 14-15 with friends. We'd just get together and start playing. We bought a book to learn the rules so no one could cheat one another since none of us knew the game. Nam [Le] was one of those guys I was close with and we played together."
In Le, one of the stars of the live tournament circuit for half a decade, Nguyen saw evidence of what could be with poker.
"I was playing $1-$2, but never really tournaments," Nguyen remembered. "Then, five to six years ago, Nam just exploded. He was just on fire. Any tournament he played, he cashed and made deep runs. I figured if he can do it, why can't I? But I was busy with work and never took poker that seriously. I had a son to take care of; still do. That makes you put your priorities straight, so I focused my attention on my career."
That career is with Team McKenna. "We sell durable medical equipment," he said. "I manage the intake authorizations and billing department. You could say I'm in operations and finances."
Sometimes, in poker, you find experience in the strangest of places. Nguyen credits his run with the decision-making process he goes through every day. "I'm mathematically minded," he said. "I'm playing poker in my work, only with less gamble. A lot of decisions I made during the tournament were due to real life experience. I don't have a lot of poker experience, but my job forces me to figure out the best way to be more efficient, more effective, to streamline profits. I have to read my staff for their strengths and weaknesses. That's how I formed the ability to gather information and make an assessment at the table."
Despite the fact the 2010 WSOP took him away from the job, there were no hard feelings at work. "My boss is super excited for me," said Nguyen. "He actually came out on Day 5 and railed the tournament. Another guy I've worked with for 10 years has been my No. 1 fan throughout."
Nguyen smiled, adding, "Everyone was just super excited for me to be out of the office for a couple of days."
Nguyen's loyalty shines through when he speaks about Team McKenna and Le. Of McKenna, he says he'll always be a part of the company regardless of where his poker journey ends. Of Le, he talks like they're brothers.
"I could easily call him brother," Nguyen said of Le. "There's no way I'd have made it this far without his and [Nam's younger brother] Tommy's support and guidance. There were a couple of times where I took horrible beats or played badly and almost gave up, but on a break, they'd come out with me while I had a smoke and build me back up. They'd tell me to brush it off, keep playing my game. They said, 'Look, no one expected us to bust, you've got a real opportunity here and you never know how it's going to work out. Take advantage of it.' It really helped to have someone talking in my ear that way.
"Nam really helped me understand how big this is. He made me understand I was fulfilling a dream for so many people by going this deep. He was just great about everything. At dinner one night, he told me I'd give up most of my accomplishments in poker to be in the position I'm in, for the chance to make the November Nine. That's when it really hit me, because he's done so much."
For the last guy who would tell you he'd have been the chip leader on Day 7 of the WSOP main event, the two-week journey to that point was a haze.
"If I had one word, it would be 'surreal,'" he said. "I went in for the experience of playing so I could look back and tell a grandkid when we saw it on TV, 'Yeah, I played in the WSOP once.' Everyone says that, but I really mean it. My dream was to cash. I was ecstatic to make the money. I sat down every day and played hand-by-hand, level-by-level. The most important thing to me was chipping up every day. My day-to-day goal was to be the chip leader at my table at end of night and for the most part I did that. After I became chip leader, the November Nine was the only thing on my mind."
Tune in Tuesday night to see Nguyen try to reach that goal. You just may be watching the next amateur champion.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @GaryWise1.
Soi Nguyen may not have as much experience as the rest of his competitors, but he's held his own and thrived in the 2010 WSOP main event.