Qui Nguyen embraces November Nine as opportunity to improve his life

Qui Nguyen goes into the 2016 World Series of Poker main event with the second-most chips among the November Nine. Drew Amato/WSOP

Age: 39

Chips at the WSOP main event final table: 67.925 million (2/9)

WSOP Cashes: 1

WSOP Bracelets: 0

WSOP Earnings: $9,029

Total career tournament earnings: $52,986

Total career tournament cashes: 28

All stats exclude the 2016 WSOP main event

Sometimes the journey to the World Series of Poker main event final table is a long and winding trial, and in the case of Qui Nguyen, that path snakes back well before he was even born.

In 1972, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close for the United States. Many American soldiers were ending their tours of duty, and returned home to find a divided nation. Others, however, arrived back in the States full of joy with brides they met during the conflict.

One such bride was Huong Nguyen. She brought her nephew, 7-year-old Duc Nguyen, and his 2-year-old sister over with her, hoping for a brighter future in the United States. To escape the atrocities of the war, Duc left behind his family, including his parents. That young man eventually man grew up to become a U.S. citizen and served his new country proudly for 23 years in the Marines. Retiring in August 2015 with the rank of major, Duc earned multiple Purple Hearts for breaking both ankles and also his shoulder during his tours of duty in Iraq (2003 and 2005) and Afghanistan (2006).

Because his aunt brought him over to the U.S., Nguyen felt a sense of duty to his family back in Vietnam. Duc would continually send money back to his family and eventually sponsor his younger brother to come over to the United States as well.

In late summer of 2001, Qui Nguyen, who was 24 years old at the time, arrived in California, settling in Orange County for the next several years. To make ends meet upon his arrival, he worked as a nail technician in a neighborhood nail salon. As numerous Vietnamese immigrants frequented the establishment, Qui was able to ease into his transition to the United States with some familiarity, but this was far from his dream occupation.

“It was just a job,” Qui said. “I didn’t like it a lot, but I needed money.”

In 2003, Nguyen was introduced to the world of poker by his friends and immediately grew fond of the game. He would play in home games, limit hold ‘em, where the buy-in was a modest $100 with $1/$2 limits. Due to his aggressive style and gambling nature, Nguyen was quickly given the nickname “Tommy Gun” by his fellow competitors.

“I [liked] poker and we [played] for money, but small amounts,” Qui said. “I [learned] the basics of poker in this home game and I like to play aggressive.”

Qui began to love the game and started to crave daily action. He’d soon discover online poker, and he started playing every day -- learning more and more facets of the game by the day. Ever the gambler, Qui decided to increase his limits rapidly.

“Because they don’t have home games every day, I [started] to play online poker,” Qui said. “I love to gamble, so I played higher limits and started playing $30/$60 limit hold ‘em.”

In 2005, a buddy took Qui to Las Vegas for the first time. Upon flying into Sin City, the sights and sounds made a lasting impression on the young gambler.

“Oh my god! I never saw a city like Las Vegas,” Qui recalled. "You can see lights from anywhere. I fell in love with this crazy city.”

At that time, The Bellagio was the center of Las Vegas poker scene and Qui went straight to the source. After several visits, Nguyen decided to move to Las Vegas permanently in 2007. Upon his arrival he began playing full-time at the Bellagio, electing to dive head-first into no-limit hold’em with little training. Qui quickly picked up no-limit hold ‘em, but the learning was definitely trial by fire. Although he played cash for a living, he also enjoyed playing in tournaments as well.

“Sometime in home game we play no-limit, but I didn’t really know the game,” Qui said. “I learned by playing at Bellagio. I start at $2/$5, but I love to gamble so started moving up to $5/$10 right away. I also [played] some small tournaments and had fun.”

Unfortunately, in 2008, Qui discovered a game that would provide him countless trials and tribulations over the next eight years.

Baccarat became his primary vice, and it would continually put a strain on his poker bankroll.

“Over the years, I have lost my ass playing Baccarat, over $250,000,” Qui said. “You work hard to get money from poker. Sometimes you work the whole week, then lose it all at Baccarat in a half-hour. I know that I can’t beat the game, but I couldn’t stop playing. I lost a lot of money.”

Nevertheless, his poker dream was always to play in the WSOP. That dream came true when Qui played in his first bracelet event -- the 2008 WSOP main event. Since then, he has played in numerous WSOP bracelet events, but Qui hadn’t been successful at the WSOP; in fact, he had only a single cash prior to 2016.

“I always want to play at WSOP and play it every year,” Nguyen said. “But I [haven't had] good luck in bracelet events. I play many tournaments but never make any money.”

This year, the 39-year-old played in only a few WSOP preliminary bracelet events, with no success. At the end of the summer, Qui tried to satellite into the main event and on his third attempt he successfully qualified for the most prestigious poker tournament of the year.

During the first few days of the 2016 WSOP main event, Qui and his chip stack went on a roller coaster ride, largely due to his characteristically aggressive style.

“The first day, I went up to 120K,” Qui said. “The second day, I played more aggressive and went up to 450K, but after that I went down to 120K again. But [the] third day, I [came] back with 300K and ended again with 450K. It was crazy.”

The last two days had several bleak points as Qui went somewhat card dead. Inevitably, he became one of the short stacks, finishing Day 6 in 35th out of 80 players to stay in the middle of the pack before falling all the way to 25th out of 27 entering the final play-down day.

Despite the poor string of cards, Qui understood the moment and tried to stay focused.

“Sometime in poker, you don’t pick up a hand and there is nothing you can do, whether you are aggressive or not,” Qui said. “But, when we were down to 27, I know I was short stacked and I told myself that I had to find a way to get there and do the best I can.”

Thankfully for Qui, he seemingly saved all of his run-good for the crucial Day 7. Midway through the final day, Nguyen’s pocket jacks garnered him the critical double up he needed to get back into the tournament. After dinner break, Nguyen briskly eliminated three tough players in a row, all within 30 minutes; Tom Marchese was the first of the bunch, going out in 14th place with a flush over flush; James Obst followed just behind in 13th when Qui’s pocket tens held versus Obst’s pocket fives; and Mike Shin finished the improbable sequence in 12th place when Qui’s pocket queens won a critical race versus Shin’s ace-king.

This incredibly-timed run catapulted Nguyen to the top of the leaderboard. Just a few hours later, Nguyen realized his poker dream becoming an official member of the 2016 November Nine.

“This is my real dream come true,” said Qui. “I can’t believe it. I feel so good.”

When these nine players return to the Penn and Teller theatre on Oct. 30, Nguyen will be second in chips with 67.925 million, behind only Cliff Josephy and his 75.6 million. Nguyen almost couldn’t believe his good fortune. Shortly after making the final table, he realized that he needed to stop his gambling ways.

“Right after November Nine, I decided myself to stop gambling,” Qui said. “I know I got lucky to make the final table. I don’t have to fight to get money now, so I will only play Baccarat for fun now ... small amounts and go home.”

Nguyen also wants to give back by paying it forward with this incredible good fortune. He plans to donate 10 percent of his winnings at the final table to help poverty and homelessness in his original homeland of Vietnam.

“[Average] Vietnamese family makes only $200 a month,” Qui said. “They are very poor and hungry. Some families don’t even have blankets, but I will make sure that they are taken care of. Whether I finish first or last, I plan to go to Vietnam to donate money to the poor.”

Also, in honor of his brother Duc, who Qui says is his true role model, Nguyen said he will donate an additional 2.5 percent to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services to wounded U.S. veterans. Nguyen believes this is an appropriate way to honor his brother -- a way to give back to his new homeland of the United States, in which he has recently applied for citizenship.

“I owe my brother a lot,” Qui said. “I’m not here in the U.S without him. To honor him for serving [our] country, I’m going to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project and the Marines’ Toys for Tots as well.”

Since that fateful day when he made the 2016 WSOP main event final table in late July, Qui has taken a well-deserved break, spending a lot of time with his family. In addition to his wife of seven years, Stephanie, his true inspiration is his 4-year-old son, Kyle.

“He is very special to me. He is my everything,” Qui said. “I do anything for him.”

Make no mistake, though -- as the November Nine approaches, Nguyen is focused on one goal and one goal only.

“I want to win the bracelet,” Qui said. “The bracelet is very important, and forever. I usually play for myself, but now I feel I’m playing for my family and country -- and I want them all to be proud of me.”