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Qui Nguyen's new book is published by D & B Poker, which boasts a star-studded roster, including the likes of Mike Sexton, Phil Hellmuth, Jonathan Little & more.
Steve Blay Interview
Co-Author of Qui Nguyen’s Book: From Vietnam to Vegas: How I Won the World Series of Poker Main Event
Full audio of this Q&A HERE
Alright High Rollers, it really was one of the most dominating performances at a main event final table in poker's modern era. Daring, flamboyant play, pure aggression from start to finish and, in the end, there was no answer for Qui Nguyen in 2016. He was firing bullets when he had it, firing bullets when he didn’t and, who knows, maybe on breaks he fired a few bullets at the baccarat table. His chips were always moving. He was crowned world champion, pocketing more than $8 million in te process and became a pker superstar. Well, Qui Nguyen has a new book out from our good friends at D&B Poker. It’s called From Vietnam to Vegas: How I Won the World Series of Poker Main Event. Our guest today is the co-author. Steve Blay welcome to the show man, thanks for being our High Roller today.
SB: Thanks for having me on the show Derrick.
Q: You’re an engineer and founder of AdvancedPokerTraining.com, the world’s number one poker training site. You guys have analyzed 128 million hands and counting? Wow.
Advisor to a world champion...nuff said! The founder of Advaned Poker Training and co-author of From Vietnam to Vegas also offers personal one-on-one coaching.
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Q: As Norman Chad would say, his opponents were ‘bamboozled.’ When you get to the final table of a World Series of Poker man event it really is an opportunity of a lifetime, no matter who you are. So here you are, Qui Nguyen flies you out there to advise him. You really have to treat this as an opportunity of a lifetime for yourself as well. How did you approach this endeavour?
SB: I feel so lucky, so blessed, to have been involved in this. Just to have been at the right place at the right time for all this to come together. I also had Young Pham, who’s a well known Vegas poker pro and Vietnamese speaker, in my corner. The two of us were kind of acting as Qui’s advisors. The funny thing is we were actually encouraging him to slow down a little bit. Every hand he was in there mixing it up, betting and raising, and we felt like our job was to be on the rail and encouraging him to slow down. We kept telling him, “Small Ball! Play Small ball. Slow down a little bit.”
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Did you know?
Steve Blay founded Advanced Poker Training, the world's #1 poker training site. The site has analysed close to 130 million hands.
SB: That is right, since about 2009. The site has been growing and growing ever since then. Every hand of poker anyone plays on our site is immediately run through our engines and analyzed. We’re up to 128 million hands of poker played by members on our site.
Q: The site looks great, I was on it today. When I saw the number of hands analyzed I did a double take. Tell us about advancedpokertraining.com, what exactly do you guys do?
SB: We allow our members to play against robotic, iife-like, opponents called bots. While they’re playing against these opponents they’re getting advice along the way. The bots are both your friend and your foe. They try to learn your game, try to beat you, but you also get an advisor bot that looks over your shoulder and gives you advice while you play. As I mentioned, every hand of poker you play on our site is stored forever to your own personal database so that after you’ve been playing you can go in and look at all the reports on your play and see which hands are your trouble hands. If Ace Queen, for example, is one of your trouble hands it’s going to point that out to you in your weekly training plan. You can then go back to the software and have it deal you Ace Queen over and over and over again. That way you can practise playing Ace Queen and get better at it. It let’s you pick situations. You can freeze the button and put yourself in the big blind over and over again if you’re having trouble playing from the big blind. Things like that. We’ve been working on the site since 2009. We’re a complete training system, the world’s #1 training site. We’ve really got it all. A team of us here have been working on this site going on eight or nine years now.
Q: It’s no wonder the players are so good nowadays, with sites like yours and others, the game has really become tough to beat. I’m wondering your take on the state of poker these days?
SB: So much has changed. Gone are the days, 10 years ago, where you could just play a tight game and wait for everyone else to make huge mistakes by playing hands they shouldn’t be playing preflop. The game has really gone to a new level. That doesn’t mean it’s still not a profitable game to play. Like in any other sport, you just have to continue to adjust your game as the competition has adjusted. There’s still profit to be made out there. It’s just that the players are definitely better today than they were 10 years ago.
Q: The online game has become so tough to beat. I actually switched to Omaha Hi/Lo because I found I was having better success playing that game online.
SB: The competition is a lot tougher online than in live poker rooms. You’re right. The 5cent/10cent table online might be equivalent to the players who are playing at a $1/$2 table in a live card room. That is part of the influence of sites like advancedpokertraining.com and all of the other great information online now. Guys have just gotten a lot better. I hear what you’re saying about Omaha. Omaha is where a lot of the real gamblers are flocking too these days because the pots get so big and there’s more excitement. That being said, I still go back to saying there is still plenty of money to be made in hold’em. You just have to be a little bit better than everybody else.
Q: One thing about the site I didnt realize until I started doing research for this interview is that in 2016 you guys ran simulations that suggested Qui Nguyen would take down the title. Can you talk about that and how it developed into a friendship with the world champion?
SB: That’s a great story. That’s actually how we got in touch with each other. I was contacted by pokernews.com originally. They wanted me to run some simulations on the final table. They knew I have software where I can create bots with any type of personality. So we got every bit of information we could find on the November 9; any hand histories, any playing history online, anything we knew about their personality types from interviews we’d heard them do. I created a bot representing all nine players at the final table. I gave them all the exact chip stack they were going to starting with and sat them at the table exactly where they were going to be sitting. For a computer to run to thousands of simulations it does’t take very long. So I ran simulations of the final table over and over again. I tried to see what kind of data we could get. The one thing we found is that this Qui Nguyen bot we built was winning much more often than it should have. It wasn’t winning every time but it was winning much more often than it should have based on the chip stacks. If we ran a thousand simulations he might have won three-hundred of those. It was a lot more than he should have by the pure math of how many chips he had. So we published these findings on Poker News and it got a lot of buzz in the poker world. Qui actually read this article from out in Vegas and, through my agent out there, got in touch with me. He called me up and we started talking. He kind of said, “Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, you think you can show me how to win this thing? Come on out here.” He flew me out to Vegas to talk about it. The rest is kind of history. I flew out to Vegas and Qui and I spent a few days together. What I ended up finding out really, and I think it's important to note this, Qui was already an exceptional poker player. I realized that immediately. All the press he had been getting made him look like a crazy baccarat player and the 'newbie' at the game. But, he had been playing professionally for many years out in Las Vegas. He supported his family that way. So, he already had amazing poker skills and, of course, amazing instinct. I feel like I was his advisor, maybe his team manager. We spent a few days together talking poker and I was there behind the scenes during the main event final table. Obviously, as you said at the beginning of this show, he won in just a dominating fashion. I don't think anyone had seen anything like that in a long time. The others were pretty helpless against his style and strategy. He played just the way Qui Nguyen bot predicted he was going to play and blew everybody away. Once that was finished we started talking about putting this book together and we’ve been working together ever since.
That’s just not his style at all. It was amazing working with him and seeing the way he thinks. We’ve been working on this book for almost an entire year now and I’ve had the most amazing experience trying to get into what is going on in his head. I think for all of us poker players it’s kind of our dream to play like Qui Nguyen did that night. How can we capture that? No book has really answered that question. There are so many poker math books and, of course, my background is in game theory and poker math. How do you really capture Qui Nguyen in a book and how do the rest of us learn to play like that? How do we learn to have these amazing instincts he had? What I’ve tried to capture in the book is what is he doing that we’re not doing? What is going on in his head that us mortal poker players are not able to do?
Q: It really is the $8 million question right? I mean, just for a day. If we could only play like that for just one day it would be a dream. In the celebration photos, with all his supporters in red, one of the banners read, “Heart of a Champion.” I mean, how do you measure heart?
SB: I think it was Antonio Esfandiari who said he played with more heart than anyone he had ever seen at the final table. He really nailed it there by saying that. Qui was just relentless. He played with this tenacity that nobody else showed. He has a lot of instinct. I use that word ‘instinct.’ As I talk about in the book, my wife, who’s the English major of the family, says that ‘wisdom’ is actually a better word for it because instinct is something that animals have. A squirrel runs up the tree to get away from you, that’s just instinct. It’s something that animals are born with. Wisdom is something that comes from many, many, years of hard work and experience. Maybe what Qui had is more wisdom. He was always able to describe to me exactly what all the pieces of the puzzle that he was putting together in every decision point in the poker game. Some of that was based on having a good short term memory. He would say, “In this hand I decided Michael Ruane didn’t have Ace Queen because I remembered back on Hand #27 he had actually folded Ace Queen in a similar situation.” He has real good short term memory. You or I might not have remembered that Michael Ruane folded Ace Queen back on Hand #27. He also has this amazing wisdom from his many years of poker and he was able to put it all together. He could read something from someone’s body language that maybe he learned years ago. You know, when a guy kind of looks like this it usually means he’s weak or strong. In the book we theorize that this has come from a lifetime of work by Qui. He grew up pretty much on the streets of Saigon after the Vietnam war. For him, as a child, learning to read people was kind of life or death. He says Saigon, when he was a child, was worse than any inner-city in America. He was always using his instincts to keep himself alive. So maybe as a child he was able to hone those instincts and now reading people comes very natural to him. That’s the theory we came up as to why he’s able to do this so successfully. He’ll remember dates from years ago. He’s able to process and solve in real time and put the pieces of the puzzle together and find out whether someone is weak or strong. As we saw, if he decides you’re weak it doesn’t matter what cards he’s holding. He’s going to be betting and raising and he’s going to bully you off the hand if he’s determined you’re weak for some reason.
Q: It’s a component of poker I don't think is talked about enough, the fear factor. A lot of us might have an inkling that a bluff is the right play in a certain situation but not all of us have the stones to stick it in. Qui Nguyen certainly did!
SB: You’re right, he’s not afraid of anything. It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing a $2/$5 cash game or playing for $8 million. If he puts you on a hand he’s going to trust his reads. He’s not afraid to gamble it up even for $8 million, as he showed time and time again there during the final table. That’ll definitely take you far when you’re playing high stakes poker because you’re opponents are going to be playing with some fear. Nobody wants to go out in 7th place or 8th place. From Day 1 of the final table, he just started pushing people around. No fear at any point.
Q: He came over to America in his early 20’s and worked in nail salon for a bit. I’m always intrigued by people who move to a different country at a young age, especially with language barriers, because it seems that in itself takes guts?
SB: He came over here not knowing the language. He had a little bit of family over here but not much. He worked odd jobs, one of them being in a nail salon, so he could work on his language skills. He was doing women’s nails. I think that’s part of it too. He’s really been a risk-taker his whole life. What an act of bravery coming over here. He's lived in Southern California, Vegas, he lived up in Alaska for a while. He lived in Florida of a while. He’s always been a businessman type. He ran different businesses over the years. I think all of this works together. You think of the instincts he has from his upbringing in Saigon to always being willing to take risks throughout his life. You put all the pieces of the puzzle together and it makes for an exceptional poker player, which is what he is.
Q:The book is called, From Vietnam to Vegas. You mentioned Antonio Esfandiari, one of the best ever, and he forwarded this book?
SB: Yes he did. Qui and Antonio have become friends out there in California. Qui really looks up to Antonio, both as a poker player and as a person, and so we contacted him. Antonio said he’d be happy to do the forward for us. We were thrilled, of course, to have someone like Antonio do the forward.
Q: So all I knew about Qui Nguyen before the 2016 rendition of the November 9 was that he has active, that he put his chips in play. We heard the stories about baccarat. When I saw him at the final table, I thought this guy is baller, with that sweet jacket and baseball hat combo. And then just the pure aggression. I thought he came out of nowhere but you’re saying that’s not the case at all?
SB: I don’t know why they kept saying that during some of the shows leading up to the final table. They were going over the back story on all of the November 9’ers and they kept calling him this crazy gambler, this beginner. He had been playing poker up in Alaska, he was here in Florida for many years playing high stakes poker and in Las Vegas he had been playing in $2/$5 and $5/$10 games at the Aria and Bellagio for many years, almost full-time, or at least part-time. He’s put in a lot of hours playing poker. I think it’s important to note because it would be unfair to all of the professional poker players out there, who put so much work into their game, if it appeared that someone really could come from out of nowhere and all of a sudden dominate everyone at the final table like that, with no playing history whatsoever. It would suggesting almost there's no skill involved in this game, that all you need is aggression and you can be the best player in the world. I think it’s important people realize he has a lot of years of professional and semi-professional poker playing experience. He used to play a lot of sit-n-go’s as well, out in Vegas, especially during the World Series of Poker. In fact, that’s how he got into the main event, through a $1,000 buy-in one table sit-n’go, where first place got a seat to the main event. He used to play sit-n-go’s for profit as well. He would play cash sit-n-go’s during the World Series of Poker for hours on end. I think that helped as well because a sit-n-go is kind of like playing the final table. He had a lot of experience playing a final table if you think of a sit-n-go as a miniature final table.
Q: Can I go back to those simulations for a second, why did they suggest, on most occasions, that Qui Nguyen would take down the championship?
SB: Their playing styles didn’t match up with the level of aggression that he showed. The player that gave him the toughest time, both in the simulations and at the final table, was Cliff Josephy. Why? Cliff Josephy played a similarly aggressive style to Qui. In the book, you’ll notice at several points, he talks about his goal of getting rid of Cliff Josephy. That had nothing to do with Qui not liking the man personally or anything like that. He knew that Cliff would be his toughest opponent because Cliff was the only who was going to play back at him. Several times, as you saw, they did clash. When it got down to the final three, when it was Cliff Josephy, Qui Nguyen and Gordon Vayo, Qui’s only goal was to get rid of Cliff Jospehy. He knew that if he went heads-up against Gordon Vayo he felt confident he could win that heads-up match pretty easily. That is what ended up happening. The heads-up match went on for eight hours, something like that. It was the longest heads-up match of all-time. He was right that Gordon Vayo’s style didn’t match up well with his but Cliff Josephy’s did. That’s why he was very glad when Cliff went out because he got to heads-up with Gordon.
Q: John Hesp made a splash last year finishing fourth to rave reviews. I think they’re making a movie about him now. Jamie Gold won in 2006, a real character and a dominating performance. Qui Nguyen in 2016 certainly fits in that category. He stole the show. Why do you think characters like this come into the limelight and steal the show?
SB: I think people want to see personality. They want to see people having fun playing poker. Nobody wants to see a boring game theory guy up there who’s just analyzing every hand purely from a math standpoint, a guy who isn’t mixing it up or who isn’t talking to his opponents. I just think guys like John Hesp and Qui Nguyen are great for poker because, at the end of the day, we all just want to have fun playing poker. If we can keep it that way, fun, I think poker will remain an exciting past-time for everyone. They’re just exciting to watch and everyone wants to see someone having fun.
Steve Blay Thank-You!
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This WPT superstar has won close to $9 million playing tournament poker. He has also written a host of poker books, including Mastering Small Stackes No Limite Hold'em. We spoke to him!!!