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20 October 2016
By Gary Trask
Gordon Vayo was a fresh-faced 17-year-old senior at University High School in Illinois when one day, late in the school year, he was summoned to the principal's office.
Hometown: Bloomington, Illinois
Twitter handle: @GordonVayo
Final table position: 3rd place
Chip count: 49,375,000
Odds to win Main Event, via bet365: 5-to-1
Career WSOP cashes: 26, zero bracelets
Favorite poker book: Doyle Brunson's Super System: "It's the only poker book I've ever read. I vividly remember bringing it with me to finals during my freshman year in high school. When I finished my tests, I would read it. I wasn't really known as much of a bookworm, so I got some strange looks from teachers because I was lugging around this massive, technical book."
Favorite poker player: "Wow. Back in the day I thought Phil Ivey was an absolute god. I mean, he was the man. Nowadays, it's tough because I'm so entrenched in it. I admire a lot of players, and many of them are my friends. But I really still respect the old-school guys, like (Daniel) Negreanu and Ivey."
Favorite poker room: Bellagio, Aria Resort & Casino and The Venetian Las Vegas. "Even though it pains me to include Venetian because I hate Sheldon Adelson so much, those are the three I like the most. Not only are they very comfortable, but they are run by people who listen to and respect the players, and take what they have to say into account."
Favorite hobby, other than poker: "Music is a huge passion of mine. I don't play an instrument or anything, but I spend a lot of time online searching for new and obscure music. The last few years I've really got into EDM (electronic dance music), but I also like indie rock. It’s one of the reasons I love living in San Fran. There is a never-ending supply of live music to check out. "
The news delivered during that terse meeting still resonates with Vayo more than 10 years later.
"He told me I was expelled," remembers Vayo not-so-fondly. "There was no warning that it was coming. No explanation. He just told me very matter-of-factly that I had been expelled and wouldn't be graduating."
Vayo is the first to admit that he was far from a model student. Sometime during his junior year he began to spend many more hours playing online poker than hitting the books, but he insists he wasn't a troublemaker and he was always respectful to his teachers. He also concedes that he would often show up late and he wasn't doing a lick of homework, but really, who could blame him? His online poker earnings were totaling well over $10,000 a month, more than his hard-working parents made combined as music directors.
Even still, being banished from school and not being allowed to graduate along with his friends hurt badly at the time, and still does today.
"I'm not one to hold grudges and I'm not a bitter person, in general," he told Casino City. "But I still have a chip on my shoulder about it because I still believe it was totally unwarranted."
The lack of a high school diploma has not stood in the way of success for Vayo. In fact, the 27-year-old is on the cusp of achieving the most significant feat in his profession.
After maneuvering through a 6,737-player field in the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event this summer, Vayo reached the final table, and when play restarts at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino on 30 October in Las Vegas, he'll have the third-biggest chip stack in front of him. And while he'll be the youngest player at the table, Vayo will be far from the least experienced, thanks to a 10-year run as a poker pro that began the very day he walked out of his principal's office back in 2006.
Life without poker?
Vayo has never held a "regular" job in his life, save for a brief stint as a "facer" at a local grocery store when he was 16. The only reason he took the job was that he went broke playing poker.
"By far, it's the worst job in the grocery store," he says with a chuckle of his time spent endlessly going up and down the aisles turning products around so the labels "faced" the correct way, out toward the customers. "Luckily, after I got my first paycheck, I deposited it online and before long I had built my bankroll into a couple of thousand dollars. I quit that job after about three weeks and never had to go back."
Instead, Vayo committed himself to poker. He made enough money to get his own apartment during his senior year. He bought a two-year-old BMW and dressed it up with shiny rims and a ridiculous sound system. His parents, Margo and David, vehemently disapproved, but there wasn’t much they could do; particularly when their son showed them his bank account.
"Yeah, they were horrified; especially initially," Vayo says. "Poker was thought of as this seedy industry where people got their legs broken out in the desert. That concerned them. But they didn't know any better. In reality, poker is just a bunch of nerds sitting around trying to one-up each other."
Vayo was far from your classic "nerd" as he drove to school in a BMW and hosted parties at his apartment. The biggest obstacle for his poker game was that he was underage. He got around that small detail by getting one of his older friends to deposit money online for him, which really bothered his father.
"He didn't care about how big my bankroll was," Vayo says. "My dad is probably one of the smartest people I know, but money has never been a motivating factor to him. He didn't want me doing anything illegal."
But, again, there was no stopping Vayo, whose inherent talent and dedication to the game made him an instant success in the online world of poker, using the screen name "Holla@yoboy."
Does he even remember life before poker?
"That's a very good question," he answers after a long pause. "Not really. At this point it's all I've ever known for about half my life and my entire adult life. So, yeah, I guess I don't."
Instead of rebelling or fighting his expulsion from high school, Vayo jumped into his BMW and drove to Las Vegas. He spent a few weeks there, staying with some poker friends he had made online, and he continued to mushroom his bankroll. A few weeks later, less than a month before turning 18, he came home to meet with his parents and told them that poker would be his career.
"It wasn't what they envisioned for me, but I was almost 18 so they decided to support me," he says. "Once I started traveling around and making decent money, my dad finally came to terms with it. He saw I was happy and I was having success. "
Coincidentally, one of the people responsible for that success will be sitting two seats to his right at the Main Event final table. Chip leader Cliff Josephy, who Casino City profiled last month, made a name for himself over the last decade backing certain players — and one of them just happened to be the up-and-coming Vayo.
"It's bizarre and just part of this whole surreal experience," Vayo says while pointing out that Josephy has no idea he was underage when he initially welcomed him into his stable of players. "I've known him since I was 16. He's been a huge influence on me. Pretty crazy."
'An out-of-body experience'
In 2006, according to PocketFives.com, Vayo was the 15th ranked online player in the world with more than $1.4 million in earnings. Despite his youth, he has 26 WSOP cashes (worth $608,000), including eight out of 21 events played this summer. Those 26 cashes are more than any other player at the final table, and Vayo's overall live earnings now total more than $2.5 million.
But of those WSOP cashes, none had come in the Main Event before this year — and he's made just two previous final tables, with his best finish coming when he took second in a 2014 $3,000 No Limit Six-Handed Event and pocketed $314,535.
On Day 6 of this year's Main Event with just 38 players remaining, Vayo appeared destined for another deep WSOP run, with no final table, when he shoved all in with A-K offsuit with 30 big blinds left. Last year's "Bubble Boy," Jonas Lauck, snap called with pocket aces, prompting Vayo to rise from his seat and start packing his belongings. With a 6% chance to survive, Vayo, like everyone else at the table, was sure he was a goner.
But a Q-10-3 flop gave him a Broadway draw and when a jack hit the turn, Vayo's ace-high straight enabled him to double up, rather than go home.
Vayo was visibly shaken by the hand, and admitted it was something that deeply affected him mentally.
"It totally threw me off; it was like an out-of-body experience, almost as if it didn't happen to me," he explains. "I've been a professional for 10 years and I don't think I've ever experienced anything like that before. It was very hard to deal with emotionally. To get that lucky at such a crucial moment of the biggest event in poker, at a crucial moment of my career . . . I don't know. I didn't know how to deal with it."
Luckily, there was only about an hour left to play on Day 6, and Vayo was able to go back to his hotel room and regroup.
"The more I thought about it, the more I just said to myself that it would be devastating if I allowed my good fortune to actually be a disservice," he says. "I realized that one hand moved me up the board so much that I had already literally made $155,000 off of it. I was free rolling, and I had to try and make the most of it."
And that's what he did on Day 7. The day started slow for Vayo, and he fell to 21st place out of 22 players remaining at one point. But then, as Vayo describes it, he started to "run like God."
"With two tables left, I went on the heater of a lifetime," he says. "It was insane. At one point I went from 6.5 million in chips to 35 million, in about five or six hands. All of a sudden, I look down and there's 37 million in front of me with 14 people left. It wasn't until that point that I was like, 'Holy shit. I'm a favorite to make the November Nine.'"
Preparing for the 'Super Bowl'
Like the other eight players who will be gunning for the Main Event bracelet in two weeks, Vayo has been doing his due diligence, studying his opponents and keeping his game sharp.
Through an introduction via mutual friends, he's been working closely with noted poker pro Tom Marchese, who has $14 million in career earnings and finished 14th in this year's Main Event.
"I was looking for someone to coach me," Vayo explains. "I had five to eight people in mind, but the more I thought about, the more I realized Tom was the perfect fit and I knew we would mesh. He has a similar style and a similar personality at the table. We've had great chemistry so far. It's been really helpful."
Save for a few trips to Vegas to hunker down with Marchese, Vayo has spent the majority of his time since July at his home in San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé, Kate, who he went to high school with, but didn’t really know at the time. His lone sibling, Becky, 30, also lives nearby.
He played in a handful events and remained hot, winning the $2,400 The River Series Main Event at WinStar World Casino and Resort in Oklahoma in early September, for a payday worth $587,120.
"That was fun," he says with a laugh. "People are starting to recognize me at the table, and that's kind of cool. Everyone has been super supportive when they meet me."
Vayo compared the time he has spent preparing for the final table to what a NFL coach would experience.
"When you start a big tournament like the Main Event, it's kind of like the preseason where you prepare for an infinite amount of things that could happen and you just try and make the best adjustments as you go," he explains. "But now with the final table, we have three months to prepare and we know who are opponents are, so this is like the Super Bowl.
"I want to find out what everyone's tendencies are, how they react, how they counteract. I understand the dynamics of the final table are fluid, but going in I want to be prepared for as many different circumstances as possible . . . The way I handle anxiety is to try and be as prepared as humanely possible, without over preparing."
When the final table "kicks off," Vayo likes where he sits at the table, since he'll have position on two of the more dangerous players and bigger stacks (Josephy and Michael Ruane).
"It’s a good seat, for sure," he admits. "A lot will depend on how things unravel. That could all change on Day 1 and when we get down to five or six players and I'm still alive, things will probably change dramatically. But going in, I think I'm fortunate to have one of the better seats."
This article is part of Casino City's series of WSOP November Nine profiles. Other articles include:
World Series of Poker Main Event final table profile: Gordon Vayo is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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