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Scotty Nguyen: “Gambling, Fame Will Never Change Me”
With a few minutes still left until break, Scotty Nguyen stood up from his table at the $5,000 6-Max Pot-Limit Omaha and headed toward the back of the Amazon Rio.
His Michelob Ultra was empty.
Nguyen then took a phone call, smoked a cigarette and sat down at an empty table to answer a few questions with his fresh, cold beer. Even though he wasn’t playing, fans would stand on the rail, eavesdrop on his stories or let out a “Baby.”
Few players have a catchphrase, only Nguyen has a catchword.
Nguyen -- who’s easily identifiable through at least three of the five senses -- is a fan favorite and never holds back. He’s been on Conan O’Brien, won five WSOP bracelets, has more than 11 million in live tournament earnings and has been dubbed the Prince of Poker.
But Nguyen wasn’t born into royalty.
Humble Beginnings in Vietnam
Nguyen was born October 28th, 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and two years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the use of US military forces in SouthEast Asia, more specifically, Vietnam.
Nguyen was born in Southeast Vietnam but he’s not exactly sure where.
“I don’t remember, I never asked my mom [where I was born] Nha Trang or Da Lat,” Nguyen said.
“Da Lat is where we originally come from. My great grandpa, everybody, I never mentioned that because I never think people know about Da Lat. That’s where we all come from on my dad’s side. All my uncles, everybody. I think that’s where I was born.”
Da Lat is a temperate mountain city about 140 kilometres west of the tropical coastal city of Nha Trang. Both cities saw fighting throughout the Vietnam war and there was nothing Nguyen could do to avoid it.
“We walked through dead people to go to school and shit,” he said.
“You sleep at night, your friend sleeps next door and gets blown up and you’re still there. You go through all that. I was young then. We didn’t think about nothing because that’s how the war goes on.”
Coming to America
Barely into his double digits, Nguyen was the oldest of a family that’d grow to a total of 13 siblings. With few options in a war-stricken country, Nguyen was sent to work after the American withdrawal.
“When [the North] took over, my mom my dad couldn’t afford us because we have a very big family. My mom and dad sent me to a communist camp to learn things. You don’t do much school, you just do work,” Nguyen said. “You go up mountains, carry wood, cut trees, that’s all we’d do”
But relief soon came for the future Prince of Poker.
“One day my mom came to get me and said, that day, ‘We’re gonna send you to America,’” Nguyen said.
Nguyen, who was 14 when he arrived to the United States, didn’t see much improvement when he arrived in Chicago.
“So god damn cold over there,” he said. “We never saw snow in our life. Then that’s the only thing I ever see. My sponsor sent us out every morning to feed horses, chickens, he did not sponsor us to put us in school, he sponsored four of us to make us slaves.
“When we get to Chicago we don’t know what school was. This guy all he did was work us around the farm.”
Nguyen, who was in Chicago with one brother, then found a much warmer sponsor in a much warmer state: Florida.
“Then we found a different sponsor, he treated us very, very nice. He took me and my brother to his home and treated us like one of his own.”
Poker and Life Lessons
A few years later, Nguyen set off to Las Vegas on a whim and his transformation to Prince of Poker took a large leap forward.
He didn’t learn to play there though, Nguyen says he learned everything he needed to know about cards from the same person who birthed him.
“She played all kind of games. She didn’t know I learned everything from her. I learned every game from her, just sitting behind her,” Nguyen said. “If she wanted to run to the bathroom or get something to eat she’d say ‘Scotty pick up a hand for me,’ I’d say OK and I’d always win.
“I was five years old, baby, five years old and I knew how to sit and dance with all the big people and shit. Any game, not just one game. Any game. She could not believe it. Nobody believed it.”
Nguyen’s father wasn’t so open to his children playing cards though.
“None of us were allowed to touch cards, my dad would beat the shit out of us. Every time he caught us playing cards, you don’t know how he beat us man,” Nguyen said. “You know when you stop by a gas station, that nozzle, that rubber it’s connected to, that’s what he used to whip me with.
“Every time he’d whip me, he’d take it out, skin come with it, blood *whoosh* whizzing out. That’s how he whipped me when he caught me playing cards, it’s not allowed.”
Nguyen Wins First WSOP Event But Loses it All
Nguyen didn’t face any beatings from his father when he started playing and winning in Las Vegas, but Nguyen found a whole new way to punish himself.
“You know, the very first World Series I ever played was 1997, the Omaha hi/lo split,” Nguyen said. “It took me a long time to have guts, not just the guts, I had guts.
“But it was just so painful to count the $3,000. Know what I mean? And the first time I ever played and I win it. I think I won, $156,000. We played for 14 or 15 hours."
"We played upstairs then, they had escalator to come down, and then you turn right for the cashier. From there after I win, with my bracelet in my hand, I walk downstairs, go to the cashier."
“By the time I made it to the front door I was busted. I lost everything at the craps table. I had to borrow $5 to pay the valet guy.”
“That was strong. Didn’t hold back, nothing. Didn’t even have a dollar.”
Nguyen: “I Was Too Confident”
Nguyen emphatically states the those days of reckless gambling are behind him. One of the biggest contributors to his excessive gambling and drug use, Nguyen says, was his youth, his newfound wealth and the arrogance that came with both.
“I was naive, whatever you call it, too confident. Thought I could beat everybody, which I did, in poker I beat everybody. Not the casino, they broke me. You know, baby,” Nguyen said. “That was a long time ago when I got introduced to being famous. Fame. They introduce you to all kinds of things, nice limousines, women, drugs, you know baby?
“When you’re 21 and they’re like ‘Anything you need,’ I mean god damn.
“Nice beautiful suite, $3,000 or $4,000 a night, you know what I mean baby? That’s how they got me. You know, I was young, didn’t know better. OH MY GOD.
"Growing up you’d never see shit like that, people open the door for you. You know baby? As soon as you ask something they jump. You don’t see that in Vietnam, baby. It’s just, everything was new, and they trapped me.”
Controversy isn’t a distant past for Nguyen though. In 2008, Nguyen won the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship while visibly drunk.
Nguyen has since apologized to his fans and the other players and he still enjoys a few drinks at the table, whether he’s playing or just telling stories.
Despite Controversial Past, No Regrets
More than halfway through the interview, Nguyen’s Michelob Ultra gets low and he nods at a bartender. They, like everyone else at the WSOP, know who Mr. Nguyen is and bring him a fresh beer in quick fashion.
“Thanks baby,” Nguyen says, unaware that play has resumed in his tournament.
Some people would regret having made the mistakes Nguyen has, but that’s why they’re not Scotty Nguyen.
“Hell no! Come on baby,” Nguyen said. “I never regret. They teach me a valuable lesson growing up. This way I can teach my kid. I don’t want any of them to get trapped when they grow up and be somebody.
“Pay for what you get, pay for what you want, don’t go looking for something for free. If they offer you something for free, take it, but don’t give nothing back, know what I mean?”
“I’d Live the Same if I had $500 or $5 Million”
While fame and fortune were difficult for Nguyen to deal with, he says the hardest part about being the Prince of Poker is going bust.
“You can not act broke. You can’t go around and ask people here like ‘Hey, put me in,’ “Hey, take a piece’ that’s the hardest thing, you know baby?
"Being a world champion, you have to keep your style, classy, no matter what. Know what I mean? If I need help, if you’re a good friend I call you at home. If you say no, that’s it, that’s between me and you and nobody else.
"That’s why when I walk out here baby, it don’t matter if I have $500 in my pocket, people think I have $5 million."
"I’d still spend the same way as if I had $5 million. I’d eat at a nice restaurant, have cocktails, have people running everywhere I go saying, ‘Mr. Nguyen, Scotty baby, anything you need baby,’ because I never lower myself down."
Still the Same Old Scotty
Nguyen has accumulated more than $11 million in live tournament earnings and won five WSOP bracelets. How much he still has of that is unknown, but he’s still 100 percent Scotty Nguyen.
“Gambling, fame, life, they change your personality,” Nguyen said. “It’d never change me. Till this day, I’m the same Scotty Nguyen.
"I will talk the same way, I will play the same way, I will act the same way, you never heard a bad thing about me.”
The Nguyen story is a long one and its last chapter has yet to be penned. Despite that, Nguyen already knows what he wants the last page to read.
“The handsomest, the classiest, the craziest, the most badass baby, poker player.
“I am a badass poker player, all games, not just one. I want to let them all know, Scotty’s still got it.”