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Gordon Vayo has been crushing poker since he was a teenager and he told us that when he was 16 he was making more money playing online poker than both his parents combined. After years of putting up big results online, Vayo is now faced with the biggest opportunity of his poker life. He's already guaranteed $1 million but when he returns to the WSOP Main Event final table in three months he'll compete for the title of world champion and the $8 million first-place prize. Vayo had been having a successful summer at the World Series of Poker even before the Main Event. He cashed in seven other tournaments including the Colossus and the Monster Stack, proving he knows how to go deep in big-field events. In this interview Vayo tells the story of how he got all-in with ace-king against pocket aces and got lucky to double up. He says he looks at the entire tournament after that hand as a freeroll. Vayo is 27 years old and originally from Illinois but now lives in San Francisco. Check out the video interview with Gordon Vayo and follow his progress in the 2016 WSOP Main Event on PokerListings.com.
Matt Showell: We just saw you answering some support from family and friends I guess? First let's rewind to yesterday. It seemed like the atmosphere in there was really good. What was it like for you being in that crucial stage of the tournament, three tables, two tables and eventually making the November Nine.
Gordon Vayo: Actually I was a lot more calm on Day 7. On Day 6 I was a wreck. I was a nervous wreck. I beat aces with ace-king all-in pre-flop and I couldn't really come to terms with it. My mind was just completely boggled and I was so scattered I couldn't really acknowledge what happened and get back to focus. The day ended about an hour after that, thankfully for me because I was so out of sorts. I couldn't come to terms with getting so lucky in such a huge spot. I've been playing poker for so long.
Matt Showell: Are you used to getting unlucky in huge spots?
Gordon Vayo: Not necessarily used to getting unlucky. I'm not lamenting anything like that. This is the biggest tournament in the world and I've been playing professionally for ten years now and I've never run this good in a tournament in my life. and to have it culminate ten years into my career, in the Main Event with 40 people left, to beat aces with ace-king, it was just so surreal. I'm still having a hard time coming to terms with it.
When I went home that night I was so nervous and anxious. I couldn't shed it. I was just shook about it. Then I realized, "You just got it in with ace-king against aces and won with 39 left in the Main, what do you have to be nervous about?" And on Day 7 I was a lot more calm than I thought I would be. I got all-in with tens against Jerry's ace-queen in a spot and I wasn't nervous at all. I would have been bummed if I lost, obviously. But Jerry and me are buddies and we were railing it together and I was just much more calm than I thought I would be.
Matt Showell: You mentioned you've been playing professionally for a long time so I'm hoping we can rewind and you can give us the short version of how you got into poker in the first place. What hooked you into the game and what allowed you to be able to do it professionally and everything that led up to where we are right now?
Gordon Vayo: It's an interesting story. I started playing way too young. I would not recommend anyone else starting at the age I did. I just got really into it. I had some older friends and we kind of hit the Moneymaker boom. We started playing home games and stuff but one other friend and I took it a little more seriously. He got some money online and we started playing. I was probably about 16 at the time. I did pretty well online and ended up running up some money and final-tabling the Sunday Million when I was 16 a couple times. I was doing pretty well from a very young age and it took over the focus of my life. That's what I was putting all my energy and focus into. I was 16 so I was still in high school at the time.
Matt Showell: We're talking pretty significant amounts of money.
Gordon Vayo: Yeah definitely. I was making more than my parents. I was probably making more than both my parents combined at the time. My parents are both teachers. They don't make that much money. So it was just a really crazy thing that drew me in. But it wasn't really the money to me. When I was younger I wasn't trying to make money. I didn't need money for anything. I was 16 and I was living with my parents. They were paying for most of my stuff so for me it was the thrill of running up the account, like points.
Matt Showell: Like a video game.
Gordon Vayo: Yeah totally. Like a high score. I barely ever cashed out. I just wanted to go play higher and play the best players. I didn't need the money so it was just looking at this number continuing to grow. It was more of like a confidence thing. It was like, "You're good at this. You can compete at a really high level." So that's always what kept me interested in poker.
Matt Showell: Was there a time when you realized the high score you had been building was actually dollars you could take out and buy stuff with?
Gordon Vayo: I think my first really big online cash was a fourth in the Sunday Million. I was 16 at my mom's house and ran down the stairs. She was sleeping and was like, "What's going on?" I told her I just cashed for $60,000 and I was going out to get a burger with friends. And she was just like, "Alright." As a schoolteacher it was really crazy for her. My mom's always been really supportive and understood that there's more to it than just gambling, that there's a skill to it and a craft that I'm trying to hone. So she understood that.
Matt Showell: Was it ever interesting to you, this discrepancy between someone like a teacher who's doing something ostensibly very important and someone who's clicking buttons on a computer making a lot more money?
Gordon Vayo: Absolutely. My dad is one of the smartest people I know and he gave up a lot of money to do something he loves every day that he can feel good about. My dad's a contemporary classical musical composer and a professor at a liberal arts college. He makes fine money but he gave up a lot of money to do it. My dad's big issue with poker when I was young was that I wasn't of age, it's illegal, but also you're not going to have any positive impact on society. But he also understood that there are a lot of professions in this world that are ambivalent in that regard. It's more the person that has the effect on how they lead they life.
Matt Showell: Is that something you had to come to terms with too? I know poker players struggle with it. It's a pretty predatory profession and it doesn't really produce anything so how did you come to terms with it?
Gordon Vayo: It's the rest of your life. You try to be a good person at the table and not one of those predatorial people other than within the integrity of the game. I want to be a nuisance at the table in that no one wants to play with me. I want that. But I don't want to disrespect anyone or disrespect the game, ever. I want people to have fun playing with me but also take it as a big challenge. That's what I enjoy about poker is the mental battle.
I don't even enjoy the gambling aspect of it. I don't enjoy if people are being rude to each other. I enjoy the competition. The group of guys who made this final table is amazing. I know three or four of them fairly well. I like all of them. Everyone seems to be really easy-going and having a good time. It didn't feel like we were on the biggest bubble in poker. It did not feel like that at all.
Matt Showell: How crazy was it to see Josh Weiss blinding down like that?
Gordon Vayo: It was kind of a dream scenario because he would have had to double up three or four times to really change the dynamic of the final table. As he kept blinding down it was kind a dream scenario.
Matt Showell: What are you going to be doing in the next three and a half months? I know you have a ton of experience playing poker so are you going to dedicate it to just studying poker?
Gordon Vayo: I will be. I've spent my whole life strategizing and trying to really master and hone this craft. Now I'm on the biggest stage I've ever been on and this is my opportunity to really show that I'm going to work harder in this environment than anyone else. That's my goal in the next three and a half months. A lot of playing, a lot of studying, a lot of running simulations of the final table. I've seen some people in the past take this time off and it just boggles my mind. I want to be in peak form. I don't want to be worn out. It's not like I'm going to travel and do everything over the next three months but I'm definitely going to be doing a lot of studying and strategizing and things like that, also playing quite a bit.
Matt Showell: What do your parents think now that you've done this?
Gordon Vayo: I think it's pretty crazy. They've never even seen me play poker live.
Matt Showell: Do you think they're proud of you?
Gordon Vayo: Yeah. For sure. My dad has definitely come a long way as far as that's concerned. When I was really young, he didn't know how I'd turn out as far as my perspective on things. Because that's equally important I think. Your perspective on things and how you live outside of your profession.
Matt Showell: Poker's a pretty weird place, especially coming into it young and getting a hold of a lot of money.
Gordon Vayo: Absolutely. And you can understand how a parent has a problem with that. I would never want my kid playing poker and gambling at 16. That's crazy. But there was no stopping it at the time.
Matt Showell: We talked a bit about poker not being the most productive thing but you can do a lot of good with $8 million. If this goes well, what's it going to mean for the rest of your life?
Gordon Vayo: That's a good question. I'm not really someone who values money higher than a lot of other things so I don't think it will change my life too much. I live in a really expensive city so it will be nice.
Matt Showell: San Francisco?
Gordon Vayo: Yeah. It will be nice in that regard but I don't think my life will change. There's been a lot of really great people at the final table who have been humble but there's also been a lot of ego. I want to be a champion like Greg (Merson). I respect Greg a lot. I think he's a really good guy. He was so humble. The way he broke down in tears when he won just shows you. I understand that feeling so much. He put in so much work, so much of his life invested into this thing, and to have it culminate with running incredibly well in this one tournament. It's just surreal and emotionally it's very hard to deal with because we've been playing for so long you just never expect something like this to happen and when it doesn't feel real.
Matt Showell: We're really happy for you. Good luck and we hope it goes well for you.