With his trademark gold rings and chains, Scotty Nguyen is one of the recognisable faces in world poker
The first time Scotty Nguyen gazed upon the bright lights of Las Vegas, he was 20 years old and practically broke. Having made the monumental decision to spend a weekend gambling in Vegas, Nguyen and several friends drove east from the southern California suburb of Orange County. They negotiated their way through the desert and stopped at a place called Whiskey Pete’s. It was a roadside casino of modest proportions, but the boys felt certain that they had landed upon the mouth of Sin City.
Nguyen and his pals went inside, each of them holding a bankroll of 600 or so dollars. After two hours of slot play, their cash was nearly depleted and a security guard asked to see ID. All the guys were underage and they were politely asked to vacate. ‘Why couldn’t you stop us a couple hours earlier, when we still had money left?’ Scotty wanted to know.
Having no more than $25 between them, they piled into their car and began the long ride home to Orange County. Mission unaccomplished. Then Scotty looked back and saw the Caesars Palace logo burning in the inky black sky. He convinced his friends to turn around. They made their way into town, cruised the Strip, ogled girls, and pigged-out on a 79-cent breakfast buffet at Harrah’s. That night Scotty’s friends drove home without him. He had a vibe about Vegas and managed to secure a bus boy’s job while the other guys were eating bacon and eggs.
And, just like that, on a random night in 1982, in a go-for-broke twist-of-fate, the future high stakes poker star Scotty Nguyen was born.
‘It’s like I was destined to be here,’ says Scotty, as he sits in the living room of his well-appointed house, just a few minutes from the Strip. He’s got a couple of monkeys lounging around in a cage, a beautiful garden, and comfortably plush furnishings inside. His hair is pomaded back, gold chains hang around his neck, a skin-tight wife-beater leaves sinewy biceps exposed. ‘It’s like God made this happen for me.’
Over the years Scotty has managed to win four WSOP bracelets, made seven final tables at World Poker Tour events (‘Nobody else has done that, baby’), and won his first WPT bracelet, along with the $969,421 first prize, in January of this year. But back when he first came to Vegas, on that fateful night in 1982, fame and fortune were a million miles away. Scotty immediately moved into a garden apartment with five Vietnamese roommates, he worked hard as a buffet bus boy, and felt perfectly thrilled to be within close proximity of the action that defines Vegas.
After turning 21, he went to dealer’s school and got a job in the Harrah’s poker room. That was when things really began to take off.
‘I watched people and realised you could make a good living playing poker,’ Scotty says, recalling that the only games being spread back then were Texas Hold’em and Seven-Card Stud. ‘I still had no goals, but I saw possibilities. I made $150 a day dealing, and that was good money. Every day, as soon as I got out of Harrah’s, I would go down to the Stardust to play $3/$6 Stud. Every night I’d go broke but I didn’t care. I just wanted to gamble.’
Did Scotty realise that he was a donkey? ‘I didn’t even know what a donkey was. I didn’t know what a fish was. I just knew that the other players were always happy to see me. After each session, I’d go home and sleep, just like everybody else. Losing the money never really bothered me. I always knew that I would make $150 the next day.’
Slowly, though, Scotty evolved from donkey to table captain. The stakes increased, and he moved over to Texas Hold’em, a game that best suited his aggressive instincts. In 1985, when an opportunity arose for him to go up to Lake Tahoe to deal in a no-limit Hold’em tournament, he secured two weeks off from Harrah’s, put together a meagre bankroll and headed for the resort city in western Nevada. Scotty was unsure whether or not he’d even play in the $1,000 no-limit tournament (he was totally inexperienced at both no-limit and tournament play) but he quickly deployed his Vegas MO – deal all day and play cash games all night.
Suddenly things clicked. Maybe the competition wasn’t as tough in Tahoe. Maybe all those long nights at the Stardust finally coalesced into something potent. Whatever the case, Scotty managed to run his bankroll up to $7,000. ‘It felt like $700,000,’ he remembers, adding that he was unsure as to whether or not he wanted to risk one-seventh of his wad on a tournament that would be almost impossible for him to win. At one point, he got to the cage and couldn’t pull the trigger on buying in. He stepped out of line and reconsidered. Finally, though, he ponied up the thousand, and, by the time he sat down to play, all doubt had been shaken from his psyche.
He says that he totally put himself outside of the tournament realm and forgot about the fact he was a neophyte. From the sound of things, Scotty just played each table like he was in a Stardust cash game – albeit, one with everescalating blinds and antes.
‘I didn’t think about the field or anything,’ he insists, ‘it was all about sitting down and playing poker. Next thing I know, the single guy that I’m up against, he looks at me and says, “Why don’t we chop it? It’ll be $140,000 each. We’ll give the dealer $10,000 apiece and you tip the floorman whatever you want.”’
Scotty’s response? ‘Hell, yeah!’
Returning to Las Vegas, Scotty was a changed man. He quit his job at Harrah’s, and figured that he’d never look back again. ‘I ran the $150,000 up to a million and no one could stop me,’ he says. ‘I was playing with Johnny Chan, Puggy Pearson, David Grey, you name it. Everyone was talking about this young kid coming up: Scotty Nguyen. I bought a brand new Z 28 [Chevrolet] for $17,000 cash; a brand new Corvette for $21,000 cash; and a condominium for $60,000 cash. But the thing is that I never even stayed at the condo. I was playing so much craps at Caesars that they put me into a giant suite. I’d win $40,000 or $50,000 a night at dice. Every time I rolled I had $100,000 on the table, and Caesars treated me like a god. Anything I wanted, they gave it to me.’
Tipping large – ‘If somebody tipped $10, I tipped $100’ – and in a gambling frenzy, Scotty was soon packing his nose with cocaine and surrounding himself with all the worst people. ‘I thought everybody liked me for me, but it was for the money, for what I could give them,’ he now acknowledges, pointing out that he frequently retreated to the suite and privately indulged in his bad habits.
‘I’d lie down on the big bed, do coke, smoke weed. I had all- American girlfriends, but I never did the drugs with them or in front of them. I didn’t want them to see me that way.’
Things moved at warp speed, and Scotty became convinced the good times would never end. Like a mini Stu Ungar, he was totally focused on gambling and drugs and filling casino lockboxes with the cash that seemed incapable of eluding him. He had two boxes at Caesars and two at Bob Stupak’s Vegas World. All four boxes were stuffed with chips and currency.
‘All I cared about was money,’ he says, sounding a little dreamy. ‘Then, in four hours, I lost it all. The dice ran bad and I wouldn’t leave the table. I had the guys from Caesars bring me my boxes. I played till they were empty. Then I called Bob Stupak and told him I needed my money. He wanted me to come down and get it. But I said, ‘Drill a hole and bring me the boxes.’ I had the only keys. So he brought one to the table. I emptied the box and played through everything that was in it. Then I called for the next one. By the end of the night it was all gone. I felt absolutely sick. I felt like killing myself.’ Casino bosses, of course, had been watching Scotty for weeks. They knew that this ending was inevitable. That is why they never sweated the losses and kept him in the fancy suite. Sooner or later, as long as he kept gambling at Caesars, the house would get its money back – and then some. ‘After it was all over,’ remembers Scotty, ‘a supervisor came by and walked me to the cage. They gave me $5,000 and told me I could keep the suite.’
In no time at all everything was gone. The Corvette and condo were both sold, Scotty returned to dealing at Harrah’s, he resumed low stakes play and began the process of rebuilding. ‘I had nothing,’ he says, ‘but that should prove to you how strong I am. I can go down seven times but always stand up the eighth. That’s why I always come out ahead, no matter how many times I get knocked down. Without a barrier, there is no success. Without a hard time, there is no good time.’
Toughened by a childhood in war-torn Vietnam and rough circumstances during his early years in America, Scotty is a survivor. No doubt, even the roughest poker-related circumstances are minor compared with the reality of living through the Vietnam War. But that reality did not make life any easier for Scotty on a day-today basis. Nor did it serve to temper his bad habits. He continued to have massive swings (Scotty says he’s gone broke over a hundred times), won his first World Series bracelet (at Omaha in 1997), got married, fathered children, and weaned himself off drugs but not the potentially bankrupting leaks that plague a lot of poker players.
‘I got into betting sports,’ he says. ‘If they had 16 games on Sunday, I’d bet all 16. I’d get stuck $5,000 on the 10am games, then double my bets for 1pm. If I lost those I’d be chasing $15,000 at 5pm. If I lost again, I’d bet everything on Monday night. I was sick, man, but I’m a gambler. I’ll bet on anything. I’ll bet that you will walk out the door and fall on your way to the car.’
Indeed, if poker is what has provided Scotty with a great life – and it’s reflected in his house, a virtual shrine to the tournament brilliance of Scotty Nguyen, as evidenced by the framed news clippings, trophies and bracelets on display – then it’s all the other gambling that continually threatens to take it away. He recalls sitting at the poker table, making random bets on whether a woman would turn left or right after exiting the room. He recounts watching baseball on an overhead TV screen and giving odds on the next pitch resulting in a home run.
It’s the kind of self-destructive gambling that led him to begin the 1998 World Series with plenty of cash only to be broke days before the start of the Main Event. ‘I was flat broke,’ he admits. ‘I didn’t even have $100 in my pocket.’
No stranger to long shots, Mike Matusow stepped up and invested $500 – half a single-table satellite seat – in Scotty. Somebody else put up the other half, and Scotty won his entry. He played brilliant poker that year, made it to the final table, and found himself heads-up with a Floridian player named Kevin McBride. He went on to win in one of the most infamous hands in poker history took his share of the money, $333,333, and used it to buy a big house for himself, his wife Dawn, and their kids (he’s since divorced Dawn, is living in a more modest home, and has married a woman named Julie who is pregnant with his seventh child).
Winning the Series improved his financial life, but it went beyond that. He’d previously accumulated more money than what his cut provided, so he didn’t feel incredibly rich. But he did feel honoured. And Scotty says that the bracelet changed him as a man. ‘I used to throw cards after bad beats, curse at dealers, call people names,’ he says. ‘I embarrassed my wife and I embarrassed myself. After winning the championship, I realised that I couldn’t do that anymore. I became calmer, treated people better, started carrying myself like a champion.’ He considers this for a beat, then sort of brags, ‘Between 1998 and now, I’ve maybe cursed at dealers 10 times, but never at the table.’
Talking a good game
More importantly, the win enhanced his playing style. A guy who uses table talk to get information out of his opponents – and pressure them into making bad decisions – Scotty’s got a brash approach to poker. It is augmented by his tendency to drink beer while he plays and maintain a running commentary on the game. Some people find it annoying, but it works for Scotty and looks great on TV.
In the 2003 World Series Main Event, he put his table image to excellent use, pulling off a memorable bluff against Humberto Brenes. It began when Scotty bet 12,000 with 8-3 off-suit and announced, ‘21’. Unfazed, Brenes, who happened to be holding A-10, raised 40,000. Scotty took some time, considered what to do, and it looked like he was going to fold but wanted to save face by making it appear to be a tough decision. Then Scotty announced, ‘This is going to be the greatest play I’ve ever made.’ He pushed in 100,000, swigged from his bottle of Michelob, and called for more beer.
As Brenes considered what to do, Scotty cockily said, ‘You can’t call. It’s too much for you; 100,000 is too much.’ He was right. Brenes folded and Scotty feigned disgust, groaning, ‘No! Noooo!’ Then he held up his ugly cards to the crowd, showing that he bet $100,000 with one of Hold’em’s worst starting hands.
A roar of approval welled up. Scotty smacked his head and said, ‘Shit! I thought I was playing Blackjack!’ Then he grinned into the ESPN camera and announced, ‘That’s no-limit, baby!’
The good life
Despite some bold play, Scotty didn’t win any of the World Series events that year. But don’t feel too sorry for him. He snagged half a million dollars in 2003 and cleared over $1m in 2005, which he’s more or less repeated this year. That money, augmented by cheques he receives for representing the Cherokee Casino Resort chain (located on Indian reservations in Oklahoma), has built the foundation for a good life. Scotty does nothing but play tournament poker these days, and he relishes the degree of stability that comes with it.
‘I like being home now,’ he says. ‘When you go out into the casinos at night, bad habits come around: women, drugs, that sort of thing. Plus I don’t even play many tournaments anymore, only the ones with buy-ins of $5,000 or more.’
It’s a degree of pickiness that makes each of his chosen events all the more important – and helped turn the 2006 Series into a real heartbreaker. At the time of this interview, just a couple of days before the Main Event, Scotty had invested $160,000 in the World Series and failed to make a dime.
Nevertheless, he seems cheery for a guy who’s had such bust-out results, and I wonder if he ever lets the losses get him down. ‘C’mon, baby, this is my job; I have good days and bad days,’ he says. ‘If I got upset, I couldn’t sit here with you and have this nice conversation.’ Then he reconsiders and admits, ‘Sure, when I come home I’m disappointed. I don’t talk to anyone. I don’t want to play with the kids. But then I go outside. I water the flowers. I watch the monkeys go crazy. I sit there for a little while and look at the garden. It relaxes me. This has been my worst World Series ever. But you know what? I can still win the Big One. And that will make up for everything.’
He was as confident as he should have been at the time. However, as we all know now, Scotty did not win the Big One. He didn’t come close. He didn’t even finish in the money. But in the crush and confusion of all the action, I’m not exactly sure of when and how he got eliminated. A couple of weeks after things wind down, I call him, hoping to find out what went down. ‘Oh, man,’ Scotty says, speaking in the moany-groany tone that usually intimates a bad beat story or two. ‘I struggled all through the first day and did not play good. I ended with only 13,000. Then, on Day 2, I ran it up to 80,000 in six hours. I played so good and thought I was unbeatable. I won 94 percent of my hands and ran people over. I was cruising smooth, past the dinner break. Then I pushed all-in with A-J and a guy called me with A-K…’
His voice tails off and he doesn’t need to go any further. We’ve all been there.
‘You wish you can turn it back,’ Scotty continues, now beginning to brighten. ‘You can’t, though. That’s the way it goes. But one event is not going to slow me down. And I’ll be back there next year.’
Who are ya?
Name: Scotty Nguyen
Resides: Las Vegas
Nickname: The Prince of Poker
Style: of play Aggressive
Tournament winnings: $6,726,677
WSOP bracelets: 4
Biggest win: WSOP No-limit Hold’em World Championship 1998 $1,000,000
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