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From pauper to prince, baby!

As a child in war-torn Vietnam, Scotty Nguyen would witness death and destruction on a daily basis. Escaping the country in search of a better life, the now legendary poker pro embarked on what would become one of the most amazing journeys in the game. Gareth Bracken has been charting the incredible story

“It’s party time,” the newly-crowned world champion Scotty Nguyen tells the crowd, all of whom are on their feet clapping and cheering. The Prince of Poker has just secured the Main Event title at the 1998 World Series of Poker, cementing his status as one of the superstars of the game. The £1 million prize money completes a remarkable rags-to-riches tale for the Vietnamese immigrant, whose life started in altogether different surroundings.

Long before he was ever known by his adopted name of ‘Scotty’, Thuan Nguyen – his surname, fittingly, is pronounced ‘Win’ – was born in the Vietnamese coastal city of Nha Trang, just short of seven years into the Vietnam War. Speaking about his wartime experiences in the book Deal Me In (available from specialist poker and gambling bookshop High Stakes, for £24.95), Nguyen says: “I have seen atrocities firsthand that no child should ever have to witness. One schoolmate was blown to bits playing soccer in an area that turned out to be a minefield. I saw dead bodies piled in semi-trucks like garbage.”

The young Nguyen developed an early interest in poker, something that he puts down to his mother. “We played a form of blackjack and a form of five-card stud with one card down and four cards up. My mother actually played cards for money. I would sit behind her and watch.” He recalls that his father was much less approving however. “My dad hated poker with a passion. If he caught me playing, he’d bring me home and beat me with a rubber hose.”

It was Nguyen’s mother – not wanting her son to be drafted into the army – who funded his and his brother’s attempt to travel to Thailand. The first big gamble of Scotty’s life looked to have backfired however when their makeshift vessel ran off course in the Pacific Ocean after being chased by Communist police, running out of fuel and supplies in the process. Nguyen relayed the story to his fellow players during an episode of television show Poker After Dark, revealing how close he came to actually eating his own brother in order to survive.

“I was 14 and my brother was 12, and there were 17 of us in a small boat. We ran out of gas and food, the boat just floated wherever. On the 22nd day, my brother can’t even talk no more, he’s sick – almost dead. We were thinking about eating him, but we had to give him a chance. He was still breathing, so we gave him one more day. If he died we would have to eat him to survive.” As it was, a huge wave on the 23rd day swept their craft into the vicinity of a Taiwanese ship, which eventually helped them to safety.

Once in Taiwan, Scotty’s plan was to find an American sponsor family to live in the US with. He did eventually get placed with a family in Chicago, but only after spending two years in a Taiwanese refugee camp and being separated from his brother. Unfortunately his problems didn’t end there, as his new family had Nguyen labouring on their farm. The non-English speaking Nguyen was only able to escape the situation six months later when he explained his situation to a Vietnamese house guest, whose husband intervened to get him out. Nguyen’s next stop was Orange County, California where he was reunited with his brother. These proved to be happier times, as Nguyen himself acknowledges in Deal Me In. “To this day, I still call my California sponsors Mom and Dad. They were wonderful, generous people, and they treated me just like one of their own kids.”

Despite enjoying his newfound happy home life, Nguyen soon discovered that things weren’t so good for his family back in Vietnam. He learned that they were struggling financially and so dropped out of school in an attempt to make some money to send home. He admits though to spending much of his meagre earnings on himself, before experiencing an epiphany that made him realise he had to do more to help his mother, the woman who had sold everything she owned to help him escape Vietnam.

Aged 19 he made the decision to travel to Las Vegas, a choice that was to shape the rest of his life. It was hardly a glamorous introduction to Sin City however, and the man who would later be known for cleaning up at the poker table spent his first two years cleaning tables at the Holiday Inn, the venue that would eventually become Harrah’s. It was here that Thuan became ‘Scotty’, after his boss decided that the former was too difficult to pronounce.

It wasn’t too long before the lure of the cards lead to Nguyen enrolling at poker dealer school and becoming a Harrah’s dealer. He says that he would watch the players play and think, “these guys are playing badly, I can beat them all”. He says that it was while he was dealing in Lake Tahoe that one particularly rude and abusive player at his table enraged him so much that he quit his job to take up the game, making it his goal to follow said player around from table to table in an attempt, in his own words, “to break him”. Nguyen returned from Lake Tahoe with a $15,000 bankroll and soon built this up to over $1 million, aided by a two-way chop in a $1,000 Pot-Limit Omaha tournament.

Scotty’s story has never been a simple however, and a combination of gambling, alcohol and drugs took their toll as Nguyen lost all of his bankroll in just three months, including a four-hour spell playing craps that cost him $1 million. He was forced to return to his dealer job until he could afford to resume his poker career. Not for the first time in his life he fought back from adversity, his poker comeback culminating in his winning a bracelet in the Omaha Eight Or Better event at the 1997 World Series of Poker, earning himself $156,959.

There was still time for one more major downswing though, and by the time of the 1998 World Series of Poker Nguyen found himself without enough cash to afford the buy-in for the Main Event, leaving fellow professional Mike Matusow to stake part of his entry into a satellite event. He progressed to the 350-strong Main Event, where he battled his was down to the last two. Playing heads-up against American Kevin McBride, Nguyen holds J-9 against his opponent’s Q-10 when the board produces a full house, eights full of nines. The nine in Nguyen’s hand gives him a better full house however, and he moves all in. McBride is considering his response when Nguyen utters the now-infamous line: “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby!” McBride calls, later revealing that Nguyen’s psychology induced him to do so, and Nguyen became 1998 Main Event champion, winning $1 million. The Vietnamese refugee who had arrived in America with next to nothing was now a millionaire world champ.

For a man who had been through so much in his life it was cruel that Nguyen’s special moment was to be followed by tragedy when one of his brothers was killed in a car crash the day after his Main Event victory. Dung Nguyen was hit by a truck when returning home having been out spreading the news of Scotty’s victory. Nguyen therefore never wears his ’98 bracelet and goes as far to say that “there is not a day goes by that I don’t wish that I’d never won that tournament. I still cry for my brother every time I think of it.”

Nguyen has gone on to achieve further success in poker and now has a total of five World Series bracelets, the most recent of which came in the 2008 H.O.R.S.E event. The victory was tarnished however by Nguyen’s drunken and abusive behaviour at the final table, actions he later apologised for. It was the latest instalment in what has been not only a colourful career at the table but a fascinating life away from it, with Nguyen experiencing the depths of hardship that most could never imagine, but also the levels of glory that few will ever reach.
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