If a great young athlete, there comes a time when, if you can hit a curve ball better than you can hit a textbook, you put aside the studies, at least for the moment.

Same could be said for talented young actors lured by a stage or technological wizs who excel at computers.

Gordon Vayo, too.

As a teen, he loved playing cards. Online poker, in particular.

“My parents, they didn’t quite know what to make of it,” says Vayo. “My dad … he wanted me to stop. My mom … she worried I was a gambler.”

But Vayo was good.

Very good.

By age 17, he joked in a serious way that he was making more money playing poker than both of his parents combined and they weren't exactly slouches: his dad, David, an accomplished musician, composer and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University; his mom, Margot, another musician and orchestra director at Metcalf School and University High in Normal.

By his senior year at U High, Vayo had already purchased his first car — a BMW — and on one weekend, was flying off to great seats he'd purchased for the Super Bowl.

Continuing to go to classes, while more sparingly, as an after-school activity Vayo would simply go home, pull out a chair, play poker on his computer and make about $160,000 a year.

It got to the point that, shortly before his scheduled graduation — earning no doubt more money than anyone in the school, administrators included — he was expelled from U-High, not because he was a major problem but "but because I was a little rebellious at that point in my life.”

Now 27, his love of cards parlayed into a highly scienced passion, Vayo is a professional poker player.

Please now remain seated.

Just this year, he already has made $1.6 million by playing cards.

That’s according to statistics kept by Caesar’s Entertainment in Las Vegas.

His finish at a qualifying tournament there also was good enough to vault him into the final field of nine at the "Main Event" of the "World Series of Poker" on Oct. 30.

It’ll be broadcast on ESPN.

There, Vayo could win a few more dollars.

Like, another $8 million.

While poker is not something comparable to much else in life, it coincidentally might be a mirror — it takes luck and also great intelligence, resolve, savvy, patience and mental calisthenics, like keeping a straight face when you have two pair, ace up, and others think you’re bluffing and have nothing than a 3, 5 and 9 in different colors and suits.

"And I learn more each day," says Vayo.

At its highest levels, gone are the days of the smoke-filled poker parlors with a Jackie Gleason or Paul Newman, eyes squinted, cigarette dangling, as they take another drink of vodka and slurringly ask the dealer for two more cards.

Vayo plays every day, sometimes 12 hours, but — outside of traveling to tournaments — it’s at home, in front of a computer, by himself, next to a cup of coffee or a 12-ounce bottle of water.

His life story, though, indeed might read like a movie screenplay. 

Confident, well-worded, highly polite, funny-in-a-dry-way is Vayo. He wins big and occasionally loses that way (once, about $370,000, he says). Considering he still is only 27, rather than a Gleason or a Newman, he might be more of a Doogie Howser with cards or, perhaps more applicable, a young Matt Damon in "Rounders," a 1998 movie about a young man and a love of poker.

"If they'd do a 'Rounders II'...," muses Vayo.

Each day, says Vayo, he awakens in his San Francisco apartment, takes his fiancée (Kate Dessa, a U High alum) to her job in marketing at a Bay area start-up, walks their dog in a nearby park. Average stuff.

Then he might begin playing cards, like he did earlier this year, with 6,737 others who began in the 2016 "World Series of Poker" field.

There, in that tournament, hand by hand, slowly making his way through the gargantuan field, was Vayo, until two weeks ago when he was at a table in Las Vegas. That's when he looked down at his chip stack, higher than others, and suddenly realized he was in a position to make the final table of nine, which is the world pinnacle of professional poker.

Simply qualifying in the Final 9 is an automatic $1 million.

Vayo has pocketed that.

From there, in late October, on ESPN, Vayo and eight others will play until one becomes the 2016 World Champion of Poker, which has an $8 million purse.

“To make the final table is insane,” says Vayo. “Did I ever envision something like this? Never did I think I’d be sitting at the table at the 'Main Event.' Win $8 million? Absolutely not. But could I win a million? Sure. I always thought I could do pretty well at poker. I knew that at 16.”

Says his mother, Margot: “I am immensely proud of Gordon, but there were many years during which I worried. When Gordon discovered he was good at poker and started winning so much money, it turned parenting and the value of high school upside down. None of the adults in his life knew how to work with the talent he showed and his financial success. Among the good I did see was how his skill enabled Gordon to see the world. He could play professional poker in the Caribbean, Canada, Ireland, France, Poland, Italy and Greece before he could play in the U.S., legally. Traveling was a great education."

Then Margot adds, "I still have a penciled note from Gordon that I've saved from when he was 18. On a scrap of paper, he wrote, 'Mom, there's a 1/2 sub for you in the 'fridge. I'm leaving for Aruba. Love you, Gordon.'"

Yes, it is all a ridiculous dream, sure, says Vayo. For others in his life, it might be called a bit of a nightmare, too.

But now, you might also say ... it was worth the gamble.


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