By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Ted Sequoi
Leo Alvarez and Men “The Master” Nguyen confront one another across an oval poker table in an unadorned tournament room at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens. It’s 10 p.m. on a weekday evening, and a crowd of 20 people — largely Vietnamese, mostly rooting for the man named Men — lean in after every shuffle and watch the hands of seven-card stud unfold. Earlier in the day, at around 3 o’clock, this space, which resembles nothing so much as a Holiday Inn ballroom, was full of players — all 118 of them, each of whom put up $330 apiece to enter the tournament, angling for a share of the $35,400 pot.
Now it’s down to two guys at a table, holding all the chips, vying for the lion’s share of the proceeds ($14,160 for the winner, $8,140 for the runner-up and the rest of the money split among the top six finishers below them).
Men, 49, rolls up the sleeves of his white dress shirt, pushing the cuffs past his elbows. He wears black pants with yellow monogrammed letters along the legs. Lemon-colored Buddha beads ride low on one wrist; on the other is a thin, gold watch that commemorates Men’s $280,000 first prize from the 2001 Tournament of Champions poker match at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. On Men’s feet: square-toed elevator boots, custom-made in Chinatown. His face is a slightly pocked full moon. His hair is like barbed wire. Light glints off his pinky ring. Suddenly, Men karate-slices the felt-covered tabletop. Aiming to bully his opponent into ending things right here — it’s been a long day and his stomach just rumbled . . . he’s hungry — Men looks at Leo and says, “Let’s chop it,” meaning that they should split the money.
Just one problem. Leo, a 30-something hipster with slicked-back hair, a goatee and shades, has never won a tournament. He is a sharp player and wants to leave with the first-place finisher’s ring. But Men has more chips and would be the de facto winner. “Let’s take $10,000 apiece and play for the last $2,000 and the ring,” Leo suggests, pumping his right knee at 120 bpm.
Men looks at Leo. Then he shoots a leer toward a Vietnamese hottie, wearing a black miniskirt sitting in Leo’s corner. Diminutive but bombastic, the 5-foot-tall Men loudly jokes, “We play for $2,000 and the girl.”
The girl, sitting a few seats behind Leo, blushes. “Men’s got plenty of women. He doesn’t need me,” she softly cracks, then reaches into a bag of shrimp chips and crunches away.
All of this gets a big laugh from everyone — except Leo. He’s focused on the ring.
The next hand is dealt and the head games begin in earnest. “What are you doing, Leo?” Men asks after Leo, with two high pairs, bets into him. Men raises. Leo considers his options and folds. Men cackles and reveals his two fours, which would have lost to Leo’s stronger cards.
For the next hour, Men the Master plays like a high-stakes David Blaine, producing the right cards in a way that seems magical — if not impossible. But he is not controlling the cards. He is controlling his subject — in this case, poor Leo. When Leo signals uncertainty by making a medium-size bet, Men raises with gusto, leaving the impression that he is running a bluff. “Yum, yum,” Men says, licking his chops, nervously glancing at his cards.
Then he unveils a full house. “Leo, Leo, Leo,” he tsk-tsks. “You should have known better than to go in against me when I say yum.”
A few hands later, he showily bluffs. After that, he sets a trap, leading Leo to believe that he can win against daunting odds. “You are making big mistakes here, losing opportunities, Leo,” Men scolds, raking in chips. Piling a big stack, he adds, “Now you have no chance to beat the Master.”
All this showboating is possible because Men feels no emotional attachment to the money at risk. High-stakes poker players can’t. Care about it too much, and your hands will shake as you push, say, $20,000 toward a pile of chips that you hope to take from a player who most certainly has a stronger hand than you. For Men, money is a tool. He looks at a $100,000 stack the same way a home builder might view a parking lot full of heavy equipment: Its actual value is a lot less than what it can build.
By 11 p.m., Men is posing for Polaroids with a pile of cash in front of him and, in a velvet-bottomed case, the commemorative ring — it actually looks a little like what you get when you graduate from high school. “People see me play and say, ‘He’s lucky.’ Or they think I talk too much and needle people. But I don’t care,” says Men, exiting the poker room with such jubilant strides that he’s practically dancing. “I came to this country with empty hands. Now, I got everything I want. All I need to do is say, ‘Call, Raise, Call.’ And people give me their money.”