Dealing with the Master

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).

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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.”

Can it really be that simple? Men shrugs. “Americans made me who I am today. I love America. Without America, I would probably be dead.”


Men at work

Near the Bicycle Casino entrance, Men huddles with half a dozen of the Vietnamese players who had been watching him in action all evening. They crack up at Men’s jokes and review the hands that have just been played, dissecting how everything went down. For most people, poker is a game of chance, played with a seat-of-the-pants strategy. For Men and his cartel of Vietnamese poker players, the game is as choreographed as tai chi, with each situation demanding a correct move and countermove.

Local expat Vietnamese poker players love Men the Master. He is their don, their father, their teacher. Unlike most poker pros, Men rarely travels without his retinue in tow. They provide him with the kind of unquestioning respect granted to strongmen everywhere. They rise to their feet and cheer when Men enters a casino. They call him “Master” with no irony. They savor every word that comes from his mouth. Westerners on the circuit view him with less exaltation. One of Europe’s hottest players snickeringly calls him “Men the Monkey.” A top pro in Las Vegas characterizes him as “a sleazy guy.” And one New York player suggests that Men and his Vietnamese acolytes engage in ugly forms of collusion.

Whether you view Men as Master or Monkey, however, it’s impossible to ignore his success. At poker tables in Southern California and Las Vegas, Men has won more than 75 major poker tournaments and raked in prize money in excess of $4 million over 17 years — that’s just a fraction of what he has also won in cash games. In 2002, he was ranked number five on Card Player magazine’s list of the winningest players in poker; a year earlier, he was number one. “Men’s got a special ability to read opponents’ cards,” says Barry Shulman, publisher of Card Player. “Plus, he has some kind of photographic memory.” Why the derision from other players? “He wins their money and doesn’t give a shit what anybody thinks.”

Beyond his own game, Men has also proved to be a deft mentor, training and financing a posse of Vietnamese poker pros who hit the tables and operate with the single-minded precision of trained assassins. Guys who’ve never before gambled, who speak broken English but have mathematical instincts, are tutored by Men in the ways of flushes and full houses. In exchange, the players that Men calls “my boys” abide by his rules: 2 a.m. curfew, no drugs, no sex with other players’ girlfriends, and, most important of all, if Men tells you to do something, you do it.

Their success and attendant loyalty have imbued Men with riches and power that poker itself never could provide. “He’s trained more tournament winners than anyone else in the business,” says Benny Binion Behnen , grandson and namesake of the founder of legendary Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas, the setting for the current best-seller Positively Fifth Street, about the 2000 World Series of Poker and the concurrent murder trial of troubled family scion Teddy Binion. “Men is the best money manager in poker, the only guy I know whose money is taller than he is. He’s got a piece of everything going. I call him the Vietnamese Godfather.” One of his players, skinny Chau Lee, who has a stringy map of Vietnam tattooed down his bicep, puts it more militantly: “We are Men the Master’s soldiers.”


An hour or so after his victory against Leo, Men takes his crowd out for a celebratory dinner. As always, Men pays and chooses where the meal will be eaten. Try to pick up the tab, and he will say, “Please, you are my guest. This is my way.” It’s about Men getting off on being the host, the big man, the father figure.

On this particular night, Men’s table at NYC Seafood, a big Monterey Park Chinese joint, groans under a lazy Susan jammed with platters of lobster, giant clam, steak with peppers and onions, pork in sweet-and-sour sauce, tuna sashimi, seaweed, fried rice, and little bottles of ‰ Vietnamese hot sauce that these guys never leave home without. Among the Vietnamese poker players crowding the big, round table are Van Pham, a tough and blustery poker pro in his own right; Hai Tran, a scraggly-haired older gent who owes his poker career to Men and serves as first lieutenant, largely because his distaste for craps makes him a good person to hold the team’s money; and David “The Dragon” Pham, who is both Men’s cousin and the most convincing evidence that Men is a masterful instructor. In 2000, Card Player magazine named Pham player of the year; in 2002, he ranked a totally respectable 14.

“I hooked up with Men in 1988,” says Pham, slender, mustachioed, speaking with a dragging stutter. Plucking a fat shrimp from the lazy Susan, he snaps off the crustacean’s head and explains, “I came from Vietnam and worked for a dry cleaner that Men owned. Every night I see Men coming home with big money. He tells me the money comes from poker.” Pham smiles a big, toothy grin: “I say, ‘Teach me to play poker.’”

Asked precisely what it is that Men has taught him, Pham whispers conspiratorially, “How to read people’s hands. I read other people’s cards even more than I read my own. Then, when I have a worse hand than my opponent, I can still win by making him think I’ve got something better.”

Though the advice sounds simple, it’s difficult to do proficiently and impossible for most players to teach; it’s about having a card sensibility and savvy — the gambler’s equivalent of good taste — which develops through costly trial and error. Elusive as it is, this sixth sense is essential for successful play in a game where you cannot survive simply by hoping for the best cards every day.

High-stakes poker is about sensing what your opponents are doing, then telegraphing back select pieces of information and disinformation. It’s a multilayered game of traps, subtle deceptions and perfectly timed balls-to-the-wall bluffs; whoever X-rays deepest gets the money. It’s been said that the very best poker players, guys like the late Stu Ungar and the legendary Doyle Brunson, can win without even looking at their cards. In fact, the best players win through sheer manipulation of opponents — regardless of who really has the winning hand. It’s what Men did earlier this evening, against Leo, and it is what one seasoned Western player, a motion-picture location manager named Steve, who tries to supplement his income through poker, hopes he can learn from the Master.

Men schools his posse

A late arrival at tonight’s dinner, Steve wants to become Men’s first Caucasian student. In exchange for the tutelage, Men wants 5 percent of Steve’s future winnings — for life. Steve refuses to give up that much. “Steve,” Men begins, refilling his plate with food, “the reason I don’t want to take you on for less than 5 percent is because my people here, they are all Vietnamese, all Buddhist, and they all swear to our god, to Buddha, that they will not betray me.” What remains implicit is that Steve is not Buddhist and there will be little to stop him from eventually taking Men’s secrets and blabbing them to the world — never mind reneging on the 5 percent agreement, which would seem impossible to enforce anyway.

Not bothering to make eye contact with Steve, Men casually adds, “You say that 5 percent for life is too much. But you get to many final tables and do not win tournaments. I will teach you to win.” Men chews, swallows and asks, “How come you didn’t play today?”

Steve turns his beefy face down to his plate of food. He runs a hand through thinning gray hair and admits, “I’m too disgusted. I’m losing a lot of money.”

Men considers this, then proposes what sounds like a magnanimous offer: “Steve, you come to my house tomorrow. I will give you a free lesson. We come up with situations, and I will tell you whether you play the hand wrong or right. You’ll love it.”

Steve agrees to be there at 2 p.m. Men turns away and jumps into the middle of a Vietnamese conversation. Steve cranes toward me and says, “I have seen Men fold kings, queens, flush draws when he senses he’s beaten. He lays down hands that I cannot believe. He’s the best at reading other players.” Another lesson for Men’s students: Cutting your losses is almost as important as winning.

An hour or so later, tummy no longer rumbling, Men drives me to my hotel, a Ramada Inn near the Bicycle Casino. I step out of the car, and so does Men. He leaves the engine running and the lights on. He comes around to the passenger side, where I stand, and reaches into his pants pocket. Extracting an enormous wad of hundreds, Men looks up at me and fingers five bills. Then he hands them toward me. “You came here and I won the tournament,” he says with a big smile as I hold up my hands and back away. “You brought me a lot of luck.”

After hearing that I cannot possibly accept his money, Men looks offended. “It’s lucky money,” he says, fanning the cash. “Take it.”

I rebuff him again, and he disappointedly returns the bills to his wad. This may be the only time someone has refused Men “The Master” Nguyen’s money.

It is raining Rolexes, Movados and Tag Heuers in the long, dim living room of Men the Master’s townhouse. Situated in smoggy Bell Gardens, it’s a modest spread for a Master. But nobody’s complaining. Upstart players Minh Nguyen, Van Pham, Hai Tran, David Pham and the luckless Steve are among those who pass around seven boxed wristwatches that signify various tournament wins. They sit on black leather sofas and chairs, marveling at the timepieces, fiddling with poker chips, absently shuffling cards on a shiny, low-slung coffee table.

At the other end of the room sits Men’s very pretty wife, Tuyet, 33, a recent arrival from Vietnam. He married her 12 years ago, but brought her to the States only in 2000. “I didn’t want her to come to this country right away and change,” says Men. “I like the Vietnamese way. I tell her to cook for me, she cooks. I tell her to sit, she sits. She makes me happy. Other people bring their wives here from Vietnam and get divorced.” Tuyet sips apple juice and talks on a cordless phone while keeping track of their rambunctious 3-year-old daughter, Tiffany.

Back at this end of the room, Men passes around a big cardboard bank. The guys slip in $10s, $20s, $50s — each member’s tithe. The money, Men says, will go toward building schools and temples in his Vietnamese hometown. On a black-lacquer shelving unit — crowded with poker trophies alongside bottles of cognac and snake wine — reside framed snapshots of three single-story buildings that he says he has already had con- structed. After eyeing each person’s tribute, Men deals poker hands, divvying cards face-up so he can critique each student’s play. The session operates like a law seminar, with every hand getting taken apart, analyzed, strategized and absorbed.

After a few rounds of this, Men offers a Texas Hold’em scenario: “You have pocket nines. The guy who raised in front of you has $30,000 in chips. You have $40,000. What do you do?”

Steve considers this. “That depends on how many people are at the table,” he says.

“Final table in a tournament, six players,” Men says impatiently. “What you gonna do?”

“Two nines at the final table?” Steve pauses to think, as all eyes focus on him.

“What you gonna do?” Men demands to know. “He put in half his stack.”

“Either I fold or raise,” says Steve, believing that it’d be best to retreat or else to telegraph a strong hand and encourage the other player to fold.

“What about you?” asks Men, turning to a pillowy-lipped player without commenting on Steve’s response.

“Raise,” says pillow lips.

“You?” Men says to Hai Tran.

“I fold,” he says. “If you are in the hand, he might hurt you. Why take the chance?”

Men verbally circles the room, asking each player the same question. Then he offers a proclamation: “Best thing to do with two nines is fold. There are only six people in the tournament. Let somebody else get hurt. Or let somebody hurt the bettor.”

This is followed by a flurry of Vietnamese, as the guys energetically offer their own analyses. Then Men holds up his hands, and all talk stops. “Okay, okay,” he says. “Now we’ve got the same cards with a different situation: There are four tables left, the guy has $3,000, you have $2,800, and they pay two tables. The guy in front of you calls. One guy raises to $2,000. What are you gonna do?”

It goes on like this for a couple of hours. Guys propose various situations, everybody contributes an opinion, and Men the Master offers his final analysis. It’s a deep-think, almost Talmudic, session that could last through the night. But some things take precedence over all else. Hai Tran looks at his wristwatch before telling Men, “Master, it is time to play poker.”

Conversation ceases. The guys hustle outside and speed off to their promised land: the Bicycle Casino.

While it’s not unusual for players to stake one another, the group dynamic Men has created is altogether different from the often-cutthroat world of high-stakes poker, where information, advice and tips are guarded like precious gems. Men’s cabal is more like a family (whether or not that is with a capital F is open for debate) with a patriarchal banker. One afternoon, between matches, he opens up a small spiral notebook and exposes his operation’s finances.

He currently has six players on his team. They not only get poker coaching, they’re funded out of a bank containing around $400,000. That money gets used to finance travel and enter tournaments. But it’s all divvied out as an advance against future earnings. “In exchange for putting up the money and teaching, I get 50 percent of everybody’s wins,” Men says, explaining that after positive days his players also pay back the money they owe, off the top. Men flashes 20 Visa cards and a half-dozen keys to casino lock boxes, which can be employed to produce several hundred thousand dollars in cash immediately. “Aside from the bank for my boys, I have a personal bankroll of $100,000. If I need more money, I can take it from the players’ bank. But I’d be more likely to stop playing for a while. When I run bad, I take time off and let these guys play for me.”

Running bad and going broke are occupational hazards that help explain why Men lives economically. The place he’s got in Bell Gardens is no dump, though with his poker proceeds, Men could presumably afford a more upscale address. But he likes it here just fine, only a few minutes from “the office” and surrounded by working-class Vietnamese who treat him like God.

Plus, the location allows him to keep his overhead low. Like many professional gamblers, Men will not think twice about betting the farm on a solid wager, but he can’t see living with crippling expenses and having to juggle the kinds of bills that would put his bankroll in jeopardy.

For all of that, Men says he’s gone bust only once, back in 1994. “I lost $100,000 in a single night,” he remembers. “I was playing $200/$400 Hold’em and got myself killed. I should never have lost that kind of money. At $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, I should have stopped.” When a former student refused to loan money to Men, he turned to the credit cards and withdrew cash at usurious interest rates. “Less than one year later, I won $300,000 at a Binion’s Horseshoe tournament, and I haven’t looked back since. But now I’m careful not to get in the deep shit again.”


Twenty-four stories above downtown Las Vegas, the living room in Men the Master’s three-bedroom suite at Binion’s Horseshoe is a clutter of coolers filled with food and drink. Between poker games, Men pads around in a red T-shirt and checked boxer shorts. He reaches into a tub full of icy-cold Coors, pulls one out and jams in a piece of lime.

He takes a big swig, and the hem of his shorts rides up a bit, revealing a crude, blocky-lettered tattoo on his right thigh: Pulau Besar, the name of an island in Malaysia. It serves as a daily reminder of tough times and humble origins. His earliest recollections are set in the South Vietnamese seaside town of Phanthiet, 150 miles outside of Saigon. During Men’s formative years there, he saw American soldiers slicing ears from wounded Viet Cong and slipping the souvenirs inside their star-spangled shirt pockets. Dead bodies, bomb blasts, midnight interrogations — those things were regular occurrences in young Men’s world. “A friend was about to get married,” he remembers. “The night before his wedding, a bomb dropped on his house and he died. Things like that happened all the time.”

Men quit school at 13, worked odd jobs and eventually landed a steady gig as a bus driver. But he hated living under a communist regime. In 1977, Men escaped on a boat to a refugee camp on Pulau Besar; during five days at sea, he lived on handfuls of rice and sips of water.

Six months later, he was relocated to Los Angeles, where he shared a Koreatown studio with another guy from the camp. A month after that, Men found an apartment at Eighth and Catalina, attended ESL classes and worked as a machinist for Sun Net Tool. Before long, he moved in with a Salvadoran woman, they had a daughter together, and Men felt like he was part of a family. Then she dumped him and took their kid. For the next several years, Men worked hard, dated a succession of women and felt unsatisfied with his life.

In 1984, a friend suggested that Men join him on a junket to Las Vegas. He was making decent money with Sun Net by then, and Vegas sounded like a good break from the monotony of his life in L.A. Besides, the price was right: In exchange for several hours of gambling, airfare and meals were comped. He met his friend at Burbank Airport, and they caught the charter to McCarran. Their group, mostly senior citizens, was shuttled directly to the Dunes. Numbers were slapped on their shirts, and they were expected to lose their money by playing slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette — all sucker games with odds tilted in the casino’s favor.

By sheer serendipity, however, Men wandered into the poker room. He asked what was going on and discovered that poker is the one casino game where you compete against other players instead of the house; the casino makes money by raking a percentage out of every pot. The game looked similar to xiphe (pronounced say-feh), a Vietnamese variation of five-card stud played with only 28 cards. Men watched for a little longer and decided to try his luck. “I asked how much money I would need to put down if I want to play,” remembers Men. “They told me $300. The game was $15/$30, which is a big game for somebody who’s never played before.” He cashed in and promptly dropped $1,600. “But I didn’t feel bad about that. I liked poker right away. I ‰ thought it was a game that I’d be able to learn and become good at.”

Men junketed to Vegas every weekend. Poker players called him “Money Machine.” The nickname was double-edged: Not only was Men continually jumping up from the table and retrieving money from the casino ATM, but he was also being a money machine, literally dispensing hundreds of dollars to others at the table. “I chased cards and lost a lot of money,” Men recalls, adding that he devoted weekdays to endlessly analyzing hands and figuring out how they could have been better strategized. Other players laughed at this hard-gambling Vietnamese guy, continually getting rousted out of the poker room by junket people who wanted him to play the slots. “But then I learned the game. I got good. People played tight and I played loose. I took pots away from them. They were surprised to see this weekend guy from L.A. suddenly beating them.”

Men won his first tournament in 1987, pulling down $23,000 in a single day. Later that year, he won $44,000 at Caesar’s Palace by outplaying World Series of Poker champ Johnny Chan. Men took his winnings and bought a dry-cleaning business. He worked at Sun Net Tool all day, checked in at the dry cleaner each evening and spent his nights playing poker at the Bicycle Casino. “I never saw poker as gambling,” he says. “It’s about talent and patience and reading people. You don’t play each hand; you weigh each hand. But the Orientals, they think of poker as gambling. I go back to Vietnam and don’t tell anyone that I play poker. I told my father that I am a machinist. He looked at me and figured that machinists make good money in America.”

Men soon developed a reputation in the Vietnamese community. He sold his business, quit the day job, began playing poker full time, and became the go-to guy for other Vietnamese immigrants who hungered for seven-card stardom. But in a game where everyone is supposed to play their own cards and keep their own counsel, Men evolved into a troubling character. “There are stories about Men’s people slipping their tournament chips off the table during bathroom breaks and dumping them to other players on the team; that’s cheating,” maintains a former World Series of Poker champion. “Some of Men’s tournament wins were tainted because people dumped to him. We’ve been unable to prove this, but it’s public knowledge in poker circles. There’s collusion in which he plays partners and has his guys squeeze players out of key hands. They work out signals and do all kinds of dishonest things.”

While this player is obviously no fan of Men’s — and, it’s worth restating, the allegations have never been proved — he nevertheless allows, “You still have to give Men credit for being among the top-ranked players every year. Even if he gets a little bit of help, he still needs to be a damned good player to win as much as he does. Plus, he’s an excellent teacher who,” by financially backing his students, “puts his money where his mouth is.”

The most blatant accusation against Men centers around an incident that took place in Mashantucket, Connecticut, at Foxwoods Casino. Men was there with his guys for a poker tournament. As is their norm, they arrived with coolers full of steak, fish, rice and Coors. They shared a suite and set it up with hot plates, steamers and a fridge. After a team member overcooked dinner, the room filled with smoke and fire alarms went off. Hotel workers rushed inside and asked Men and his guys to leave while they dealt with the situation. The fire was put out, but rumors spread that tournament chips were found in the room. If true, that’s a terrible infraction of poker-tournament rules. It means that players on Men’s team had been pulling chips from the tournament as their likelihood of getting knocked out became more and more of a certainty, and they then provided those chips to the group’s winning players, who could surreptitiously supplement their chip stacks.

Men denies this completely. He insists that he got thrown out due to the fire, not for cheating. (Foxwoods has confirmed this, but, as one player puts it, “Of course, they would; the last thing they want anybody to think is that their tournaments can be corrupted.”)

“Cheating,” Men fumes, “goes against my Buddha. It’s against my religion. I cheat you once and it comes back to me. I have a family, I have a nice thing going, you think I’d cheat you to make my life better? No! God punishes people like that.” He leans forward and looks me straight in the eye. “People say things, but nobody can prove anything. If they caught me with chips, I’d never be allowed to play anywhere, not ever again. I travel all over the world, I play poker, I win. That is what I do.”


It’s the kind of blazing noon in Vegas that sends sweat trickling down your face. At the entrance of Circus Circus, a rundown casino on the northern end of the Strip, tired acrobats swing overhead, performing not-so-exciting feats with safety nets between them and the Middle American gamblers below. Seeming oblivious to it all, wearing an impossible-to-miss, sun-colored ‘N Sync T-shirt (he’s not a fan, but yellow is his favorite color), Men the Master materializes from a swell of tourists, struggling under a burden of half a dozen enormous plush toys. He walks with fast, choppy steps, hands me a SpongeBob SquarePants as big as my torso and says, “The casino has a game arcade upstairs. But they threw me out. Said that I win too much.”

Men’s family is visiting him here in Vegas for a few days, and he’s thrilled to have snagged some goodies for his kids. But that is not the only thing making Men happy. During a recent series of tournaments at the Bicycle Casino, Men cleared $200,000 in personal winnings, not to mention cuts from his team members. David Pham did so well that he also earned a bonus offered up by the casino: a 2002 Mercedes SUV ML500, which he sold to Men for $42,000.

Men would like to hang out with his family. But business beckons and his other family awaits. So he heads up to his hotel room and runs a half-dozen players through a quick poker review. They’re disassembling hands from the night before, discussing how they could have been handled better. Steve is nowhere in sight, and stringy-haired Hai Tran just won $40,000 at a no-limit Hold’em tournament. Men himself is having no success here in Vegas. He hasn’t come close to winning a tournament, and the cash games have been unproductive.

But the losses don’t dog him. “People say I should not be happy about leaving when I am $5,000 behind [after a session of poker]. They think I should try to get it back. But I’m not winning. So what should I do? Wait until I lose $10,000?” he asks, with a fey wave of his hand.

Then Men reaches below the coffee table and pulls out a fancy, hard-angled liquor bottle that contains a cobra floating in rice whiskey. He pours a healthy shot and hands it to me. “It make you strong here,” he insists, grabbing his crotch. I down the shot without thinking too much about the cobra. Now augmenting his shirt with a bright-yellow sport jacket, Men downs his own glass of snake wine, testifies to a sudden rush of steely strength, and leads his guys across the street to the Four Queens casino, where they’ll play poker and aim to make American dreams come true.

Just before we walk in, Men suggests that I try entering a tournament. He insists that I should’ve picked something up from the tutorials. His words leave me thinking that maybe I have. It’s my last night in Vegas, so, what the hell.

There’s a 10-man freeze-out about to start (you play until your entry stake is gone, freezing you out). The game is no-limit Hold’em. Everybody puts up $80, and the last man standing leaves with $400 while the rest gets split between the next two finishers. Fine. I slide four 20s across the table and buy myself a seat. The other players riffle their chips like extras from Rounders, second-guessing one another’s hands. Me, I’m not saying much. I’m trying to recall all the poker tips I’ve photosynthesized from Men.

Stunningly, once the game begins, I realize that some of the lessons have stuck. I seem to be bluffing at the right moments, pressing people to fold when they should. Backing out when others have me beat. I even toss away a pair of pocket queens when an ace comes on the flop and somebody makes a sneakily small bet in early position. Men sees me do it and pumps me on the shoulder. Then he slinks away from the table after another player expresses displeasure at Men’s gleefulness (his exact words: “Who the fuck is this guy in the yellow jacket? Am I playing against one guy or two?”).

“Who the fuck is this guy in the yellow jacket? Am I playing against one guy or two?”

Finally, it’s just me and three other players. All I need to do is outlast one of them and I will finish in the money. Amazing. Men sees what’s going on, and he materializes back at the table, this time maintaining a respectful distance. I get dealt ace/10 of spades in early position. What do I do? Figuring it’s a good hand but not a great hand, I make a medium-size bet. Two players fold, one player calls me. Men inches closer to the table. A king of spades, a 10 and an off-suit deuce come on the flop. The other player goes all in. Now what? I call the bet. Of course, he’s got two kings. Of course, he wins the hand and knocks me out of the game, out of the money. As I pull back from the table, other players are congratulating him and they’re figuring out how to chop up the proceeds.

Meanwhile, Men is apoplectic. “That was terrible!” he tells me, raising his voice with frustration. Shaking his head in disbelief, he adds, “That should never have happened.”

He calls over a Vietnamese pro named Vin. “You’re playing four-handed, you get ace/10 suited in early position. What do you do with your first bet?” Men demands to know.

“Go all in,” Vince correctly answers in a flash.

“I didn’t think ace/10 was that great,” I plead.

“Short-handed, in your position, it was great. You would have won the antes. The other guy would not have gone in.”

Now Men’s voice gets even more agitated. “You sent him the signal that you had shit.”

“Well,” I say, feeling a bit embarrassed and not sure what else I can offer, “at least I know for next time.”

Men raises his eyebrows and hugs me. After a moment, he steps back a couple inches and softly says, “I only yell because I care.”

Then he takes off, searching for a game of his own.


At this writing, Men Nguyen was playing in the 2003 World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.


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