Poker pro primed for big World Series run in 2009

Jun 2, 2009 5:02 PM
The Inside Straight by Joe Awada |

With the World Series of Poker in town, there’s going to be plenty of stories emanating from the Rio, the tournament’s host hotel in Las Vegas.

Hopefully, there will be some compelling, autobiographical pieces along the way, as I plan to enter as many WSOP events as I can.

Also, since virtually all of the world’s top players are in town right now, we will be profiling many of them for GamingToday.

This week, I’d like to start with a good friend, Men "The Master" Nguyen, who is also one of the top poker players in the world.

Men, in fact, won the player of the year award in 2005, and came in second last year. He also has six WSOP gold bracelets to his credit, besides winning hundreds of tournaments over the course of his 20 years as a professional poker player.

Besides his credentials as a top player, Men has an inspiring story of how he came to be the great player he is today, and his experiences can be a lesson to all poker players.

Men emigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Vietnam in 1978. He first traveled to Malaysia, then found his way to Los Angeles.

He came to California alone, with most of his family still in Vietnam. He spoke little English, but took courses in night school to learn the language, as well as some kind of trade in order to find work.

He became a machinist, which provided an income good enough to marry and start a family. After a few years, he had enough saved to start his own dry cleaning business.

Although things seemed to be going well for Men, he was devastated when his marriage fell apart and his wife left him with their daughter.

"It was really the low point of my life," Men recalled. "For awhile, I didn’t do anything but sit around and hope she’d come back."

After a few months, one of Men’s friends pulled him aside and offered some sage advice.

"He told me, ‘Don’t sit around and wait; she’s not coming back. It’s time for you to get into your new life,’" Men said. "Of course, he was right."

Men decided a trip to Las Vegas would be a good start on his "new life" and bought a junket ticket to Caesars Palace. The $30 included the plane fare and accommodations, but he had to gamble at Caesars for a minimum two hours a day.

"We wore name tags and were moved around to the craps tables, the roulette wheel and the slot machines," Men said. "But when the two hours were up, we were on our own."

During that time, Men discovered Caesars’ poker room, which back then was one of the biggest in town.

The game of choice was Seven Card Stud, which Men had never played, but he bought in anyway and vowed to master the game. At the end of the weekend, he had lost all of his $3,400 bankroll, but he was developing a feel for the game.

From that point on, he came back every weekend to play poker at Caesars.

"The second time I came back, I won about $1,600," he said. "Then, I started winning on a more consistent basis."

When Caesars dropped the junket, Men moved his game to the Dunes, whose poker room was owned by Johnny Moss at the time.

But the game was a little different at the Dunes. Instead of Stud, it was Stud 8 or Better, sometimes called Stud High/Low. In this game, the pot is split between a high and low hand, which is something Men wasn’t aware of.

"My first game, I caught a full house, aces full, and expected to take down the pot," Men said. "But I see the dealer shoveling some of the chips to the player who only had a flush. That’s when I learned about the low hand."

Undeterred, Men studied the new game and mastered it as well. In a few months, he was beating everyone in the room, including the legendary Johnny Moss himself.

In 1987, California changed the law governing poker rooms, which made it possible for them to offer all of the popular games, including Seven Card Stud.

"I began playing at the Bicycle Club, where I was winning so consistently that I played every day," he said. "Soon I was making more money playing poker than my dry cleaning business."

A couple of years later, in 1989, Men sold his business and became a full-time professional poker player.

Since then he’s won hundreds of tournaments and millions of dollars in prize money. In 2003, he bought a $300,000 second home in Las Vegas, where he frequently plays in high-stakes cash games at the Bellagio.

He also used the house when he came to town for the city’s numerous tournaments, including the World Series. "The mortgage was actually cheaper than paying the $6,000 to $8,000 hotel bills I would usually run up," he said.

Since becoming a pro, Men has gained the respect of his peers through his methodical style of play, fearless yet not reckless. Unlike many pros, he doesn’t seek the limelight nor is he sponsored by online poker rooms and other organizations.

He plays with his own money, and he’s always willing to support a charity tournament or event, even if it means traveling halfway across the country on his own dime.

Men suggests that newcomers to the game should start small if they need to build a bankroll, perhaps with single table satellites or modest, weekly tournaments, such as the ones held throughout Las Vegas.

"The more you play, the more experience you’ll gain, both in mastering the game as well as in learning how to read your opponents," he said.

Men wanted to emphasize that players shouldn’t give up when they’re short-stacked.

"Even with a short stack of chips, don’t get discouraged or lose interest – you should believe that you can come back," he said. "You must be patient, then when you have the good hand, push all-in. You only need to double up a few times."

Of course, the key is to always play good cards. But when that doesn’t seem to be working, there’s nothing wrong with walking away.

"Don’t try to change the way the cards are falling, you’ll only lose more," he said. "If you lose a little, you can always come back and win."

Men will be participating in many World Series events this year, beginning with the big No Limit Event to start the tournament.

He’s also going to be playing in mixed games, such as Stud High/Low and pot limit Omaha, as well as the $10,000 Main Event.

Regardless of how he fares ("I’m overdue for another bracelet – I haven’t won one since 2003"), Men is certainly deserving of poker’s highest accolades.

In fact, he’s in the running for nomination to the World Series of Poker Hall of Fame. I would hope anyone who admires what he’s done would go to and cast a ballot for him.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Joe Awada