Meet Men "The Master"
By Lee Munzer
I suppose it goes against the grain of professionalism to adopt favorite players when part of one's responsibility is tournament reporting. Yes, I should not root for individuals. I do. I should be impartial. I am not. Men "The Master" Nguyen (pronounced Win) is one of my favorites. He is a colorful, crafty, charismatic competitor. This article will be about poker, but if you just play poker with Men you are missing out on getting to know a warm, intelligent, terrific person.
We met and chatted for hours in his hotel room during the 2000 World Series of Poker (WSOP). One night we went to Binion's Steakhouse for fine wine and a terrific meal. Another evening we hit the buffet together. We talked about motorcycles, psychology, DVD players, family, and poker.
A listing of Men's poker accomplishments would probably exceed my allotted words for this article. Suffice it to say the 1997 "Player of the Year" has made hundreds of final tables (including a whopping 20 at the WSOP). Men has been pictured in the winner's circle more than 80 times (including two Hall of Fame tourneys and four WSOP events: stud, stud/8, limit hold'em, and Omaha/8). Men the poker player is truly "The Master." Men the man is even better.
The challenges of tournament play must seem trivial to the 5'4", 135 pound champion. He has overcome great impediments in his life. "The Master" was born 46 years ago in Phanthiet Provence, Vietnam (located 200 kilometers north of Saigon). When the communists overtook his government, Men escaped by boat after his father encouraged him by saying, "You will have a better life in the United States, go my son." Men left his home and traveled here by way of Malaysia (a five-day trip from Vietnam). He stayed in a refugee camp for six months while awaiting his signed petition to travel west. Finally, he made his way to Los Angeles, arriving in 1978.
Lee Munzer: Let's pick up your background from the early days in Chinatown.
Men Nguyen: I didn't realize how difficult it would be in the new land. I didn't speak English and couldn't get work for three months. I took three English classes every weekday. Finally, three months later I got a part-time job as a furniture delivery man … tables, chairs, and sofabeds. I made $10 a day. When I was able to speak English a little bit I got a job as a machinist. That's what I did for almost eight years.
Lee: That puts us in the year 1985. Have you learned to play poker yet?
Men: No, in that year I met a Hispanic girl in school. She was also learning English. We fell in love and had babies, but it didn't work out. I was very sad and just stayed in my house. But, then one day a friend came over and said, "Men, let's take a junket to Las Vegas and have some fun."
Lee: Tell the readers what a junket is.
Men: My friend had to tell me. He said we could fly round trip for 30 bucks, but we had to gamble at Caesar's Palace for three hours … slot machines, blackjack, craps, or roulette. Then we could go anywhere we wanted. But, after we qualified, I stayed at Caesar's Palace and went to the poker room. I watched from the rail. After a while the floorman asked if I wanted to play and I said, "Okay."
Lee: Did you understand the game?
Men: Not really. I knew five-card stud from my country, but we played with only 28 cards; the eights through aces. They were playing seven-card stud with a full deck, of course. I sat down in a $15-$30 game. That was big stakes for my bankroll at the time, especially because I didn't know how to play. I didn't even know the term "buy-in" so I asked, "How much money do I need to play?" The floorman told me I must start with at least $300. I lost it. I bought in again and lost another $300. But, I wouldn't quit. I lost $2,100 in a few hours. I had saved all that money from my machinist job at $12 an hour. I flew back home and thought about poker all week. The next weekend I went back to Caesar's Palace and beat the game.
Lee: For how much?
Men: I won $3,500. So now I loved poker. I played every weekend at Caesar's Palace. Then one weekend the junket went to the Dunes. So, I played a few hours of craps to qualify, then I went to the poker room. I saw them playing a seven-card game. I bought in and the second hand I picked up split aces (one down and one up) and a king. I bet or raised all the way and wound up with aces full of kings. A player raised me on the river. I raised him back. He reraised. I raised once more and he called. I showed my hand. He had a flush … with all low cards. I said, "I got him."
The dealer started to give the other player half my pot, so I started yelling. The floorman came over and told me I was playing seven-card stud high-low split. I didn't understand. He explained the rules of high-low and told me in order to qualify for the low half of the pot a player must have an eight low or better. I kept playing, but didn't understand the strategy … I was playing two high cards and a low card sometimes. You can't do that and win at stud/8. The game was tough. At the time Johnny Moss was running the poker room and playing in the games. I'm proud to have played with Johnny and he treated me very nicely. For the first few months the $30-$60 players called me "Money Machine" because I'd lose and pull out my credit card. Five minutes later I'd be back with more money. I didn't know when to quit. They loved me. Six months later, I broke the game.
Lee: I'll bet they stopped loving you then. Did Moss teach you how to play?
Men: (Laughing) No, he wanted to take my money!
Lee: When and how did you get into tournaments?
Men: I began playing tournaments in 1986. One day I went to the Dunes to play high-low and there was no game. The floorman said, "Everyone's at the Stardust playing in the tournament." So, I took a cab there and saw that Bob Thompson was running a seven-card stud eight-or-better tournament. I entered and finished eighth. There were more than 300 players and the buy-in was $330. Johnny Moss won first place. I loved the excitement. A year later I won my first tournament. It was at the Bicycle Club … a Diamond Jim Brady eight-or-better event. I collected more than $27,000. Bob Thompson ran that tournament also.
Then, in 1988 I started playing no-limit Texas hold'em tournaments. I never played hold'em or no-limit before. I got lucky at a Caesar's Palace event run by Amarillo Slim Preston when I won a big hand against Johnny Chan. I held Qc-Jc and a jack flopped. Johnny tried to move me off my hand. I should have folded, but I didn't know better at the time. I called his all in bet and won. That hand enabled me to get to heads up play and my opponent suggested a deal. I took it and left with $44,000. That week I bought a furniture store and a dry cleaning store in Los Angeles. Then, in 1990 I sold both businesses and became a full time professional poker player. The businesses didn't make money and gave me headaches.
Lee: Did you get any help along the way?
Men: Yes, just like now when players ask me questions I help them. Two players who helped me most were Ken "Skyhawk" Flaton and Tommy Franklin. I met them and played with them at the Bicycle Club. They are great players and my friends.
Lee: Tell me what you like about playing poker for a living.
Men: The travel, the excitement, and meeting people like you and the players. I like that people know me and they love to try and beat me, also. When I played in the Shooting Stars tournament at Bay 101 people came up to me and introduced themselves. I like that because I like people.
Lee: What's the worst part of playing professionally?
Men: Bad beats that knock me out just before the money. I go home and watch TV and think about the hand. I hate myself if I play bad and make wrong decisions. But, if I play good and the cards don't help me, I'm okay. The worst is when you get the bad beat just before making money. It's so tough because you play well all day and just when the limits go up you lose one hand and it's bye, bye. That's what I hate. But, it happens to everyone, not just me, and I'm prepared for everything. I tell myself it wasn't my day. I go home, take two sleeping pills, and wake up the next day … a new man. Tomorrow is a new day and another event.
Lee: That's good advice and must be important since it's similar to what T. J. Cloutier told me a few months ago. How did you learn tournament strategy … did you read books?
Men: (Casually) I have never read a poker book. I think players who read books sometimes play too much like the book tells them to play and are easy for others to read. I make up my own strategy.
Lee: Can you give us an example?
Men: Okay. After I played high-low that first day I went home and started thinking about the game. I thought about what type hands you need to win and how you must play only hands that are very strong if they are high hands. The key is to build big pots when you can win both ways or scoop the pot with a high only hand … I want to bet and raise then. There are 32 low cards and 20 high cards. I decided to deduct cards by what is shown and what kind of hands players have - if a player shows strength and has Js-Kc-9d there's a good chance two more of the 20 high cards are in his hand leaving only 15 in the deck. Then I know how much value my hand has. Every time I see a low card I count it. I have always been able to remember all the cards. You asked about books. I may write a book when I stop playing 15 or 20 years from now.
Lee: Why wait until then?
Men: Because I don't want to give away all my strategy and have someone use it to beat me in a tournament. It's all up here (points to forehead) and that's where I want to keep it.
Lee: Ah, but I know why they call you "The Master." You teach poker and one of your students named you.
Men: That's true. I began teaching poker about 11 years ago, but I teach only a few students who really want to learn and are willing to listen and work hard. In 1991, when I explained something to one, he said, "Now, I see - you are truly the young master." Of course, he said, "suphu" which is "master" in Vietnamese. I told him I was not young. Then another student began telling players he was taking lessons from Men "The Master." Now many call me "The Master."
Lee: Do you have requirements for those you teach?
Men: Yes, I want an honest person. Not anyone. My students must be intelligent, honest with me, and honest in wanting to learn. I'm not going to lend my name to someone who is going to lose. Also, I am very careful to teach only players who will keep the secrets that I teach. I tell them even after we are finished they must keep the secrets or others will use the information to defeat them … and me. But, I don't teach anyone the final table tournament play strategy that I use.
Lee: Would I know any of the players you have taught?
Men: David Pham is one. He is an excellent player, especially in no-limit. You wrote about him when you covered the Sam Boyd Poker Classic last September.
Lee: Yes, I like David's game and I like David. I played with him at Sam's Town and watched him at the Shooting Stars and WSOP events. He reads opponents well, is patient, tricky, and tough to read. He's had great success recently. Come to think of it, his style of play reminds me of you, but he is quiet at the table. I'm going to ask you about your very vocal style later, but first, our readers would love some help from "The Master." Maybe not your deepest, most coveted strategy secrets, but we'd like your advice in a few areas. Let's start with beginners. What's important for a new player to do?
Men: To become a good poker player you must play with good starting hands. Don't play with a bad hand. You may win a pot or even several pots with bad hands, but you will be developing a bad habit. I know this is very basic, but it's very important and beginners must be taught this. But, the most important thing is you must have the right attitude. Without being willing to work hard and learn a player cannot be successful. Many players do not think skill can overcome the luck of the cards. They are wrong. But, to become skillful they must work very hard.
Lee: You mentioned luck of the cards. Do you believe in luck?
Men: Yes, I believe in the combination of skill and luck. Look at the razz (seven-card stud low) event today (May 9, 2000). I started with the chip lead, but had no chance to win because the cards were so bad. Either I was forced to bring it in with the high card or I'd get three low cards and then two high cards. I'm not superstitious, but I believe with all the great players of today you need good cards, especially late in an event, to win a major tournament.
I tried to play the best I can, but the cards were so bad, I could not even play to the river except for three or four hands. I didn't want to force the action, especially when I could be drawing dead. I was trying to protect my chips. That was the most important thing. You asked me to give advice. It is important that players learn how to protect their chips when the cards are running bad. They must not try to force the action. If this wasn't a tournament I would have cashed in and gone home.
Lee: There was a starting field of 128 players. I thought you played excellent poker through the first day to get the chip lead, then ran bone dry four-handed, and did well to finish third. You collected more than $19,000. Not bad for two days work. I called you "crafty" in my introduction, so I'd like to discuss the hand where you checked on fifth street showing three low cards. The event was down to six players and you were heads up against an opponent who had a board of 8-J-10. He started to fold thinking you were going to bet.
Then, hearing you pound the table with your fist, he checked in turn. On sixth street you caught a nine and he hit an ace. Once again you checked. He shrugged his shoulders and checked. On the river you hesitated then bet $3,000. He thought for a few seconds and called. You showed an immortal hand of 7-5-4-3-1 and took the pot. It appeared to me the opponent should have known what you were doing … allowing him to draw because he could not beat the seven low you made on the first five cards.
Men: You're right, but I had nothing to lose. I gave my opponent a chance to make a mistake. You always want to give your opponents a chance to make a mistake. If I bet on fifth street or sixth street, he could not have called. By waiting until seventh street I made an extra $3,000. Of course, he should have realized what I was doing and folded.
Lee: It was not that the play was so great in my opinion, but that you determined your best chance to maximize the pot so quickly. I believe that's one of the things that separates the top players. You are able to calculate the variables rapidly. You are also strong in all games now.
Men: Yes, I believe that is one of my strengths. I can play every game well now. My best games are still seven-card stud and stud/8, but I have learned them all. No-limit hold'em was the hardest to learn how to play well.
Lee: What makes you so good?
Men: I believe I have instinct. I create my own strategy and modify it by how players bet. I know what they have many times. You cannot know every time, but I have good instincts and watch players very carefully. Sometimes I have nothing and move my chips in just because I know the other player doesn't have a big hand. He cannot call me. The best players tell me I am very tough to read. In stud games I can remember all the folded cards. That helps me. In addition, I have confidence. When I enter a tournament I know I can win it and believe I will win it.
Lee: You mentioned the "best" players. Who are your toughest tournament opponents?
Men: T.J. Cloutier, John Bonetti, Phil Hellmuth, Ken Flaton, and David Chiu.
Lee: Chiu hits almost everyone's list. I receive mail from players who consistently "cash" in tournaments, but rarely make it to the final two or three spots where all the money is. Can you help them?
Men: Yes, the way they play they cannot win. They play too solid. You have to take chances to win ... especially late in a tournament. Or else you'll be ante'd to death. You must play different strategy in the beginning of a tournament, the middle, and the end. The first rounds, when the limits are low, if you gamble to win a pot it's nothing, am I right? When the limits are bigger if you win a pot it means something.
I'll give you an example. You are in the money with average chip count and win a pot. The next hand you pick up 10-9 suited. A player in middle position raises. Most players throw this hand away. I may play it and even re-raise once in awhile. That depends on my opponent. If I miss the flop, I muck. If I'm running good I want to give myself a chance to build chips. I don't always play the same hand the same way. Players are afraid to play bad, but by playing too good they can't win the big money unless they get very good cards. There is luck to cards … the cards run good and bad for you. When they are running good, you must take advantage of them. When you're running good and catching cards, who's gonna beat you?
Lee: Nobody. In addition to your strategy, you seem to deploy gamesmanship. Your chatter during play is very entertaining and makes you charismatic, but does it help you read players?
Men: No, I just like to talk and enjoy myself when I play. It means nothing. I don't talk to learn about an opponent's hand during play.
Lee: I believe your great play, attitude, and behavior at the table will enable you to become one of our biggest stars if and when we reach the era of corporate sponsorship and televised play (I'm an optimist, folks). For those who haven't watched you play, you down quite a few Corona beers during a tournament. Last year we talked about this and I recall you told me the beer helps you relax and focus.
Men: Yes, I like Corona beer. It's strong, it doesn't give me a headache, and it's yellow. Yellow is my favorite color. I can drink 10 or 15 Coronas and not get drunk. When I first started playing tournaments I was nervous. Now the beer just calms me down. It doesn't affect me. My opponents may think it does, but it really doesn't.
Lee: Is there anything you'd like to change about tournament poker?
Men: Yes. When you get knocked out at a final table you have to wait for the director to take your driver's license, make a copy, and fill out the form for taxes. They should take everyone's license first … when you sit down at the final table. Then or at the first break someone should make the copies and start filling out the tax forms and just leave the amount blank … especially when they don't have a copying machine near the final table. Then when you get knocked out and may be upset by just taking a bad beat, you won't have to wait around. They can give you the completed form to sign, your driver's license, and the prize.
Lee: That sounds like a good plan to me. Tell us a few things most people don't know about you.
Men: My favorite thing is spending time with my family. I am a father and crazy about my children. I also have three brothers and four sisters. They all live in Vietnam. I'll be leaving to see them in a few weeks. Most of your readers probably don't know there are beautiful beaches in Vietnam. I love to travel. I have been to Japan, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and many other places. I also like music and enjoy movies.
Lee: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Men: (Thinks for 10 seconds and smiles) Yes, I want the readers who don't know me to know I came to this country with nothing and couldn't speak English. I am so lucky to be here; doing what I want to be doing; and successful in life. I want my friends and those who watch me play and root for me to know how much I appreciate their support. I love America and give my thanks to everyone here.
Lee: We thank you and are very proud to have you here.
Thanks for reading me.
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