Master of One | Part I: Visiting Vietnam with Men “The Master” Nguyen
Table Of Contents
- Making My Way to Vietnam
- Smuggling Alaskan King Crab
- Poker in Ho Chi Minh City
What exactly is Men Nguyen the master of these days? His reputation is far from stellar, as rumors of cheating and dealer abuse abound. Before 2018, he hadn’t had a six-figure year since 2010, so you wouldn’t be chastised for thinking he was washed up.
On the flip side, love him or hate him, Nguyen is a legend of the game. He’s amassed nearly $11 million in tournament earnings dating back to 1987, captured seven World Series of Poker bracelets, and has been named Card Player Magazine’s Player of the Year on four different occasions (1997, 2001, 2003 and 2005).
I considered all of his when presented the opportunity to accompany Nguyen and his longtime friend, Greg Grivas, on a charity mission. Over the summer, Grivas, a floor at Planet Hollywood and winner of the 1996 WSOP $1,500 Chinese Poker Event, extended the offer to join Nguyen as he returned home to Vietnam. The hope was that I would not only document the experience but also offer the poker world a glimpse into Men Nguyen as a person.
"I expected to discuss all the controversies surrounding Nguyen."
Not long after, Nguyen made headlines in the World Poker Tour Gardens Poker Festival $5,000 Main Event, not only because he finished third for $270,430 – his biggest score in eight years – but also from some antics at the table, including falling asleep, or passing out depending on your perspective.
With Nguyen back in the public eye I decided to join him on his journey, but under the condition that I wouldn’t be writing a fluff piece. On the contrary, I would write about my experience and offer my honest take on the man. In exchange, I expected to discuss all the controversies surrounding Nguyen, from his recent behavior at The Gardens to rumors that he colluded with former students. They agreed.
Making My Way to Vietnam
In early October I stood on the curb outside the LAX baggage claim. I’d just flown in from Chicago, but given our overnight flight across the Pacific wouldn’t depart for another 12 hours, I was to be picked up to kill some time in the city.
Before long, a car driven by Grivas pulled up with Nguyen sitting in the back seat, his small frame mostly hidden by luggage and boxes destined to join us on our journey. I was instructed to sit shotgun, got in, and we were off to Nguyen’s favorite Vietnamese seafood restaurant.
Men Nguyen: "All you can eat, baby!"
It was there Nguyen held court with various friends and acquaintances, some of whom gave him money to take back to their shared homeland. Throughout that lunch, Nguyen displayed the energy of a man half his age, which I learned throughout the week, was par for the course for the 63-year-old.
It was at that restaurant that I received my first experience with his insatiable appetite. I don’t know where he put it all, but boy could he eat, and this is coming from someone more than twice his size. I remember the WSOP on ESPN episode where Nguyen moves in and says, "All you can eat, baby!" It was not only a classic clip, but apparently accurately described his relationship with food.
From there, we headed over to The Gardens to waste time. Nguyen jumped in a $12/$24 O8/Big O game where he played an interesting hand I previously wrote about for my . During this time, I explored the property, played a little $5/$5 cash, and watched Poker Hall of Famer Johnny Chan playing two tables over.
Smuggling Alaskan King Crab
Eventually, we made our way back to LAX where we unloaded numerous boxes and pieces of luggage. I’d packed light, but it was apparent Nguyen was taking a bunch of items back home. Out of all the items, a little red cooler intrigued me most.
“I bring back for my girlfriend,” Nguyen told me after I’d inquired. “She loves Alaska king crab.”
My mind was blown. Was he really going to try to get what I guessed to be 5 lbs of crab through an international airport’virgutis’ data-zone=’pn2013:article728’>
“It’s ok, no problem,” Nguyen told us. Grivas was just as skeptical as I.
"I still feel that if I tried something like that, I’d certainly be questioned and maybe even arrested."
It took some time, but eventually, all the boxes and bags got checked thanks to a little greasing of the wheels from Nguyen. As it turns out, Nguyen is a liberal tipper, at least when it comes to those who can make his life easier. At the airport, that included the porter and lady at check-in. It worked too as he didn’t pay a penny in excess baggage fees.
That said, one bag that didn’t get checked was that little red cooler. Not because of its contents, but because Nguyen planned to carry it onto the plane. Grivas and I shot each other a look as if to say, “Good luck getting that through security.”
I’ll never understand how he did it, but I’ll be damned if that Alaskan king crab didn’t make it through security and onto the plane. I still feel that if I tried something like that, I’d certainly be questioned and maybe even arrested. They didn’t so much as look inside.
I lost track of the little red cooler after that, but I later learned it did make its way to Men’s girlfriend. However, by that time it’d gone bad and had to be thrown in the trash.
Poker in Ho Chi Minh City
It’s hard to describe the ordered chaos in Ho Chi Minh City. The roads are dominated by thousands of scooters, each seemingly going their own way with no regard to rules or each other. To an outsider like myself, it was pure chaos, but those in the thick of it seemed to know what they were doing.
That evening, we paid a visit to the WPT Vietnam, which was just wrapping up its Main Event. Unsurprisingly, Nguyen was a celebrity in the poker club, which at the time was housing poker pros Sam Cohen and Marvin Rettenmaier.
After, we headed to another seafood restaurant, one with aquariums full of different creatures available ala carte. I couldn’t help but look at the crab and laugh. At the dinner, Men was joined by family members, his much younger girlfriend, and some reporters from the socialist newspaper. Apparently, I wasn’t the only journalist tagging along on the charity expedition.
You see, Nguyen may not be well liked in the States, but in Vietnam, he is a beloved celebrity.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part II of this five-part series on Men “The Master” Nguyen where you’ll learn of his escape from Vietnam, introduction to poker, and his charitable endeavors.
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