Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Interview with Minh Nguyen, more success (yes!)

I ran into Minh Nguyen at the Rio yesterday so I didn’t miss the chance for an interview. Nguyen has fared well this year, making the final table three times and finishing in the money a fourth. He busted out of the main event on the first day, however. Last year Nguyen cashed seven times.

“Poker is getting tougher and tougher,” he said.

Nguyen said Harrah’s should make the top prize $10 million, or even $15 million to bring more attention to the series.

“It would draw more people in the long run,” he said.

Nguyen says he plays as many World Series events as he can. “Every time I have a chance I get in.”

A native of Vietnam, Nguyen came to America by accident. He was working on a fishing boat at the age of 15 when the crew of the boat decided to flee the country. Nguyen had the choice of coming along or trying to make it 20 miles to shore in a shipping container. Not surprisingly, he stayed on the boat. Unfortunately, the boat got lost in the waters of the Pacific and the crew was left without food or water for 10 days.

They were finally spotted by American F-16s based out of the Phillipines and picked up by a tank carrier.

“I think about those people ever day for picking us up,” Nguyen said. “Otherwise we would have been dead.”

Nguyen was kept in Manila for two years before being sent to a foster family in Montana to work on their 4,000-acre ranch, a life he said he enjoyed greatly. He lived there for seven years.

Before coming to the United States, Nguyen had a basic knowledge of traditional poker, though he was more versed in the Chinese version of the game. One day, a friend of his who ran a card room asked Nguyen to run it while he went hunting. Nguyen did such a good job or running the game that another club owner hired him to do it all the time. Nguyen also dealt and learned the game in the four years he had that job.

In 1993, Nguyen won a tournament in Reno for $4,000 and change.

“Then I got hooked,” he said.

A $15,000 score at the Four Queens annual tournament that fall hooked him even more.

Nguyen eventually moved to the Los Angeles area to continue his rising poker career. Men “The Master” Nguyen, who Minh Nguyen is often confused for, backed him for a couple of years before Minh decided to go out on his own.

He said that behind nearly every successful pro is a man with deep pockets.

“Almost all of the big names they have their own backer,” Nguyen said. “You can go for a year without winning so you need someone with a lot of money.”

“That’s why a lot of the big money players don’t have a lot of money. They might win $500,000 and owe all of it to the backer.”

He said many players will get 40 to 50 percent of what they win, or less if they have had a rough stretch. He said that thought can creep into the back of a player’s mind as they climb the prize pool of a tournament.

“Shit, I win a million, but I only get $200,000,” Nguyen said. “It makes them lose focus.”

As Internet poker has grown in popularity, the names of the game have signed on with various sites to endorse them. Full Tilt Poker alone has more than two dozen horses in its stable. Nguyen said for a long time he was never asked.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “I’m a name and I have two [WSOP] bracelets.”

But finally he signed on with upstart site Poker Host, earning $50,000 to wear clothing with the company’s logo for a year. He also plays online a couple of hours a day as part of his contract.

Nguyen finished second in the $1,500 NLHE event on June 24 that will be shown on ESPN later this summer.

“When this thing comes out people will see Poker Host and want to go play,” Nguyen said.

Amir Vahedi and Hoyt Corkins are also endorsers of that site.

I asked Nguyen how many tournaments to which he travels. His reply? “Too many.”

He told me he likes to drive to Foxwoods in Connecticut and back to Los Angeles in the fall. It allows him time to think about poker and how to play the hands during the long trip.

Nguyen and I parted ways, the discussion leaving me further buoyed after my $3,300 win from the night before. It’s not far below Nguyen’s first decent tournament prize and we see how well he has turned out. Maybe it could happen to me too.

I walked through the tournament area and spotted what I dubbed the “Full Tilt Poker table” with Phil Ivey, John Juanda and Howard Lederer at it.

A few minutes later I spotted a guy being congratulated by his family and wearing a Pokeroom.com polo shirt so I asked him for an interview. It turns out the guy is from Birmingham, just an hour up the road from T-Town.

He is Hunter Pappas, a salesman for Dental Supply International, and a 2000 graduate of the University of Alabama. He qualified on the online poker site Poker Room for $45. He finished 133 in the main event, pocketing $55,000.

“All gravy,” he said with a huge grin to a fellow Poker Room qualifier who came by to congratulate him.

Pappas made a grave error that crippled him. He had 330,000 in chips and raised on the button with K-Q. He was called by the big blind. The flop came rags and Pappas pushed all in. The big blind quickly called with Q-Q.

“For me, never playing in the World Series before, it’s just an incredible experience to fare this well,” he said.

Pappas outlasted more than 5,500 fellow participants to reach that point.

“I never expected to get in the top 2 percent so I can’t wait until next year,” he said.

I asked him about the attractive woman who congratulated him. He said she is Tiffany, his girlfriend but soon to be fiancé. Now he can afford that engagement ring.

“I don’t think I will be able to get by without that,” he said with a grin.

As I finished my interview with Pappas, up walked Lederer to the podium, quickly flanked by ESPN cameras. He had just busted out, as well.

As I left the tournament area, I stopped by the Bluff booth to chat with the magazine’s publisher, Eric Morris. Bluff is probably the most attractive of the poker magazines and boasts the greatest circulation with 215,000 or so copies printed every two months.

Bluff tries to be what Morris feels stalwart Card Player isn’t – a poker magazine for the mainstream. Card Player features numerous columns on often highly technical poker topics.

“They have stuff in there that’s over even my head,” Morris said.

Morris and I talked about some of the new magazines that were handed out at the WSOP, like “Poker Pro” and “Top Pair.” We both agreed that “Top Pair,” published by a blonde with enormous fake breasts, hence the mag’s name, and featuring bikini-clad models, is unfortunate for the industry.

Morris said that most of the new magazines seem to be following Bluff’s format of content about poker lifestyle rather than a magazine full of strategy alone.

“They seem to be copying us so we must be doing something right,” he said.

I caught the first seven innings of the All-Star Game and since the game was a blowout I headed to Binion’s to see if lightning could strike twice.

The World Series of Poker Robots was in full swing in the back of the room, as computer programs face off to see which is best. The winner will face, I hear, Phil Laak and Evelyn Ng on Friday to see if machine can beat man. More on this later.

In the tournament I was able to nearly triple up early, built my stack with aggressive play and hung on to the final table without being in many desperate situations. The final seven chopped it up by chip count. I pocketed about $1,100. Yeehaw!

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