POKER CHAMP LEAVES A.C. WITH $300,000: This is a critical hand. The game is seven-card stud poker. Win, and I finish ahead. Lose, and hours of grueling work go down the drain. I would be dead-even. I have a straight. My opponent is deciding whether to draw to a flush, a slightly better hand. I'm beginning to experience palpitations -- after all, by my reckoning there is a good $20, $25 in the pot.
OK, so this wasn't exactly the showdown of the United States Poker Championship's top event that, just a few hours earlier, had closed out Atlantic City's biggest tournament of the year at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino on Dec. 14.
In that game, Men "Master" Nguyen, one of the world's best players, had faced off against another top-flight professional player, John Juanda. At stake was a prize just a tad richer than the one I was sweating out. First place in the No Limit Texas Hold 'em event was $228,000; second place pocketed $131,000.
In Texas Hold 'em, each player is dealt two cards face down. Five communal cards are dealt in the middle of the table and turned over in stages: three cards at once, then a fourth, and finally the fifth. The best five-card hand, made up of a player's own cards and the communal cards, wins.
After three days of play that began with 76 entrants paying $7,500 each, it had come down to Nguyen and Juanda with almost equal towering stacks of chips. In tournaments, the poker chips are simply used to keep score.
Juanda is a pleasant but serious competitor. Nguyen, however, is a showman.
During a game, he hops out of his seat and chats with fans who crowd around the velvet rope that rings the championship table. He signs autographs, even poses for photographs while the cards are dealt.
The key juncture for the final event of the U.S. Championship at the Taj Mahal came early in the evening when Nguyen went "all in," meaning he bet all his chips after looking at his own two cards. Juanda matched him.
There was nothing left but for both players to show their two cards and have the communal cards exposed. The "Master" turned over a pair of 10s. Juanda held an ace-king.
Neither player's hand was improved by the communal cards and Nguyen, who had fled Vietnam and communism in 1978, took home more than $300,000, which included about $72,000 won in five of the other 16 events that made up the 19-day tournament.
Nguyen has been an inspiration and mentor to a wave of Vietnamese players who have become a force in tournament poker, and he has shared his good fortune by building a school in Vietnam, where he left his father and brother over two decades ago.
Nguyen worked as a machinist for several years after landing in the United States. "But I worked hard at becoming a poker player, and in America you can do whatever you want."
Meanwhile, in the $1-to-$5 stud game, my straight was body-slammed. My steely-eyed opponent had calculated the pot odds and remaining cards, drew to the flush and filled it to rake in that juicy pot.
With a self-satisfied smile, she commented that her grandchildren would have a happier holiday because of it.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Some casinos hold daily or weekly tournaments. The lowest buy-in tournament in Atlantic City is at the Tropicana Casino where, for a $15 buy-in and a $10 fee, you can play in tourneys on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
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