By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper
January 22, 2014

Four thousand plus players journeyed to the Borgata Winter Open, for its first tournament – a $560 buy-in, deep stack confection, with a two million dollar guaranteed prize pool. The numbers proved themselves; it was a “must play” event. But with twenty-seven players remaining in the field, the tournament was suspended before the commencement of day three, last Friday. One day later Event 1 was canceled.

The Big Guns Get Involved

The tournament had been compromised, said Joe Lupo, Senior Vice President of Operations at the Borgata. He explained that the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement made the decision to cancel the tournament  and place the remaining unpaid prize monies in a trust pending a further resolution. Lupo has had his hands full since revealing the discovery of “significant counterfeit chips” in play at the tournament. He has been juggling his time among competing priorities. He must cope concurrently with expectations of top management, availability to DGE and other investigative professionals, continued oversight and collaboration with his teams, and extensive attention to the plight of players whose dreams were smashed by a compromised tournament or its cancelation, and maybe both.

Players Put Men “The Master” Nguyen  On Stage

The drama that has kept Lupo and his colleagues up and down the ladder pre-occupied in recent days began to unfold shortly before nightfall on day two of the opening event. A player brought a “weird looking” 5K chip to the attention of the floor. He snapped a a picture of this unique chip alongside others that were not suspect. The image was soon uploaded onto the internet.

It took no time before members of a popular poker forum took particular notice of one player who was still in the hunt – Men (The Master) Nguyen, a very successful but controversial tournament competitor. For years, his scruples in tournament competition have been widely questioned by professional players around the country. Almost instantly, Nguyen became the butt of jokes that tied him to the quaint chip displayed on poker forum sites.

Nguyen Puts on a Less than Masterful Performance

Nguyen ended up busting out in 28th place, with earnings of approximately 10 times the cost of a single buy-in. He took off to collect his winnings, but an argument ensued with tournament personnel over the casino’s insistence that he complete the applicable W-2G tax form.

Within earshot of several players, Nguyen exchanged words with Borgata employees. The cashiers found only two recorded buy-ins for him, a mismatch to his claims of six, which would have put him below the threshold for casino W-2G government reports. He left the payout podium in a huff, vowing to take up his argument with higher ups.

Rewinding the Tape that Made Nguyen the Talk of the Town

The “unique” chip that started the ball rolling was found by a frequent tournament player, identified as Luke Edwards. The strange looking chip must have sent Borgata brass into overdrive. Any hope that the questionable chip would turn out to be nothing special was short-lived—replaced with mounting suspicion that the tournament was compromised. Nguyen was a convenient target for finger pointing. His staunchest detractors include a number of high profile players and popular contributors on poker forums.

Jup Lupo Gets Out Front

At noontime on (scheduled) day three (Friday), more fuel was thrown on the Nguyen flames. The 27 finalists returned to the tournament room to do battle. They were pumping adrenalin — but it was for naught.

Borgata officials, led by Lupo, arrived in the arena with very somber faces. Lupo took the reins, wasting no time before announcing that a substantial number of counterfeit chips had been introduced into the tournament and that an investigation was in progress. He explained that the tournament would be suspended for 24 hours to give the Borgata, law enforcement officials and the New Jersey Division of Gambling Enforcement time to discuss a resolution with respect to continuation of the tournament.

Things deteriorated for the final 27 players who returned to the arena at high noon, last Saturday to learn the fate of their tournament life. Poker operations director, Vincent Alonge was on the scene, explaining there would be a short delay to find a suitably private space to discuss the resolution. It was an ominous message. Alonge countered the growing agitation with one of his trademarked quips intended to break the tension. It seemed to work – at least for a minute.

Men Parks Nearby; His Presence Is Noted

The Master was visible in the nearby hallway, talking animatedly on his mobile phone. I returned his wave but passed on the potential opportunity to chat him up about his imbroglio with the tournament cash-out personnel. This was the best time to pay attention, discretely in the background, to the discussion and the mood of the final 27 waiting for further news.

At 12:30 the meeting of the remaining finalists was convened, away from prying eyes and ears of other players and media. Lupo stepped up to the plate quickly to describe the tournament as canceled — summarily ended. He explained that the unpaid prize money had been frozen and transferred to a trust held by the DGE, pending further decisions to be approved by the regulators.

This unhappy state of affairs exacerbated sneering attention to Nguyen’s deep run. His reputation as an angle shooter became the hot topic of conversation in the tournament arena and around cash games in the poker room.

Muddied Waters

Several players re-visited an alleged incident at Foxwoods years ago. Unidentified Foxwoods personnel had reportedly informed some pro players that tournament chips had been found in Nguyen’s hotel room. It bears noting, however, that neither Foxwoods Casino nor any of its employees has ever confirmed this version of events. A security officer did confirm that he had been evicted from the property, mentioning only his use of  “dangerous cooking apparatus” that caused a fire in his suite. This reporter has never found any evidence of criminal prosecution  against Nguyen in this matter. And, Nguyen has categorically denied any involvement in cheating – ever – to several members of the media, this writer included.

So, in accordance with lessons taught in my 9th grade civics course, players and readers are properly cautioned against the presumptive finger pointing that has reached a fevered  pitch -especially on poker forums. That said, Nguyen’s antics in attempting to cash out his winnings in a specious manner at Borgata, cannot help but enhance his image as an angle shooter. More on that continuing saga in a few moments.

Joe Lupo Talks About the Borgata’s World View

Lupo is a seasoned casino executive, a lifer at the Borgata. He exudes self–confidence without arrogance. Shortly after the Saturday player meeting I requested time to meet with him. I offered up front not to ask any questions about the investigation. He began the conversation saying simply, “For the Borgata, integrity is everything.”

During our conversation Lupo acknowledged, “The meeting with the final 27 players was tough,” There was not a hint of irritation in his voice as he described the collective outrage expressed in the raucous confab. When he spoke about his reaction to the culprits’ attack on his customers, his team and his company, his face reflected alternating emotions of a man plainly mad, sad, and frustrated with the bad guys. But more than one Lupo colleague tells me, that the UNLV graduate with a degree in hotel administration who has been with Boyd since 1986 lives by the adage, “Out of problems come opportunities.”

Lupo’s Messages are Clear

Several of the remaining 27 contestants reported to their friends on their discussion with Lupo who was accompanied at their meeting by his senior poker officials, Alonge and Tab Duchateau, the Borgata’s longtime tournament director. Most of the players expressed a lot of frustration, but not without conceding that Lupo resonated as genuinely empathetic and sincere in his pledge on behalf of the Borgata to doing the “right things.”

Lupo and I agreed to another sit down next weekend; I expect to learn about his assessment of lessons learned and of plans on the drawing board designed to reinforce customer confidence going forward. As we said good bye, Lupo was on his smart phone tracking down Alonge. Lupo makes a point of praising him. Later that evening I caught up with Alonge en route to the Event Center He follows Lupo’s lead. Alonge checked in with Duchateau, just to congratulate him; the tournament in progress (Event 3) was bigger than the same event last year.

Something to Laugh About

Around the tournament podium Men Nguyen’s name surfaced again.  It turns out he has sidled up to different officials two more times, demanding his $5,000+ winnings – initially sans a W-2G form. Later, he reversed course agreeing to take the money and run—with a completed W-2G in hand.

Nguyen’s decision to let his winnings lie around for a couple of days created a new problem for him. The unpaid prize money for his 28th place finish was made part of the monies put in trust with DGE. Men Nguyen failed to master the right angle this time. He put himself in the position to wait, needlessly, for his money.

As for the Borgata’s continuing Winter Poker Open—come rain, come shine, come 12 inches of snow – the show goes on, seamlessly!

Author Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with Lupo, Alonge, and  Duchateau. I like them. As a player,  I appreciate Borgata’s commitment treat poker players as valued customers. I am also acquainted with Men Nguyen; from time to time over the years, we have been seated at the same poker table and we have chatted  casually in the halls. I interviewed him shortly after he was evicted from Foxwoods. I have not had any untoward experience with him at the poker table.