By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper
January 28, 2014

Since January 18th, the 27 remaining players in the Borgata Winter Open’s first event have been waiting for their money while the authorities investigate the particulars of 160 counterfeit chips (5K tournament chips), introduced into the tournament. While the fake chips amounted to a bit less than 1% of the total chips in play, the intrusion into the integrity of the competition put the Borgata, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, and law enforcement personnel in overdrive – in a determined search for the culprit(s) and a collaborative effort to bring the matter to a full resolution.

Mad Players Make Men (“The Master”) Nguyen Their Target

Whodunit rumors became a story of their own until police announced they had taken Christian Lusardi into custody as a leading and worthy suspect. Among the whodunit scholars, initially, Men (The Master) Nguyen, was a convenient target. Nguyen, is a successful but controversial player who has developed a legion of detractors. Players have complained endlessly, over the years, about Nguyen’s purported angle-shooting tactics at the tables, but allegations of cheating have not been substantiated by any public record made by a casino.

In the wake of the Borgata counterfeit chip caper, poker pundits from the coast of New Jersey to the world of cyberspace pounced on the notion of Nguyen as the mastermind or the responsible party. These suspicions remained center stage until Christian Lusardi, the Day 1B chip leader in the event, had been apprehended. Police made no mention of Nguyen!

The next day, Nguyen flagged me down. He was all smiles. “I am glad they found the bad guys,” he said referring to the police report that named Lusardi of Fayetteville, North Carolina, as the suspect in custody. The Master laughed about the ignorance of players who presumed he had a part in this caper. The case lives up to Mark Twain’s words: “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Christian Lusardi was an Obvious Person of Interest

The complete picture has yet to become fully clear, but based on the police report and more information that has leaked out to the public,  it is fair to say that players, employees, and the entire management of Borgata, wait eagerly on pins and needles for resolution order by the DGE – hoping it will be very shortly.

The optimists anticipate a resolution by the DGE before the end of the WPT Championship event this week. They pin their hopes on the investigators reported success in directly tying Lusardi to the introduction of counterfeit chips at the table. It is generally believed that surveillance tapes were the critical evidence that led police to focus on Lusardi.

Lusardi was the chip leader at the end of day 1B; he won a bonus prize for that feat. He had previously busted out on day 1A; Lusardi has a rap sheet in North Carolina and New Jersey; convictions for illegal gambling and credit card fraud are part of his personal history. The suspect apparently took down his Facebook data shortly after the tournament was suspended. And, according to police, he never returned to his hotel room after the tournament was put on hold.

The cherry on top was a posting on the twoplustwo poker newsgroup, supposedly offered by the alleged perpetrator. A newbie poster with the user name “Justbecauseican” “confessed” to being responsible for the counterfeit chip chaos. He explained that he had flushed a stash of poker chips down the toilet of his Harrah’s hotel room. He lamented the poor plumbing that clogged pipes and resulted in the discovery of Borgata-labeled tournament chips in the hotel’s sewage system. Last Friday morning, Justbecauseican also asserted on the same chat site that he was getting ready to surrender after the weekend.

It was only hours later, however, that police moved in on Lusardi just minutes away from his abandoned Harrahs hotel room. The publicized police report leaves one to wonder if the caper was simply that of an ill-advised and clumsy lone wolf gone frantic — every step of the way. The investigation is ongoing according to authorities, but the prevailing view among knowledgeable observers is that DGE is feeling pressure from all around to reach a timely conclusion concerning the Borgata’s obligations in the matter. As to precisely when the DGE will announce their decisions – for the moment it is a guessing game.

Men’s reputation as an angle shooter; an inevitable lightning rod

Meanwhile, Nguyen’s reputation troubles in the poker world are hardly resolved by a reasonable presumption that he is not linked to the Borgata tournament counterfeit chips fiasco. Complaints of improper table conduct have been leveled at Nguyen dating back more than fifteen years; and they have continued with varying degrees of passion and certitude ever since. Reports from highly regarded pros and popular posters on internet poker forums have caused perceptions to be treated by others as indisputable reality.

The most frequently cited allegation of cheating stems from an incident at Foxwoods in or around 1996, when it became public knowledge that Foxwoods had evicted Nguyen from the property, and had ordered him to stay away from the casino forever.

Rumors of tournament chips found in his hotel suite flew fast after safety and security personnel were called to investigate a fire that had broken out in his room. The cause of the fire was reported by personnel at the scene as “negligence in the use of cooking apparatus that was not permitted and was unsafe.” Nguyen was handcuffed, detained, and released within hours and escorted off the property. When no prosecution developed, skeptical players insisted that the casino threw cold water on a cheating matter for its own convenience.

Nguyen was readmitted to the Foxwoods poker room some four years later. Little attention has been given to the unlikely scenario of a casino reversing a lifetime ban on a “proven cheater”  at its own casino. So, why has Nguyen endured relentless accusations over the years, without fighting more forcefully for his honor, if the never-ending discussion of his scruples among poker colleagues is unwarranted?

The Master marches to the beat of his own drummer

Nguyen deals with his image in his own way. While rumors were at a feverish pitch last week, Men poked his head in and out of the Tournament Event Center, parked at continuing tournaments, and mixed it up in cash games in the Borgata’s high limit poker room. He was also seen in the hallways, chatting up folks, right and left. It seems as if he almost relished the unrelenting attention, knowing, in this case he would prove the  gossipers wrong. With Christian Lusardi pictured as the key suspect and no mention of Nguyen in police press statements, the whodunit experts, who continued to point to Nguyen, began to look lame.

Exit Nguyen; enter Lusardi

While the investigation is ongoing, PPN has been given no reason to believe Men Nguyen is implicated in the counterfeit chips scandal at the Borgata Winter Open, Event 1. To the contrary, a multitude of sources close to the situation say there is no evidence that links Men Nguyen with the fiasco. Even the alleged perpetrator may have helped to take Nguyen off center-stage.

For reasons unknown, a poster using the name of “justbecauseican” at the twoplustwo forum website, began to communicate with the poker world hours before Lusardi was nabbed as a suspect. The poster assured his readers in advance of  Lusardi’s arrest: “Men has nothing to do with this!” In one of the most bizarre twists in this case, it appears that it was, indeed, Lusardi, who posted as justbecauseican, claiming responsibility (indirectly) for the introduction of fake chips into the tournament. A former New Jersey official with ties to investigators in the case says, “Investigators had good reason to believe justbecausueican was the suspect, Christian Lusardi. Twelve hours after his first posting authorities nabbed him at his hideout – a local Atlantic City motel room, undeterred by the ‘hogwash’ that was integrated in the “confession” offered from a cyberspace address.

Nguyen explains his tiff at the Borgata payout station

Yesterday, Men Nguyen followed up on the invitation to respond to a recent PPN article: Borgata Record Keeping Prowess: Keeping Men “The Master” On His Toes. He stepped away from the cash games to talk. The Master approached me smiling from ear to ear. It was easy to appreciate his sense of relief, if not his self-righteousness that made no allowance for others’ doubting him.

Before chatting about persistent claims against him of of angle shooting over the course of his poker career and the particulars of the Foxwood story, I asked Nguyen to respond to a recent incident at the Borgata tournament payout station. Nguyen was the “Bubble Boy” at the end of Day 2, coming into the money in 28th place, but failing to snare a spot among the final 27 players slated to return to the tables the next day. The Master made his way to the cash-out desk. He tried to persuade cashiers that he had six buy-ins for Event 1, rather than just the two they had recorded. It was a gambit to avoid the requirement of signing a W-2G tax form which is waived for tournament winnings of less than $5,000.

Officials did not buy his story, as he did not produce the necessary receipts to support his buy-in count. Nguyen acknowledged to PPN that he had exaggerated the number of buy-ins, but he insisted his exaggeration was justified. He explained that his winnings at the Borgata, on this trip, had resulted in less than $5,000 – and therefore his tournament cash-out should be treated as under the reporting threshold. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed, like a kid who had been caught in an innocuous tall tale.

Nguyen talks about Foxwoods – again

Meanwhile, the Foxwoods incident, as rumored, has remained a never-ending topic of conversation among players that have questioned Nguyen’s scruples at the tables. Nguyen spoke about the Foxwood saga and more. He explained that for his excursion to the 1996 Foxwoods tournament with some of his “students,” he had brought along food and his own “stove,” to make full hot meals. While cooking during this particular stay, a fire broke out in his room. After investigating the fire and putting out the flames, security officers put Nguyen in handcuffs, briefly (this may have been witnessed by players who suspected him of cheating in the tournament). Nguyen says he was released after questioning and told that he was to leave the property at once.

Initially, Nguyen says he faced a lifetime ban, but he he decided to appeal it. He denies, unequivocally, any allegation of cheating and specifically emphasizes that there was never any issue of tournament chips in his room at Foxwoods – ever. Casino security personnel confirmed Nguyen’s version of this story.

Nguyen is reinstated at Foxwoods

Nguyen returned to the Foxwoods poker room some four years later. He wrote a letter to the casino asking to be reinstated, in or around 2000. It was reviewed favorably by the casino. He received a formal letter advising him he could return and did so – with the promise that there would be no reprise of any form of cooking in his room. Foxwoods confirmed that Nguyen was never required to attend a “hearing” to secure his re-entry in the poker room.

The Foxwoods incident is not so mysterious

Nguyen claims that Card Player Magazine did an independent investigation of the Foxwoods matter, years ago, and reported his “innocence” of any charges of cheating in their tournament. Nguyen also said that former Foxwoods Director of Poker Operations, Kathleen Raymond who was in charge of the poker room (today, she is the super successful poker operations director at the Venetian in Las Vegas), knew the facts as he has reported them.

According to Nguyen several pros knew very well there was no real issue of tournament chips in his room. He noted that a popular pro and friend of his visited with him during the fire dust-up at Foxwoods. Nguyen said he hopes during the main event at the Borgata, this person and any others who knew better than to believe rumors of tournament chips in his room will finally come out of the woodwork, to speak up on his behalf. I listened to Nguyen’s story and agreed to print it, as told – except for the name of the player he referenced. The player was not reachable as of press time.

In the interim, players and readers are reminded that Foxwoods has never made any public statements that support rumors that Nguyen cheated there. Moreover, there is no indication that security reports ever intimated that tournament chips were found in his hotel room.

The Master defines himself

Nguyen says that cheating is not part of his personality, antithetical to his religion, and has never been his ticket to success at poker; nevertheless, he says he understands some of the suspiciousness. He discussed, with this reporter, one situation that occurred at the Commerce Club in California. He explains that a tournament official questioned him over the betting between him and one of his “students” who folded a hand to his raise. He conceded that it looked like “chip dumping.” Nguyen says that the complaining parties just “didn’t understand” the dynamics of the hand, assuring this reporter it was played fair and square.

Be that as it may, Matt Savage, a renowned tournament director with a wealth of experience in overseeing the conduct of poker tournaments around the world (and currently resident at the Commerce Casino for the LA Poker Classic) says, “My biggest complaint with Men is his verbal abusiveness to dealers and staff.”

As to persistent integrity complaints by high profile players and pros who have played with Nguyen for years, although allegations of cheating or introduction of chips not fairly in play have never been substantiated by any of the casinos contacted for this article, players’ first hand complaints of “angle shooting,” are hard to dismiss, categorically. And, there is no dispute any longer as to whether or not Men Nguyen attempted to master the right angle at the Borgata tournament cash-out desk.

At this point, there is every reason to believe the investigation and resolution of the Borgata chip caper will exonerate Nguyen from suspicion in that matter. The counterfeit chip caper and the far flung brouhaha surrounding it is instructive to all concerned.