This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of WGM.
Among the many players who made the trek to Ho Tram for the inaugural APT Vietnam were a handful of overseas players of Vietnamese heritage – none more respected in the poker world than Nam Le. Nam burst into the international spotlight in 2006 when he won the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star for US$1.2 million and has since accumulated more than US$7 million in live tournament earnings with six WPT and four WSOP final table appearances. WGM’s Ben Blaschke sat down with Nam during APT Vietnam to speak about his first ever trip to his country of heritage, his impressive career and his future ambitions.
Ben Blaschke: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk to us, Nam. You were one of a handful of American poker players either born in Vietnam or of Vietnamese heritage to have made the long trek to Ho Tram for the very first APT Vietnam. Although you were born and raised in the United States, does Vietnam hold a special meaning to you?
Nam Le: It does although I’ve never actually been before! I’ve always wanted to go to Vietnam but given my schedule the past few years it’s pretty hard to get to most places when you spend most of your time working on the road. But anytime you can play poker at a location you really want to be at, it’s win-win. You can’t differentiate whether you’re working or you’re playing. Vietnam is one of those spots where it’s a treat. I didn’t actually know about the event until about two weeks before it started but straight away I thought it was pretty exciting. I had no idea what to expect – poker in Vietnam – but it was still quite far away for me to get here, especially with the buy-ins being pretty small. These days I like to be a little more selective. But then a good buddy of mine, who didn’t make it out here in the end, invited me. So yeah, it’s kind of hard to get to but once you do it’s pretty relaxing. The property is nice. It feels like Vegas. You kind of forget you’re in Vietnam.
BB: I’m curious about that travel aspect because the very nature of professional tournament poker requires you to travel more often than not. Given that you’ve been doing it for the best part of a decade now, does the lifestyle become more difficult to maintain over time?
NL: You know, being a poker player, travelling the world, competing in poker tournaments – it’s a great lifestyle. I have no complaints. Most people spend their lives working 11 months a year just to get a vacation for a month. So for us it’s great but at the same time there is a cost. The older you get … the opportunity cost in life is not being able to spend time with your family, being able to spend time with your friends back home. In the beginning, when poker was a lot more lucrative, we would travel in large groups but over time it seems to have thinned out. People move on. Poker has gotten a lot tougher. Some of the places we go are repetitive. So it’s not as exciting as it once was … but it’s still good.
BB: There must be days when you dread getting on another plane?
NL: Yeah and the thing about poker is, it’s one of those things where in order to be able to continue to make money you’ve got to be awake so it’s probably wise for most poker players, if not now then in the future, to consider having some second type of income. Personally, I don’t want to be in a situation where 20 years pass by and I’ve got one skill. This is a young man’s game. I’m not sure if I can repeat the results I’ve achieved over the past 10 years in the next 10 years and to be honest I’m not sure if I want to.
BB: Does that mean your ambitions have changed over time?
NL: Well I’m very fortunate to now be in a situation whereby I have financial freedom. And once you get here you have to start considering your options on how you want to spend your time because I think if you’re just spending your time chasing money you find out that’s not what you really wanted. So that’s why going to somewhere like Vietnam is more important to me now because there is no way you can lose. Even if you bust out of the tournament, you’re in Vietnam! It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.
BB: One of your very good friends, JC Tran, had also planned to come to Vietnam but cancelled at the last minute due to a family illness. Do you face the same difficulties in having to juggle family and travel?
NL: Well no, I’m not married, I’m single and I think most players that are hardcore all agree that it’s very hard to maintain a healthy relationship. It’s a pretty unique situation. I’m not sure you can’t do it, there are obviously those that can, but at the moment I’m just living my life. I’m sure there is a time and place for that in the years ahead where I settle down but I kind of don’t see it just yet!
BB: How did you get started playing poker and more importantly how did your game develop to the point where you were comfortable competing with the best?
NL: I first started – a good friend of mine at the time, Tuan Le, he was playing higher stakes and I used to follow him around the casino just watching him play. I watched a lot of great players play and just studied them for six months. Me being more of the practical type, it took a while to get my feet wet but as soon as I got into poker, I think it was my first tournament, we chopped it six ways. It was a smaller buy-in but I picked up a pretty good amount of money for me at the time. Two days later I did it again so right off the bat, my first two events, I picked up a good amount of money and thought “This is unreal. This is the funnest thing I’ve ever done”.
BB: And then came your breakthrough win at the 2006 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star.
NL: Bay 101 changed my life. That was definitely one of those moments in your life where you can pinpoint a big shift – especially with my family. I mean, you can’t blame family – they’re always going to worry. And especially when they hear you’re inside the gambling world. You hear endless stories of people destroying themselves and losing it all but I think me being on TV and winning a major event, aside from the substantial amount of money, it was a turning point. My family became a lot more supportive. I was more recognized. It was also [a big turning point] for myself because you always have self-doubt and wonder if you belong in this world or not. So it kind of helped my ego a lot and gave me the drive to continue. That was a pretty cool day!
BB: You’ve also been able to maintain that success with a number of strong results over the years, which can’t be said for quite a few major title winners. Why is that?
NL: I think in poker in general, it’s very easy to get caught up. You can forget quickly what has to happen for you to win a major event. I mean, you have to go through some pretty lucky situations. And it’s kind of like a double-edged sword – you put yourself in some gambling spots but at the same time if you don’t know yourself it’s very easy to get caught up. You can hurt yourself pretty bad if you don’t have humility. Because I know myself, I know I have a loopy brain which is a big issue I’ve dealt with through insomnia. For a long time I couldn’t sleep because any time I had an issue in my head it would play over. I think the key for me was not trying to fix it but to harness it and poker was the perfect occupation for that. I would start looping on hands that I played and go over them again and again which I think has been a big part in my success given that for the first six or seven years I never read a poker book!
BB: So you basically went through hand histories in your head?
NL: I wouldn’t say that’s the healthiest thing but looking back, that happened a lot! I also remember as I was gaining a lot of success in poker I still had a good balance of self-doubt where I would never know if I would ever make another final table, if I would win a tournament or even cash in a tournament again.
BB: Ironically, you made the final table of Bay 101 again in 2014, finishing fifth. What was it like to be back at the final table of your breakthrough event?
NL: It was a lot different. It was surreal. I mean, any time you make a WPT final table or any final table in a major event – it’s pretty hard to do. And these days I want to credit more luck than anything because the field isn’t the same as when I won it. There are no really good spots – you’re just trying to play optimum and hopefully the luck swings your way. But it was interesting. It’s a different type of pressure in the sense that I didn’t really feel any pressure at all, it was more fun. Then again, maybe you want the pressure? Because I didn’t win this time, maybe I needed the pressure. You try to find ways or things to motivate yourself so it goes beyond all poker strategies. It’s you fighting a battle within yourself. Again though, I’m not complaining. Any time you’re not playing for blood, you’re just playing for points like trying to get highest score in a video game.
BB: Our CEO, Andrew W Scott, often speaks of the 2008 APPT Macau High Rollers event in which he finished runner-up to none other than yourself. What are your memories of that tournament?
NL: That was a good moment for me too. I think the buy-in was US$20,000 which was the largest I had played at that time. It was a substantial amount. And poker in Asia was brand new at the time. Those were the golden years. I miss those times.
BB: What are your thoughts on poker in Asia today?
NL: I wouldn’t be the most qualified to answer that question given I play most of my poker in the States but you hear a lot of noise about the Macau cash games and that’s something you can’t get away from. It’s attracted a lot of attention around the world and has lured guys like Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius.
BB: Do you play cash games?
NL: I don’t play cash. Why don’t I play? I don’t really know. Tournaments seem to be a better fit for me.
BB: Cash is a different skill set.
NL: It’s a completely different skill set. I think you have to be a little bit more … maybe not cut-throat but I like the idea of minimum effort, maximum impact where I can buy-in for US$10,000 and five days later I can win US$1 million. If I was playing a cash game, to win US$1 million I’d basically have to risk US$1 million. It’s not really my strength. I also don’t really want that lifestyle. I like relaxing – competing in prestigious events and then taking a break. I guess it depends on your goal and what you really want. For me, yes I am about wealth creation but I’m also about lifestyle so a lot of the decisions I make around poker are based on how it will affect my lifestyle. So it’s very important to decide what you want to be. It’s very important to decide your goals.
BB: And what are your goals? Do you have certain things you want to achieve over the next five or 10 years?
NL: That’s a good question. I should take my own advice! I struggle a little bit with that. It’s odd as you get older you have this urge to be around your family more often whereas in your younger days you want to get away from them. I’m unclear on my exact goals or where I want to be in poker over the next 10 years but I do know that I don’t want to spend 350 days a year sitting in a casino like I did early in my career. I’ve explored other things. I want to transition out but I don’t want to completely transition out. I’m not going to lie to myself – poker is going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life. I can see myself playing for a long time because I still enjoy it. But I want to do other things – entrepreneurship, starting other projects and the important things in life like health, love and happiness. I’m getting there. I’m not totally there yet but it’s a work in progress.