A month ago, I was asked by Bluff to write about JC Tran. For two weeks after I told him as much, JC put off the interview, not entirely comfortable with the process and having more enjoyable things to do with his time. When my deadline drew near, I went to his close friend Nam Le, begging him to get JC to sit down with me. With Nam’s help, it happened within twenty-four hours.
When Bluff approached me to write about Nam, I was at the WPT’s Foxwoods Poker Classic. Nam had just finished eleventh when I bumped into him with the news he’d be featured in the magazine. We agreed to meet the next day…and…then the next…and the next. Suddenly, Nam dropped off the face of the earth.
My proposal for a half hour interview became twenty-five minutes, then twenty minutes, as I sensed his lack of ease. Nam isn’t a guy who talks about himself naturally. Boasting isn’t in his nature, and I got the feeling he didn’t feel like he had much to say. Finally, after three weeks of chasing him down, I called him in his hotel room during the WPT Championship: “Gary, I really don’t want to do this interview.”
It would have made for a great story if JC had convinced his traveling partner to do the interview, turning the tables, but he was still in the tournament. I finally guilted Nam into coming downstairs and finding me for a fifteen minute talk. When he finally arrived to support Tran, I had to corner him and order him to sit. That’s when the man of few words finally started talking.
Unlike so many of his fellow Vietnamese professionals, Le was born on this side of the ocean, in Irvine, California. His family’s three-bedroom home housed eleven family members: his tailor father, housewife mother, grandmother, uncle, aunt, two older brothers, two younger brothers, and a younger sister. “The neighborhood I grew up in… it wasn’t the projects, but kind of a welfare neighborhood.” He remembered his cramped accommodations with warmth: “Every house on the street had three or four kids my age to play with.”
Play they did. If it wasn’t a street game of basketball or football, it was marbles or cards. The sports were borne of passion, but the other games were played with something else on the line. “Gambling has always been a natural thing for me,” he recalled. “We always played in big groups of kids and we gambled over everything.” The experience turned out to be life training.
He was a smart kid, but his interest in school wavered. “My report cards were either A’s or F’s,” he recalled, a half-smile on his face. There was a comprehension there that he could have been the student his parents wanted him to be if only he’d wanted the same things they did. To sate them, he even attend-ed community college for two years, taking business marketing until it was time to recognize his true calling.
Nam told me near the end of our talk that he didn’t like to consider himself “a gambler” per se, but it was obvious that’s what he was four years ago. Blackjack, sports betting…he went through bad habits like tissue. Finally though, it was Tuan Le who introduced him to the game that would make him famous.
“For the first six months, I just watched him play. The game intrigued me. I started making trips to the Morongo Casino. I’d have like one or two hundred dollars, and I’d drive for an hour to go play with it.” He remembered it like it was yesterday, but it seemed so far removed from the man he is now. He looked at me, amused. “Pretty sick, huh?”
If Morongo didn’t hook him, the money and the fevered need to perfect the game that can’t be perfected did. He started playing for a living. “I was a cash player to start. Nothing but limit…a total grinder.” It was a far cry from marbles in the street. Slowly, he started finding satisfaction in the small victories. Soon, they’d be obsolete.
His first tournament, a $300 buy-in event, was a failure. He “busted in an ugly way,” but the experience was a valuable one. It allowed him the realization that the “good players,” casino heroes who talked big and walked tall, weren’t any better than he was. He could play with these guys. It was a revelation that would give him the confidence to enter another $300 event.
This time, despite a 500-player field, Nam made the final table and a six-way split, good for $35,000 ? “a huge score back then.” Bolstered by success, he entered a $500 buy-in tourney and split that one three ways, good for $65,000.” Suddenly, he had a six-figure bankroll. He was also hooked on tournaments. “Making the big score was better than a lot of little ones.”
The next couple of years were bumpy. “I remember being broke dozens of times.” He was gambling extensively at the pits, making bad investments, and loaning out money he shouldn’t have. “Buying sad stories,” he called it. It was a profound appraisal for a guy whose idea of money management was essentially to spend it when he had it.
A couple of six-figure scores kept Nam in the style to which he’d become accustomed, but the money would go fast, and he was constantly fighting the battle with his gambling demons. Finally though, everything changed in February, 2006, when he made his way to the Bay 101 Shooting Star in San Jose.
Bay 101 put him on the map. Facing a tough table that included David Williams and 2006 Bluff Magazine Player of the Year Chad Brown, Nam prevailed. The victory earned him just under $1.2 million, while simultaneously putting him on the tournament poker map. Things would never be the same.
“My life didn’t change that much,” he started, but then changed his tune. “It gave me a little security…a lot of stress off my back. Life is better. As a poker player, you don’t want to be someone who hasn’t won the big one after twenty years. Now, the air is fresher. I sleep better. Food tastes better, but my friends are the same.”
Those friends get a lot of credit from the man for their role in his success. “No one makes it in this game alone. Without my friends, I wouldn’t be here.” He divides those friends into two groups: those in poker and those back home.
Funnily enough, he’s constantly playing poker with the home friends. “They get me away from poker, but they play every night. Playing with them is a no-win situation, but they ask about the life a lot and I help them out with some small tournaments. My way of giving back, I guess.”
There are many poker friends, but three hold a special place in his world: Tuan Le, Tim Phan, and JC Tran. Each has played a crucial role in his development as a player; Tuan was the mentor, Tim the big brother, and JC the partner in crime. “Tim is the best player in the world that no one has ever heard of.” Phan reciprocates the respect, telling me of Nam, “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
It was in teaming with Tran, the WPT Season Five Player of the Year, that Nam really blossomed. “After going broke so many times, I started getting pretty sick of it. JC and I made a bet with each other to stop playing table games to get our leaks under control.” The bet continues to grow, with mutual allowances for fun nights in the pit allowed, but no deviations aside from that acceptable. It’s taught Nam fiscal responsibility he didn’t know he was capable of.
“When you win more than you lose, habits aren’t a problem; when you lose, they are.” He started telling me about the habits: “Whenever I’d lose a tournament, I’d go to the pits looking to make my money back. I’d just steam off $40,000. Now, it’s different. I play a little every day just to get my dose of poker, but I don’t need to gamble. Winning is what drives me now. Winning is everything.”
Instead of the leaks, he occupies himself elsewhere — on the gold course, in movie theatres, in front of the TV. He devours TV shows like pop culture candy. He still watches sports; he just doesn’t bet them any more. He keeps that to the table, though not as much as you might think.
“I’ve never played a live cash game.” It’s a shocking revelation for a guy who obviously loves the game and has ample opportunity, but tournaments are what fascinate him, and they’re where he gets his money in good.
“People think I’m sick playing all these tournaments, but that’s what I do. If I had $10,000 left in the world and there was a tournament for that much, I’d buy in.” It’s a drastic statement, but he backs it up. “I’m lucky. I have a family and friends who love me. I know I’ll still have a place to stay.”
“I can make those choices because I’m young,” says the twenty-six year old. “This is when you take your shots. You can’t do that when you’re old. Even if I’m broke, my family will love me and feed me. It’s not like I’ll live on the streets.” He paused when he said that, finally understanding. “I’m fortunate to have that.” You could hear the gratitude in his voice.
Humble and grateful for everything he has. These are not the qualities of your average young-buck poker star. They’re the mark of a man who knows where he is and how lucky he’s been to get here. Maybe he didn’t want to do the interview because it might jinx it all; still, Nam has taken control of his life and his destiny. That’s the mark of an exceptional poker player. It’s the mark of an exceptional person, too.