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A Poker Life With Tuan Le

by Diana Cox |  Published: Oct 14, 2015


Tuan LeTuan Le is a bit of a paradox. A player who has quietly won and maybe not so quietly lost over the past two decades, he achieved fame with lightning speed in 2004 and then disappeared from the fanfare of tournament poker. But Le has always been there, just below the surface of the spotlight. Now, after winning back-to-back World Series of Poker titles, Le is in the limelight once again.

The 37-year-old who calls Los Angeles home has $5.4 million in career live tournament earnings, and still finds the time to compete in some of the bigger cash games around day in and day out.

World Poker Tour Breakout Success

Le’s initial breakout on the tournament scene was a collision of multiple factors some might call surreal. Already known in cash game circles, Le was a regular at Foxwoods and likened it to a home away from home. When the World Poker Tour made a stop there in November 2004 for the World Poker Finals, Le decided to play, even though chasing tournament glory and fame was not high on his list of priorities. Le bested a field of 674 players and left with $1.57 million plus a seat into the WPT $25,000 World Championship a few months later at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

But even with a world championship title on the line, Le was not interested in chasing the attention that surrounds tournament poker. He showed up at the Bellagio intending to simply cash in his seat and walk out with the $25,000. Unfortunately, that was not how it worked.

Upon being told he had to play the event, Le said he could not. He simply didn’t want to.
“They said they wouldn’t give me my money back, so I said ‘Fine. To hell with it.’ I played it and happened to win it.”

Le walked away with a cool $2.86 million and a seat in the WPT Battle of Champions tournament, where he promptly won a seat into the following season’s championship tournament. It was an improbable run that made him a star.

A Quick Start, Followed By Years Of Anonymity

After turning heads on the WPT, Le slipped out of the tournament spotlight and stuck to cash games, along with trips to the pit.

“I never really played tournaments, it was just the climate of poker at the time and was the thing to do,” he said. “But we played a lot of cash games. I played every pit game you could possibly think of. If they had a game where you could throw quarters against the wall, I would have played it.”

Swinging through major ups and major downs, Le never disappeared, even as his life began to evolve from that of a hard-partying, carefree player to that of a responsible and focused father.

“The biggest change in my life now is just knowing that if I don’t make smart decisions, my child might not eat,” Le said. “I can’t be Mr. Duplicity. I can’t tell my son not to do something while I’m doing it, I have to lead by example. And that is what I strive to do now. I just can’t say it, I have to actually do it.”

Back-to-Back World Series of Poker Titles

Always there but never in the headlines, suddenly Le was back on the tournament scene with a bang in 2014, much like his breakout WPT appearance.

In consecutive years – 2014 and 2015 – Le won the same event at the WSOP, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Thang Luu won back-to-back $1,500 Omaha eight-or-better titles in 2008 and 2009.

At the 2014 WSOP, Le let everyone from casual fans to major media outlets know he was still around when he won the $10,000 limit deuce-to-seven triple draw event for $355,324. But he really had no intention of being a back-to-back winner. In fact, he nearly missed the tournament in 2015 due to a combination of a late wire transfer and simple disbelief he could win it twice in a row.

“I’ll get straight to the point with this. I said ‘I’m not going to win this two years in a row. What am I doing here?’”

Prior to the tournament, Le checked at the cage for his money wire, but it was not there by the time he had expected it. The voice in his head told him back-to-back wins would be nearly impossible and the delayed transfer was a sign perhaps he just was not meant to play. However, a phone call from his mother minutes before registration closed changed it all.

“My mom called me and said, ‘Why don’t you just play. Stop being dumb.’ So I went down and, at the very last moment, I registered and the rest is history,” Le said.

And history it was. No one had won back-to-back WSOP titles in six years, much less in a $10,000 championship event.

“They are coming for you when you sit down back-to-back,” he said. “When you defend, it’s not easy. I know it’s not easy.”

Le adapted when it mattered most, and walked away with his second WSOP bracelet and $322,756. He now has nearly $830,000 in lifetime WSOP earnings.

The Larry Flynt Game at Hustler Casino

While attending college Le had been given an assignment: If you could be one person in the world, who would it be?

For Le, the answer was Larry Flynt. Soon after Le completed his assignment, Flynt opened the Hustler Casino in Gardena, California.

“People told me to go meet my idol,” he recalled. “So I went to go meet him and I saw him playing poker and he was throwing $1,000 chips into the middle. I was like, ‘What kind of game is it that you can look at your cards before you decide what to do?’”

Intrigued, Le kept watching Flynt play and one day, with money procured from some small-time drug sales, Le sat at Hustler’s $20-$40 limit hold’em game with $500, enough for just one rack of chips.

“This is how stupid I was,” Le said. “I didn’t know what money was back then and I would just crush it. But I wasn’t crushing it in the sense that I was good, where I was just this great, phenomenal player. I was just getting really, really lucky.”

Le ran the $500 up to $10,000, then sat in a bigger game where $10,000 was a small buy-in. That $10,000 was soon $40,000 and Le jumped stakes again. Soon he was sitting in games he’d never even played before.

Le was just 22 years old when Eric Drache and Barry Greenstein got him an invite to one of the biggest and most exclusive games running at the time, which just so happened to be Flynt’s private game.

At times, the game was $1,500-$3,000 stud. You’d think that his lack of experience would be a deterrent to the young Le, but he had no problem sitting in the game with his entire $40,000 bankroll.

“I had never played a stud hand of in my life until that game,” Le said. “I ran it up to about $800,000, which back then, that was a lot of money. I was definitely the sucker, but I was winning for like four months,” Le said. “Then I obviously went broke because I just didn’t know any better.”

Adaptation and Lifestyle Changes

Le was young and reckless when he first discovered poker. A small-time drug dealer who idolized Larry Flint and did not care where his money went or if it ran out, Le lived life without a care.

“I always had this inner confidence about myself where, if I did run out of money or go broke, I could just go back and play and make more money,” he said.

And with the money came drugs and partying, and Le never shied away from any of it.

“I don’t glorify it, but we partied a lot. I had friends in the poker industry and outside the industry, and all we did was party and have fun. And back then, you just played online where you could make a few hundred thousand dollars and be good for the rest of the year. I made a lot of unhealthy choices in my life. I did a lot of drugs. But looking back, I’m a changed man. I’m not the same person. I had a baby, cut out the drugs, started up the exercise, stuff like that.”

At 37, Le may have simple outgrown his breakneck lifestyle, but becoming a father four years ago set in motion the seeds of change.

“I can’t lie, I was out of control until the baby,” Le said. “I was still crazy. My thought process was still the same, but the baby certainly changed the entire perspective and perception of life. It got real after that.”

It changed poker as well.

“Before I was more reckless,” he admitted. “I did not care about what my results were. I didn’t do it for the glory either. I don’t know what I played poker for, to be honest, because it wasn’t for the money. No matter how much I had, I just fucked it off. And I knew I was going to, whether it was $1 or $1 million, I knew I was going to do something bad with the money. I had no assets and all my friends that were successful did smart things with their money and I just looked at them like they were stupid as hell. How do they enjoy life? But I was the fool all along.”

A Veteran Approach

Having been playing poker since the early 2000’s, Le also had to adapt to changes in the game that have come about due to the poker boom, online poker, and different attitudes.

“I feel like a dinosaur, I really do,” he said of no longer being the young gun in the games. “Now that online is gone, the live games are a lot tougher and you are either going to adapt or just be broke.”

But adaptation may be easier said than done for someone who came on the scene when the line between old school and new school wasn’t so blurry.

“It took a lot,” he admitted. “I had to make some life choices. A lot has happened between then and now and it wasn’t like you could just turn on a switch. As great as you think you are and as great as you might be, it just doesn’t all work out the minute you switch it back.”

Le started slow and really thought about it what it means to be great at poker.

“It’s not just about playing your hands a certain way, it’s a whole lifestyle change,” he said. “You see the great ones, they go through a lot. Their diet is different, their exercise is different, the way they talk to their friends about poker hands is just completely different. It’s not old school anymore. It’s a lot more advanced, and if you don’t keep up, you are going to get lost in the whole transition.” ♠