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Catching Up With The Dragon: David Pham On Why He Took A Break From Poker

Two-Time Player of the Year Award Winner Finds Success In His Return To The Game


David “The Dragon” Pham was one of the most feared tournament players during the height of the poker boom, making numerous final tables and scoring big wins en route to the 2000, and 2007 Card Player Player of the Year titles.

Pham, who was among the one-third of boat passengers who survived his dangerous emigration from South Vietnam, came to the U.S. at the age of 17 and started working at his cousin Men Nguyen’s laundry business. Nguyen taught Pham the game, and Pham took it to another level by being relentlessly aggressive during a time when passive play was the norm.

Pham started grinding the tournament circuit in 1998. His 17 final-table appearances in 2000 were enough to give him POY honors, and in 2001, he scored his first World Series of Poker bracelet, banking $140,455 for winning a $2,000 S.H.O.E. tournament.

Pham was devoted to the grind, playing tournaments with buy-ins ranging from just $100 all the way up to the $10,000 main event. Wherever there was a series going on, he was there. In 2003, he took down the limit hold’em championship at the L.A. Poker Classic for $457,320. He then won a huge $3,000 event at the Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2004 for $414,419.

His second WSOP bracelet came in 2006, when he won a $2,000 shootout event for another $240,222. This came around the time of a run of seven World Poker Tour final-table appearances and numerous other wins, which resulted in the 2007 POY award.

Pham at a Recent Venetian TournamentPham was one of the biggest winners on tour, and certainly one of the most consistent faces at every stop. Shortly before Black Friday, however, Pham found himself jumping off the circuit almost entirely.

“I split up with my wife in 2010, and ended up remarrying and moving back to Vietnam for about five years,” Pham explained. “I wasn’t playing very much poker at all. Every year, I would just come [back to the U.S.] for the World Series of Poker. That’s it. Just that month and a half of poker, and the rest of the time in Vietnam.”

While it was the big changes in his personal life that made him decide to return to Vietnam, there were other reasons why he chose to stay.

“I moved back for a couple of reasons. The first was that I was playing too much poker. It was just too much. Sometimes I would go to Macau and play in some small cash games, but mostly I just needed to relax. And also, my new wife had a business in Vietnam, so I wanted to help her run it.”

Despite the limited schedule, Pham managed to do a lot with his time on the felt when he did make the trip to Las Vegas. He made a final table at the 2012 WSOP, scoring $140,736 for a fifth-place showing in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event. The next year, he had back-to-back fourth-place showings for a combined $221,415.

But back in Vietnam, another big life change occurred for the Pham family.

Pham at a 2008 World Poker Tour Final Table“When we were there, my wife got pregnant and gave birth to our son. We decided that we wanted to raise him in Vietnam for the first few years. It was easier because of all of the family, like her mom and sister, that could help with the baby. But when it was time for preschool and kindergarten, we wanted to raise him in the U.S., so we moved back.”

Pham and his family settled down in Houston, where many of his brothers and sisters reside. Texas may not come with all of the poker options Pham was used to when he lived in California, but it does allow him to find a better balance between family life and the circuit.

“I can play a little poker in Houston,” Pham said. “There are some new poker clubs, and also Choctaw isn’t too far. I went there for an event and got eighth place. But I have to travel for the big tournaments.”

Along with his brother, Pham opened a coffee shop in Houston, and even hosts a weekly poker game with his friends. But he admits that he is easing back from the game at a time when it’s harder to win than ever.

“I think about 10, 15 years ago, and how easy it was,” Pham recalled. “Back then, you could play a little loose, be very aggressive, steal whatever pots you want. It was easy. But now you have to fix up the game a little bit. Make sure you don’t make mistakes. The game is so much tougher now than it ever has been. There are so many young, good players. Players I don’t know and they still play very good. A lot of them even recognize me, but they don’t care about who I am and what I did in the past. They are confident, they have big heart, and they aren’t scared of me.”

While Pham is modest about how he currently stacks up in the game, his results since he has returned from Vietnam suggest that the 51-year-old can still hang with some of the game’s best players.

Pham Winning His Second Bracelet Back In 2006In 2016, Pham final tabled the WSOP Crazy Eights tournament, taking home $289,497 for fifth place. Then in 2017, he won his third WSOP bracelet, banking $391,960 in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event. This year, Pham stayed in the winner’s circle, taking down both the Wynn Classic main event, and the WSOP Circuit main event at the Bicycle Casino for $240,254, and $216,790, respectively. In total, Pham has increased his live tournament earnings to more than $10.6 million.

“Right now, I think everybody is almost equal. If you run a little hot, you can win, but if you don’t, you’d better be a great player to survive. I think my game has changed a little bit, but it’s still the same system in my head. It’s the style that I’ve used for a long time, but I have learned a few tricks over the years and added them in. If I pick up some cards, and those cards go my way, I can still get to those final tables. Maybe even win a few more.”