A funny thing happened to Liz Lieu on her way to a satisfying life half a world removed from the war-ravaged Vietnam her family fled when she was but a year old.
She discovered she could play cards.
She could play with great skill, getting the most out of looks that have made her the centerpiece in one of those walking, talking cliches. People wanting to know, in so many words, what a girl like her is doing in a place like this, meaning a card room?
Winning money, is what she might reply was she not inclined to smile and let the questions sweep past her.
Has she ever think about being a model, maybe doing something in films? Well, yes. It’s another familiar question, but in the meantime, she’s a poker player, the kind of poker pro who makes newcomers to the game wonder whatever happened to all the stereotypes.
Times are definitely changing.
Lieu was about 18 when she began getting serious about poker, living in Colorado, as she was then. Some 14 years later she is getting accustomed to a celebrity status that might be unlikely was she not otherwise blessed with the qualities that cause heads to snap in her direction and photographers to linger as they pass.
Because let’s face it . . . There are a lot of good poker players in the card rooms of America from LA to Atlantic City. Lieu’s looks have given her a wonderful chance to make good first impressions, which she has done . . . again and again.
Doyle Brunson is a living legend, but you won’t find his website graced by shots of “Texas Dolly’s” bulk at the Bellagio pool. Ditto for Phil Hellmuth and, well, you get the idea. The photo gallery at her lizlieu.net website makes it clear she and her handlers hope to project an image that involves more than poker opportunities.
But the emphasis on makes it difficult to walk into a room anonymously. “Yes,” she says, “It is hard,” saying that as though it would be nice to get a little anonymity from time to time and then adding, “It works both ways, I think. A lot of people think that being known is good. Being on the covers of magazines is a lot of fun.”
Celebrity has its rewards, but there is a price to be paid in terms of a loss of privacy. “There are good people,” she says, ” and there are bad people. There are good things said about you but there are always bad things being said when you are in the public eye and sometimes it affects a woman more than it does a man . . .”
Letting the sentence run off into nothing as though it is time to move on to another subject.
Like a lot of freshly minted poker celebrities who have leveraged their success at the tables into ancillary opportunities, Liz has an agent, in this case, a Minneapolis woman named Wendy Meadley who recalls not being all that interested in taking on other clients when she first heard from Liz.
But a few minutes in the presence of the winsome Lieu convinced her that this was a, uh, “compelling” opportunity – for both of them.
“What I want to do,” says Liz, “is ultimately move beyond poker.” Meadley gives this a little agent-talk, saying she hopes to “cross cultures” with Liz via some product endorsements that have nothing to do with the world of poker rooms. These are in the works although neither woman was prepared a few weeks ago to elaborate on what they might involve.
For the time being Lieu is living a life that has an international look to it. She spends about half the year in Las Vegas and has plans to move into her own units in one of those pricey highrise condominium towers just in time for the World Series.
She was signed as a member of the European based Martins Poker online team several months ago and was recently back in Vietnam visiting with her father. Her parents are now divorced and Liz supports them both. Her mother’s in LA. Her father returned to Vietnam.
Liz spends the bulk of her Las Vegas playing time at the Bellagio. That’s where the action has been as she specializes in limits of about $75 and $150.
She’ll venture higher, to $400 and $800 and beyond depending on the game. The proliferation of Las Vegas poker rooms means that opportunity is evolving in new directions. And then there is the Internet which has generated a world of possibilities. Lieu spent a recent weekend at the Venetian, winning two of three $200,000 hold ’em freezeouts against Erik “123” Sagstrom.
The marketing that went into creating a profile for this event made it look like a combination of show biz and a professional wrestling grudge match. It was a marketing success that touched all the right buttons. How did it happen? The way Lieu remembers it: Sagstrom came on to her four an eight hundred heads-up hold ’em game on the Martin’s Poker Internet site three or four months ago.
“He beat me badly,” Liz says, “one of those days when he drew about whatever he needed,” giving this a big sigh and a tone that says the memory was not a happy one.
“I think I lost about thirty- thousand.” What followed was a little trash-talking instigated by Sagstrom. “He called me a fish in Swedish. He did it in Swedish.”
Not a compliment, huh? A rueful laugh and she says, “I don’t think it was a compliment in any language.”
What happened then was that the sponsors of each of the two got to thinking about the possibilities that seemed to beg for exploitation. The people at the Venetian, a new poker room looking to drum up business, decided they would be happy to host the event. Someone decided a “beauty and the beast” tagline was appropriate.
No question about who was the beauty. The way Lieu tells her story, her family was living in Colorado and she started playing poker as the game was legalized there. Over the years she has managed to approach poker from just about every direction – running the games, dealing and playing.
As a player, her preference was for cash games, but that changed when she was persuaded by a friend to get involved in the 2005 World Series of Poker action. She finished fifth in the first hold ’em event, winning $169,500.
She followed the tournament circuit the rest of the year, finishing in the money eight times. There is no significant other in her life for the time being.
Does she like it that way?
She seems to roll the question around in her mind for a moment before giving it a shrug, saying, “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
But Lieu has no shortage of friends and then there are the members of the Martins Poker team who seem to fill the role of a sort of de facto family. That’s if we accept at face value her explanation of the time they spend travelling together or rooting each other on at tournaments and poker promotions around the world.
She enjoys the action associated with the Las Vegas Strip’s late night clubs. “Playing poker can be very stressful and I do like to unwind.”
Part of the stress comes from the fact that she is the sole support of her two parents who were divorced about a year ago. Her mother joined Liz in California and her father returning to Vietnam. She has visited Vietnam twice, the first time seven or eight years and the second time just a few weeks ago. It was uncomfortable, that first trip. Nothing like a homecoming. The heat and poverty were hard to take.
Home is . . . well, a long way from Vietnam. Speaking of which, Lieu has bought herself a unit in one of the high-rise condominium towers near the Las Vegas Strip.
She can drive no more than a few miles to work in the myriad card rooms where there are enough cash games and tournament action to keep any poker pro busy.
But thoughts of her parents are always there. “They are constantly in my thoughts because of their welfare, it is in my hands.”
Has there been any single mentor or influence who was important to the refining of her game? “I really look up to Barry (Greenstein). I met him several years ago. He’s a good friend and I really respect him for all the things he has done. He’s just over-all a great man.
He’s someone I can go to when I get knocked out of a tournament and I know I can count on him to tell me that I did things right or I did them wrong.”
Greenstein guesses his biggest assist was in letting Lieu sit with him watching him play. “Maybe I showed her something about attitude, you know, getting beat and not letting it affect the next hand.”
But Lieu may also have been alluding to Greenstein’s habit of donating at least a portion of his tournament winnings to charity, an action that has earned him a reputation as “the Robinhood of poker.”
She had previously said without any reference to Greenstein that charity work will be a priority as she moved forward.
Poker promises Lieu the opportunity for as much travel as she can handle during the months ahead. There’s the Martins Poker Festival in Sweden to look forward to and then it will be back to Las Vegas and her new home in time for the World Series that will crank up at the Rio by late June.
Lieu looks forward to whatever opportunities poker success might bring her way. There’s a possible book deal. It was pitched as a sort of biography; not so much a how-to-play book, but a story about her life, something that answers the question: What’s a girl like you doing in a business like this and what did you have to go through to get to where you are now?
Lieu says it is a project she’s willing to tackle. But not right now, so it’s on the shelf for the moment. Any thoughts about the seemingly large number of Asians who have done very well at poker’s highest levels the last several years?
“You know what it is,” giving this a laugh. “It’s in our blood.”