Boutros Pierre Naim is a man of will.
The Lebanese-born, poker-playing Monaco resident — and PokerStars qualifier to the EPT Main Event this week — once quit his investment banking job on a whim because his company moved offices from one part of London to another. It increased his commuting time and Naim wouldn’t stand for it.
“For me,” he says, “this was basically a no-go.” So he moved to Monaco.
But when he was in his 60s and living in the principality, Naim found himself missing his son, who had moved to Massachusetts to attend Babson College. Naim decided to move nearby and applied to Harvard University — not to seek a degree but simply to take courses on subjects like economics, the history of the Ottoman Empire, and meta-ethics. He applied for admission through the same process as any other student, leading to some bureaucratic-themed amusement.
“I have seven years of university studies over and above my baccalaureate, so it was fun trying to retrieve all those diplomas from over 35 years,” Naim says. “At the end of the day I got a filigreed diploma reading, ‘We declare Mr. Naim got his diploma in the session of July 1975.’ And it was signed Paris, January 2011. Thirty-six years later!”
At Harvard, Naim became close friends with a Nobel Prize winner in economics and spent his days in the Widener Library, plucking books from the stacks at will and plundering the JSTOR archives for knowledge that simply wasn’t widely available earlier in his life. “I really loved the atmosphere,” he says of the eight months he spent there. “I really enjoyed butting heads with 20-year-olds all the time.”
While his surroundings may have changed again now — he moved back to Monaco a few years ago — there is a sense in which things these days aren’t much different for Naim. He still spends his time butting heads with highly intelligent people decades his junior. The only difference is that those interactions now come over chips and cards against the world’s most talented poker players.
“Being 30 years older than the average guy, I know exactly how they perceive me. Like, ‘Here comes the fish, we’re going to kill him.’ And I’ve made a lot of money and won a lot of hands because the other guy tried to frighten me.”
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When Naim was a young man, he swam the breaststroke and medley competitively. “I used to swim eight kilometers a day,” he says. “If I entered a race, in the worst-case scenario I would end up in second or third.” The state of Naim’s back these days makes it tough for him to run or play tennis, so instead he plays poker — but he’s not entirely comfortable with the nature of the game.
“Considering that I need some adrenaline flowing, the only place I can find it is poker,” he says. “Some skill and some intuition is required so I do that. I think poker is one of the most ungrateful sports in history — you can study all you want, you can make the right decision, and you don’t win. My theory is that the best poker player in the world is an unknown guy who still hasn’t done more than one level in any tournament because he loses every time with hard luck. There’s an undiscovered gem somewhere playing for the last 10 years, always busting.”
In that case, does that player’s polar opposite also exist? Someone who makes the wrong move time and again yet comes out smelling like roses?
“Yes,” he says, and starts to tick off players he thinks have borne some resemblance to this theoretical monster, at least in particular circumstances. There’s Jonathan Duhamel (“Give me a break, every hand he won making the worst decision in the world!”). There’s Phil Hellmuth (“When he won the WSOP in Cannes, that was the luckiest man in the world!”). And, a little closer to his heart, there’s Fedor Holz. (“I respect Fedor, he’s a good friend of mine, he has one of my paintings in his flat in Vienna. I really like him but he got very lucky, it’s unbelievable.”)
There’s no venom or bitterness from Naim when he says these things — he’s just calling it as he sees it. Talk to him about his experience at the US Poker Open at the Aria in Las Vegas last year, where he finished in second place, and he’s effusive in his praise of the players who impress him.
“I like to play with the pros like David Peters, Justin Bonomo, Stephen Chidwick,” Naim says. “They deserve what they have, because they work hard, these guys. They’re really lovely players to play with because they’re serious, they’re disciplined, [not like playing with] some clown in the $1K or the Main Event going all-in with rags. You play with serious people and they bluff you, but at least you have a pattern.”
At the end of that tournament, despite being an amateur at a table full of pros, Naim found himself heads-up against Justin Bonomo. “I am probably the only one who was one card away from beating Bonomo,” says Naim. “He had just started in February last year his incredible run. He got very lucky. I had Q-8, he had 8-7. The board was 6-6-3, so check-check. Turn 8, I go all-in — heads-up when I pair, I’m all-in, I don’t want to wank around. He calls and sees I’m beating him with the kicker, and then there was an ace so we had to split. I hate the chop! When I saw the producers later and Jeremy Ausmus and these guys, they were all like, ‘We were rooting for you!’ Because I wasn’t taking it seriously whatsoever. I was enjoying myself.”
Naim doesn’t care much for traveling to play poker, partly because he doesn’t like spending a week at a time living in a casino and partly because of his back.
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“When I ended up heads-up with Bonomo, it was the beginning of the US Poker Open series. Maria Ho asked me, ‘Are you going to continue the series, you have earned points.‘ I was like, are you joking? I’m leaving tomorrow! You want me to throw it all away? I just won $136K, give me a break!”
A few years ago, though, he played a circuit of EPT Main Events funded by a win in a Prague high roller satellite. “I ended up in the final five entries. Mustapha Kanit was the bubble boy. So I said, ‘Hold on guys, I don’t want that [the tournament seat]. Give me cash.’ Kanit says he’ll buy it for 47K, I said done.”
Naim says that one day he’d like to replicate that tour on a bigger scale.
“Even though I have the means to play the high rollers, I respect the money I made elsewhere. If it was 30 years ago I might have. But to play those bigger-stage games I think you should have 10 times the buy-in and dedicate yourself to play these tournaments over the year. You don’t play one tournament and that’s all you have for your budget, that’s ridiculous. The minute I have 250K to throw away, I probably would do a year of 25Ks around the world. If I fuck up in one or two or three, I am going to cash in one of those and catch up on what I’ve lost.”
“One of these days I will follow them.” He looks away for a moment and then laughs. “But I think I’ll have to do it in the next two years or I’ll die!”
There’s a lot of talk these days about making poker fun again. Anyone who really wants that to happen should hope Naim follows through on his plan. A man of will like him might be just the spice they’ve been awaiting.