Sacramento-based J.C. Tran has a shot at winning poker's most prestigious prize after emerging Monday as the chip leader among nine remaining men in the World Series of Poker's main event.
"It was unreal. It felt amazing," said Tran, 36. "I've just been in a zone."
After having survived 10 days of preliminary play this month, Tran will return to Las Vegas on Nov. 4 to try to win the $8.3 million first prize. A pool of 6,352 people from 83 countries plunked down the $10,000 entry fee this year.
The final field of nine includes players from five countries. Tran is considered the favorite as both the most accomplished player and the leader with 38 million in chips.
He is also the only one decked in Sacramento Kings garb, wearing a black "Long Live Sacramento Kings" shirt in the final table portrait. As the community fought to keep the Kings in recent months, Tran said he decided to show his support by wearing Kings gear.
An exhausted Tran said he was surprised at all the media attention he's received.
"I still have eight more guys to beat out," Tran said.
Between now and November, Tran said he is excited to get some down time.
"I'm so burned out. I just want to be a father and a husband for the next three months," Tran said.
Tran, whose legal name is Justin Cuong, is the son of Vietnamese refugees. He started playing at age 21 at the now-defunct Sundown Casino on Del Paso Boulevard. He developed his game at its successor, Capitol Casino on 16th Street.
"You could see he was good, but you never thought he'd be that good," said Clark Rosa, owner of Capitol Casino.
Back then, the bets were small. No-limit Texas Hold 'em the dominant game played these days wasn't popular yet, Rosa said.
While most poker players play just for fun often watching a sports game between hands Tran is a pro. He makes a living traveling to high-stakes games and attacks the game with a laser focus.
Players like Tran are constantly evaluating every player at the table, looking for tendencies, tells or clues that might help them later, Rosa said.
You never know when a big hand is coming, so you have to constantly study your opponents, Tran said.
"If you haven't been paying attention, you could make a big mistake," he said.
That focus combined with intuition gives him a strong advantage.
"When we play, he knows what I have all the time. They can tell by how you bet, when you bet, they are concentrating all the time," Rosa said. "You're more or less under a microscope."
Making it through the preliminary rounds is an accomplishment in itself.
"When you go in and play a tournament, you have to be ready to play 10 hours a day," Tran said.
It was not all smooth sailing. At one point, with relatively few chips at his disposal, he risked it all on one hand.
"It was a coin-flip situation," Tran said. "I could have been out and home already."
Tournament officials said Tran has an advantage as the chip leader, but that by no means ensures victory.
Tran thanked his wife, who is due to give birth in November, and his other supporters for being in his corner, even before his winnings were big.
He's expecting a large contingent to be in Las Vegas to support him come November.
Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.