Gambling on success at the table

On Monday, J.C. Tran will be the second Sacramento Asian immigrant in two years to pull up a chair at the final table in the World Series of Poker championship at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Tran, 36, already has taken home $733,224 in the 2013 series of tournaments, and as the chip leader (with nearly 20 percent of the remaining chips) is a strong favorite to win the $8,361,570 grand prize.

The 44th WSOP kicked off in May with more than 79,000 players for the 62 events. The so-called Main Event, in which Tran has a seat, began in July with a field of 6,352 players from across the globe and continued for 10 days, resulting in nine players for the final table. Competition was then suspended to resume this month.

The first hand will be dealt to the “November Nine” at 5 p.m. Monday – you can see it on ESPN2 – and the final three players will battle it out to the finish at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.

Tran was one of five Sacramento-area contestants who ponied up $10,000 for a chance to make poker history in the Main Event. Steve Gee, a retired state worker and Chinese immigrant, made the final table last year to win $754,798 and finished 24th this year, good for $285,000. Josh Prager, a retired tennis instructor from Yuba City, finished 41st.

“What’s going on with the Sacramento water?” asked tournament spokesman Seth Palansky. “There are a lot of good players coming out of there.”

Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived here when he was 2, is known as a deliberate, cautious player, the antithesis of the super-aggressive Gee and the unpredictable Jerry “The Shadow” Yang, a Hmong refugee from Laos and a Merced psychologist, who won the $8.25 million grand prize in 2007 and started a run of Asian Americans from the Central Valley who have become poker champs.

“Going into the final table, the other guys are in big trouble,” said Gee, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Sacramento. “J.C.’s one of the greatest players in the world, and you can’t give that great a player that big a lead.

“He’s a solid, patient player who doesn’t take a lot of risks. With a lot of chips in front of him, there was no reason for him to play big pots to make the final table.”

The rise of Asian poker champs was inevitable, Gee said. “I don’t know whether it’s in the DNA, but my dad was a gambler before me. Asians like to gamble, and Asian poker players have always been there. You go to Red Hawk or Thunder Valley, and half the casino is Asian.”

Mike Caro, one of the world’s foremost authorities on poker, said, “Because there seems to be a universal acceptance of gambling in (Asian) cultures, there’s no stigma attached to it; it gives them a head start.”

While the Asian players of yesteryear were very conscious of luck and good luck charms, “today some of the most analytical poker students are Asians,” Caro said. “There tends to be a bigger percentage who study the game scientifically.”

Tran, whose given name is Justin Cuong – he once joked J.C. stands for “Just Call” – says he doesn’t rely heavily on statistical analysis or computing pot odds. “Chip stacks, positions and reading players are very important, but I’m a feel player who plays with a lot of instinct,” he said. “There are times when I’ll fold a big pair against a pro, other times I’ll make that call against an amateur.

“I can play the same hand a bunch of different ways against each and every guy. I’m not going to try and bluff you if you like to call a lot.”

While a student at California State University, Sacramento, Tran learned Texas Hold ’Em from his older brother at what’s now Capitol Casino.

“I started playing $1-$3 Texas Hold ’Em, bought in for $40 and cashed out for $100, and I was the happiest broke college kid you could find,” Tran said. “I got my (management information systems) degree, but right after I graduated in 2003, the job market was really bad, and friends more qualified than me couldn’t even get interviews.”

So Tran turned pro and has won $8.3 million during his career, including the $1,500 No-Limit Hold ’Em event at the 2008 World Series of Poker. He’s active on Twitter – @jctran23 – and has played tournaments in Florida and Paris since he played his way into the final table in July. But his preparation for Monday is “to relax, sit down with my family, keep clear-minded and not play too much and burn myself out.”

He added he’s often at home with his wife and 2-year-old son, trying to become “professional father, part-time poker player.”

At first his Vietnamese parents were not happy to see him become a poker player, “but after I showed some results, they saw I was pretty good, but thought it was short-term luck and said, ‘Why don’t you just quit and invest it? Nothing came easy when they got here. They worked their butts off. But I said I’ve found something I’m good at it, and though they don’t understand the game, they’re very supportive.”

He tracks his wins and losses carefully and said he’s studied videotapes of the first rounds of the 2013 World Series of Poker to size up his opponents and “see what I’m giving away with my body language.” This weekend he said he will eat healthfully, try to get eight hours of sleep a night and shoot some hoops to burn off stress.

Tran says poker is 70 percent skill and 30 percent luck. He’s always been known to wear a Yankees cap, but now that his beloved Sacramento Kings are staying, “I want to show my support: Every day of the main event I’ve worn Kings gear.”

While “a lot of Asians grow up in more of a gambling culture than other ethnic groups, it just gives you more exposure to it, it doesn’t make you better,” Tran said. “In my case, I’ve played professionally since 2004. It’s basically my turn. I’m anxious, a little excited, this is my opportunity, hopefully I can seal the deal.”