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December 18, 2014

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NOVEMBER NINE:

With chips and experience, J.C. Tran in favorable position at WSOP final table

Sacramento professional has reason to eye $8.3 million first-place prize

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Steve Marcus

J.C. Tran of Sacramento reacts after losing a hand during the seventh day of the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em event at the Rio on Monday, July 15, 2013.

November Nine chip counts

  • J.C. Tran 38,000,000
  • Amir Lehavot 29,700,000
  • Marc McLaughlin 26,525,000
  • Jay Farber 25,975,000
  • Ryan Riess 25,875,000
  • Sylvain Loosli 19,600,000
  • Michiel Brummelhuis 11,275,000
  • Mark Newhouse 7,350,000
  • David Benefield 6,375,000
  • Blinds at 200,000-400,000 with 50,000 ante.

2013 WSOP Main Event final table payouts

  • 1st: $8,359,531
  • 2nd: $5,173,170
  • 3rd: $3,727,023
  • 4th: $2,791,983
  • 5th: $2,106,526
  • 6th: $1,600,792
  • 7th: $1,225,224
  • 8th: $944,593
  • 9th: $733,224

J.C. Tran reached out to all of his closest poker-playing buddies with a request before ESPN began airing the 2013 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Tran asked them all to keep a close eye on him during the episodes to make sure they didn’t spot any leaks in his game.

“I haven’t heard anything from anyone yet,” Tran reported.

Not even those instructed to do so are nitpicking the 36-year-old veteran’s card playing before the WSOP’s final table. How could they?

Tran brings a decade’s worth of achievements — he’s 24th on tournament poker’s all-time money list with $9.57 million in earnings — and a mountain of 38 million chips into the biggest moment of his career. He holds the chip lead heading into the November Nine final table, which begins play at 4:45 p.m. Monday evening and airs on ESPN2 from the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater.

Tran is the favorite to walk away with the $8.3 million first-place prize created by the 6,352 players who paid $10,000 to compete in the Main Event this summer.

Two players annually corral the most attention during the television-influenced four-month hiatus — the chip leader and the highest-profile professional to make it through.

Never have the two been the same person. Until now.

“It’s J.C. Tran,” said veteran WSOP commentator Norman Chad. “But at any final table, I would always take the field against the chip leader. The chip leader is an underdog no matter who it is and how many chips he has. I would bet on everyone else because of the nature of tournament poker.”

In the six years since the WSOP implemented the November Nine format, sure enough, the chip leader coming in has only prevailed once. Jonathan Duhamel pulled it off in 2010, though he had 30 percent of the chips in play while Tran possesses closer to 20 percent.

The most heralded player is also 1-for-5, as Greg Merson became the first previous bracelet winner to take down the Main Event since 2001 last year.

While Tran isn’t concerned with those who were previously in similar situations, he knows the history. The Sacramento native started playing tournaments professionally with three goals in mind: to win a WSOP bracelet, win a World Poker Tour event and make a Main Event final table.

Tran knocked off the first two within five years, winning a WPT event in Reno in 2007 and capturing the first of two bracelets in 2008. But he had been relegated to watching the final table from afar despite making the money in the Main Event in six of the past 10 years. He did so intently and noticed mistakes from those competing for poker’s world championship.

“I think a lot of guys come in with a set plan and just keep going with it even when it’s not working,” Tran said. “They don’t adjust. For me, I’m going to go in and do what I’ve been doing but also be ready to adjust depending on whether I build on the chip lead, lose a big pot or whatever else.”

Another variable working against Tran is the quality of opposition. This year’s group of final table players is popularly referred to as the best in the November Nine era.

Many in the poker community were familiar with five of the nine players to make it through, an astonishing figure for a tournament that draws a field as diverse as the Main Event.

Among those chasing Tran are Israel’s Amir Lehavot, who won the WSOP pot-limit hold ’em world championship for $573,456 two years ago, and Canada’s Marc McLaughlin, who had two previous top-100 Main Event finishes in the past four years.

Even local Jay Farber, considered the lone amateur to reach the final table, is close with many of Las Vegas’ best poker players through years working in the nightlife industry and spending time in card rooms.

“I’ve heard a lot from the players saying this is indeed the toughest (November Nine),” Chad said. “A couple have said they think this is the most talented Main Event final table ever.”

Tran doesn’t doubt some of the nine got comfortable playing against him during the marathon hours in July. He also doesn’t think it matters.

Tran will evolve.

“I’m not going to do anything the same at the final table,” Tran said. “From the way I throw out chips to the way I play a certain hand, I’m going to mix everything up.”

Some competitors will employ coaches tasked with monitoring Tran and advising how to play against him, along with the rest of the table. Tran himself is flying into town Saturday for a strategy meeting with his poker confidants.

Based on the past four months, they won’t have much to say. Tran’s fine with that.

“I’m pretty much my own coach,” Tran said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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