JC Tran: Strength in Numbers

JC Tran Feature

01 February 2009

JC Tran has been steering an unstoppable hurricane across the green baize over the past year, picking up a WSOP bracelet and (finally) a WPT title in the process.

With his “blood brothers” Nam Le, Quin Do and Steve Sung – collectively known as “The Poker Pack” – JC Tran has been steering an unstoppable hurricane across the green baize over the past year, picking up a WSOP bracelet and (finally) a WPT title in the process. Then he came over here just before Christmas and decimated the Party Poker Premier League. The secret of his success? His pals, of course. Poker may be a brutally individualistic game and some players may be willing to sell their grandmother’s dentures on eBay because they consider it a “+EV move”, but it warms our cold, wretched hearts to know that here is a player who cares about his fellow man. God bless you, JC Tran.

How’d you first get into poker, JC?

I pretty much learnt the game at the age of 21. I'd played a little bit of poker in other forms before that, but for my 21st birthday my brother took me to a card room, sat me down in one of the games and got me started on limit poker. Right off the bat I got lucky and won. It was a great experience to learn some new games and win money while doing it.

I got better and better at a pretty fast rate and moved up the limits. For a while I was going to college and just chipping away, making a few hundred dollars a week. For a broke college student, that was a lot of money. Finally, I'd seen a few tournaments televised and I was kind of interested. All my friends were playing tournaments so I decided to give it a shot. My first ever regular buy in tournament was a $50 event in Sacramento – it was a pretty big thing at the time because there weren't that many tournaments. I came in and won it. Then I knew I had something. I took the jump to go to LA to play some small events and did well there. I finally won one for about $70,000 and I was like, "You know what? This is where the money's at!" I kind of lost interest in school but I had to finish it just to please my parents.

Did your parents freak out when you explained about your new calling?

Like I said, my first win was a pretty decent amount, $70,000. No one in my family had won any amount of money like that so I told my parents about it and they said, "Hey, you should just quit and cash out – you got lucky". I basically told them that, no, I'm good. When I went on a pretty nice run at the end of 2004 and into 2005, that's when they sat up and said, "You are actually pretty good." My parents were never the type to say you can't do this or you can't do that'. And when I started going on the road for a couple of weeks at a time, they understood.

Lately in the last couple of years, they know I am pretty much up there as far as tournament players go. They gave me that respect and they became fans. They'd give me a call every now and then and ask how I was doing, tell me to play good and get some rest – that kind of thing. They're really encouraging me and showing their full support now. For me, that's huge. Now, not only am I playing for myself, I am playing for my family and friends at home.

One of many things that blow our tiny little minds about you is the feel you seem to have for where you're at in a hand. How do you develop that intuition to a point when you can start moving people off pots?

It's something that I don't really want to expose too much to the general public, but there are certain things and certain ways I read people that make sense to me. It's not 100% accurate, but sometimes, when it is accurate, you're on the spot. Of course, there's logic involved, and I believe I have good instincts, also. There's some body language stuff too, but the most important thing is definitely that you have to play. The more you play, the more you're going to learn. You can only get better by playing more – you certainly can't get worse by playing, unless you're being stubborn and think you're already the best and you don't learn any more. You have to go out there and practice. No one can jump out of bed and swing a golf club perfectly for the first time ever and shoot par. That's why internet kids are so good. They've played hundreds of thousands of hands, so when they come into a live tournament, if they can learn to get comfortable, they're going to do well.

You seem to have put cash games on the back burner recently. How come?

Cash games began as my bread and butter – they kept me going. They didn't make me a lot of money, but kept me loving the game. Right now, I'll play some cash games on tournament stops here and there, but lately, it's been grueling to play both cash games and the tournament itself, so I took a break. I still play cash, but I focus on tournaments. This is what I'm good at and I am on a hot run, so I want to focus on what I am doing. But cash games are always going to be a part of me, no matter how big the tournaments become.

Tell us about “The Poker Pack”. You’re a close bunch of people…

We're a group of friends that are really close and truly support each other. There are some groups of friends that aren’t like us – they're competitive and envious. With us, though, we're truly happy for each other. Even if one of us has been on a bad run for a year and one of the others wins, the one who’s running bad is truly happy for the other. It’s encouraging also. If I'm sat there watching Nam Le at a final table, I’m excited about getting out there and making the final table of the next event I play. It's a good thing when you're hanging around with consistent poker players. By watching Nam or Quinn at the final table, you think to yourself, "Man I am ready to play tomorrow!"

It must be strange when you meet each other at the final table?

Honestly, I like to see my friends make final tables, but I hate playing with them because they're good players. We also talk so much poker that we know each other's games so well, so I can't do the kind of things I can do to other players. A lot of people view it that a negative way, like it's soft-playing or some type of collusion, but it's not. If you're sat at a table with seven average or below-average poker players and then a guy like Phil Ivey sits down, are you going to come after Phil Ivey? Are you going to try and beat him or are you going to be smart and try and beat all the other guys so you can get heads-up with Phil Ivey?

We say to each other, let's just go out there and play poker. We can try to bluff each other, but it's not smart. Being a successful tournament player is about spot-picking. Why would you go out and pick a spot against someone who is so familiar to your own game?

You’ve just been signed up as ambassadors to the Asian Poker Tour. How did that come about?

We were very fortunate to meet two great guys, Chris Parker and Tom Hall. They invited us over to Asia and said, "Hey, come over and play and see how the tour is." So Nam and I, and Quinn Do, Steve Sung and those guys went over, and they hosted a great tournament and really made us feel welcome. We saw a lot of progress and we saw that poker in Asia can be big. It was an honour to be asked to be ambassadors for the Asia Poker Tour.

Nam and I have been approached with other types of sponsorship where everything is a big question mark. With these guys, we knew what their goal was and what they wanted to do. We knew it would be easy to work with them and we all knew what they wanted to achieve. We feel like we can have an impact in Asia, as far as improving the game and making it blow up. We feel we can be like role models to some of these younger guys because there are a lot of good Asian poker players out there. There are some out there who can be good and want to learn, so we feel that we can represent the Asian Poker Tour and help it to happen.

You seemed to dominate the Party Poker Premier League this year? It’s your first time in this format and you seemed to warm to it.

One thing I know is that I can adjust well. I've played six-handed tournaments before, but, like you say, never in this format. I came in having some idea of how it might work and I told myself the most important thing to do is get comfortable, but it just happened right away in the very first match I played. I felt like I'd been there before. I adjusted really well, and I was fortunate to pick up a few hands. I've played enough with these players now that I have a decent idea of how they play. And when I’m playing poker the way I am now, and if my instincts and reads are at their best, I am just in the zone and it's hard to do something wrong.

When you're out of the “zone”, how do you get back in the “zone”?

When I’m out of the zone I have great friends like Nam. It's easier for them to see my mistakes than it is for me to sometimes. He might say he thought something was a mistake, and if I don't agree we might have an argument. A lot of the time, though, he might say, JC, you've got a bad image right now, or you need to slow down a little. I might agree with him there because he's seeing it from the outside and maybe that's exactly what the other players are seeing.

It must have been special winning the WPT event last year, after that heartbreaking bad beat against Alan Goehring a few weeks previously (Tran's A-A was cracked by the case five heads up for a WPT title) and so many final tables before that.

In the WPT, when you finish fifth, second, fourth, for a while it's okay – it's good money. But then you get to a point when you want to win one. When you finish second and you look in the crowd and see your friends you're like, "I've just won $1 million!” but my friends had that pain in them. It wasn't their own pain; it was their pain for me. I was like, this is not what I want to see! I want to see us jumping up and down cheering and celebrating. I said to myself that the very next final table I make, I am going to win it and I did. The most important thing in all of this for me has been the support. Can you imagine looking into that crowd and not seeing anyone? Second is ok, third is ok, but when you have a great group of friends like that who show up every time and watch you, you have to win it just as much for them as for you.

Any regrets?

The game is all about little decisions, and of course you wish you could do things differently sometimes. You know what, though, we can't have any regrets. We're in good spots right now. We're in London playing the Party Poker Premier League... who am I to complain?