The winners of the World Series of Poker Main Event have fit a specific profile during the “November Nine” era.
First off, they’re young.
Since the tournament’s final table was moved to the fall starting in 2008, the oldest champion came last year when 24-year-old Greg Merson won it all. The other winners’ ages: 22, 21, 23 and 22.
They’re also largely one-hit wonders. Merson was the first WSOP bracelet winner to take home the Main Event title since Chris “Jesus” Ferguson in 2000.
J.C. Tran fits neither of those traits.
“I’m just a family man,” the 36-year-old said.
Tran also is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner, and the resident of Sacramento, Calif., is looking to become the highest-profile tournament professional to win the Main Event since poker’s popularity exploded more than 10 years ago.
Tran will have the chip lead when the final table of the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship starts at 4:45 p.m. Monday at the Rio’s Penn &Teller Theater. ESPN2 will broadcast the final table on a 15-minute delay beginning at 5 p.m.
The final two players resume play for the $8.35 million first prize at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
“Coming in with the chip lead and everything, I think it definitely favors me,” Tran said. “I’m in a really good spot. I got the opportunity to play in a certain way, putting some pressure on players, et cetera. But at the same time, I think I have more room to go out there and feel and adjust, where some of the shorter stacks don’t know what to expect.”
Tran, who is known for wearing Sacramento Kings apparel at the poker table, owns a significant edge in experience over his eight competitors.
He has more than $9 million in lifetime tournament earnings, according to CardPlayer.com, and a World Poker Tour victory to go along with a first-place finish in the 2006 World Championship of Online Poker that paid more than $670,000.
Tran has 40 career World Series of Poker cashes; the rest of the table has 46 WSOP cashes combined.
“One of my last goals that I haven’t accomplished coming in to poker was to make the final nine. Now that I’m here, I did set a new goal, and that’s to win it,” Tran said. “I know a lot of the pros and my peers are having high expectations for me, but in the end there’s so much you can do and the rest is mostly on the cards.”
Tran possesses 38 million tournament chips — 20 percent of the chips in play — and is listed as the 11-to-5 favorite at the Rio’s sports book. But other well-known pros were in a similar position in recent years and fell short.
Nine-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey finished seventh in 2009, and three-time bracelet winner Michael Mizrachi was fifth the following year. In addition, only Jonathan Duhamel in 2010 entered the “November Nine” with the chip lead and emerged victorious.
Israeli-born Amir Lehavot, 38, who won the WSOP $10,000 pot-limit hold ’em event in 2011, is second in chips with 29.7 million. Canadian Marc-Etienne McLaughlin is third with slightly more than 26.5 million, while Las Vegas resident Ryan Riess is fourth with nearly 25.9 million.
“I would be really disappointed if I went in and played horribly and didn’t finish high up,” Tran said. “I respect every single one of these guys. They’re all good players. Everyone has as good a chance as me. I have a little bit better chance because of my chip position and my experience, but it doesn’t mean it’s automatic.”
Tran, the youngest of eight children whose parents emigrated from Vietnam when he was 2, won a $1,500 no-limit Texas hold ’em bracelet in 2008 and took a $2,500 pot-limit Omaha event in 2009.
But Tran endured consecutive losing years after that as his priorities shifted more toward his family.
“The last few years my direction, that’s partly the reason why I haven’t been doing so well in poker,” Tran said. “My focus isn’t really there, my motivation isn’t really there. But even though I had losing years, I think that was the right thing to do at my age.”
Tran’s wife is pregnant with their second child and is due later this month. Tran is guaranteed to take home at least $733,224 no matter what happens at the final table and said he is grateful for the security this deep run in the Main Event will provide.
“November is probably going to be one of my best months ever, regardless of if I win,” Tran said. “I’ve got bigger things than just the November Nine.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at email@example.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.