It's a moment that can make or break a career. A moment that changes lives and fulfills dreams. A moment that millions yearn for, and millions more witness around the world with awe. Making the World Series of Poker main event final table is among the best things that a poker player could accomplish, but for chip leader J.C. Tran, that once-in-a-lifetime experience won't even be the best part of his month. The 36-year-old superstar has conquered all facets of the felt, and while the main event bracelet could be the cap to an amazing career, just days after the final table, Tran's wife is due with their second child. Just the thought of his baby girl puts a smile on the face of one of poker's first true superstars, and win or lose, Tran's ready for the month of his life.
"Regardless of what happens, whether I finish first, second, third or fourth, it's not going to beat the birth of my daughter. No matter how much money I win in that tournament, the birth of my daughter is going to overshadow everything," said Tran. "Something bigger, better and brighter is coming."
The veteran tournament rounder enters the November Nine in the most enviable position of all, and is in great shape to capture the $8.3 million top prize. Given his presence on national television during the heights of the poker boom, he's perfectly positioned to become the next great icon of the game. He's charismatic, memorable and has his priorities in order. Tran's appearance at the final table is important, but it's far from what's driving him day in and day out. That would be his family.
Tran has come a long way from the professional grinder who traveled more than nine months out of the year from tournament stop to tournament stop. He's earned two WSOP bracelets against huge fields in no-limit hold 'em and Omaha. He won a World Poker Tour title in 2007 and made five WPT televised final tables from 2004-2007. He was crowned champion in the World Championship of Online Poker in 2006 and has earned $9 million in his live poker career since 2003. However, since marrying his wife, Heather, and the birth of his son, Peyton, on the road just isn't where he wants to be.
"Over the last three years, my priorities in life became different," he said. "When I travel and hit the road, I'm ready to go home. I miss my son, miss my family. At the WSOP, I bring them out. We rent a house, but still being at the casino 12 hours a day, I still miss them. My motivation of being there is not what it was in '05, '06, '07, when I didn't want to go anywhere else. [Playing poker] was where I wanted to be."
His results clearly reflect his reduction in playing time. After earning more than $700,000 in every year since 2004, Tran's tournament winnings from 2010 to 2012 were just more than $300,000 combined. Keeping his priorities in line, he doesn't play poker while he's at home, but when he has his sights set on an event, he plays his heart out knowing that these days, there's much more to life than what's at the felt.
"Having three years of not winning anything big, takes a big hit out of your pocket and your bankroll," Tran said. "I felt like, man, I'm not realizing it, but I was losing a lot of money. I thought & this pace needs to stop. I need a big score. Once my daughter is born, that pattern is going to repeat itself. I'm going to miss her if I traveled too much and I'll have two kids and miss them that much more. I figured, why not knock out something big now that will allow me to stay home more.
"This is perfect timing. I couldn't ask for anything more. It's the main event, it's so surreal."
Tran's history in the main event is downright impressive. Since 2004, he's earned six cashes in the world's largest tournament, including four finishes in the top 117, an accomplishment that puts him 12th of all time in that category. However, none of the players ahead of him have earned their cashes post-Moneymaker when the field sizes exploded.
"A win is the exclamation mark to my career," Tran said of this main event opportunity. "I set a lot of goals when I first came in and I believe I achieved all of them. One of the biggest goals was final tabling the main event. I'm here, and I set a new goal after that: to win. Hopefully I can knock that out this year."
Tran's poker journey began when he turned 21, when he asked his brother to teach him the basics of the game. In his first session, he sat down in a $1/$3 limit game with $40 and turned it into $100. He was immediately hooked. As his interest in the game evolved, his tournament play became his bread and butter. At a time before the masses indulged in the game, Tran was making his way to the top of it. Fifteen years later, he's still there.
Unlike others at the final table who have outwardly discussed their training initiatives, Tran's preparation for November will be relatively limited. To stay fresh, he played in the first World Poker Tour Alpha8 event in August and finished second for $526,890. He's also headed to World Series of Poker Europe, but after that, his eyes are on the bracelet, and of course, his family.
"Having [the bracelet] and owning it is a feeling that I want," Tran said. "[If I win], I might put the bracelet on [my daughter after she's born], for a picture or two. But that's it. It's an expensive bracelet!"
If he does win, Tran's playing time will be limited further, but regardless, it's a game he isn't going to completely give up. He'll play what's important to him, but keep focused on what life really has to offer.
"I don't want to be 40 or 50 years old and spending the majority of time on the road and in casinos and not knowing what my kids are up to," he said.
Most would think that at this stage of the game and with all that's on the line, winning the title next month would be everything. But win or lose, J.C. Tran is already a champion.