Christian Pham came to the Rio on Tuesday expecting to play a $1,500 no-limit Hold'em tournament but quickly realized he'd made a mistake when he was dealt five cards.
Pham had accidentally registered for a No-Limit 2-7 tournament, a game he didn't even know existed.
Two days later, Pham won the event, his first World Series of Poker bracelet and $81,314.
“I sat at my table and they dealt five cards,” Pham said. “One guy threw away one card and someone else threw away two and I had no idea what game it was.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, what do I do?’”
Pham tried to unregister for the event but he was told there was nothing they could do since he’d already played a hand of the event.
With no idea of how to play the game, Pham was left with just one move.
“I thought I threw away $1,500," Pham said. "I folded the first seven or nine hands because even if I had the nuts, I didn't know."
That led Pham to his first 2-7 lesson.
Learning the Nuts and Bolts
“I asked the guy next to me what hand was the nuts,” Pham said.
“Then I asked him what the second nuts were.”
Pham took it from there and learned that queens beat kings and kings beat aces.
“I was like, OK, the more small cards with no pairs, straights or flushes the better,” Pham said.
“Something like 2-4-7 was a good hand and even if I had a big card I could draw one or two.”
Pham’s first day of 2-7 went as well as it could’ve gone.
Pham won a few big pots early on and kept chipping up throughout the day.
In the last few levels of play he eliminated Daniel Negreanu and ended the day with the chip lead after calling down a big bluff.
Know when to Hold'em
Pham was dealt a 2-4-7-9-10 and patted while his opponent drew one card.
Pham bet after the draw and his opponent moved all-in.
“I thought for so long because I thought he might’ve been bluffing,” Pham said.
“People who know the game think that a 10 would be too high to call because any 9 or better could beat me.
“But I didn’t think he had it, I play a lot of tournament poker and I had a feeling he was trying to bluff.”
Pham’s feeling was right.
He called and and his opponent showed ace-high.
It was one of the largest pots of the day and Pham ended the day as the chip leader with 145,175. Nicholas Verkaik bagged up the second largest stack with just 90,000.
After day 1, Pham met with friends who taught him everything they knew about the game and he went back to his room to read up everything he could.
While all this taught Pham the ins-and-outs of the game, he said he mostly relied on a skill he'd been honing for years.
Christian Pham at his bracelet ceremony
“I play a lot of tournament poker and know how to recognize good spots,” Pham said.
“I can also recognize when people are trying to bluff me.”
Not only did this skill help Pham end day 1 as the chip leader, it helped him beat Daniel Ospina heads up.
“I folded one big hand,” Pham said.
“I didn’t know what he had but I had a ten-high and had a feeling he had a very strong hand.
“I opened to 30,000 and he re-raised to 100,000. I called and after the draw I bet another 100,000 but he moved all-in for 276,000.
“I reviewed the hand from the beginning and thought for a bit. I decided to fold”
More Than a Feeling
Then Pham made a big call with an even worse hand.
“A few hands before I won, I raised to 30,000 and he re-raised to 100,000 again,” Pham said.
“We both drew one card and I hit a king-high. I bet 100,000 and he raised to 300,000.
“I could read him though and thought he was trying to bluff me.
“His bet left him with less than 200,000 and I thought for about three minutes before I moved all-in.”
Opsina got caught.
He showed Pham a pair of nines and let his hand go.
A few hands later, Pham won the tournament and found a new game to add to his limited repertoire.
Khe Sanh, a former US Marine base during the Vietnam War
Pham started playing poker in 2008 and mostly played no-limit Hold'em with the occasional round of limit Hold'em.
From Saigon to HVAC
Pham, who's now 40, grew up too poor to ever consider gambling.
Pham was born at the tail-end of the Vietnam War and his father --who was a lieutenant and pilot for the South Vietnamese Army-- was jailed in a labor camp.
The rest of Pham family resorted to selling anything they could at local markets.
After graduating from high school, Pham dedicated himself to helping his family sell and deliver rice and other goods.
The Phams kept working in the market until 2000, when the United States offered the Pham family refugee status.
They relocated to Minnesota and Pham went to a technical college.
Pham attended for a few years but dropped out after he was offered a well-paying job with an air-conditioning repair company.
For the first time in his life, Pham had a little extra money and decided to give poker a try in 2008.
Pham jumped into a $15/$30 NLHE cash game but things didn’t go well.
Pham's poker career is doing much better now.
“I lost a lot of money,” Pham said. “Sometimes I lost about a couple thousand a night.
“I lost so many times. Every time I played I lost.”
Pham didn’t relent and after about six months, he became a break-even player.
Then Pham decided to give tournaments a shot.
It went better than the cash games, in one of his first tournaments --a $230 NLHE event-- Pham finished second for $10,339.
Taking a Break to Work
Then Pham’s poker career took a hiatus.
“I opened up a nail salon with my girlfriend and things got too busy,” Pham said.
“After [my day job] I’d go back and work in the nail salon.
“I didn’t have time to play poker.”
Pham, his girlfriend and their nail salon stuck together for about four years before they parted ways.
“I broke up with my girlfriend and gave everything up,” Pham said. “I was free.”
He used his freedom to get back into poker.
Pham picked the game back up quickly and final tabled multiple Mid-States Poker Tour tournaments.
"I made four final tables," Pham said. "But I got three seconds. I played so many cash games that I didn't know how to play heads-up."
Breaking the Curse With a Cookie
His results didn’t go unnoticed and one of Pham’s friends offered to stake him and fly him down to Las Vegas.
A fortunate fortune cookie
On his first trip to Vegas, Pham qualified to the $1,675 WSOP-Circuit Main Event at the Caesars Palace for just $200.
Before that event, Pham felt he was cursed and the best he could do was 2nd place.
Then he had some good fortune.
“I went to a Chinese restaurant the night before the main event,” Pham said.
“I got a fortune cookie at the end and it said, ‘All your dreams will come true.’”
A few days later, Pham won the tournament, got a monkey off his back and won $214,332.
No-Limit Hold’em tournaments became Pham’s favorite game until he commited a very profitable mistake a few days ago.
“Deuce-to-Seven’s my favourite game now,” Pham laughed. “It’s pretty easy.”