Do Try This at Home: The Life and Times of John Phan

John Phan
John Phan at the North American Poker Championship

John Phan is well-known for playing fast and annihilating his competition.

One of the new breed of poker players who have managed to harness the power of aggression and wield it with precision, if the Razor is anything, he's certainly sharp.

How do you feel about the way this tournament's been set up and the way it's going so far?

The turn-out for this tournament's actually been pretty good but the structure they're using is bad. There's a good amount of starting chips, $20,000, they shouldn't have started with quarter-quarter ($25/$25 blinds) that's why it's taking so long to play down to a certain number. With such a big field and two Day 1s, it's like fifteen hours a day. That's just way too long. But everywhere's different; Canada's different and they have their own rules.

John Phan

I know you like to play fast, so is this structure hurting your game at all?

I'd rather there be faster blinds at the beginning and slower at the end, that's how you accumulate a lot of chips. A lot of people play really well with a big stack or a short stack at the end. You know when to take a shot or make a move.

How's your stack been doing today? Have their been any big hands or big swings for you?

John Phan

Actually, in the beginning I had pocket aces once. That was my big key hand today. We started with $20,000, and I went up to like $28,000. About an hour later I'd played three hands. I made three flushes and I lost them all, so I was at about $17,000. Then I managed to get up to about $50,000 and just about half an hour ago I had a nut-flush draw and I made a really big call on the flop and I knew the guy had top pair so I called and he was all-in. Two cards to come, I just couldn't get there. That was a big pot, if had won that pot I would probably be chip leader.

Do you feel like you've been playing well though, despite not having a big stack right now?

Yeah, I'm playing really good. It just happens sometimes. I made three flushes, and I only lost the minimum. That nut-flush draw cost me a lot, like 70% of my stack.

You're usually the one in the driver's seat at most tables. Are these players letting you push them around or are you getting some resistance?

Actually all these players are pretty new so I'm pretty much controlling the table when I have chips. I raise a lot of hands, and I play a lot of hands. I've been catching a lot of cards at times but right now it's not going so well.

John Phan

You play a really aggressive style and it's worked well for you. You hear so much these days that aggressive poker is winning poker, but a lot of people have a hard time being successful that way. How do you look at your aggressive style, and how do you make it work so well?

It's all timing. Me and Michael [Mizrachi], especially, both play a lot of hands, but we know when to lay down. Whereas some people are really aggressive, but they're not really good at laying down hands. We're capable of laying down big hands and playing lots of small pots. We don't like to get involved in a big pot unless we have the nuts or the second nuts.

Do you have a handle on the way the other players are acting; are they doing anything really creative?

Yeah, all the players at my table are pretty soft. They're basically just playing their own hands. My chips are alright now even though I just lost most my stack. I'm just going to play good, I'll get back.

Let's talk a bit about how you got to where you are now. Tell us a bit about coming from Vietnam to the United States and how you got into poker.

John Phan

We escaped from Vietnam in a little boat in the early 80's. Our country was really poor. We migrated from Vietnam to Hong Kong, and I went from there in a boot camp to the Philippines and then to the U.S. to northern California, Stockton.

When did you start playing poker?

I started playing cards actually when I was seven or eight, just at home. I really started going to the card rooms when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I just really love the game, the challenge, the money, the bluffing, all of it. It's fun. It was my hobby before, but now it turned out to be my career. I make all my money, support my whole family here and back home. I would never be where I am today without poker.

Did you have a hard time getting started? How long did it take for you to know that poker was more than a hobby and that it could be a career to support you and your family?

John Phan

Actually, in the beginning it was my hobby. When I started playing poker at about fifteen I lost all the time. It was rough in the beginning. The first three or four years I wasn't making a living playing. When I was eighteen I got a job dealing so that's always been a back-up for me just in case. In poker, anything's possible; you could go broke the next day. I used to go broke all the time, but when I turned 21, I decided not to play such big games and to just try to make enough to support me and my family.

Do you still have lots of family back in Vietnam?

Yeah, actually a lot. My generation's big in Vietnam. I do a lot of charity work there, I go there three or four times a year, me and Liz Lieu, to donate money and pass out rice. There's so many poor people where I come from; it's just a good feeling to give back.

We've started to see more and more poker players giving back and trying to make a difference. There's such a big contrast between the poker world where there's so much money and other parts of the world. Do you think this is a trend we'll see more of in the future?

John Phan

Yeah, you know, people in poker, everyone has really big hearts. Victor Ramdin's my friend. Barry Greenstein's someone I really looked up to when I was younger. I wasn't fortunate enough to make a difference back then, but now I can. I can make a big difference where I lived, helping them survive. As of today everything we have, house, clothes, food on the table, it all comes from poker.

It sounds like you have a lot of love for the game.

Yeah, it's fun, but you get beat after beat. I've been through so much that there's no beat I haven't seen, or taken. It's just really tough to control yourself. It's natural - you lose a big hand, lots of money or you're looking at the nuts, and they catch runner-runner, it happens.

John Phan

Is that self-discipline the difference for you between going broke a lot when you were starting and the success you've had since?

Always. In poker you have to have discipline, be very patient, and you have to believe. You have to be able to take beats, it's going to be a rough ride. It's not easy. It might look easy, but it's not.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Despite John's flashy image and cocky table talk, it's easy to tell after only a few minutes of conversation that he's a person who is firmly grounded in reality with a compassion for others bred from his own hard experience. It's hard to think of a more stark contrast than where John's from and where he's at now. The great Texas Dolly has said many times that poker doesn't owe us a thing, we owe poker everything, and I think this is a sentiment that John Phan would agree with completely.

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