J.C. Tran is hot. His competition won't argue. His tournament track record certainly supports the statement. Even most of the hairsplitting forum posters agree.
On the heels of a successful 2006 that included World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour final table appearances, Tran rang in the new year by smoking up the felt.
In January he sampled some final table action but went out in sixth at the WPT World Poker Open in Tunica. In February he was within reaching distance of his first major title, but the L.A. Poker Classic slipped through his fingers when he went out on the bubble. Three times proved to be the charm though when Tran cemented his hot streak in March by winning the World Poker Challenge in Reno.
The win was a relief for Tran, whose competitive spirit couldn't be soothed by big cashes until he took down the WPT title.
"It's just getting that monkey off my back you know?" he told PokerListings.com after his March victory. "It's not second, it's not fifth, it's not sixth, it's first and that's just such a great feeling."
Credit for Tran's determination to finish first could have something to do with his birth order. The youngest of eight siblings, Justin Cuong Van Tran was born Jan. 20, 1977, to Vietnamese parents in Hong Kong.
At the age of 2, the family would immigrate to the U.S., where Tran eventually settled in Sacramento. After graduation, he enrolled at the California State University at Sacramento and continues to show pride for his hometown by frequently sporting Sacramento Kings gear at the poker table.
Became a casino regular at 21
While Tran was a 21-year-old student, his brother invited him to a local casino to get in on a poker game. The self-taught player enjoyed the action so much he became a casino regular and started raking back the chips.
The money came easily to Tran, who debated dropping out of school to play full time. But, given he was just a few credits shy of his Business Management Information Systems degree, the emerging poker player decided to stay in class until he graduated.
Though he finished his education, Tran correctly suspected he wouldn't be putting it to use.
Instead, he turned his attention to cards. He was a winning player, but Tran's presence wasn't felt on the circuit for a few years. Tournaments started proving themselves to be his forte as he final tabled and won several smaller events early in his career as a professional poker player.
His first notable result came in 2004 when Tran went out on the television bubble at the WPT L.A. Poker Classic, finishing in seventh for his then-largest tournament cash - $94,000. The year was to be a good one for Tran, who also final tabled at two World Series of Poker events - eighth in $2,000 No-Limit Hold'em and seventh in $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em Shootout.
Tran continued to get comfortable at WPT events, making it deep in the Doyle Brunson North American No-Limit Hold'em Poker Championship. His 13th place spot in that event was topped, however, by the start of his string of serious cashes when he placed fifth at the main event of the World Poker Finals to win $353,850.
Cue the cash register sound effects for a recap of Tran's 2005 performance: The World Series saw him in familiar territory again, when he finished fifth in the $2,000 No-Limit Hold'em event for $118, 350; he placed seventh at the WPT championship for a $200,000 haul; at a WSOP Circuit main event that year he was second for $250,000.
The following year's performance was nothing to sniff at either. In 2006, Tran was paid $265,000 for placing fifth in the WPT Championship. He also cashed in six WSOP events and won back-to-back tournaments - the World Poker Finals and the Five Diamond - for a total payday of nearly $700,000.
Hot out of the gates in 2007, Tran boosted his WPT final table appearances by three with a solid run that started in February (sixth at the World Poker Open), continued to March (second at the L.A. Poker Classic for $1.2 million) and saw him seal the deal in April (first at the World Poker Challenge).
Prior to his April win in Reno - then his fourth time sitting at a WPT final table - Tran was antsy to nail down a first-place finish.
"I'm overdue," he told PokerListings.com prior to his final table appearance at the 2007 L.A. Poker Classic. "People see my face deep a lot and they say ‘What's going on?' Last year, fortunately enough, I won a few small tournaments, and proved that I can win, but it's time to win a major. I'm owed a major. I'm overdue for a major, and I think right now I'm playing my best poker."
JC Tran been patient before his first major title
He was right. Though Tran didn't win the LAPC, he was first in Reno just weeks later and near untouchable in the WPT Season 6 Player of the Year race.
Though there's no denying his career is on fire, some of Tran's peers would argue that his success isn't simply a hot streak.
Writing on the 2+2 forums, poker pro Shane Schleger - known as Shaniac - argued with posters who said Tran is just having a good run. Tran, Schleger wrote, is one of the most consistent players on the tour, a man with few leaks who loves poker and knows how to make money.
"Basically, J.C. is the consummate tournament pro, and I really can't agree with anyone who thinks 'he's just running good, give him time to cool off,'" wrote Schleger. "I've been waiting for J.C. to cool off for a couple years, but instead he wins every tournament in sight."
And Tran didn't disappoint at the 2008 WSOP, where he proved Schleger right and his detractors wrong by taking down his first gold bracelet.
Eager to shed his reputation as "the best poker player without a bracelet," Tran defeated his opponent, Danish player Rasmus Nielsen, in heads-up play for $630k. Despite the large payout, though, it was the gold that kept J.C. going.
"I've come close so many times, this year alone, apart from other years. It's been disappointing," he told PokerListings.com after his win.
"So when I ran deep in this tournament, I kept telling myself 'Hey you know, play this like it's the Main Event, your last event, and keep fighting.'
"I never gave up when I was low. The whole way I didn't really think about the money. It's about the bracelet. I [didn't] even know what first-place money [was], I just wanted the bracelet.
"When we went heads-up, and the bracelet's sitting there, I would just stare at it. Every time I got beaten in a pot, I'd look at the bracelet and say, 'You know what? - You've got to fight for that,' and that's what I did!"
Tran's personal life is just as active as his poker career. The young bachelor's favorite activity is partying with friends - many of whom will show up to sweat him at tournaments - with some sports thrown in the mix. He also enjoys music, mostly hip hop, electronic and R&B.