Until last summer, J.C. Tran often found himself atop an unenviable list — the one containing the greatest players never to win a WSOP bracelet. Tran, however, got that monkey off his back permanently when he took down a field of 2,718 to win the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event, $631,180, and his first gold bracelet. Arguably one of the top five no-limit hold’em tournament players in the world, J.C. Tran ground it out for years before finding success at the highest levels in poker, and often toils without the recognition and attention many of his peers get when it comes to TV time and sponsorship deals. Still, Tran is at the top of his game, has over $7.4 million in tournament earnings, and there won’t be a poker player in the Amazon Room this summer thrilled at the prospect of sitting down to the right of this quiet powerhouse in a Yankees cap.
Justin Cuong Van Tran was born on January 20, 1977 in Hong Kong. Tran was the youngest of eight children, rounding out his large Vietnamese family. When J.C. was two, his family immigrated to the United States and they settled in the small Northern California city of Sacramento. After graduating from high school, Tran enrolled in California State University-Sacramento and began working toward a degree in business administration. While at school, his brother began taking him on trips to a local casino and Tran immediately took to poker. As he began to catch on and pick up some fundamental strategy, he became a regular in the games and was soon earning a fairly decent income playing $9/18 limit hold’em. Though Tran thought about dropping out of school to play full-time, he was so close to getting his degree, he decided to stick it out, even though he knew it was unlikely he’d ever use it. Indeed, after finishing college, Tran decided to try out life as a poker pro instead of entering the job market.
Though Tran built his bankroll by playing cash games, he discovered tournaments were where his talent truly lay. He started out small, playing small buy-in events in California and Nevada, and notched his first win in September 2003 when he won the $300 Limit Hold’em event at the Commerce Casino’s Heavenly Hold’em series. Tran banked over $74,000 for his win. The following winter, he made another final table at Commerce, this time in the $1,500 Limit Hold’em event at the 2004 L.A. Poker Classic, where he banked over $81,000. He decided to play the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, his first shot at a WPT tournament, and ended up placing seventh, only one spot off the televised final table. Though that finish was heartbreaking, he picked himself up and went out and made two final tables at the 2004 WSOP, finishing eighth in the $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em event and seventh in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em shootout. In the second half of 2004 Tran continued to roll, making eight more final tables, including his first WPT final table. Tran notched a fifth-place finish at the 2004 WPT Foxwoods, hauling in a then-career-high score of $353,850.
Tran cashed another three times at the 2005 WSOP. He finished fifth in the $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em event and made a deep run in the Main Event that ended with his elimination in 117th place. He had another unfortunate TV-bubble finish at the 2005 Borgata Poker Open, taking seventh, but did add another $200,000 to his exploding bankroll. He’d make it onto another televised final table in Feburary of 2006 when he made the final six of the L.A. Poker Classic back at his old stomping grounds, the Commerce Casino, however, Tran would suffer one of the most horrendous beats ever dealt on the World Poker Tour when Alan Goehring one-outed him on the river, cracking his aces and eliminating him in fifth place. Tran would be a bridesmaid again at that summer’s WSOP, making a runner-up finish in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event, but won two tournaments toward the end of the year, the $2,800 No-Limit Hold’em event at the Foxwoods World Poker Finals for $312,388 and the $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em event at the Bellagio’s Five-Diamond Classic for $266,820.
After so many near-misses and horrific beats on the World Poker Tour, culminating in his runner-up finish to Eric Hershler at the 2007 L.A. Poker Classic, J.C. Tran took down the 2007 World Poker Challenge, earning his first WPT title and $683,473. Tran cashed four more times at the WSOP that summer, then banked another half-million plus in earnings when he won the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em event at the 2007 Five-Diamond World Poker Classic. At the 2008 WSOP, Tran cashed an astonishing seven times including three final-table finishes. He took seventh place at the $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em event, fifth place in the $10,000 World Championship Limit Hold’em event, and then capped off the summer with a win in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event, earning his first bracelet. He ended up finishing sixth in Player of the Year points at the 2008 WSOP.
When he’s not traveling the tournament circuit, Tran continues to live in Sacramento, CA.
Nicole Gordon's profiles of professional players appear each Friday at PokerNews.com.