Commentary

Phan takes two

Updated: June 26, 2008, 5:25 PM ET
By Gary Wise | ESPN Poker Club

You've heard John Phan's story before. Like Scotty Nguyen, like Men Nguyen, like David Pham and so many other successful Vietnamese players, Phan has been able to play big pots without feeling pressure. Pressure takes on a whole new meaning when you've floated to sea in an under-fueled boat without knowing where you're destined to go, or if you're destined to live.

"I basically escaped on a boat in the early '80s. I was 7," the 12-year professional said. "It was crazy. Our trip went well because the police saved us and the rescuers took us to Hong Kong. We stayed in a refugee camp for five months, then to Philippines for six months, then to the U.S. A lot of people, like my cousins, we never heard from them again. A lot of people were robbed, raped … killed. It was brutal."

Suddenly, a big pot doesn't seem like that big a deal.

After 12 long years of attending the World Series of Poker without a bauble to show for it, Phan finally won his first bracelet in Event No. 29 -- $3,000 no-limit hold 'em. Like Scotty and Men before him, you heard he'd done it while virtually inhaling countless Coronas at the table. Now, you get to hear his story once again.

Event No. 40 -- $2,500 triple draw lowball -- may not be the most prestigious event at the World Series, but a bracelet is a bracelet. Phan's poker history is rooted in cash games, in which players are far more likely to be exposed to games like this one. When the celebrating from the first bracelet was complete and the time came to enter another tournament, he was one of 238 players to put up the cash for another shot at the gold.

Going into the final table of six players, Phan held a slim, $294,000-to-$291,000 lead over Gioi Luong, the man with whom he'd engage in a battle of wills in the late stages. Once David Sklansky, Ben Ponzio and Robert Mizrachi were eliminated, the battle between Phan and Luong got heated.

The disagreement between the two was centered on two disputes. The first saw Luong insist that Phan's posting a big blind when it wasn't his turn to do so should stand as a bet despite the cards having not been dealt. The second saw Luong discard the wrong card and try to take it back, only to have Phan insist he not be allowed to do so. In both cases, the floor ruled in Phan's favor.

When asked about what he'd later call Luong's "angle shooting", Phan was blunt. "In poker it's all about karma," he said. "Gioi takes so many shots … I don't like that. He does a lot of things where I'm not happy. That's all karma. That's why he came out third."

With Luong gone, Phan settled in for the heads-up portion of the event against Japanese professional Shun Uchida. The two agreed to play "gentlemen's poker" -- no doubt a tribute to the fallen Luong.

While the battle raged, Phan kept drinking. For most poker players, it's a choice that limits the senses, but Phan believes in earnest it helps his game.

"I can't win a tournament without a drink because I feel more lucky that way," Phan graciously admitted. "Lucky and focused. I play fearless when I'm drinking. My instincts are pretty good and I think pretty fast when I'm drinking, so I'll go with what my instincts are telling me. I don't go by my instincts when I'm sober sometimes."

Amazingly, he feels sobriety actually inhibits his game.

Whether or not Phan's assertion is correct, it was obvious to the assembled onlookers that the booze was affecting his sensibilities. He was becoming more aggressive with the cards as the match wore on, while at the same time getting into party mode. He ordered 20 beers for the spectators, who seemed perfectly attuned to his having-a-good-time attitude. Finally, Uchida succumbed to the onslaught after making the call when Phan moved all-in, literally tumbling his previously neatly-stacked chips into the pot. With that, Phan became the first -- and thus far only -- player to have claimed two bracelets at this year's WSOP. After the first win, Phan downplayed the importance of the bracelet win after such a long wait, but this time he gushed. It wasn't just the booze talking, either.

"Going into the series," Phan said afterward, "I didn't expect to win a bracelet. Winning one would be nice, but for me, I've come second so many times I'm used to being second and not getting first. The first one I didn't care that much, but wining the second one is so difficult. I like doing something when nobody's done it. I want to be Player of the Year. I want to be the first person with two bracelets."

"Going into this one," Phan continued, "I had more confidence. Like anything in life, once you get there the first time, it's easier to get there again. I'm going to play tomorrow and the next day, every single event. I want to win three like Phil [Ivey, the last man to win three bracelets in a year, in 2002]."

A day later, sobered up, Phan reflected a little more on the hard times of his youth.

"We had tough times growing up," Phan recalled. "We were on welfare. … My family was poor. We scratched for our money. Poker's the American dream. Without poker, I couldn't be where I am today. I wouldn't be able to live this life. I don't know what I'd be doing without poker. I live life day by day. It's been pretty tough, but I finally made it."

As the media scrum awaited the champion for the traditional interview with the winner, the waiter arrived with those 20 beers. The laugh that followed summed up the mood of dozens of well-wishers who'd stayed for the entire duration of the final table. It was a victory not only in the accomplishment of winning the double bracelet, but in epitomizing the lifestyle that poker has provided for a man who could easily have not lived to see his eighth birthday. It's the American dream played out at the poker table, but of course, you've heard that before.

Gary Wise will cover the WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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