LAS VEGAS (AP) — JC Tran came to the final table of the World Series of Poker with everything in his favor.
He was the chip leader, he had more fame and years of experience than any of his eight competitors, and he'd dealt the blow that eliminated the 10th player back in July, when the final table of the main event was established.
But as midnight neared on Monday, he had fallen behind, sliding to fifth place among the six players who remained. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, he busted out in that position, taking home $2.1 million, instead of the $8.4 million grand prize he'd hoped would allow him to retire from his life as a grinder and raise his young children.
"This is probably the most card dead I've been in any final table," he said, using poker slang to refer to his run of bad cards that began in the early evening. "I'm not 100 percent happy with the way I played, but when you're put on the tough side of hands, it's tough to overcome it."
During breaks through the night, Tran could be seen rubbing the belly of his very pregnant wife Heather. Heather said that while Tran might have played more casually had he won the grand prize, he would never have retired completely.
She also mentioned that she hadn't been able to make Tran his good luck smoothie on Monday, as she had during the during the seven days of play in July that established which of the 6,352 entrants at the no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event would make it to the final table.
Moments after Tran went home, Frenchman Sylvain Loosli busted out in fourth place.
A Las Vegas club promoter and two poker professionals remained at the table nine hours after they began playing the biggest game of their lives under the heat of blue and red stage lights. The promoter, Jay Farber, held a strong lead. He had a plush panda mascot cheering him on. His friends wore "combat panda" shirts, and shrieked when the mascot rushed the stage and was escorted out by security.
Ryan Riess, the youngest of the finalists at 23, was second. His fans cheered "Riess the beast" as he made daring plays and backed them up with strong cards.
Supporters of Amir Lehavot, who went into the final table with the second largest chip count but fell to sixth place, held signs reading "Fear Amir." Marc-Etienne McLaughlin fans wore green to support the Canadian player who traces his roots to Ireland, and cheered raucously until McLaughlin busted out in sixth place.
The nine finalists donned sunglasses and walked like prizefighters into the 1,600-seat theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino Monday night, where magicians Penn and Teller regularly perform. A champion will be crowned Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
Mark Newhouse was the first to go home. He sat down in eighth place, and busted out after he went up against Riess with a pair of nines. Riess was holding an ace and a king, and caught another king on the flop.
Some finalists hoped the prize money will allow them to turn poker into a hobbyist's pastime. Others hoped to fatten their bankroll for future games.
Chips mean everything and nothing in poker tournaments. They have no direct tie to the amount of money won or lost; each player already staked $10,000 to enter the tournament in July.
As the tournament progresses, minimum bets creep higher every two hours, tightening the pressure on players who continually find their chips weren't worth as much as before.
A player must lose all his chips to be eliminated from the tournament, and must win all the chips in play to claim the top prize of $8.4 million and the glory that comes with joining the names of past winners, including Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and Chris Moneymaker.
The finale is broadcast nearly live on ESPN, airing with just enough of a delay to satisfy Nevada gambling regulators that the players don't have any way to tell what their opponents are holding.
Dan Michalski contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier .