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Tournament Trail Q and A -- John Phan

The Hottest Player in Poker Shares His Thoughts Before and After the WPT Legends of Poker Final Table

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John PhanJohn Phan is on top of the poker world these days. He won two gold bracelets at the 2008 World Series of Poker, and he followed that up by making the final table of the World Poker Tour Bellagio Cup IV, where he finished in fifth place to finish off the summer. When he returned to the tournament trail at the end of August, he picked up right where he left off and not only made the final table at the WPT Legends of Poker, he won the event and the first-place prize worth $1,091,428.

Phan has now made three of the last six WPT final tables and has won more than $2 million playing tournament poker in 2008. Phan now has the lead in the Card Player Player of the Year race with 6,401 points, giving him a 1,821-point lead over second place.

Card Player caught up with Phan both before and after his WPT victory, and he talked about hanging tough to make the final table and also how it felt to close the deal.

Part I: Not Giving Up on Day 4

Ryan Lucchesi: You eliminated two players during the last level; tell me how that played out.

John Phan:
I raised with pocket fives, and Lee Markholt had A-K. He was short-stacked, and I was pretty average in chips. He put it all in, and, at this point, you really have to gamble when you have the best hand, which I did. The flop came 8-6-6, I was ahead, the turn brought an ace, and I was like “damn,” but I caught a 5 on the river. The next hand, I had A-9 offsuit, I raised, [another player] had pocket fives and moved all in, and he was very short, so I was forced to call. I flopped a 9 and then made a flush [on the turn], so he was drawing dead.

RL: At this late point in the tournament, are you really trying to attack the short stacks?

JP: Definitely, all of the short stacks, that’s the best way. They make so many mistakes, and not only that, when you’re short-stacked, you’re forced to gamble with any two cards. When you’re short-stacked, you have to be lucky, and if you're not, your chances are very slim.

RL: Your stack has been up and down this entire tournament. How do you keep from panicking when it’s your stack that is short?

JP: I’m playing well, and I’m looking forward to the Player of the Year, so I’m doing everything extra carefully. In poker, there is always a bad beat, and I just shake off my bad beats. I’ve picked up a lot of bad beats during the last four days, and I overcame them. When I’m short-stacked, I don’t give up, I double up. I’ll wait and wait, and I play the right cards, and I know when to call, know when to fold, and catch lucky when I need to catch lucky.

RL: How many times have you suffered bad beats that have put you on a short-stack this tournament?

JP: About four to five times. I went down to 9,000 at one point, ran it up to 100,000, went down to 50,000, ran it up to 300,000, went down to 90,000, ran it up to 600,000, went down to 50,000, ran it up to 500,000, went down to 200,000, ran it up to 600,000, and now I have almost a million, and I’m in good shape.

RL: If you make the final table today you’ll, start to win some Player of the Year points and chase down Erik Seidel for the lead. How much is that factoring into your decisions?

JP: I’ll gamble if I have to. Play is still early right now, it’s not like this is the last event [of the year]. I’m going to play to win, and if I have to gamble, I want to gamble, and that’s what poker is all about. Knowing when to gamble and take risks when you need to take risks … I don’t want to change my game around; I’m playing so solid and so aggressive.  

RL:
How have you been able to stay so consistent playing tournament poker these last couple of months?

JP: I’m just playing really well and not giving up. I don’t play anything else, I don’t even go out. Like I told myself this year, “I just need to stay focused and I have to do well at work.” And I have; I put in 200 percent effort. Every day after we play, I just go back to my room and sleep. I don’t even eat at night. I wake up early every morning and run errands.

RL:
How did the charity work you did during August back in Vietnam help you reset your batteries before the home stretch of 2008?

JP: Doing charity work with my family keeps me focused. Ever time I think about how I gambled off a hand or played badly, I’ll talk to myself like, “You know, I could have used that money to help out people and donate.” Every time I think of that, I play better, and it gives you a lot of confidence. The more I win, the more I donate, and that makes me so happy.

John Phan

Part II – After the Final Table and the Victory

RL: Nobody is playing better poker than you are right now. What is it that you’re doing that keeps taking you to these final tables?

JP: I play well, and poker is different when you play well and you’re running good. Basically, I’m running hot, and I’m catching a lot of big cards and a lot of big hands. All of my hands held up, plus, I’m playing well, and I’m not giving up, and I don’t make a lot mistakes.

RL:
How much is this success feeding your confidence, especially confidence in your reads on people?

JP: A lot. You know, getting [to the final table] so much, like Mike [Sexton] said ... over the last six shows in the season, I have made [the TV final table of] half of them. It’s such a big accomplishment; I can’t believe it, I’m so happy.

RL: What was your approach during the end-game with Amit Makhija?

JP:
I’m was not going to play a big pot with him, and I wanted to pick my spots with him. I didn’t want to race with him, and I played pretty well. I made him gamble instead of gambling myself, so that’s pretty lucky. I let him pay me off a lot, and I tried not to pay him off. Our cards, it was funny, we just kept sucking out on each other, and the short stack always won. That’s how poker is, you win some and you lose some.

RL: The heads-up match was very representative of your entire tournament. You were up one minute and down the next. How were you handling the huge swings to your chip stack and focusing on the win?

JP: I told myself just to stay focused and never give up, no matter how short I was. I’d been doing that for the whole week — six days. At some points, I was really short, and I was patient and I shook myself off. It pays off when you’re really patient and you play well and you’re running good. That whole combination is the best; you can’t beat that.

RL: You now have a very large lead in the Player of the Year race. How fired up are you about that, and how does it feel to have everyone chasing you, at this point?

JP: It’s still a long way; we have another two or three WPTs left and a lot of big tournaments. It’s still early. I think I will probably make another WPT final table before the year ends, and if I do that, it’s a lock. It feels good, but I’ve been here before. In 2005 I was leading for most of the year.

RL:
How does the WPT win compare to the two gold bracelets you won this summer at the World Series?

JP:
It means a lot to me, I’ve made final tables at many WPT tournaments, winning this one is gratifying. This one’s better, actually; the second bracelet was better because no one else won two bracelets, so that meant a lot.