Playing for more than bracelets

When John "The Razor" Phan and I recently sat down to discuss his 2008 player of the year awards from both Bluff and Card Player magazines, I thought we would spend the majority of our time discussing poker strategy.

I was right and wrong.

It seems Phan's intense mental toughness and winning strategies encompass more than just cards and poker tournaments. In 2008, the 34-year-old earned more than $2 million and won three major titles while bouncing back from painful family losses and previous poker disappointments. Phan also reminisced about his yearly pilgrimage to his homeland of Vietnam, where he regularly and generously gives back to poor and underprivileged people.

To gain some perspective on Phan's feats last year, let's travel back five years. In 2004, the poker world was exploding from the "Moneymaker effect," increased coverage from hole-card cameras on television and multiple poker Web sites. From July 2004 to July 2005, John Phan was virtually unstoppable. He claimed 14 top-four finishes, reaching two World Poker Tour main event final tables and attaining seven preliminary titles. During this stretch, Phan earned more than $1.2 million. His face appeared on every poker publication. Heading into November 2005, he held a seemingly insurmountable lead for the 2005 POY race.

However, as Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over until it's over."

As he reflected on that year, Phan readily admitted he did not give his full effort down the stretch.

"I wasn't paying attention since I thought no one could catch me," Phan said. "I tried real hard until October, but then began playing events just because they were there. I was not playing to win. I took too many chances for no reason and did not try hard enough. I screwed up."

Phan's complacency led to his debacle in 2005. During a torrid November and December of 2005, Men "The Master" Nguyen cashed in seven events, making six final tables and winning two titles. By mid-December, Nguyen had overtaken the once-unbeatable Phan. Thoroughly shocked at his predicament, Phan flew across the country to Atlantic City, attempting to claim what he felt was rightfully his. Heading into one of the last tournaments of the year, Phan needed to make the final table to pass Nguyen. Ironically, although Phan accomplished this feat and finished third, Nguyen one-upped him once again by winning the event and eventually the 2005 POY race.

After this heartbreaking finish, Phan acknowledged that to win the POY race, you have to be singularly dedicated.

"You can never give up, even short-stacked," he said. "You always have to give yourself another chance and never give up. Also, your mind has to be clear and very confident, and you have to leave your personal problems behind."

However, during the next two years, personal and family events challenged Phan's plan to focus on poker.

At the start of 2006, Phan was completely burned out from the hard-fought 2005 POY battle. Then, personal tragedy stunned Phan and his family. His 36-year-old cousin, whom Phan considered a brother, died unexpectedly.

"How could this happen to such a great person?" Phan recounted.

In 2007, Phan participated in another close family member's funeral, this time his uncle's. With these two deep personal losses, he decided to take some time away from poker.

"In both years, I had two of my loved ones pass away. I decided to relax and spend lots of time with my family," Phan said.

Phan believes that this dedicated time with his family was a surprisingly effective rejuvenation for his poker career.

"I had been working so hard up to 2005," he said. "Since I started playing poker, I was always by myself and on the road. I did not spend a lot of time with my family. It was good for me."

With a refreshed outlook and improved personal clarity, Phan was ready to attack 2008 with the passion he had during the beginning of 2005.

"I was really prepared mentally and ready to try harder than any other year," Phan said. "I was determined to travel everywhere in the world to play in all the big events."

Phan entered the 2008 WSOP as one of the best players not to have won a bracelet. He had an unwavering determination to perform well during the summer.

"I played almost every event, and I was determined to make it to a final table because every year I have a goal to win a bracelet," he said. "Winning a WSOP bracelet is every poker player's dream. That's what poker is all about."

His strategy was straightforward: "play good poker, pick my spots and be patient." During the next two months, Phan executed his strategy to near perfection as he went on a run that would satisfy most players for an entire career. Phan won his first WSOP bracelet in Event No. 29: $3,000 no-limit hold 'em.

After his victory, Phan won the next event WSOP event he entered (Event No. 40: $2,500 limit 2-7 triple-draw low ball), making him the only double-WSOP bracelet winner in Las Vegas. Shortly after the WSOP wrapped up, Phan took fifth place at the WPT Bellagio Cup main event, and he capped off this eight-week run with his first WPT main event title at Legends of Poker in his backyard of Los Angeles. In total, he won almost $1.9 million during these four events.

"Winning gives you a lot of confidence, and when you are on a hot streak, you just keep on winning," Phan said. "I am fortunate that I have had two years [2005 and 2008] where I was crushing it."

Phan has returned to Vietnam for more than a decade and donated some of his winnings to help the needy there.

"I would just spend the money on unnecessary things anyway," he said as his eyes lit up. "And it is such a good feeling to give back to these families who are suffering. I give the money to people, and it makes me feel better. To give a bag of rice, you should see their faces. They are so happy."

Phan is animated and enthusiastic when discussing his effect on others' lives, perhaps seeming more enthusiastic than when he discusses his being named the poker player of the year. His altruistic deeds range from delivering food to remote villages to repairing people's homes to paying off the neediest people's debts. In one town, Phan found a poor woman who had two children, no husband and a small dilapidated 12 foot-by-12 foot home. With Phan's generosity, she was able to do all the repairs to her house, pay off her debt and even open up a small sandwich business to support her children.

"She was just shaking because she couldn't believe someone would do this for her and her family. This was such a nice feeling," he said.

Clearly, Phan is one of the best poker players in the world. Throughout the years, this veteran of the poker world has had his own personal challenges and heartaches, but Phan's time with his family and those who are much less financially fortunate has given him a rock-solid personal foundation. Arguably, this humanistic focus may have given him the strength to persevere and win the highly competitive POY race. He's a champion not only on the poker table, but also to his family and his homeland of Vietnam.

Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume I." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard at 5-6 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.