(AP) JC Tran came to the final table of the World Series of Poker with all the indicators 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.
"The chips are shifting around. It's kind of hard to maintain the chip lead throughout," he said, rubbing his wife's extremely pregnant belly during a break. "I want it to just come to me slowly."
"I hate to force stuff," he said, adding that he'd gone "card dead," starting the tournament with a run of bad luck.
Heather Tran made JC a good luck smoothie each morning 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. She was unable to make a smoothie on Monday, so she gave her husband coffee instead.
Two Americans, plus finalists from France, Israel and Canada remained at the table after six hours of play. Ryan Riess, the youngest of the finalists at 23, held a handy lead. His fans cheered "Riess the beast" as he made daring plays and backed them up with strong cards.
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.
Less than an hour later, David Benefield, who started the night in last place, bowed out holding a King and a two of spades. Michiel Brummelhuis followed, losing with pocket nines.
That left five pros and one amateur playing the biggest game of their lives under the heat of blue and red stage lights. By the time play breaks in the wee hours of the morning, only two or three players will remain.
Some finalists hope the prize money will allow them to turn poker into a hobbyist's pastime. Others hope to fatten their bankroll for future games.
Each has a sizable cheering section. Jay Farber, a club host in Las Vegas and the one amateur among the finalists, 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.
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." And Marc-Etienne McLaughlin fans wore green to support the Irish player.
All the factions broke into uncoordinated cheering when the players made big raises.
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 top seven finalists will get at least $1 million in total prize money. Newhouse, the ninth-place finisher, walked away with nothing more than the payout of $733,224 each player received in July.
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 .