Of all the outrageous characters bouncing around the green felt court of high-stakes poker, Johnny Chan may be the oddest ball of all.
Born in the People's Republic of China and reared in Houston, the two-time world poker champion is both the classically serene Asian and the boastful, heat-seeking Texan.
In short, Chan may rank as the world's most inscrutable good ol' boy.
Talk about a lethal combination. As Bobby Baldwin, world poker champ in 1982 and currently the president of the Golden Nugget Casino, says, "Johnny Chan is a fierce opponent and a first-class guy. He's real hospitable--as kind and nice a person as you'd want to meet--and at the same time he's got ice water flowing in his veins."
That Chan, 31, has been blessed with the gifts of both the East and the West is apparent. He acknowledges he received "patience"--a prime poker virtue--from his Chinese heritage and equally vital "aggressiveness" from his Texas upbringing.
Balancing the two polarities has served him well. He's been winning major poker tournaments since 1983, but in 1987 and 1988, he became the reigning ace at the World Series of Poker. Sponsored since 1970 by Binion's Horseshoe Casino, the two-week marathon of grueling shoot-outs is the most respected poker meet around.
The Series' final, four-day showdown, which begins today at noon, determines its new winner the old-fashioned way: through slow, gut-wrenching attrition played out in a no-limit war of Texas "Hold 'Em." That's the seven-card game prized by the truly big boys because it encourages bravado from its players. The event lasts until one diehard has hauled in everybody else's chips.
Capturing the tournament three years in a row has never been done. Even "Amarillo Slim" Preston, the best-known poker pro in the world, has only won this cardfest once, back in 1972 when there were only eight gamblers at the table.
Now there are more than 100 competitors waiting to play, each of whom has put up $10,000 for a chance to dethrone Johnny Chan. Only Chan and one other "mental athlete," as casino owner Jack Binion calls them, have ever managed to annihilate the entire field in back-to-back years.
A Cerritos resident since 1987 who also maintains homes in Vegas and Houston, Chan is exuberantly confident about his chances, having publicly declared himself to be "the most aggressive poker player in the world."
His competitors, some of them at least, know it's not a bluff. Says Dewey Tomko, the former kindergarten teacher from Florida who's come in second to Chan in many tournaments: "You get in a pot with him and you have to be willing to put all your chips in every time. He forces you to play. . . . I think his strongest asset is that he has no fear of his opponent, and no fear of money."
Though Chan says he sincerely enjoys the proceeds, he indicates he's not just in the Spring Classic for its $700,000 prize money. That much can be collected in unofficial "side games" held night and day during the two-week Series. It's not uncommon, he allows, for a side-games player to take home--or toss away--$100,000 a night. "Or more."
Beyond the money, Chan is intrigued by the psychological damage a triple hit could inflict on future opponents. "They'll think I'm God," he told a magazine interviewer, referring to the professional gamblers and thrill-seeking millionaires he routinely faces throughout the year.
At a side game late one night at Binion's, a fellow player suggests Chan might want to rephrase his remark. Though Chan believes in God, grew up attending a Texas Baptist church with a Chinese congregation and now goes to services "on holidays," he just laughs and shrugs his broad shoulders. Then, finding no reason for God to take offense at his boast, he firmly and politely says "No" to the restatement offer.
This evening he's wearing the '88 World Series ring he collected earlier in the day as the tournament was launched. Normally, he shies away from the overstated jewelry favored by many gamblers, preferring more refined accessories such as a gold bracelet and matching necklace outfitted with a small Chinese jade dragon.
"Why invite people to chop your hands off?" he reasons. Tonight, though, he's having a good time at the expense of the gaudy black ring full of diamonds, a chunky flasher that extends far beyond his manicured finger.
"How much you think I could hock this for?" he asks several players, whose estimates range from $35 to $5,000.
But there's another hotshot ring Chan might pick up this year if he makes it three straight.
Lakers' owner Jerry Buss, one of his occasional businessman opponents, gave Chan a Lakers jacket last year when both Chan and the Lakers prevailed in back-to-back victories. If Chan and the Lakers win three in a row, he adds, Buss has promised him an NBA ring as well.
But according to many students of sporting odds, the Lakers are far more likely than Chan to get championship keepsakes this year.
Says Bill Frymer, a non-professional, recreational gambler who sometimes plays with Chan at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens: "It would be harder for Johnny to win three in a row than the Lakers to win six in a row."
After first asking to be quoted anonymously, Frymer reluctantly gives his name and identifies himself as a Drexel Burnham Lambert employee who served as one of Michael Milken's traders but "wasn't indicted." Then he points out that the competition in the World Series of Poker is far tougher than it was in the early days. "Now," he says, "people who enter are up against kids who are computer whizzes."
Poker spoke to Johnny Chan's soul at a young age. His family moved from Canton to Hong Kong when he was 3, then to Houston when he was 9. He learned to play poker there, though he doesn't remember exactly when he sat down to his first game.
He has a better memory for dollar figures. In high school, he says, he earned about $200 a week in his father's Chinese restaurant in Houston--plus an average of $1,000 in a weekly poker game with the guys at K.C. Air Conditioning. All while he managed to pull down "excellent" (B) grades in school.
By age 16, Chan says, he'd flown to Vegas with friends on a junket, only to return totally busted after blowing his entire bankroll on a two-day series of $500 blackjack games.
He repeatedly went to Vegas and repeatedly went broke, somehow not discovering until he was 18 that poker was also played there. In his first Vegas poker game, he walked away with $20,000. Then he went out and lost it all the next day.
The pattern of regular trips, enticing wins and devastating losses continued while Chan studied hotel management at the University of Houston, playing more than a few 50-cent games with other students there. But by the time he was 21, he dropped out. "I found out there's no money in it (hotel management)," he explains flatly, over a cup of Lipton's tea at the Bicycle Club's restaurant a few days before departing for the Series. "You only make about $30,000 a year--enough for me to see two cards."
So Chan married Judy, an attractive Taiwan-born Houstonian he'd met on a bowling outing, and they settled in Las Vegas.
In his first few years there, he admits, he was relentlessly broke and had to take more traditional jobs (chef at a Chinese restaurant, dealer, casino floor manager) to amass modest bankrolls. He counts one six-month spell of bad luck in that period as the worst time in his entire life.
Though he insists he always paid his rent "two or three months in advance" and was well fed because of complimentary food for gamblers at casinos, Chan considers it a horrible time: "I would wake up every morning knowing I was going to be broke again at night. . . . When I was broke, I wasn't in action.
"I was a compulsive gambler. I didn't know when to stop," he concedes, claiming that his ego is in far better control now and lets him walk away from a game when his luck starts to evaporate. "I learned one day you can't win the whole casino overnight. You win just a little bit at a time."
He also realized he had been seduced by the social perks of the game: "I had only played to play . . . just to be at the poker table with the boys. Now I am here to win and I am going to win."
Unless, say, he's gambling for the heck of it. Pressed on his spending habits, Chan will grant that he's casually dropped $30,000 or $40,000, betting on sporting events such as fights. He also plays the stock market. And loves flinging dice at crap tables.
Appropriate Middle Name
"Sometimes I get bored and I like the excitement," enthuses Chan, whose middle name is appropriately Chi, the Chinese term for energy. "I scream a little bit. 'Come on 7, 11.' You can scream your head off and nobody cares."
But while the gambler grows most animated talking about any form of betting, in general he doesn't surrender information easily. It has to be coaxed from him one morsel at a time.
Chan doesn't duck questions, except perhaps for those about his income. Responding to a printed estimate of his '88 earnings to be $900,000 in tournaments and $1.5 million on the side, he just says, "They're way off. They estimated too much. I wish I won $1.5 million."
Might such un-Texan-like modesty be trotted out simply for the sake of the IRS?
"I pay more tax than most people," Chan replies evenly. "I've been paying gambling tax for the last 10 years. They love to have me around."
He's also ready to start diversifying his exploits beyond purchasing real estate. Chan would like to offer some of the pieces to his "puzzle" in a book on poker and gambling in general. Among his other goals: studying yoga, taking up acting ("I think I'd be great in a gambling movie") and pulling in commercial endorsements for products such as the fashionable Fila track suits he often wears at card tables. And he'd like to put that college education to use--he wants to own a casino.
A lot of people in Vegas still remember Chan from his wobbly first years there. Vegas World casino owner Bob Stupak, for instance, recalls a six-month stretch in the early '80s when he and Chan played about half a dozen $5,000 games "head up" (one on one), all of which Chan lost.
"I was known as a 'loose' player. I played for the fun of it and I made it known I'd play anybody in a $5,000 head-up game," Stupak says in the casino coffee shop at 3 one morning after a big-money side game with Chan and three others at Binion's. "To get the $5,000, Johnny would form a 'corporation.' He'd get $500 off this guy and $1,000 off that guy. I'd wind up beating him and he'd get frustrated. People would come in all the time and pop me off. He was just unlucky. Then from 1980 to 1982, he just got real good. I played him in six $5,000 games . . . and he beat me six straight."
Chan remembers losing to Stupak only two or three times but in 1983 his performance was logged into Stupak's record book. That's when he won $130,000 in Stupak's Vegas World America's Cup tournament, and Stupak nicknamed him the "Oriental Express," because he was "very fast and very aggressive."
"He doesn't give poker talk back very well," Stupak continues. "He doesn't have that bullshit that other Texas players do. . . . He talks from the heart."
As for Chan's edge, Stupak figures much of it comes from the discipline he exercises both at the table and away from it: "He doesn't have any bad habits. He doesn't drink, smoke, do drugs or get in any trouble with women. This is his profession. He takes it very seriously."
Indeed, Chan keeps precise records of daily wins and losses, and has been able to detect predictable cycles over the years.
Though he's on the hefty side at 5 feet 5 inches and 165 pounds, Chan jogs, swims, lifts weights and plays basketball year-round. He's also famous for excusing himself during a game--particularly if he's going "on tilt" or turning emotionally reactive--and racing around the block to oxygenate his brain cells.
Outside of some admittedly frivolous wagering, food may be his only other vice. "I love to eat," he laughs. "I can really eat." A former three-to-four-pack-a-day smoker, he mentions that he quit at age 25, when his first of three children was born and he didn't want to set a shabby example.
Though he's frequently away from home, Chan claims he's a devoted family man. That part of his life is a mystery to all of his gambling associates. Few if any have even seen Judy Chan, including Pat Robertson, a poker pro who also works for Chan in conjunction with his job as liaison to the Asian community for the Sycuan Gaming Center near San Diego.
Robertson has known Chan on the card circuit for 10 years. Yet, like others who are relatively close to him, she says there is "nobody" privy to what's really in his mind unless it's "himself--that's just the way it is."
Chan, of course, maintains he readily opens up to his wife, though she never accompanies him to casinos: "She doesn't like the smoke and it makes me nervous for her to be there." His three children likewise are never exposed to the gambling world. He doesn't want them influenced by the environment or to grow up to be gamblers. In one of his rare concessions on the downside of his work, he confides he'd rather they become more traditional professionals, doctors perhaps. He'd prefer to spare them society's judgments on his career.
Asked if he'd make his wife available for a phone interview, he at first brushes the idea off because her English isn't very polished, then mildly warms to the idea.
"Ask her if she can tell if I've won or lost when I come home?" he suggests.
Reached in Cerritos, Judy Chan reveals she can't discern his profit/loss status and that he never presents her with a daily tally. "He treats me just the same. He loves me," she says, giggling nervously. "I love him."
Does Judy, who works full time rearing the children (Jason, 7, Jennifer 6, and Jody, born last November), consider her husband a good father?
"He's a very good father," she responds, sounding totally secure, feeling no need to offer an example and adding she's eager to have a fourth child.
But doesn't she ever wonder if her husband will one day catch a string of lousy cards and come home no longer owning any of their houses?
"He already promised me he won't do that," Judy Chan says, before excusing herself to attend to her crying infant. "I knew (he was a gambler) before I married him."
The two biggest moments in recorded poker history are playing 24 hours a day at Binion's. Both of them star Johnny Chan.
Guests at the casino who tune in to closed-circuit Channel 11 on their room TVs can see an ESPN tape of Chan losing the largest amount of money ever officially wagered in a single pot ($1.2 million).
If that's not enough high drama, they can then watch him gleefully win it all back in less than an hour, throw his hands high in the air like an Olympic athlete and claim the '88 World Series title.
There are many telling moments on the tape. In one early scene, for example, Chan rakes in a moderately big pot and the crowd starts cheering. He loves it. And like a veteran Texan, he gestures to the onlookers to keep it up, inciting more applause.
But a more subtle clue to Chan's nature comes during a break in the play. The ESPN announcer asks Chan how he feels now that he's just set the world record for worst loss in a single hand of poker. At this point, he doesn't know if he'll win the money back.
In the sound bite, Chan more closely reflects his Chinese roots. If he is "on tilt," his smoothness makes it impossible to tell. His unruffled detachment could go down in psychiatric history.
Wearing the same, half-bored poker face he has perfected over the last decade, Chan stands before the camera and cooly replies to the announcer, "There's no pressure. It's just a game."