He learned how to take ‘em at Hold’Em

Times Staff Writer

When Temecula social worker Jerry Yang was a child, his father forbade him to gamble, prohibiting even checkers and dice.

After Yang, 39, married, his wife disapproved of his burgeoning poker habit.

But he was defiant, and it paid off -- big time. Yang won the Texas Hold’Em title and $8.25 million last week at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Now his wife, Sue, approves of his playing, a small victory in itself, Yang said.

The ethnic Hmong immigrant from Laos, a relative rookie, is getting used to being the world’s poker king. He’s already bought his wife a new Cadillac Escalade, set aside college funds for their six children and pledged 10% of his windfall to children’s charities.


“It feels great. It hasn’t sunk in yet, being the world champion,” Yang said by phone from Central California, where he is vacationing with his family. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Nicknamed “The Shadow” for his tendency to surge from the back of the pack to win, Yang was eighth out of nine players when the final round began at noon July 17.

After 14 hours, Yang beat Tuan Lam of Ontario, Canada, to win it all -- besting 6,358 players in the tournament.

In May, Yang qualified for his $10,000 World Series spot by buying into a satellite tournament at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula for $225 and winning. He enters tournaments occasionally and only with small buy-ins, Yang said.

Two years ago, Yang had played only blackjack. He taught himself poker by watching the World Series on ESPN and reading books before entering small tournaments in Southern California once a week.

Poker, though, always took a backseat to Yang’s children, ages 3 to 12. He said he practiced only by himself, setting up a table with imaginary players so as not to disturb his family.

“When I have time, I’d rather spend it with my kids,” Yang said. “I’d only play when they went to bed or when my wife was at home watching them.”

Yang’s low-key training included one DVD by poker legend Phil Hellmuth and a handful of poker books, most of which Yang hasn’t finished reading.


Instead, Yang said he relies on his background as a social worker and his master’s degree in health psychology from Loma Linda University to create a mental picture of each opponent, studying their betting patterns, their voices and their faces.

When he qualified for the series in May, Yang, a Christian, incorporated another tactic: praying, which he did visibly at the final table.

“When we went down to the last two tables, I had the inclination that I might win,” Yang said.

“I knew that if I could just play my best I would have a good shot at the title.”


Once he landed in the finals, Yang was nervous, he said, and especially afraid of professional player Lee Watkinson, who placed eighth.

“I went heads up with him and knocked him out, and that relieved me tremendously,” said Yang, who stressed that the players were quiet but friendly, “not bullies or anything.”

From his winnings, Yang has pledged nearly $900,000 to be shared by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and the Ronald McDonald House Charities in memory of his own difficult childhood.

Raised poor in the Laos countryside, Yang and his family fled the Communist takeover in the mid-1970s and spent five years in a Thai refugee camp, where Yang suffered malnutrition. At age 13, Yang went to Nashville, Tenn., then moved to California in 1982.


“I grew up with nothing. I understand what poor kids are going through,” Yang said. “I wanted to be a doctor because of all the suffering I’ve been through.”

Yang moved to Temecula several years ago and works with foster children through a Moreno Valley agency.

He wants to get more involved with charities, once he decides whether or not he’ll keep working.

But first, Yang is preparing his return to the poker series.


“Any champ would love to defend his title,” Yang said. “I will continue to support poker -- there’s a lot of good that comes out of it in helping other people.”