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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Where Are They Now - Johnny Chan

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Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.

Imagine that you are sitting across the felt from easily one of the best poker players to ever belly up to a poker table. Each of you has thousands of dollars worth of chips on the table with the sole purpose of cleaning out the other. After a little bit of playing, the chip count has remained around even when all of a sudden you look down on a monster hand. Sensing the champion is bluffing, you go over the top, taking a huge hand from the champion. That could happen, right? Only if your name is Matt Damon and you are starring in the movie Rounders. Johnny Chan may have played the role of loser in that film, but if you were actually able to take a large amount of money from him that would surely be Hollywood material - or a dream.

Chan was born in 1957 in Canton, China. His parents moved to Hong Kong when he was six and later to America when he was around nine years old. After arriving in Phoenix, Arizona, they shortly moved to Houston, Texas where they would stay. His parents opened a series of Chinese restaurants in the area that immediately gave the family some financial freedom. Chan’s father was starting to get older, and he thought, without saying, Chan would take over the restaurant business once he got too old to do the day-to-day tasks.

This thought was said to have scared Johnny very much. While he respected his parents and understood that Asian tradition generally says that kids will keep up the family traditions, in this case the restaurant, Chan had very little desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Chan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but the idea of spending the rest of his days cooking in restaurants in Houston didn’t appeal to him one bit. Chan had already developed these feelings as an early teen, and they continued to hover in his mind as he crept towards adult hood.

Taking over the restaurant operation might not have even been the worst of his problems. Despite being in America for a few years, he had still not learned the English language because his family only spoke Chinese at home. Because of this, Chan was usually quiet, and in return, was labeled an outcast by his fellow students. Chan has said he would remain stoic when he was sure kids were making fun of him, but wasn’t sure because he couldn’t understand them. Despite these issues, Chan was still eventually able to learn enough to get accepted into the University of Houston. However, a trip two years before his college acceptance helped shape the Chan we know today.

At the age of 16, Chan boarded a tiny plane that was heading to Las Vegas. In 1970’s Vegas they didn’t check identification the same way they do today, so Chan was able to walk in and try his luck at anything he wanted without even a sideway glance from a pit boss. Chan first tried some slot machines, but they were unable to hold his attention very long. Chan then tried the poker table, and despite being cleaned out by some locals, he fell in love with the game. When Chan returned to Houston he could only think about returning to Vegas one day and trying his luck again at the poker table. Two years later though, he went to college, where his father thought Johnny would get a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.

With his heart not in his schooling, he played poker whenever he could. After a year of going through the motions at the University of Houston he returned home and told his parents that he wouldn’t be returning to school, and instead would be going to Las Vegas to become a full-time poker player. As you can imagine his parents didn’t take that news well, especially his father. It was a good thing that Chan had plans, because his parents all but disowned them, telling Chan that he had let his family down and it would be a long time until this could all be forgiven.

When Chan arrived in Vegas things didn’t automatically get better for him. Chan had almost a fatalist mentality when he first started playing poker in Las Vegas. Despite showing immediate signs of being a good player, Chan would refuse to leave a poker table until every dollar was gone from in front of him. Chan knew that if he would ever become a winning poker player, he would have to get over this major flaw in his game sooner than later. Many would be poker players, and even some well known players, have either had or still have this problem, but Chan, after a few years of changing his mindset, was able to totally eliminate this flaw from his game.

After Chan became a “new player,” he quickly realized that players seemed to treat him differently than other players at the table. Strictly a cash game player at this time, he felt that he had an advantage because he was one of the few Asian players, and many people had never played poker against an Asian before. Chan has said that he felt that American players weren’t able to read his face the way they could do against their fellow countrymen. Chan used this to his advantage, and continued to build his bankroll throughout the early 80’s before trying his luck on the tournament circuit.

Chan first found success in the 1985 World Series of Poker where he won the $1,000 No Limit Hold’em, his first of 10 bracelets, which is tied with second for all-time with Doyle Brunson. While this victory was special to Chan, and gave his career choice a sense of justification, he knew he would still need to win the “Main Event” to be considered among the best ever.

After the 1986 WSOP season didn’t bring Chan a bracelet, he entered the 1987 WSOP hungry. The long wait from a 16 year old on a rundown plane to being known as “World Champion” came to an end as Chan was able to take down the Main Event. Chan would prove that this was hardly a fluke, and the following year saw him win his second consecutive Main Event when his flopped straight beat Erik Seidel’s pair of queens, which will also always be chronicled in the movie Rounders.

In 1988 Chan became only the third player ever with the chance to three-peat in the Main Event. Then owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and friend of Chan, Dr. Jerry Buss told Chan that if he could win a third consecutive title he would give him one of his NBA Championship rings. Chan almost made Dr. Buss put his money where his mouth is, but luckily for Jerry a young upstart by the name of Phil Hellmuth Jr., the only other person with more bracelets than Chan, was able to win the title. Nevertheless, Chan’s three year run in the Main Events is typically regarded as the best run of its kind. Between his first bracelet in ‘84 and his second place finish in the Main Event in 1989, Chan made over 1.7 million dollars, certainly much more than he would have ever made had he stayed in the family business.

Chan has gone on to win over four million dollars in tournament play. He is also a player in some of the biggest cash games poker has to offer, where he is also a winner. His customary orange that he has with him at the table nearly all the time has been said is an Asian superstition but Chan has simply said that he prefers the smell of a fresh orange to that of cigarette smoke, which up until recently had always been a problem for non-smokers since almost the beginning of poker. Not only does Chan not smoke, but he is also a non-drinker as well.

Chan is generally considered quiet at the table, which is believed to have stemmed from his quiet childhood. He believes that his family life should be kept private, and is very hesitant to honor an interview request. With that, when he is in the mood, he has been known to tell great stories from his past, and along the way has made many friends in the poker community, while helping other poker players who have been down on their luck, as he was so many years ago.

While players always treat players with a level of respect, there are many poker dealers that have a different view of Johnny Chan than the rest of the world has. Johnny has been less than kind more than once and the majority of dealers that have been on the circuit for any length of time would rather not deal to him.

Chan was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002, but his work is hardly over. Most recently he finished in first place in the NBC series “Poker After Dark.” As mentioned, he is second to Hellmuth in bracelet wins, but at just 50 years old Chan has plenty of time to try to take the lead.

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