Winning the World Series of Poker main event has been a life-changing experience for me and my family. As many of you know, prior to my win I was an ordinary family man working from 9 to 5 and trying to raise six children. It was financially difficult at times, but we adjusted the best way we knew how. My wife was a card dealer working nights for an Indian casino, and I was a psychologist and social worker for a foster family agency in Southern California. However, on the morning of July 18, 2007, everything changed of course for the better.
You may have read that I won my seat to the 2007 WSOP main event via a satellite at a casino in Southern California. I was very excited and looking forward to meeting some of the world-class poker players whom I've seen on TV and come to admire so much. I met Daniel Negreanu, Howard Lederer, Jennifer Harman, Johnny Chan, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Doyle and Todd Brunson, John Juanda, Men "The Master" Nguyen, Mike Sexton, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Hachem, Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, TJ Cloutier, Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, and many other great poker players. From beginning to end, the 2007 WSOP was such a gratifying experience that had I not won the main event, I still would have gone home a happy man.
Some of you may still remember the pledge I made to God and shared in front of ESPN cameras that I would donate 10 percent of my winnings (big or small) to charity. Today, I'm proud to announce that I've fulfilled my promise. So far, I have donated over $1 million to various charitable organizations as well as to friends and family. I made donations to my church and the foster family agency I used to work for; I've given money to some of my relatives in Laos and relatives here in the States. I have also donated to and done work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Ronald McDonald House and Feed the Children. In addition, 10 percent of my future poker winnings will be donated to charity.
During the last few months of my reign as WSOP champion, I have had the opportunity to tour several struggling American communities through my work with charities. I've met families without basic needs such as running water, food, clothing, and medical care. I have visited various hospitals and met some very precious, but very sick, children. I have spoken with parents who have had to watch helplessly as their kids go through chemotherapy and other difficult medical treatments.
Many of these moments were heartbreaking. I thought to myself, "This is not the America I heard about when I was a refugee in a camp in Thailand." As a young boy, I envisioned America as a place filled with milk and honey, opportunities and love. Yet I have seen things in the past year that remind me of the impoverished foreign places I came from. I am passionate about continuing to use my winnings, and my life, to help others in need. My work with the charities mentioned above is ongoing and more projects are planned for later this year as well as for 2009.
There are two tournaments that I am very excited about. The first one has been named in my honor -- the Jerry Yang No Limit Hold 'em Tournament Series was held on May 21 to 25, 2008 at the Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino. I am thrilled to be working with the Lake Elsinore Casino because they have been so gracious to me -- and were so even before I became a world champion. During the two years I spent learning to play poker, I visited the Lake Elsinore Casino to play tournaments on a regular basis. After I won a seat to the 2007 WSOP through another casino, I had no money available to pay for my stay in Las Vegas during the main event. Pat Wilmes, the casino manager at Lake Elsinore, arranged for my stay at a hotel in Vegas throughout the tournament.
Once I made the final table, he and the other wonderful people of Lake Elsinore thoughtfully supplied a limousine to bring my wife and children out to Vegas and be their source of transportation while there, as well as giving my wife $2,500 in cash to spend on food and other needs during our stay. That was so unexpected and I am very grateful for Pat's friendship and the continual support of everyone at Lake Elsinore, including owner Ted Kingston and director of promotions/media Jim Carrico.
Another tournament I am involved with is a charity event that will be held in 2009 in Lemoore, California at the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino. John T. Stewart, David Viau, Jeff Bray, and the Tachi-Yokut Tribe have graciously decided that I will be able to donate the proceeds to the charity of my choice. I have already made a commitment for all contributions from this event to go to the Ronald McDonald House and Children's Hospital in Madera, California.
I am also working on a book about my experience at the World Series. The manuscript is still in its early stages and I will begin the process of looking for a publisher soon. I am eager to share details in the book about my life in Laos as a young boy, escaping to the refugee camps in Thailand in 1975, and growing up in America as an immigrant. I will also talk about the two years I spent learning to play poker, my experience at the 2007 WSOP, and what I have been doing since I won. Furthermore, there will be a chapter in which I answer some of my critics and explain my faith and how it has been a blessing rather than a contradiction to keep God and my family as my strength and focus even while playing poker. Finally, there will be a chapter or two about poker and what abilities or characteristics a poker player must possess in order to win at the tables.
My goal as a champion has been to remain who I am and continue to do the things I've always done. My family has always been my top priority and always will be. However, I would like to do more for poker. Prior to my win at the WSOP, I had very little knowledge about the poker industry. Before winning the main event, I had only been playing poker for two years at local casinos in Southern California and I never played online because I was the kind of person who used the computer on a very limited basis. But since my win, I have been learning to use the internet more − checking e-mail, managing a MySpace page, and playing some poker.
I only recently became aware of the political battles going on to legalize online poker. No one has yet contacted me to ask for my help in being an advocate for poker in any political venue. I welcome your suggestions and guidance so I can better assist the poker community and continue to be a good ambassador for the game. I believe that the rights of poker players should be protected and fought for. Poker is just like any other competition and should be treated the same way. By rallying together, we can achieve the things we want for our community; and I wholeheartedly hope that I can be a positive contributor to advancing the freedoms of responsible gaming.
I'd like to extend my personal thanks to the many fans I have met on the road. I appreciate your friendship, kind words, and thoughts, and I look forward to seeing many of you in Vegas. I'd also like to thank the casino hosts, poker room managers, tournament directors, and staff for your hospitality and generosity. The memories from this year will be dear to me for the rest of my life.
Although we all have different opinions about the recent decision of the WSOP for the postponement of the Main Event final table, let us rally behind Mr. Jeffrey Pollack and his team and support them. I believe that he and the council members made their decision based on what they feel is best for the future of poker. Take care and best wishes to all of you!
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