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The Man Johnny Chan

Johnny Chan is a hard man to pin down. Following this photo shoot in Vegas, he promptly vanished into thin air. What followed was a series of frantic phone calls spanning two weeks, as his agent tracked him from Macau to Hong Kong, and finally to Seoul, Korea, where he's checking out poker rooms and teaching the local populace how to play hold 'em. The Orient Express may be the most famous face in the game, but to most of us, he remains an enigma. So did we get to the bottom of this international man of mystery? Well, kind of …

Bluff: Describe an average day in Johnny Chan's life.

Chan: Well, I play a little less poker now than I used to. I've been playing for 30-something years and there's so much going on these days. I live in Vegas and LA, but I spend more time in Vegas because that's where the action is. In the morning I'll go to the spa, work out, then I may have to travel. But it's generally about eating good food, watching my health, spending as much time with my family as possible -- and with my dogs [laughs].

Bluff: You moved to the U.S. when you were 11 years old. Was that a tough transition?

Chan: It was a little difficult, as the only words of English I could say back then were yes and no, and I had a hard time understanding it. But eventually you learn what you have to learn … and here we are, talking English! [Laughs]

Bluff: What kind of kid were you? Were you well-behaved; were you a tearaway; were you smart, hard-working?

Chan: At school I had very good grades, and my best subject was math; PE and English were so-so, but other than that I really enjoyed school, and I got good grades.

Bluff: Your parents were restaurant owners.

Chan: My parents didn't speak any English, but they started a business; we made a pretty good living out of it, so we had a good life. It was back in Houston, Texas. The restaurant was called Hoe Sai Gai, which translates into English as "Great Whirl."

Bluff: How and at what age did you discover poker?

Chan: We had a lot of oilmen and they always wanted to talk about poker. One night after the restaurant was closed, all the helpers and customers got together to play. It must have been a Saturday night, because I didn't have school the next day; so we'd play, and then we'd all go for breakfast and the winner would pay for breakfast. It was a mighty nice breakfast: ham and eggs and pancakes! [Laughs]

Bluff: Prior to that you were a big chess player.

Chan: That was a long time ago. I enjoy playing chess, and I'm pretty good at it.

Bluff: Were you naturally good at poker, or did you have to work hard at it?

Chan: Well, I wasn't good in the beginning, but I loved the game. So I'd just keep trying and trying and, sure enough, I got real good; in fact, so good that I won the World Series of Poker two years back-to-back!

Bluff: Tell us about the years in between. When did you discover Vegas?

Chan: I discovered poker at the age of 14. I discovered Las Vegas at age 16. In Houston there was a junket. You put in $2,500, and they gave you a bunch of tickets, room and board for two nights and three days at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas. When you got there, they gave you a name tag, you walked to the casino pit, and they said, "Mr. C, how much money do you need?" So I said, "Well, give me my limit; whatever my limit is!" That was the $2,500 that I put up myself, and I blew that in no time. I didn't know there was poker in Las Vegas, and I'd just got busted.

So from the Landmark I walked downtown, and I went into a casino called Golden Nugget. I saw a lot of people playing poker and I thought "Jesus! I didn't know there was poker! If I'd have known that, I wouldn't have staked my $2,500 on the blackjack and craps tables." So I watched those guys play and I said to myself, "Man, they play so bad; I could beat those guys." But I didn't have any money, so what do you do? My brain was clicking and thinking. I had a credit card. My limit was $200 on my MasterCard, I think, and I also had a gold necklace; I hocked that in no time -- I got $120 -- and borrowed the $200 on my credit card so I had $320. Little did I know that a week later I would have $30,000 in my pocket.

Bluff: How did you manage to gamble in the casinos at 16 years of age?

Chan: Well, that's a good question. At that time, they only recognized how much money you had; they didn't care what your age was. I'm talking about the '70s. They didn't ask for any ID. You put up $2,500 and they gave you a receipt.

Bluff: So you'd make the occasional trip to Vegas in your teens to make money off the poker table?

Chan: On and off, yes. I was still going to school at the time, and I was still helping my parents with the restaurant. So I didn't really leave Houston until I was 21.

Bluff: If you hadn't become a poker player, would you have just joined the family business?

Chan:Yes, I enjoy the business; in fact I loved the business so much that when I made enough money in Vegas, I opened my own restaurant in 1982.

Bluff: What is the difference between Vegas then and Vegas now?

Chan: Back then most casinos didn't have corporation money from New York, or venture-capital money; the town was owned by the mob and the private casino owners. Nowadays there are major corporations like Harrah's Entertainment, Wynn's, The Venetian and MGM Mirage.

Bluff: How long was it before you met the established pros? Was it easy to earn their respect at the table?

Chan: Back then I went to Vegas, played with a bunch of old timers -- what I call the Rocks. They play every day, the real hustlers! And then I'd walk into the game and they'd say, "Wow, here comes a little Asian boy who can't play a lick. Here comes a sucker!" When the smoke cleared, I'd beat 'em all [laughs].

Bluff: When did you first enter the World Series?

Chan:It was '81 or '82 …

Bluff: What was the Series like in those days?

Chan:Well, it was quite different. Back then, you'd get 50, 80, 100 players per tournament. The year I won there were, I think, only 187 players. But now you look around you and there are 8,000 players. Maybe this year we'll have 10,000. It's amazing.

Bluff: Tell us what you remember about your first World Series win in '87.

Chan:Well, in 1985 I won the $1,500 limit hold 'em championship, which had 400 players in it, and that was a record at the time. A couple of years later I won "The Big One," and then I did it again the next year, and in '89 I was a runner-up. In '89 and '90 there was a tournament called the Poker Hall of Fame at the Horseshoe, which I won back-to-back for its first two years also. I don't think any other poker player has ever had a record like that.

Bluff: What did winning the World Series mean back then?

Chan: It gave me a lot of confidence. I knew I could play as good as anybody in the world. Now, every time you sit at the table you know you're never the underdog. Back then, if you didn't have a reputation as a good player, people would look at you like you were nothing. Those wins gave me respect. But it put a lot of pressure on me, too. Everybody suddenly wanted to bust Johnny Chan. It gave them a good story to take home.

Bluff: You were runner-up in 1989 to a mouthy young newcomer named Phil Hellmuth. What was he like back then?

Chan: Well, in '87 and '88 he was watching me play. He'd always stand behind me and watch what I was doing. Unfortunately, he learned a lot and he figured out a way to beat me in '89.

Bluff: You've said before that losing that final still haunts you.

Chan: It does. I had the chance to win the WSOP three years in a row. No other poker player has ever had that chance or ever will again.

Bluff: And then there was "Rounders." How did you get involved?

Chan:Miramax wanted to do a poker movie and they wanted me to sign a release to use footage of me from the 1988 WSOP. My daughter said, "If they want to use the footage, why not ask to be in the actual movie?" So I asked and they said no problem.

Bluff: Because of the movie, the final hand you played against Erik Seidel has become one of the most famous hands in history. Can you remember how it went down and what you were thinking at the time?

Chan: Sure, it seems like yesterday [laughs]. Before, a hand came up where he had a pair of nines and I had a pair of eights. When you're playing heads-up, a pocket pair is pretty strong. He was young and very aggressive, so he raised and I moved all-in with my eights. He said, "I call." We turn our hands over and when I see those nines -- man, I almost puked! So he won that pot, which, at the time, was the biggest pot in history -- over a million dollars. That left me with only $100,000, but I knew how to play this guy like an open book, and I managed to fight my way up and regain the chip lead. Then this hand came up where I had Jc-9c on the button and he had Q-7 off-suit. I didn't raise with it; I just let him in because he was so aggressive. I expected a raise, and I was going to call him, anyway, but he didn't raise. The flop came Q-10-8. So I had flopped the nut straight, while he had top pair with a seven kicker. I raised him a little bit, he thought for a while and almost threw it away, but he called. I say to myself, "Wow, he must have a pretty weak hand. I've probably got him drawing dead already." Fourth Street came a blank. He checked and I said to myself, "Well, I'm only going to get his chips by checking; if I bet, he'll throw it away." Fifth Street was a blank, and now I expected a bet. Sure enough, he moved all-in. I had the nuts, so I guess I had to call [laughs]. So that was history.

Bluff: It certainly was! Tell us about the Big Game. When did you start playing?

Chan:Since I moved to Vegas. But the Big Game has gotten bigger, because now there's more money in poker than you can imagine. Anyone who wins a big tournament becomes a millionaire, so poker creates around 50 to 80 millionaires a year! And those millionaires all play high-stakes poker. The side games are pretty juicy right now. But yes, when I first moved to Vegas, I didn't quite have the bankroll, but I aimed to play in the biggest game in the world as soon as I could.

Bluff: How did you meet Jamie Gold?

Chan: I met him about two years ago. He came to me with a TV reality show -- he was a Hollywood agent -- and we talked about doing a reality show about poker. Every time we had a meeting, it had to be in the casino because I would be playing. So he'd come and watch me play. I guess he was learning a lot by watching me. Little did I know he was picking my brain. And this year he won the World Series and 12 million bucks! I guess I'm a hell of a mentor, huh?

Bluff: Not that it's anyone's business, but there are a lot of rumors going around that you had a stake in him. Any comment?

Chan: I'd like to set the story straight. I did not have any piece of Jamie Gold whatsoever. I never took a dime from him; he never gave me a dime. We're just good friends, and good friends help each other out.

Bluff: What does the great Johnny Chan want from the future, in poker and in life?

Chan: I want to win another big event this year, maybe the World Series main event. I want that $10 million grand prize [laughs].

Bluff: And bracelet No. 11?

Chan: Oh, that's coming. The question is when [laughs]. I think 2007 could be my year. I'm feeling lucky &133;

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