Prayers and Poker

As I write this 4½ hours into the WSOP main event's final table, Jerry Yang has just taken out his fourth consecutive usurper. Hevad Khan amazingly moved all-in in the dark after they mixed it up preflop, and Yang made the call with pocket jacks despite the flop coming king high. It was the first time a player has been eliminated on a dark all-in move since Jesse Alto in 1984.

Khan was the fourth victim of the Yang juggernaut. Yang came out of the gates on the day swinging with both arms, doubling up through beginning-of-the-day chip leader Philip Hilm almost immediately, then finished Hilm's day just a few hands later. This set the stage, and Yang's apparently reckless play caused the others to loosen their own standards before he could run the table over. They ended up adding fuel to the fire.

Yang's loose aggression claimed Lee Watkinson as its next victim. With the action folded to Yang, he made a raise on the small blind that looked an awful lot like a steal. Watkinson, the most experienced pro at the table, read it as such and moved all-in for all of his chips (around $8 million). Yang thought over his options for minutes before finally calling with A-9 offsuit. It was a gutsy call that paid off, with Lee holding just A-7 offsuit. Yang's hand held up, and suddenly we had a monster stack at the table.

It didn't take much for Yang to get at it again. Victim No. 3 was Lee Childs, a nice guy who works with kids and one who I'd have liked to see go further. Childs raised from the small blind only to get tested for his stack by Yang's all-in. Childs made the right play, calling with K-J to find himself at a major advantage against Jerry's Js-8s. But when the eight hit on the turn, and Yang's prayers were answered once again, half the audience was talking about finding God themselves.

The win against Khan put Yang at an astounding $73 million and change, more than half of those in play. Now, the little man with the light disposition is the cat playing with mice. Every other hand finds him raising, with the rest of the table apparently unable to read his good and bad moments yet. That may be because Yang sees someone greater than himself doing the playing for him.

Poker is a lonely game. We come to the table, one player versus an army, and fend off the attacks of all comers. People may offer their services as single-serving friends as commonalities are discovered, but even they're eyeing your stack, and you know they are.

Today's final table would consist of nine lonely men if not for Jerry Yang's faith.

"Am I playing for a higher purpose?" he said. "Absolutely."

Yang, a father of six with charity and missionary credits on his resume, is a Methodist of the most devout kind. He's a man who puts his life, faith and belief in God, trusting the higher power will know better what to do with such things.

"If I win, I still won't be a full-time poker player," Yang told me on a break after eliminating Childs. "I'll donate 10 percent of my winnings to charity and accept the title with honor, but there are more important things than poker."

What could possibly be more important than poker? Family. His six kids are here cheering Dad on. Charity. He'll be making donations to the Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish Foundation and charities. Missionary work. He plans on taking advantage of the WSOP bounty by using his time to help others. It's a noble idea from what seems like a noble man who could make for a most noble champion.

Of course, Yang's devotion is going to inspire some interesting debate about God's place in poker. In an industry built on mathematical logic, prayer has mostly been held off save for those desperate souls seeking help on hitting a two-outer or those looking to blame the greater power that causes that two-outer to defeat them. Yang, then, could be ushering in an entirely new era. It sure looks like he is thus far.

There are people who will criticize Yang. It's the nature of jealousy that we find reasons to hate those who have the things we want to have. Seasoned players will denounce Yang, refuting his spiritualism as silly. After all, these are people who have dedicated their lives to a pursuit of logic, deflecting the all-too-human longings for a belief that luck can be affected to constantly do the mathematically correct thing. They would tell you that there's no room in poker for spirituality.

Yang may now be showing us there's room for both poker and prayer in one life. He's Chris Moneymaker with a PhD and a Bible, an everyman who can't believe he's here and who has faith in his understanding as to why he is. Were we predicting Jerry Yang would be our champion a year ago? A month ago? A day ago? No, but that's the beauty of the game. Any two cards, any one man or woman, can win.

If Yang is right, his success here may have been predetermined, divinely ordained. I don't pretend to understand his faith, but I can admire it from afar for what it means to him. If he wins, I just hope he won't give all of the credit to his maker. Jerry will deserve his own personal pat on the back.