Foto by Kevin Batangan-CoachCashMoney/ www.flickr.com
Childhood and early years
Johnny hardly spoke a word of English before his family moved to the U.S. His school days turned out to be a great challenge as there was more than just a new language to learn. He tried to acclimate to a completely different culture while he helped out in his family’s restaurant and spent his free-time in a typical American bowling alley.
It was his passion for bowling, which eventually brought Johnny in contact with the poker scene. One day some of his mates were playing poker and he joined in. He was fascinated by the game from the word go and he soon realized he had enough talent to take on bigger challenges. He tried his luck in underground games at his father’s restaurant and soon he was playing there every week. He tested his luck alongside older and more experienced players while he doubled his earnings at the poker table. Unfortunately his talent was recognized but not appreciated, so he was simply kicked out of the game one day, because of his skills.
Las Vegas - love at first sight
At the age of 16, Johnny Chan decided to try his luck in Las Vegas. He managed to bankroll $ 500 and got himself a fake ID. He illegally sat down at a table and turned his $ 500 into $ 20,000 in one night - and lost it all again the following night. This pattern soon became some sort of routine for Johnny. He used to win huge amounts of money playing poker in one night and then he lost the whole bankroll playing casino games like roulette or blackjack the next day.
Despite the fact he had made the first step towards a career in “Sin City”, Johnny left Vegas and returned to Houston. He went to university and studied hotel and restaurant management in order to take over his father’s restaurant one day. At the age of 21, Chan dropped out of university again, as the poker bug had taken hold of him. This decision was a hard one for Johnny, because he knew his parents were going to be disappointed. Nevertheless he felt he had to move to Las Vegas to become a professional gambler.
Johnny Chan thinks back to his first visit to gambler’s paradise and remembers it was love at first sight:
“When I got here, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. I love this town!”
Once Johnny got on the road of success, his parents eventually calmed down and nowadays they are really proud of their son. Not only that Johnny constantly proves his incredible poker talent, he also appears to be an excellent business man. He founded his own online poker room called ChanPoker besides still being active in the restaurant business. The poker room was later taken over by Aced.com.
At the beginning of his poker career, Johnny Chan went through plenty of ups and downs. Every now and then, he had to take on temporary jobs and was forced to carefully plan his expenses. When he worked as a hotel cook, he was famous for dashing off to the casino directly after work and sitting down at the poker table with his apron still on. He even had to sell all his belongings once or twice to get by, but he never gave up his dream. Johnny was determined to become a top professional player.
It must have been very difficult for Chan, being an immigrant child from China in the U.S. In the casinos of Las Vegas things started to change and all of a sudden he was benefiting from his origin. When Johnny first came to Vegas, there were not many Asian players around yet. His poker skills were permanently underestimated, because Asians had the reputation to be inexperienced poker players. When Johnny raised his opponents often called even though their pocket cards were rubbish, thinking the Chinese guy does not know what he is doing anyway. After a while this prejudice was starting to positively influence Johnny’s finances.
No final table without the "Orient Express"
In 1982 something clicked in Johnny Chan. He realized that his success at the poker table was closely connected to his general lifestyle, so he changed radically and got rid of his vices. At first he quit smoking then he also changed his diet. Soon his game improved noticeably and he entered Bob Stupak’s “America’s Cup of Poker”. By the end of the tournament, Johnny had knocked out 13 of 16 players in a little over 30 minutes. After this legendary performance he was nicknamed The Orient Express by Bob Stupak.
After his breakthrough Johnny “The Orient Express” Chan really hit it off. He travelled from one tournament to the next, literally collecting trophies. In 1983, Johnny took part in the WSOP for the first time and finished in fourth place. Two years later, in 1985, he won his first Gold Bracelet at the WSOP in the limit Texas Hold’em event and earned $ 171,000.
A couple of years later, one could not imagine the WSOP without Johnny Chan anymore. In 1987, he finished third in the No Limit Deuce to Seven Lowball and became World Champion in the no-limit Hold’em Main Event. He eliminated poker legends such as Howard Lederer, Dan Harrington, Humberto Brenes and Johnny Moss in order to win his second Gold Bracelet, the championship title and $ 625,000 prize money. In the same year he also came first in the pot-limit Omaha tournament at the “Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl of Poker”, which was carried out at the Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Further he won the “3rd Annual diamond Jim Brady” no-limit Hold’em tournament in Los Angeles.
The road of success is a pretty long one for Johnny Chan. After his second victory at the WSOP main event in 1988 he received $ 700,000, another Gold Bracelet and he earned the right to call himself double world champion. Afterwards he further won the “Hall of Fame Poker Classic 1988” no-limit Hold’em tournament.
At the WSOP Main Event in 1988, a number of great, famous poker players like Erik Seidel, T.J. Cloutier, David “Chip” Reese and “Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth were taking part, which did not bother Chan at all. “The Orient Express” went sailing past and left its heads-up opponent Erik Seidel covered in dust.
When poker legends are asked about the most spectacular hand at a WSOP event, the chances of hearing about Johnny Chan’s climactic hand against Erik Seidel in the 1988 Main Event are very good.
Johnny’s victory was so incredible that footage of the final heads-up is featured in the famous movie “Rounders” (1998), in which Johnny Chan plays himself. The main character Michael McDermott (played by Matt Damon) watches Chan’s final hand over and over again as he dreams of winning the WSOP main event. The movie inspires young poker players to make the next step and enter big tournaments. Thousands of more or less professional poker players remember exactly what happened:
Johnny Chan’s stack was four times larger than Seidel’s and Johnny received a J♣ and a 9♣. Seidel was holding Q♣ and 7♥ and the flop came Q♠ – T ♥ – 8♦. Even though Chan hit the straight spot on, he did not betray a hint of emotion, when he flopped the holy city. He only bet out a small amount and Seidel raised with top pair. Instead of finishing the whole thing off, Johnny simply called. The turn showed 2♠ and Johnny Chan checked. Seidel fell for the trap and confidently moved his entire stack into the middle. Chan immediately did the same thing, revealed his straight and was crowned the World Series of Poker champion again.
When “Rounders” was released in 1998, Erik Seidel, who was a brilliant poker player at the time, suffered under the bad image the film had given him for a long time. In the meanwhile the multiple WSOP winner has gained back the respect he deserves and is one of the most dreaded opponents at any poker table.
Unrivaled poker performances
After Johnny Chan won the WSOP Main Event the second time, his name was recognized worldwide. Jerry Buss, the owner of the famous basketball team “Los Angeles Lakers” and a huge poker fan was so impressed by Johnny that he promised him a “Championship Ring”, should he win the WSOP main event for a third time in 1989.
Hellmuth’s last hand was a pair of nines (9♣-9♠) and Chan had A♠-7♠. Phil raised before the flop came on and Johnny re-raised. Phil pushed his $ 1,000,000 all-in and Johnny, whose chips were only worth $ 450,000, thought for a while. In the end he called and the flop was made up of K♣– T♥– K♦. Hellmuth now had two pairs and the turn and the river were no help to Johnny Chan anymore either. $ 755,000 and the world championship title went to Phil Hellmuth for a change. Even though Johnny Chan finished off in second place, he still walked away with $ 300,000 in 1989.
In the same year, Johnny Chan entered the “Annual Diamond Jim Brady” and managed to end up within the first five places in five tournaments, earning around $ 120,000 in total. Between 1989 and 1992 he cash ranked in the WSOP several times, most of the time within the top 10.
The next victory Johnny Chan celebrated was at the WSOP 1994. He won the limit Seven Card Stud tournament and went to pick up his fourth Gold Bracelet together with $ 135,600 prize money. In 1995 he came second in the no-limit Deuce to Seven Lowball and in 1996 he finished in fourth place in limit Texas Hold’em.
In 1997 Johnny left the WSOP tournament with his fifth Gold Bracelet, which he won in the no-limit Deuce to Seven Lowball event and in 1998 he was narrowly beaten by the Irish Donnacha O’Dea in the pot-limit Omaha heads-up.
Nevertheless, it did not take long until Johnny Chan was handed out bracelet nr. 6: at the WSOP in the year 2000, Johnny earned $ 180,000 by winning the pot-limit Omaha tournament. In the same year he also won the “L.A. Poker Classic” no-limit Hold’em main event, receiving prize money almost worth $ 100,000. He was also top ranked in plenty of other tournaments afterwards, like the “National Championships of Poker”, “Tom McEvoy’s Poker Spectacular”.
In 2001, Johnny narrowly missed another WSOP title and ended up in second place behind his “Rounders-rival” Erik Seidel in the no-limit Hold’em event. It was only a year later, when “The Orient Express” was running on full power again and Johnny walked away from the WSOP 2002 with his seventh Gold Bracelet (no-limit Hold’em). Once again he found himself heads-up with poker legend Phil Hellmuth, who already owned seven bracelets. When Johnny won the tournament he leveled up with Phil. Because Johnny got hold of another second and third place at the WSOP in the same year, he was inducted into the “Poker Hall of Fame”.
Johnny Chan breaking records
Johnny Chan was already a living poker legend, when he lived up to his reputation and won two more WSOP Bracelets in no-limit Hold’em and pot-limit Omaha as well as a total of $ 400,000 prize money in 2003. He had now caught up with the record holder Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, who was the first person to hold nine WSOP titles. Apart from that, nobody had ever won more cash at the World Series of Poker than Doyle Brunson.
In 2005, Johnny Chan broke all records and received his tenth Gold Bracelet, this time in pot-limit Hold’em again. His 10th victory at the WSOP made him another $ 300,000 richer. Unfortunately it took Doyle Brunson only four days to catch up on world titles again, as he won the Main Event.
In 2006, Phil Hellmuth joined the record holders, after he had won his tenth Gold Bracelet. He then overtook them both in 2007, when he won his 11th WSOP title.
Johnny’s formula for success is his sharp mind, his fast and aggressive game and his ability to read opponents. Chan has a diversified skill-set and is able to stand up to any kind of poker variant. No matter where he is playing, he always likes to bring his distinct trademark, the orange, to the poker table. After he had won two WSOP Main Events within the 1980ies, other players started bringing fruit along as well. Johnny recalls he got used to bringing an orange back in the times when smoking was still permitted inside the casinos. It was his personal little air freshener.
When Johnny describes his skills, he reckons the higher the stack, the better he plays. As soon as he enters “small” games with low stacks he starts messing things up very quickly.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money to become a poker player, but you gotta have faith in yourself. The rest come and go and they get lucky and win a tournament and you never hear from them again.”
Money, luxury and recognition
The fact that success is accompanied by money in poker makes Johnny smile. Money is one of his big motivations and he just loves spending it:
“I’m a big spender. For example, I like new clothes, so I might buy a $ 5,000 suit. That’s why I keep playing. The government takes a bite of you, the mortgage takes a bite. Life is too short, you have to enjoy it.”
With his glamorous, elegant lifestyle and his brilliant game, Johnny Chan has become a role model for a lot of people, especially Asian players. His fellow countrymen see him as a pioneer and many want to step into his shoes to become the next “Orient Express”.
Even his professional American colleagues admire Johnny Chan and respect him, as he is not only a fantastic player, but also a very friendly and fair person. Poker legend Doyle Brunson once recalled Johnny’s achievements:
“You could play a million years and it would never happen again. Not only did Johnny win it twice and come in second, he won two other tournaments inbetween. He won four big tournaments in a row and came in second in the next one. It was very extraordinary.”
Johnny Chan’s poker mate T.J. Cloutier describes Johnny as his favourite player at the WSOP and he admires Johnny’s ability to read his opponents:
“As far as I’m concerned, Johnny’s always the favourite to win the World Series. He’s the best at reading other players. At least 90 percent of the time he’s right. He’s one playing jesse.”
In Phil Hellmuth’s eyes, Johnny Chan is one of the players he respects most, mainly because of the fact Johnny spends so much time with his six kids, even though he is a professional poker player.
“The Orient Express” does not need to be reminded of his special status within the poker community. He is sure of his power and believes he is the world’s best player. People often compare Johnny Chan to Phil Hellmuth (11 Gold Bracelets; February 2008) and Doyle Brunson (10 Gold Bracelets; February 2008), because the three of them are all top ranked WSOP winners. Johnny believes the fact Phil Hellmuth has won more Gold Bracelets than anyone else, is nothing else but a result of his high tournament frequency. For someone, who takes part in 85% of the tournaments, he reckons the number of bracelets is rather low. Johnny only enters around 15% of the tournaments and therefore asserts that he is much better than Hellmuth: “If I played that many, I’d have at least 20. I’d win a bracelet every year, no question about it.”
Johnny Chan generally does not praise other players very often. The only professionals, who he thinks might be up to his level, are Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey. His absolute idol though, is poker pro David Reese, who died in December 2007.
In an interview (which was given before Phil Hellmuth won bracelet nr. 11), Johnny says about himself, that in his career, he has already achieved almost everything a poker player can:
“I broke the world record for bracelets, then Doyle tied it. I’ve broken every record there is. I was the most-money winner for the last 20 years. I’m in the Hall of Fame and was probably inducted as the youngest in that as well. Back then, when everyone waited all year for the World Series running in late April and May, I was above everyone. I was walking on water because I was playing so much better than any other poker player alive. I’ve accomplished just about everything in poker.”
Female poker players do not impress Johnny at all and he does not seem to have a lot of respect for them. He does not believe that a woman could ever win the WSOP Main Event, because: “[...] I don’t think we’ll ever see a female World Champion. Their steam factor is bigger than the guys’: once they lose, they just lose everything.” Who knows perhaps one fine day his daughter will change her father’s opinion, being such a poker talent at 13 already.
The “Duchess of Poker” Annie Duke is not exactly in Johnny’s good books. Probably it all boils down to the fact she won the “Tournament of Champions” in 2004 and $ 2 million prize money: “I would never rate Annie Duke as a top player. She wasn’t supposed to win that tournament – I should’ve won it.”
If Johnny is asked, who he thinks are the best female players, he names Jennifer Harman Traniello and Mimi Tran. Of course Johnny Chan has the right to be proud of himself, but some people reckon he should stop singing his own praises and start to praise his colleagues a bit more instead...
As mentioned before, Johnny does not really take part in many tournaments. He prefers to concentrate on cash-games because tournaments often take ages. Apart from that, the pot is larger in cash-games and players can come and go as they please. Johnny is a regular guest in the famous Bellagio “Big Game”, where he plays against the cream of the crop regularly and the pots are usually astronomically high.
Away from the poker tables
Johnny Chan compares poker to a business and while others go to the office, he goes to the casino. He is very professional in his “business”, retains a spotless image and tries to counteract the cliché of the drinking, smoking gangster at the poker table, spread by the media.
Once Johnny Chan gets up from the poker table, he likes to spend time with his family and he loves to exercise. He enjoys swimming, playing pool, bowling and he frequently works out in the fitness centre. Apart from that he regularly jogs a couple of kilometres. He thinks it is very important to get some exercise, especially when people sit at the poker table, not knowing when the game will finish. Johnny has been known to jump up from his seat during a tournament quite often, in order to take a quick jog around the casino block and get a clear head.
In 2007 the WSOP produced an ad for an energy drink called “All In”. The commercial is more like a rap-video featuring Phil Hellmuth, Layne Flack and Johnny Chan alongside the famous rappers Raw, Holly Rae, Alexander Neal and ProHoeZak.
Johnny Chan, the business man, runs a fast food restaurant in Las Vegas and is now further trying to open a casino, which is his biggest dream.
Johnny Chan is an excellent poker player, leads an ideal private life and is more than successful, when it comes to business projects. At this stage, one might ask: is there anything Johnny Chan can not accomplish? It is not easy to find an answer – whatever this man touches turns into gold.
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