Hello, Mr. Chips

Johnny Chan, the world's greatest poker player, stakes his reputation at a local Indian reservation casino

The other high rollers call him Sam. He's the bearish, wealthy owner of two clothing stores, and a regular here at the Bicycle Club card room in Los Angeles. Normally a dominating rock of a card player, Sam is anxious and fidgety. He has about $2,000 in chips lying in the middle of the poker table. And he hates to lose.

The game is Omaha Eight-or-Better, a poker variation where the best hand and the lowest hand (below an eight-high) split the pot.

The other players have folded, and Sam is going heads up against his remaining opponent.

Chewing his toothpick, Sam bets $800 from his waning chip stack.
When his opponent raises, Sam doesn't look up. He knows this particular player is impossible to read.

The dealer peels off the final card, and Sam watches intently as it falls onto the green felt: a three of diamonds.

Normally, a three is an ideal low card. But there are already a couple of threes on the board, and Sam has unavoidably paired up, detonating his low hand. His opponent, who reveals an impressive flush to the ace, has him beat for the high end. There's no consolation prize for getting stuck in the middle.

While the other players marvel at his unfortunate turn, Sam stares at the improbable trio of threes.

"How the fuck did they do that?" Sam asks, his voice cold.
Nobody responds, and Sam's hands begin to shake.
"How the fuck did they do that?" he demands, and a jacketed casino supervisor silently appears behind Sam's chair, ready.

Red-faced, Sam reaches into the middle of the table and snatches the offending three of diamonds. He folds it in half, furiously creasing the card, and throws it at the dealer's face.

The dealer doesn't flinch and the supervisor quickly replaces the deck. This is done unobtrusively and without comment. There is significant revenue generated at this table.

The dealer, who has seen such tantrums many times, pushes the whole pot into the waiting hands of Sam's opponent, Johnny Chan.

Chan is the world's greatest poker player, and he says something as he arranges his new chips into tidy stacks.

He says it low, so other players won't hear.
He says, "Just another day at the office."

Johnny Chan lies on a floor mattress in Tawa's Shiatsu Spa, a landmark Japanese massage parlor in Little Tokyo. He often comes here to prepare for a high-stakes poker session, stretching out in the steam rooms, saunas and Jacuzzi baths. The deep-tissue therapy in the communal massage room is his favorite part, and these female Japanese masseuses perform particularly aggressive shiatsu.

The room is silent, save an occasional sigh and the popping of joints.
Chan, 42, is the only living card player to have twice won the World Series of Poker, played annually at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. His second victory, in 1988, is legendary: He lost the biggest pot in the history of the tournament, then came back to take the title.

Two months ago, he signed an exclusive contract with Fort McDowell Casino off the Beeline Highway to develop card games and play heads up against tournament winners. Spectators say he cleaned out his first challenger in less than 10 minutes.

Interviewing Chan is nearly as difficult as trying to read his play. Every detail of his past needs to be dug out with repetitive questions and long pauses. He'll shape his image as it suits him--saying he graduated from college, for instance, when he actually dropped out. Or saying he won $30,000 in his first casino poker game, but telling another reporter in 1988 that it was $20,000.

The more formidable a player's reputation, the more cautious and nervous his opponents. So if Chan doesn't always give the most honest answer, he can always be trusted to give the response that will serve him best in future competition.

On the massage mat, Chan breathes heavily, drifting in and out of sleep. He played poker until 8 this morning and is exhausted. As the masseuse digs her toe into the sides of his spine, another customer recognizes him from his role in Rounders:

"Weren't you in that movie?"
"Yes."
"You looked scarier in the movie."
"They filmed me wearing dark clothing."
"You lost to Matt Damon in that scene, right?"
A pause.
"No, I didn't lose to him," Chan says. "I allowed him to bluff me out."

Chan doesn't mention that his catch phrase was excised from that scene. When Matt Damon takes the pot, Chan's line was: "What's yours is yours."

It's not a phrase of any particular significance, just something Chan likes to say when he loses a large amount of money to another card player.

He doesn't say it often.

An hour later, Chan dresses in the locker room: black sandals, cream pants, black-and-white shirt, gold bracelet, gold necklace, black-and-gold Versace sunglasses and black Rossignol baseball cap.

He tips the masseuse $10 and gets on his cell phone.
"What's the best action you've got?" he asks, not needing to identify himself.

Chan is told there's a high-stakes game in progress at the Bicycle Club.
He closes the phone. "Let's go."
Chan navigates his red Mercedes convertible through the L.A. freeway maze, a bright blur against the thick afternoon smog. He drives fast, not wanting to miss the action at the casino. His license plate spells out a full-house hand that once paid off for him--threes over jacks.

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