Hello, Mr. Chips
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?"
"You looked scarier in the movie."
"They filmed me wearing dark clothing."
"You lost to Matt Damon in that scene, right?"
"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.
Following Chan is difficult. He drives aggressively, changes lanes often and rarely signals. You cannot anticipate his next move.
Millions in laundered drug money helped build the Bicycle Club. Extortion has been committed within its walls, and armed robbers have followed its winners home. The casino was eventually confiscated by the federal government and was recently sold back into private ownership.
Card rooms are legal in California because players don't compete against the casino. The house rakes a portion of the betting, but the majority of the pot is for the players to fight over.
A common misconception is that poker is a game of chance, that it's the cards that determine who wins the pot. Among professionals, luck is a joke that only amateurs find funny. Put two professional poker players and two average players at the same table, and sooner or later the pros have all the chips.
Sitting behind a professional poker player in a card room is considered an honor. You're watching his play, glimpsing behind the wizard's curtain. Sitting behind Johnny Chan is nearly unheard of, and it takes some wrangling and discussion before he concedes.
"Sit very close to me," Chan says. "Don't talk to the other players. If you have any questions, ask me later. Players don't like somebody talking when they're losing money."
The table with the best action is in a far corner, and several staff members hover nearby. On a wall there's a sign posted to prevent cheating: "English only to be spoken at all times--Mgmt." The players, all of whom have played with Chan before, don't look very happy to see him. They'll smile at his jokes and engage in some conversation, but there's no love at this table. Just money.
The game is $400/$800 Mix, which means the ante is $100, the minimum bet is $400 and the maximum raise is $800. "Mix" indicates that the game rotates--from, say, Texas Hold 'Em to Seven-Card Stud to Razz--every 10 hands. It takes a very experienced player to keep pace with all the changes of strategy at a Mix game.
Chan takes a seat, and his $10,000 buy-in is placed at his side. He orders a fruit plate of oranges, cantaloupe and watermelon. At the World Series of Poker, Chan kept an orange wrapped with a rubber band throughout the tournament. The second year he won, other players brought bananas, grapefruit and apples in joking reference to his orange fixation. Although Chan admits to being superstitious ("all gamblers are"), he swears he liked the orange for the fresh smell that he says kept him alert amid the Camel and Marlboro smoke. The rubber band is left unexplained.
"Hello, captain," Chan says to a passing floor supervisor.
"You're the captain, sir," the supervisor replies.
Chan is wealthy, but he won't say how wealthy. He owns a home in Cerritos and one in Las Vegas, as well as a fast-food franchise in Vegas' Stratosphere Hotel. He plays the stock market and consults for casinos and game manufacturers. His annual income has been estimated at around $1 million, but with all his side games with the likes of L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Vegas entrepreneur Bob Stupak and publisher Larry Flynt, his actual income is anybody's guess.
The opponents today include Sam, the clothing-store owner; Frank, an anxious thirtysomething; an advertising executive named Rick; and a shaved-headed pro named Freddie, who recently beat out 581 players in a Hold 'Em tournament to win $430,000.
The cards come out and $100 antes are tossed into the pot. Chan's cards aren't dealt quite close enough, and the dealer quickly scoots them forward another two inches.
The dealer is well-trained. Chan harshly chastises card dealers for minor infractions. One novice Bicycle Club dealer apologizes when rebuked, while two others just give him the Dealer Stare, a withering look used by card dealers in lieu of a retort that could get them fired.
Fort McDowell card room manager Mike Byrne, who suffered Chan's scrutiny when he was a dealer in Vegas, defends the bullying as part of Chan's game strategy.
"It's part of his intimidation," Byrne says. "A player can own the table and get everybody on the run."
Within an hour, everybody is on the run. Chan's initial $10,000 stake increases to $12,000, to $14,000, to $16,000. The other players check when Chan checks, fold when Chan raises. The players are being played.
Watching Chan, it's clear he isn't some sort of magician with the cards. He checks or folds when he doesn't have it, and raises when he does. He plays simple, aggressive poker.
What gives Chan such extraordinary edge is his even-keel demeanor and ability to read other players. When the cards come out, most players are eager to see what they've been dealt. Chan doesn't even look at his hand until he watches every other player react to their cards. He'll toss in a $100 ante before he's seen his cards if other players' expressions excite him.
Game after game, Chan maintains his famous bored appearance. He'll crack a joke, or make an occasional Texan brag ("All I need to see is one of your up-cards, just one card, that's all I need"), but any emotional response to his hand is kept somewhere deep inside him.
"It doesn't matter to me if I'm dealt two aces or a three and a five," he says later. "In fact, I don't need any cards. I just play the person."
By contrast, his opponents' emotions rise and fall with the height of their chip stacks. Elated and buoyant. Then sad and angry. They glare at their cards suspiciously, trying to decide if they're holding next month's rent. Chan is purely reactive, the responses to given players and given hands seemingly hard-wired into his nervous system.
During a game of Lowball, where the lowest hand takes the pot, Rick suddenly throws his pair of jacks at the young Asian dealer.
"Same fuckin' cards," Rick says.
The dealer looks up and gives him the Stare.
"Same fuckin' cards," Rick says. "You dealt me the same fuckin' cards as the last game."
The tension is broken by the chirping of Rick's cell phone--all the high rollers keep one nearby--and he takes the call at the table. A few seats down, Frank stands up to stretch, ready to call it a day. As he leans back, his pants zipper is wide open. Nobody tells him.
The game changes to Seven-Card Stud.
Chan is dealt a five and a three up, with a pair of sevens concealed in his hand.
"I have to raise," Chan says aloud, teasing. "After all, I have a pair."
The other players look at his up-cards. The usual assumption is that his three or five is paired, but would Chan play such a lousy hand? And if his hidden cards are paired, might they be aces or kings? That is, assuming he's telling the truth in the first place.
Chan's next up-card is a seven, and the other players relax a bit, not knowing Chan now has three of a kind. He raises aggressively and ends up taking a pot worth nearly $3,000.
"Fuck this! Fuck this!" one player says, throwing his cards toward Chan.
A king lands on the edge of the table and Chan flicks it away with a finger.
In two hours, Chan made $11,000. He cashes out while he's ahead.
Chan is so accustomed to angering other players that their frustration doesn't even register.
"Poker brings out the real you," he says, shrugging. "You play with somebody long enough and the real person comes out. I used to have more heart--and I still do, but not when playing. 'Don't leave sugar on the table' is what I always say."
It's a conditioned response. The action, the awards and consequences of high-stakes poker shaped him. And during his formative years, Chan was transplanted into the heart of poker country.
Poker is a hybrid of betting games from Persia, France, England and Germany. The American version was born in the late 1700s in New Orleans, using a 20-card deck. During the next century, riverboat gamblers spread the game throughout the Western territories. Poker was not only easy to learn and portable, but it required no fixed dealer and no equipment other than a deck of cards. The ideal game for a growing nation.
In the 1970s, poker experienced a second boom--in Texas. There was so much fresh money, so many oil barons looking for high-risk excitement. Two of the best-known poker players--"Amarillo Slim" Preston and Doyle Brunson--were celebrities from the Lone Star State. And Texas Hold 'Em, the official game of the World Series of Poker, rose out of dance-hall back rooms to dominate the attention of serious players.
Chan's family moved from Hong Kong to Phoenix in 1968. Five years later, they relocated in Houston, where both Chan's cousin and his father owned restaurants. It was expected that Chan, who worked in his father's restaurant for $200 per week, would continue in the family business when he finished school.
At 16, Chan was an avid bowler. He bowled for money and says he did well. Playing card games was an afterthought. Poker was something Chan played at his cousin's restaurant after the bowling alley closed. His weekly game was nickel/dime/quarter dealer's choice--the garden-variety poker night held in thousands of houses, dorms and storerooms every week. Chan and his friends played games with tough names, like Mexican Sweat, Anaconda and Three-Card Gut. Games that were easy to learn and whose outcome depended a great deal on the luck of the draw.
Poker was also a hobby he had to conceal from his father, who would ask him where he spent his nights.
"Bowling, playing poker," Chan would say.
And his father would get angry. Chan was going to attend the University of Houston, he was going to major in hotel and restaurant management, he was going to continue the family business. Not gamble, not play games. His father wouldn't change his mind about Chan's gambling until his son won $875,000 at the 1987 World Series of Poker.
Chan was playing for fun and low-stakes cash. Then, one night at his weekly game, a repairman fixing the restaurant's air conditioning invited him to a different poker night.
How much will it take? Chan asked.
"Oh, not much," the repairman said. "About $300 to $500 to play."
Back then, $500 was high stakes for Chan. More than he had ever risked at poker. He accepted the challenge.
"I beat them," Chan says. "I beat them every week."
Playing at K.C. Air Conditioning against electricians and construction workers who were 30 years his elder, Chan says he made about $1,000 per week. He was also introduced to Texas Hold 'Em, a game that would change his life.
Just when it seemed Chan had discovered a new source of weekly income, his newfound poker buddies said they were calling it quits--no more poker night.
The next week, Chan drove to the air conditioning store anyway.
All the familiar cars were parked outside.
Honoring his father's wish, Chan attended the University of Houston, majoring in hotel and restaurant management. He dropped out at 21. He was a gambler and he knew it.
"I just couldn't work 9 to 5," he says. "The action always gets me. The action makes me who I am."
Chan married his Taiwan-born girlfriend, Judy, and in 1978 drove to Las Vegas in his beige Camaro and rented a studio apartment.
It wasn't his first time in Vegas. He had flown there and gambled many times since his late teens. His first casino poker game was at the Golden Nugget at age 18, where he sat down with $500.
When he stood up, hours later, he had $20,000.
For a young gambler, winning thousands of dollars during the first visit to a casino card room is like a heady injection of a powerful drug. His gambling addiction, already a dominant force in his life, now bound him irrevocably to the poker table.
Chan lost his winnings the next day.
During those early Vegas years, Chan's bankroll was on a roller coaster.
He says he worked menial casino and restaurant jobs, then lost his paycheck to blackjack, craps, sports betting and poker. He bet recklessly and compulsively--the lights, the cards, the action. He smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and ate and slept on casino comps while gambling 14 to 16 hours at a stretch. He awoke in hotel rooms that smelled like smoke, then descended into the casino to start it all over again.
When he slept, he would dream of poker. He would dream he was at a Hold 'Em table, a pair of kings in his hand. He knew his opponent had only a pair of queens. But then comes the river--the final community card--and it's a queen. He loses and the chips go away.
Even when he won, he needed to win with caution. The casinos were mob-controlled, and smart gamblers were wary of offending the wrong player.
"The casino was the law," Chan says. "Back then, you just kept your mouth shut. You didn't want to step on anybody's toes. You never know who somebody is connected with."
Even cheaters, the scourge of the 1970s poker table, were sometimes untouchable. Chan says he would spot crooked dealers and players marking or holding cards. But he never knew if the cheater in the seat beside him secretly was working for the casino or had mob connections. The wise move was to stand up, take the loss, and walk away.
In the early 1980s, a convergence of changes in Chan's life caused Chan to start playing strictly for the money. His first son, Jason, was born. Chan quit smoking, started eating more healthfully and exercising. He stopped playing poker for the social rewards--no more sugar on the table. Poker became his profession.
Mike Byrne remembers Chan coming into his own.
"All the pros have an intimidation factor, but he got this huge intimidation factor," Byrne says. "He plays real fast, and when he's looking at you, it's like he's looking right through you. He's like a mercenary at the card table."
During one game, Byrne recalls Chan aggressively raising and re-raising. At the showdown, Chan's opponent sheepishly turned over his cards, revealing a terrible hand.
"Okay, you got me," the player said. "I was bluffing."
Then Chan turned over his cards, revealing an even worse hand, much to his opponent's delight.
Later, Byrne asked why Chan had bet--raised, even--with such an awful hand.
"And Chan said to me, 'Well, it didn't matter what I had, I knew what he had,'" Byrne says. "Chan knew the other guy was playing out of line. At that moment, it really struck home that, as much as it's the cards, it's really the player. That was the first time I positively discerned the difference between a pro and an amateur."
Mike Caro, poker author and self-proclaimed "Mad Genius of Poker," calls Chan "one of the most intensely competitive players in poker. There are some who've achieved publicity based largely on short-term luck, but Johnny Chan's achievements are solidly based on long-term ability."
In 1983, Chan won $130,000 in Bob Stupak's America's Cup Tournament, launching a streak of high-profile tournament wins. During the match, he blew through 13 of the 16 players in minutes. Stupak called him "The Oriental Express," and the nickname stuck.
Earlier this month, 112 poker players entered the Hold 'Em tournament at Fort McDowell Casino.
After two and a half hours of play, the last remaining player was declared the winner.
That man, local retiree Dan Holden ("Like 'Hold 'Em,'" he says, "only with an n"), won the right to play heads up against Johnny Chan for an additional $1,000 prize.
Chan's presence at the tournament is another in a string of Arizona gambling precedents set by the Fort McDowell Casino.
The casino was the lone holdout during the 1992 Indian casino raid, where FBI agents attempted to confiscate slot machines. The much-publicized stand-off lasted three weeks before Governor Fife Symington agreed to negotiate a gaming agreement.
Fort McDowell was also the first Arizona casino to offer poker. Previously, poker had been played in poker parlors that profited from liquor sales.
Byrne remembers ordering those initial 12 tables in April of 1992, and then having to order 33 more a few months later. Each table generates about $60 in revenue every hour. Although Byrne sees more and more professionals in Arizona card rooms here to take advantage of the relatively novice players ("A good player can easily make $500 a day at Arizona poker tables," Chan says), no side game or tournament has been big enough to regularly attract Chan.
But Byrne, who's known Chan since their Vegas days, convinced him to sign an exclusive deal with Fort McDowell. Now, he's scheduled to play tournament winners (his next showdown is in August) and help develop new games such as Action Jack, a variation on blackjack where players play against each other rather than the house. The Action Jack at Fort McDowell has had spotty attendance so far.
At the tournament table, winner Ron Holden waits for Chan. A crowd of players has gathered to watch the match, and the game will be carried on closed-circuit monitors throughout the casino.
Chan is on the other side of the card room, having shown no interest in the poker tournament. He's intent on the U.S. vs. China soccer game on the game-room television.
"I'd rather be lucky than good," Holden says. "If he's as good as they say, I'd rather have the luck."
When a commercial interrupts the soccer match, Chan comes over to meet his opponent. The two poker players smile and shake hands: a retiree in tight white socks and bifocal glasses, and an Asian celebrity sporting a pricey watch and a new haircut.
Byrne grabs a microphone to call the game, and play begins.
For a while, Holden keeps pace with Chan. There are no dramatic showdowns, and the chips swing back and forth. Those who have studied Chan's style of play, however, know that Chan is putting his opponent to the test--deciding what makes Holden fold, check, call or raise. Silently collecting this information for an upcoming showdown.
"The last time he was here," whispers a spectator, "Johnny tricked the guy into going all-in when he was holding a pair of pocket [face down] aces. It was all over in a second."
Chan draws a pair of pocket aces this time, too, and raises viciously.
Holden, sensing a trap, folds before the showdown, but not before losing a large pot.
The balance of chips, and the probability of victory, shifts to Chan. As a new hand is dealt, an employee of the casino approaches the table to give Chan the soccer score.
"I saw it," he says, loud enough for his audience to hear.
There's a television set broadcasting the soccer game on a far wall. Chan, so confident in his eventual victory, is practically ignoring his opponent and the cards dealt to him. His arrogance surely must have an effect on Holden's play as well.
More cards come out, and Holden's chip stack erodes further. It seems Holden wins only the small pots, and Chan takes the large ones.
The next hand is pivotal:
Both players raise and re-raise until a large mound of chips sits impressively in the center of the table. If Chan wins, his victory today is almost assured. If Holden takes it, he's back in the game.
The players go into a showdown, and Holden turns over his hand--a king-high.
Witnesses are positive Chan has him beat. And he does--practically any decent hand could take the pot. But when Chan turns over just an ace-high, the crowd gasps.
"Now, if you can figure out how Chan knew that he had a king, and only a king," says an onlooker, "then you'll have a story to write."
Holden's remaining chips are quickly drained away. Chan wins--again. It took about 25 minutes.
The players shake hands once more, a flash from a camera, and Chan steps aside. As he walks away, a fan asks Chan if his opponent had any tells. Chan, knowing neither modesty nor restraint, and never leaving sugar anywhere near the table, nods his head.
"He had tells," Chan says. "He had tells from here to Las Vegas."
Contact James Hibberd at his online address: email@example.com
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.