Longform

Hello, Mr. Chips

Page 3 of 6

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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd