Hello, Mr. Chips

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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."

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd