Hello, Mr. Chips

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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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd