An exclusive chat with Johnny Chan where he opens up about his poker career, online poker and those celeb games in L.A.

Johnny Chan is renowned for being one of the most private men in poker but he opens up in this exclusive interview…

Among poker scribes, Johnny Chan reigns as a particularly challenging subject. I myself have had a few brushes with the Orient Express, and, put simply, Chan just never seemed all that crazy about being questioned.

So, on the Vegas afternoon that I call Chan, hoping to arrange a date for a future chat, I am surprised by his enthusiastic response: ‘Let’s do it right now.’ I explain that I’m unprepared for an immediate meeting, but he won’t hear of it. ‘I’m having lunch at the Paiza Club, up at Palazzo,’ he says, referring to the elite Asian-themed private casino-within-a-casino, reserved for the highest of high rollers. ‘Get here in half-an-hour and we’ll talk. It’ll be a good interview because you haven’t thought about it yet.’ What can I say? I grab my tape recorder and head for the Palazzo.

The Paiza is for people who play nosebleed stakes in the pit. It’s not for poker pros. What casino games do you gamble at in order to be welcome here?

JOHNNY CHAN: I play baccarat. I like it, even if it’s all luck.

Really? With all your poker knowledge, what draws you to play a game at which you are clearly an underdog?

JC: Good question. When the poker action is not big enough to drive me to play my A game, I get bored. So I play baccarat for comps.

Let’s talk about poker. You’ve played on High Stakes Poker in the past. Any chance that we’ll see you during the upcoming season?

JC: I only played on the show once. I was humble and didn’t talk much [the implication being that this may have accounted for Chan not being invited back]. I’m not like Mike Matusow or Phil Hellmuth, making a monkey out of myself. I am always going to be Johnny Chan.

You recently appeared on Poker After Dark, in the Nets vs. Vets edition. It was you, Doyle, and Huck Seed along with three internet kids. You seemed to be irked when they spent lots of time making decisions.

JC: I know why they do it. They calculate all the numbers and play like robots. Doyle and I, our style is to play by instinct. Plus, the internet kids, when they play against me and Doyle, they want as much television time as well.

Right now the internet player who’s gaining a lot of attention is Tom “durrrr” Dwan. He played against you on Poker After Dark and people seem to think he’s the best in the game right now, especially when it comes to pot-limit Omaha.

JC: I don’t think durrrr is the best. He’s won a lot of money and has a lot of heart, but that can bite him in the ass. He needs to pass the test of time. Guys like durrrr have been around for two years. I’ve been around for 30.

When did you first come to Vegas?

JC: When I was 16, back in the mid-1970s, I went on a junket. You got a room at the Landmark Hotel [now defunct, it was situated a block from the Strip, near the Las Vegas Hilton], air fare, and all the buffet you could eat – so long as you agreed to buy in for $ 2,500.

That was a lot of money for a kid in the 1970s.

JC: I saved it up and went straight to the blackjack table. By half past three, on my first afternoon in town, I was broke. I didn’t know what to do. So I walked downtown from the Landmark and wound up at the Golden Nugget.

I think I know what’s coming next.

JC: I saw people standing around, watching poker. I knew how to play and figured I could beat the guys at the table. But I had no money. So I got a cash advance on a credit card. I took the limit: $ 200 with crazy interest. The stakes were $ 10/$ 20. I bought in for the minimum and was very nervous, very tight. I probably didn’t play the first 20 hands. Then I picked up pocket sixes. The flop came 6, 2, 10. It was a dream. I raised, everybody called, all kinds of bets and raises came on the turn and river. Suddenly I had $ 500 in front of me. I started with $ 200 that day and ran it up to $ 30,000.

Did you play around the clock?

JC: Of course. With all that action, how could I sleep? I moved to the Golden Nugget and everyone was talking about me. Other players referred to me as the Asian live one. And they were right. I was a live one, betting with 5-6 offsuit. Then I sat down at a blackjack table and lost all my poker winnings before flying back home.

Clearly, you had no fear of going broke.

JC: I could have run the $ 30,000 up to $ 300,000 and I still would have gone broke. Eventually, I learned to slow down and manage my money. But back then, when I was kid, living with my parents, what the hell did I care?

When did you get serious about poker?

JC: In the late 1970s or early 1980s. That’s when I decided to come out here, play small and not go broke. But it requires discipline. The problem is that Las Vegas has so many temptations: blackjack, craps, roulette, and everything else in the pit. Back then it was worse. There was so much cocaine around. I went to parties and people had bowls of it. We played poker downstairs at the Stardust, and every five minutes players ran upstairs for lines.

Good for you, right?

JC: These guys would stay up for 24 hours and play crazy. They thought they were Gods, walking on water. I knew cocaine was bad for you and I never touched it. The sad thing is that so many poker players got on that train and never managed to get off.

My understanding is that you moved up to the high-stakes games pretty quickly.

JC: In 1980, I started playing the biggest game in Las Vegas. I played with Chip and Doyle, Johnny Moss and Gabe Kaplan. It was a dream. I still remember walking into the Horseshoe for the first time. I saw Dicky Carson and Billy Baxter playing heads up deuce-to-seven, no-limit. Billy was the man back then. Dicky had $ 200,000 in chips and Billy had half that amount with stacks of $ 100 bills. I saw $ 20,000 to $ 40,000 moving back and forth each hand, and I thought it was all the money in the world. I was like, give me a chance to get my hands on that money.

You won your first main event bracelet in 1987 and got your hands on $ 625,000. How big of a deal was it to win the WSOP back then?

JC: It was just a tournament – not such a big deal. I played cash games during the World Series and won $ 5,000 or $ 10,000 each day. The main event was the only tournament I played in. I didn’t like being told when to sit down, when to go to the bathroom and when to show up in the morning. I played the side games. I remember Phil Hellmuth being there that year. He played every tournament and we ate him alive in the side games.

You and Phil are now in business together with the All In energy drink. What did you think of him back then?

JC: He was a nice, humble kid. He followed me around, watched me play, tried to learn a thing or two. He’d say, Yes sir. No sir. We told Phil to jump, he jumped. Those were the days.

With 10 bracelets to your credit, and a reputation for being one of the world’s greatest poker pros, do you feel less incentive to play tournaments? Is it hard to take them seriously these days?

JC: Not at all. I take them pretty seriously. You put up 10 grand and have a chance of winning $ 9 million. Where else do you get 9,000 to 1 on your money? And, because I’m a good player, I probably have a 50% to 70% advantage off the top.

You have six kids. Did they ever see you as a struggling poker player, back in the day?

JC: They’ve only seen me doing really well. I tell them that I used to play $ 1/$ 3, and they don’t believe that I would sit there, trying to win $ 20. But I did!

Do any of your children show an interest in playing poker professionally?

JC: My daughter Joy loves to play poker. She’s 16 and plays on the internet all the time. She plays for fun and wins freeroll tournaments. She probably has played more hands than I have. I’d say she plays 500 hands a day. Sometimes I take her to home games with my friends.

You play $ 500/$ 1,000 with your 16-year-old daughter?

JC: [Cracks up laughing.] No. More like 50 cents and $ 1. She plays tough and wins. If, after college, she wants to play poker, I’ll give her a small bankroll – maybe $ 5,000 or $ 10,000 – and let her work her way up from the smallest games. It will be a lot easier for her than it was for me. She knows a lot more than I did at the start, and she instantly figures out pot odds.

Speaking of online poker, I’m surprised you’re not affiliated with a site.

JC: I’ve had good opportunities and offers. But my attorney here in Las Vegas, David Chesnoff [who’s also represented Mike Matusow and Russ Hamilton], told me not to do it because of the legality issues here in the US. He told me to stay away, that it’s better to sleep at night. That’s why, when I was involved with [a now defunct skin that used Chan’s name], I made sure that it was not accessible to Americans.

Some players have really cleaned up with the online sites.

JC: Yeah. The rumour is that if you own 1% of Full Tilt you get $ 100,000 per month. So there are poker players earning over $ 1m per month from the site. I lost big opportunities, but, like I say, I sleep good at night.

You must miss all that easy money.

JC: I can always make money. If I need to, I can sit down in a $ 10/$ 20 game and make $ 500 or $ 1,000 a day. But I usually play $ 200/$ 400, $ 300/$ 600 or $ 4,000/$ 8,000. The limits don’t matter to me; it’s about the quality of the game.

Do you get to play in a lot of the big Hollywood home games? They’re known for being incredibly lucrative.

JC: No. I have a high profile as a great player. They don’t want me there. They want juicy people. Also, it’s not my style to beat up celebrities. I like playing against the best.

I guess that’s why you’re happy to mix it up with Doyle Brunson.

JC: Who says he’s the best? Doyle is a good player. But you know where he’s at. He’s solid. I don’t know where Sammy Farha is at sometimes. He’s very dangerous, very willing to gamble. He makes you open up.

When did you last play?

JC: Last time I played poker was a few weeks ago. I played with Sammy, David Benyamine, and a couple of internet kids. We played $ 500/$ 1,000 blinds, no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha. It was the wildest game. Every pot got up to $ 200,000 right away. Three times I got my money in there with pocket Aces and nut flush draws. Then I missed my hands and other people won. Finally I got up and said, ‘Good day, gentlemen.’ I lost $ 200,000 and figured it was enough. So I went to work out. The good news is that in this town, every day, at any hour, there’s always another game.

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