WSOP Main Event winner Jerry Yang explains the secret of his success: “I watched the WPT and thought I could maybe do this”

Jerry Yang is a hugely gracious and humble main event winner, but don’t let the Mr Nice Guy image fool you

When Jerry Yang walked into the 2007 World Series of Poker main event, he had one thought in mind. Ever since winning a seat through a satellite at his local casino, he was a man on a mission. ‘I wanted to have fun,’ Yang says down the phone from his California home. ‘My whole intention was just to take pictures and get autographs,’ he adds through a burst of laughter.
But fate had another plan in store. Six days later he found himself stepping out of obscurity and into the glare of the TV lights as he took his seat at the final table of the main event. Over the next 12 hours he would dominate the final table, and take home the $8.25 million first prize.

It was the end of an amazing journey for Yang that began back in 1975 when his native Laos was plunged into communist rule. Yang was just eight-years old when, along with his family, he tried to escape to nearby Thailand, only to be caught in the attempt.

‘I had AK47s pointed at my face. I was scared to death,’ Yang says. Eventually Yang and his family made it to Thailand, where he spent four years in a refugee camp. They were the worst years of his life. ‘I used to have a bloated stomach because of malnutrition. I saw plenty of my cousins die in front of my face,’ he says, still clearly shaken by those events.

But then came another sudden change. In 1979, Yang’s father was accepted into the USA and the family moved for a new life in the States. Yang took full advantage of his new home, gaining a degree in health psychology and getting a job as a psychologist.


His life outside of work was dedicated to his family. And as a devoted Christian, he was not interested in gambling away his hard-earned cash. But when in 2005 he first found a TV show called the World Poker Tour, something clicked. ‘I watched the WPT and thought I could maybe do this,’ Yang says.

He went out and bought Doyle Brunson’s SuperSystem and set about learning the game. He watched the WPT on television and listened carefully to Mike Sexton’s analysis. ‘That helped my game a lot,’ Yang says. Pretty soon he felt ready for the real thing and it wasn’t long before he began setting aside time at the weekends to play $100 buy-in tournaments at his local casino.

‘I mainly played on Saturday mornings when my wife was at home looking after the kids. Normally I played tournaments – that was all I could afford.’ But he dreamed of playing on the big stage, and so when the Pechanga Casino launched a $225 satellite to win a main event seat, he paid his entry and took his seat.

Flash-forward to the WSOP final table and all the watching crowds knew about Yang was that he won his seat in a live satellite at a casino in California. And to a watching poker world, he looked like a wild, unfocused amateur with his oversized pre-flop raises and eagerness to push all his chips into the middle. But there was more going on than met the eye.

As a player who learned the game in live casinos (not to mention a trained psychologist), Yang’s approach focuses more on reads than maths. ‘I study each opponent carefully and play based on the mental picture I have. I look at whatever body parts show up from the table. I study how they speak, how they talk, how they put their chips in and their whole demeanour at the table. If I sense a little weakness, that is when I push.’

The night before the final table he spent some time with some of his final table foes and made one clear observation. ‘I saw they played a little tight. I was able to use that to my advantage.’


Nothing characterised his approach more than the ninth hand of the final table. With some spectators still settling down into their seats, Yang stood up from his as he pushed all his chips into the middle. He looked so confident that his opponent, Lee Childs, folded his Queens face-up. So what did Yang have?

‘I had pocket Jacks. If I remember correctly the flop came 7-4-2. He made his continuation bet and when he did I put him on A-K or a mid-pair. It was something funny about the way he put his chips in. If he’d have thought a bit longer I probably would have folded.’

It’s moments like this where champions are made or destroyed. And it wasn’t the only occasion where Yang’s tournament life hung precariously in the balance. On the third day he was down to just 300,000 in chips when he made an aggressive and potentially disastrous move.

‘I had the big blind and Maria Ho raised, and a guy next to her re-raised. When it got to me I decided to push all-in and he called. He had me covered and I had A;-3;. He showed pocket eights and the flop came 7-5-9. Then the deuce came and the four came. That was a very, very lucky hand.’

There’s no shortage of critics happy to put Yang’s success solely down to luck. And listening to his analysis of the game it’s hard to shake the feeling that he is not yet a poker great. Yang admits as much.

‘I admit I was a rookie and I still have a lot to learn. Any comments that were made by people I don’t take personally. That is how you improve. Maybe there was something I did wrong. In the hand where I busted Lee Childs, I had J-8 and he had K-J – that was a bad play on my part. I should have laid that down.’

But Yang’s path to the title wasn’t just a run of good cards and suckouts. When play moved to four-handed, he lost almost half his stack by being on the wrong side of some coin-flips. But, crucially, he stuck to his game plan, didn’t lose focus and came out on top.

‘The people who stay focused are the ones who have the best chance to win. I doubled up all three of them [laughs] but I never gave up. I had this thought inside that these guys were waiting for good hands. So I just kept pushing.’


Yang is a gracious and instantly likeable champion. His answers are littered with praise for fellow players, and he comes across as someone who is grateful for his success and determined to share his fortune with others. He has already given away $825,000 to charity. And since quitting his job shortly after his win, he now divides his time between his family and charity work.

‘The very least thing we can do as human beings is show basic kindness. I know what it is like to be poor. I know what it is like to suffer and to not have a decent meal and go hungry every day.’

Part of the desire to do good is down to his faith. Yang is a committed Christian and this was evident at the final table, where he could be heard praying when waiting for the flop to be dealt. It irritated some players, but Yang is quick to apologise if his actions caused offence.

‘My faith in god gives me strength when I feel down or frustrated. That is why I do it. I’m not doing it to degrade anybody or the poker community. That is not my intention at all.’

Indeed, Yang is determined to be a good ambassador for poker, though it’s clear he still hasn’t figured out how he fits into the wider poker community. ‘It’s still a bit strange. Every day I look at my bracelet and wonder if I am dreaming’

But don’t expect to see Yang fade into obscurity as a one-off tournament winner. He’s not finished with poker yet. ‘I would like to win at least one WPT event,’ he says before suddenly coming alive at the thought of his next true ambition. ‘I would love to repeat the WSOP main event. That is my goal.’

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