WSOP world champion Jerry Yang tells us his amazing story: “We tried to escape to Thailand, but were caught by Communist soldiers who pointed AK- 47s in my face”

We catch up with the 2007 WSOP World Champion and discover his incredible story

The player

Part-time player Jerry Yang won this year’s WSOP $10,000 Main Event, its $8.2m first prize, and the title of world champion after qualifying through a $225 satellite at his local casino.

An all-round nice guy, American immigrant Yang instantly gave 10 percent of his winnings to charity. His previous biggest win was just $6,985.

Jerry, congratulations on the win!

Thank you so much.

You’re up early for a poker player (it’s 8am in California). What are you doing today?

I’m just spending time with my family. I’m actually in central California [in the process of] relocating from southern California, so there are some family things to take care of.

Are you still working?

No, not any more. When I won the WSOP I called my boss and told him I’d like to give my two weeks’ notice, but he was very gracious and said: ‘You know what Jerry, you have better things out there to do, so I’m going to go ahead and find someone to replace you.’ I made a donation to the kids that I worked with (Jerry was a social worker) to give them all gifts this coming Christmas. He was very happy to accept my gift and has found two more people to work for him so it’s worked out for both of us.

How long had you been playing poker before becoming world champion, and how did you get into the game?

I’ve been playing poker for about two years. One day I saw the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker on TV and they caught my interest. I thought maybe I could do it. So I bought a couple of poker books and started reading. I lived about five minutes from a local casino, so I went, played low limits and learned from there.

Then I started getting interested in tournaments. I started playing $10 buy-ins, $15 buyins and then moved up to $25 buy-ins. I think the highest tournament I ever played was maybe $125 in that casino. Finally they had ‘the big showdown’ where they had a $225 buy-in tournament to win a seat at the World Series and I participated in that. There were 188 players including me, and I just happened to win that day, and from there I went to the WSOP.

You were born and grew up in Laos. When and why did you emigrate to America, and do you ever have regrets about leaving?

No, none whatsoever. Back in the 1970s the Communists invaded my country, because of the Vietnam War. My family and other villagers had no choice [but to leave]. The Communists did a lot of terrible things to the people. Either you stay and face persecution and possible death, or you take your chance to escape and hopefully live. That was the decision my father made. He was the town chief of our village.

We tried to escape to Thailand, but were caught by Communist soldiers who pointed AK- 47s in my face. I was only eight. They could have pulled the trigger at any time and I was scared. I was crying. My cousins and my friends were crying and we didn’t know what to do. We were forced to walk about half a day to meet this Communist commander who told us we had to return to our village, but we refused. With my father’s pleas and begging he finally let us go to another village to start a new life there. His last words were, ‘If we ever find you escaping, where we find you, you will be buried there.’ And so we were let go and, thank God, we eventually escaped to Thailand.

What happened when you got across the border?

We were placed in refugee camps in Thailand for about four years where the living conditions were not good. The water quality was very poor, there were no clean hospitals and people were dying. Some of my cousins died right in front of my eyes. I used to have this big old stomach from malnutrition. There were many times I went to the restroom and worms would come out and I thought I was going to die too. But thank God one day the US government called my father saying, ‘Hey, you can go to America.’ That was the happiest day of my life.

Was it this traumatic part of your life that led you to working with charities and underprivileged children?

Absolutely. I have six kids of my own and I know what it’s like to be poor and what it’s like to suffer. Children have a very special place in my heart and I believe we have to help them.

Has winning $8.2m sunk in yet? And do you see the same person in the mirror now that you saw before the WSOP?

Honestly, it hasn’t totally sunk in yet. From day to day I look at the bracelet that I’m wearing and I think, ‘Wow, am I really the world champion? I can’t be.’ There are thousands of professional players out there – world class players. Winning the WSOP World Championship is an amazing break and all the credit and glory goes to God.

Do you think qualifying for $225 gave you a fearlessness that you wouldn’t have had if you’d paid $10,000?

It’s all about attitude I think. When I won the seat to the World Series my intention was to go and have fun. I was thinking that if I got to meet some world class players I would be happy – to get first-hand experience and meet some wonderful people. And I did. In fact Chris Ferguson and I became very good friends, and I also met Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke, Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan, so I was already happy. To go on and win the whole thing was amazing!

At the final table you came in as one of the shorter stacks. At what point did you think you could actually win it?

I knew I was going in as a short stack and the night before I meditated and prayed. I said to myself that the only way I could take down the tournament was to be aggressive, which is exactly what I did. Thank God I was able to pick up some good cards, too, but there were times when I was totally bluffing. When I sensed a little weakness in my opponents I decided to push, re-raise, or make the call to see a flop, turn, or river. When I took the chip lead I knew I had a good shot of winning the tournament.

Who were the players you met along the way that you feared getting into hands with?

Lee Watkinson at the final table. I have a lot of respect for Lee. He’s a very good player – probably the most fearsome player at the final table for me.

What was the first thing that sprang into your head when you rivered the straight to become world champion?

When I saw that Six come on the river [for the straight] I just jumped. I jumped in joy. There are no words that can really describe the feeling that I had at that moment. Thank God for giving me that miracle card, which won the tournament.

You’re very open about your faith. Do you feel God had the power to influence what cards came?

I have to share this with you. I was on the verge of being eliminated three or four times and when I prayed to God to give me some miracle cards I got them. So I truly believe that if you have a good mission out there, and there is something you want to accomplish, not for yourself but for the community – for the poor – sometimes God listens to you. If your purposes are good He will grant you your wish.

Many religious fundamentalists claim that gambling is a vice. What’s your take on that argument?

Poker is also gambling. However, I believe people choose their own path and it’s how you live your life, conduct yourself and what kind of self-control you have [that’s important]. Obviously if you gamble your house, your car or your last $10 that’s not good, but poker can be a great way of making a living for the family. I played part-time before I became world champion and I intend to be a good ambassador for poker, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Whatever we do in life we should support each other.

What do you think you’ll be doing in five years’ time?

In five years I intend to do some charity work. Charity is very important to me, and I also want to fulfil my contract with my sponsor. If I’m not the champion next year I [still] intend to be a good ambassador for poker. And obviously I want to take care of my family by making sure my kids go to school and get a good education. I also want to make sure my wife is taken care of, as well as my parents, who are old now. But more than that I want to give something back to the community and be a proactive ambassador for poker.

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