The Orient Express

By turns spectacularly immodest and caustic about fellow pros, yet also a smiling, friendly poker paragon with a WSOP record second to none, what the hell’s going on with Johnny Chan?

I was walking on water because I was playing so much better than any other poker player alive. I’ve accomplished just about everything in poker

The smell is intoxicating. That Alaskan giant clams with sun-dried chilli and roasted, minced garlic take up residence in a large, oval salver at the centre of the table at the Bellagio’s opulent Jasmine restaurant. Beyond a smorgasbord of Chinese haute cuisine, past the pastel drapes and the faux-Georgian windows, a salvo of 200-foot-high fountains launch from the glimmering lake into the sky.

But it’s the man opposite me who has my undivided attention. Any poker player worth their salt would give their right arm to hang out with arguably the best Texas hold’em player ever. He’s practically the dictionary definition of a living legend. Only I’m not quite sure I’m sitting opposite the right Johnny Chan.

I’ve spent the past hour having dinner with Chan and his family. In fact, I’ve spent the entire past two days following him around the Strip. ‘You travelled all the way from London just to talk to me?’ Chan had remarked when we first met, firing a quizzical eyebrow raise in my direction. ‘What’s so important about me?’ he says with just the hint of a sardonic smile. It’s an easy question to answer. The man dubbed the Orient Express for his fast, aggressive style of play has won more World Series bracelets than anyone else in history (ten, the same as Doyle Brunson, although Chan was the first to hit double figures).He’s also won back-to-back victories – a feat no-one is ever likely to repeat.

Amazingly, in 1989, he came within a whisker of making it three in a row, when he made the final heads-up against a youthful Phil Hellmuth. The final hand – after playing for four days straight – took place at three o’clock in the morning, and Chan finally lost out to a pair of 9s. Given this epic clash, it’s not surprising Hellmuth has called Chan ‘amazing’ and ranks his achievements as ‘among the greatest in the history of poker’. However, the affable, smiling Chan from the TV seems to have gone home early today and he’s in no mood for mutual back-slapping. His assessment of Hellmuth, delivered between mouthfuls of Yin Yang fried rice, is nothing short of scathing. The best he can muster is: ‘He’s a good salesman. He promotes himself well.’ Chan is equally dismissive when I suggest Hellmuth’s nine WSOP bracelets surely demonstrate some poker talent. ‘Ah, please,’ he huffs. ‘When you play 85% [of] tournaments compared with my 15% and you only have nine bracelets, what do you think? If I played that many, I’d have at least 20. I’d win a bracelet every year, no question about it.’

It’s not just the second place in 1989 that rankles with Chan, though; it’s a more recent encounter that irritates him the most. ‘During the Tournament of Champions [in September 2004], I had pocket Kings and made a $20,000 raise. Phil Hellmuth had pocket 10s and moved all-in. All that time, I was chip leader so I had him covered. There were three diamonds and I had Kd. Even if the river was a 10d, I was going to win. There was only one card that could save him – 10c:. It came on the river and I was short-stacked. ‘After he won that big hand from me, he turned around and lost it to Annie Duke. That’s disgusting. That’s disgraceful to poker. I would never rate Annie Duke as a top player. She wasn’t supposed to win that tournament – I should’ve won it.’

Not much respect, then, for one of the world’s most successful female poker players. So does he rate any female player at all? ‘Hah! Only Jennifer Harman and Mimi Tran,’ he says, wiping a stray spot of ginger sauce from the side of his mouth. ‘But I don’t think we’ll ever see a female World Champion. Their steam factor is bigger than the guys’: once they lose, they just lose everything.’

What praise he has for fellow pros is reserved for two players – Texas Dolly and Phil Ivey. He refers to Brunson as being as good as they get ‘for his age’, while Ivey is ‘as good as anyone in the world besides myself and Doyle.’ In fact, he appears a little shy extolling the skills of just about anyone but himself. ‘I broke the world record for bracelets, then Doyle tied it. I’ve broken every record there is. I was the most-money winner for the last 20 years. I’m in the Hall of Fame and was probably inducted as the youngest in that as well. Back then, when everyone waited all year for the World Series running in late April and May, I was above everyone,’ he says, chuckling to himself. ‘I was walking on water because I was playing so much better than any other poker player alive. I’ve accomplished just about everything in poker.’

You can see his point, but it’s a touch undignified that he has made it himself. All great poker players need to have that over-confidence, however, unlike Hellmuth or Matusow, Chan seems a little too aware of his own self-worth to be charming.

The deadpan confidence takes me back to his seminal appearance in 1998 poker film Rounders. The film shows TV footage of Chan’s final hand against the-then green Erik Seidel in the 1988 WSOP main event. On the flop, Chan had hit the nut straight but wanted to give the fast and loose Seidel enough rope to hang himself. When the deuce appeared on the turn, Chan glanced at his cards several times, knowing that his feigned weakness would induce a bluff.

Seidel didn’t disappoint, pushing his chips all-in with only a pair of Queens. Chan let him sweat for a few seconds, called and turned over his cards. It was as tense as anything committed to celluloid, and made Chan a poker icon before anyone had heard of the WPT, Gus Hansen or online poker.

‘That helped put poker on the map, too, you know,’ he remarks, reclining in his seat. ‘If I wasn’t a real poker player in that movie, poker might not have become this popular. Since it came out, people want to come to Las Vegas to see the real-life Johnny Chan. That’s what all college kids, people from every walk of life want to do – what I did. You’re probably one of ’em, too.’

He’s right – nothing lights up the dreams of poker players more than the WSOP main event. Poker’s Big One is the heart and soul of Vegas. It defines why people come in the first place: to live the American dream, to turn yourself from nothing into something. And it defines why Chan fell in love with Vegas all those years ago.

He arrived in Vegas, a precocious 16-year-old with a fake ID, who thought he could turn the $2,500 in his pocket into millions. It didn’t exactly go to plan. ‘I blew my $2,500 in the first few hours,’ he chuckles. ‘Then I walked downtown to the Golden Nugget and I discovered this poker room. I didn’t know there was a poker room in Las Vegas. I watched those guys play and I said to myself, “I can beat those guys.” I got my MasterCard, paid about 15% juice [interest] and, from that $300, I went up to $30,000 in about a week.’

If he had just walked away there and then, it would have been a pretty successful trip, but Chan wanted to double his money, so he hightailed it back to the blackjack and roulette tables and proceeded to lose the whole lot: ‘I beat the poker, but I blew it back in the casino games!’

Petrified of what his parents would say, the young Chan kept the losses to himself and continued to heed their wishes for his career. ‘They’re old-fashioned Chinese,’ he explains. ‘They didn’t want me to gamble. They wanted me to run their family restaurant, and that was going to be the foundation for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to move to Vegas. When I got here, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. I love this town!’

Despite going broke anywhere up to 15 times in his life (by his own estimate), Chan has never been able to shake off his desire for action. ‘I’ve always had leaks,’ he says. ‘I bet sports, on the fight, used to shoot craps, baccarat. I’m a gambler. I know poker is the only one I can have an edge on – in fact, I knew that 30 years ago – but I still do all those other things.’

And like any true gambler, Chan is as superstitious as they come. He still uses his ‘lucky orange’, which he claims ‘psyched people out’, but hasn’t touted one recently, as he usually saves it for final tables. Perhaps the most illuminating example of his superstitious streak is in regard to his six kids. ‘All my kids have a name starting with a “J”. Jason, Jennifer, Judy, Johnny, Jodie and so on. The lucky ‘J’, you know?’ he says. However, unlike his parents, Chan has always been fairly liberal when it comes to his children and gambling. ‘My daughter, she’s very good. She’s only 13 years old and wins a [poker] tournament every day.’

Perhaps it will be his daughter who ends up being the first female WSOP champion, the inheritor of the poker empire Chan left behind. We’re not suggesting there’s any reason for the man to hang up his crown, but there’s a sense he’s lost his passion for the game. Only a fool would argue with his past achievements, the impact he’s had on the game and the back-to-back titles, but when Chan says ‘he’s accomplished everything’ in poker, you have to wonder what drives him on at the poker felt these days.

A lot has changed in the poker universe since Chan’s main event win in 1988. Back then, the WSOP was it and nothing else mattered. Since then, the tectonic plates of the poker world have shifted.Now, we don’t just look forward to the World Series, we follow every fixture on both the World and European Poker Tours; we eagerly anticipate who will be Player of the Year and dutifully record the results of the hundreds of festivals and events around the globe.

Chan, though, sticks only to those that take place in Vegas. ‘I haven’t played many WPT tournaments because I don’t want to travel around the country. I’ve never played in a tournament outside of the United States. I just don’t have much time to play tournaments other than the World Series of Poker.’

But however you spin it, it’s fair to say Chan just doesn’t dominate proceedings like he used to.He only has three WPT cash-ins to his name and even if you were to count the WSOP as the be-all and end-all, he still hasn’t made the money in the main event for 14 years. For any established pro, that has to be galling, but it must be debilitating for Chan.

‘Nowadays, I’m so busy promoting my book [Winning Big in Limit Cash Games]. I have restaurants. I’m working on opening a casino right as we speak. I own a piece of Rounders magazine. I have coming out soon, where people will be able to play me. I have a Johnny Chan Invitational tournament coming up in the Turks and Caicos islands in September. There are more business opportunities than ever, so I don’t have as much time to play poker any more,’ he sighs. ‘I don’t have the feeling any more. The heartbeats aren’t there. It’s just another day at the office!’

However, when the comment is turned back around, and Chan is asked if he has lost that killer instinct, his face tenses up and the old poker warrior returns. ‘I’ll always have the killer instinct. If you stay in the game and you’re not motivated, you don’t belong there. So any time I sit in a game, I want to win.’

Fellow pro Barry Greenstein has gone on record saying Chan ‘always plays as though he’s late for a meeting’. I put the point to him. He scratches his head, and the harsh look on his face begins to soften. ‘That’s his opinion. What does he know about my meetings?’ Chan snorts.’ ‘I still enjoy playing the game. I love the game. It keeps the mind busy and I enjoy the company.’

He also enjoys the material benefits of being a poker player. He’s still a keen cash-game player, and despite $4 million in tournament winnings alone, he clearly gets a buzz from the big wins. ‘The fun is in winning; spending other people’s money,’ he guffaws. Chan appears to be a man with a big love for money. Then again, it’s hard to be a good poker player if the money doesn’t matter. What’s there left to play for?

Nonetheless, his answers to some fairly straightforward questions offers some illumination. When I mention his continuing lack of a sponsorship deals, he fires back with, ‘I don’t want to tie myself down if the price isn’t right.’ When I talk about potential film projects, again his answer is, ‘Everything has a price.’ When I start asking him some basic strategy questions, he sidesteps with, ‘Are you asking me for private lessons?’ Perhaps he feels what he knows can’t be taught. After all, this is a man who boasts he can play with any two cards, claiming, ‘You can make a million-dollar bet with 2-3 off-suit.’

Also telling, perhaps, is his answer to which is his favouriteWSOPbracelet. ‘Probably ’88, when I won back-to-back. That was a nice one. But the tenth one stood out as well because they had a diamond on the bracelet. Back then, it was solid gold, now they’re putting diamonds on the bracelet.’

Surely, though, he’d never want to trade his achievements for a few more rocks on his jewellery or the fame and fortune that comes to any WSOP winner these days? Would he, for example, trade his back-to-back wins with the £7.5m WSOP title that Joe Hachem won last year? ‘Of course,’ he says at first, before quickly changing his mind. ‘I don’t know,’ he stammers. ‘What I did was special – I would never trade that.’ And with that, we’re done.He’s full of smiles and good wishes – more like the Chan I’ve seen on TV – but I’m left with a confusing picture of the man.

Walking back through the Bellagio’s plush gaming floor, my head is spinning with so many different thoughts that the cacophonous sound of slots is barely audible. The way his mood seemed to swing so quickly only served to underline the enigma: when talking about his family, he was all sunshine and laughter; when we talked about other pros, he was sullen at best and sharply caustic at his worst.He was acting like he’s as untouchable now as he was back in his heyday. Is that what he really thinks? The crucial question still floating in my mind is: have I actually just met the real Johnny Chan?

Two months later, I get a phone call. Chan is over in London for the first time in ten years, promoting his new tournament, the Johnny Chan Invitational. He’s agreed to meet me for a half-hour interview and to do the photoshoot for our front cover. For me, it’s a prime opportunity to put to rest all those nagging issues about what Chan is really like.

A jet-black Bentley pulls up to the front steps of the Marriott hotel in Kensington. As soon as Chan sees me, he smiles, exclaiming, ‘Hey, it’s the guy who followed me round Vegas for three days!’ Smiles soon turn to scowls, as I fire a few gentle questions at him. ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ he gasps. ‘I thought you asked everything you needed to already?’ Just when it looks as though Chan may be about to storm out, one of his associates intervenes. ‘He’s just got a busy day, that’s all,’ he says turning to me. ‘Go ahead and ask him what you want.’

To try to put Chan more at ease, I kick off with some standard questions about his upbringing and his introduction to poker. However, it’s not long before he starts to get irritated again. ‘Didn’t you already ask me these questions?’ he sighs. Every answer is now more short and sharp than the one before – almost monosyllabic – and it becomes obvious that this reunion is likely to be a lot shorter than 30 minutes.

It seems diplomatic to wrap things up, but I manage a question about the forthcoming World Series. His mood improves considerably and he genuinely seems as excited about this one as he must have been about his first attempt in 1985. ‘I’m gonna try to win my 11th bracelet – maybe even a 12th,’ he quips with a confident smile. And for a moment, the lighter side of Johnny Chan returns. Then, as quickly as he arrived, he gets up to leave.

As he’s on his way out, one of his substantial entourage insists that if we’re going to take photos of him, we need to include some of him and the Bentley. The photographer fires off a few quick shots and moments later his entourage shuffle him into the back seat and he whizzes off into the lunchtime rush hour. No doubt he’s late for another meeting.

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