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Johnny Chan

Interviewed by CEO of IPPA and Intercontinental World Champion, Yosh Nakano.

Download a transcript of this interview »

Johnny Chan is arguably the world’s most famous poker legend. With two World Series of Poker championship titles (1987 and 1988) under his belt and impressive ownership of 10 WSOP bracelets, his career achievements far surpass what most gamblers can only dream about. Although now considered one of the industry’s elite high rollers with an enormous fan base and an extravagant lifestyle, Chan’s road to success was not always a smooth course.

Brought up modestly in Canton, China, Chan immigrated to America with his family at age six in search of a better future. As a child, Chan struggled to learn the English language and acclimate to American culture as he attended schools in Phoenix and in Houston.

As a teenager, Chan diligently worked at his family-owned restaurant and practiced his explosive strikes at the local bowling alley in his free time. It was here that Chan discovered his real passion: playing poker.

It was clear that Chan was dedicated to the game at a young age and it wasn’t long before he was testing his luck and doubling his earnings at the poker table, alongside many older, more experienced players.

What began as innocent nickel & dime games with his peers turned into a much bigger deal when Chan tried his hand at underground games in the basement of his father’s restaurant. People began taking notice of the ambitious teen who won week after week. Chan continued his winning steak until the other players abruptly informed him they were canceling the scheduled game night. Out of curiosity, Chan checked out the scene on the respective night and saw the usual cars in the parking lot. He had been ousted because of his talents.

Chan knew he could do bigger and better things outside of Houston and at age 16, the budding poker star made his first trip to Las Vegas where he illegally sat with $500. In one night, he turned his $500 to $20,000—but lost it all the very next night.

After a few more years of practice and hard work back in Houston, Chan moved to Vegas filled with determination and hope. He began playing $3 games, as he had a low bankroll at the time, and never gave up on the game. He even hocked off his jewelry and possessions to ensure that he could keep playing.
Doyle Brunson once said, “Johnny was a hot-headed kid with some talent. But he didn’t know when to keep his temper under control or know when to quit playing.”

Eventually, though, something clicked—and it wasn’t long before the poker great matured overnight and made lifestyle changes that would lead him to his turn of good fortune. Chan, who used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, quit smoking, started exercising and eating right—and undoubtedly, started playing right, too.

To help detour the smell of cigarettes, Chan would bring a ripe orange to the table.

“I like the smell of a fresh orange much more than I do the smell of cigarettes,” he said.  The lucky orange instantly became Chan’s official trademark.
Still relatively unknown on the tournament trail, Chan boldly entered into Bob Stupak’s America’s Cup Tournament. By the end of the tournament, Chan had knocked out 13 out of 16 players in a little over 30 minutes. It was then that Chan was quickly nicknamed ‘Orient Express.’

Chan is the first great Asian poker player and serves as an inspiration and role model to many. Since he broke into the game, there has been overwhelming surge of great Asian players among the professional tournament circuit today.
Chan’s playing style is extremely aggressive. He has been called a bully at the table more than once—and it has only served him well. In 1987, he won the main event at the World Series of Poker and went on to successfully defend his title again in 1988.

Poker enthusiast and Los Angeles Lakers owner, Jerry Buss, was so impressed with Chan’s history-making performances that he promised that if Chan had a three-peat he would reward him with an NBA championship ring.  Amazingly, Chan almost did just that. In 1989, Chan went face-to-face at the final table with the relatively unknown underling, Phil Helmuth, who ended up winning the tournament that year.  

With his astounding career achievements, quick-witted personality and flashy designer style, Chan has been no stranger to the media spotlight. In fact, Chan’s victories have been captured and documented in newspapers, magazines, radio interviews, television programs and mini-series, local news broadcasts—and even, movies.

Chan’s 1988 WSOP victory against Erik Seidel was immortalized in the1998 film, Rounders, starring Ed Norton and Matt Damon. Not only did the Orient Express have a cameo appearance in the movie, he practiced the sport with the actors and offered bluffing tips in between takes.

When Chan’s not rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s rat pack, filming segments for ESPN or signing new and exciting deals for the future, he likes to relax, exercise and enjoy the finer things in life. He covets Mercedes Benz cars, exquisite Versace clothing and travels as much as possible.  

So what’s next for the man who has everything? His ultimate goal is to own and manage his own casino, an aspiration that naturally suits Chan’s career background and industry experience.  And, given Chan’s track record in the poker business; this future venture—along with anything Chan touches--is bound to be a success.



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