(We think)

By Peter Alson 

Copyright © 1989 by Peter Alson

JUST INSIDE THE FRONT of Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas, it is business as usual: a tour group from Columbus, Ohio, is holding Dixie cups of quarters, slugging it out in a gridlock of slot machines. Behind them, in a zone free of clanging change and midwestern avarice, the real players, for whom a "nickel" means five hundred dollars, hold court at two emerald-topped poker tables; a coterie of world-class cardslingers—their gold Rolexes and fat diamond pinkie rings the accouterments that distinguish them from the average casino denizen—these are the survivoss of twelve withering days in the Hall of Fame Poker Tournament. The original field of ninety-seven is down to eighteen players in a five-thousand-dollar buy-in, no-limit, Texas hold `em shoot-out. The crowd of tourists and cognoscenti is jostling and pressing at the black leatherette rail as Johnny Chan levels his cold-eyed stare across the green felt at Phil Hellmuth, a cocksure twenty-four-year-old on a devastating run.

Hellmuth has won four big hands in a row and is building a miniature stairway out of gray five-hundred-dollar chips. When he looks up again, over the top step, his mouth is twisted.

"C'mon, baby," he jaws at Chan. "Let's go. Just you and me, baby. Just you and me!"

Chan has heard this kind of talk before. His back-to-back triumphs in the World Series of Poker in 1987 and 1988 — a feat akin to a jockey winning the Triple Crown two years in a row — have created a rep-making target. With all the vagaries of luck involved, it must seem to some poker pros that Chan has made a pact with God, the devil, or a casino dealer. Hellmuth, like every other player in town, would like to prove Chan human. To the delight of the crowd he lays out his challenge openly: "The bucks stop here, baby."

If Chan is disturbed by the taunts or by the sight of Hellmuth's ever-escalating stairway, nothing in his calm, round face gives him away. He protects his cards with the fingers of his left hand, his eyes sweeping the table behind three-quarter-closed lids and lightly tinted Yves St. Laurent glasses.

At this level, all the players possess similar mathematical skills; all of them can tell you the odds in any situation and can recall every card that's been played. what defines them is their psychological makeup: the best are the ones who have the strongest self-control, the discipline to prevent a bad "beat" from "putting them on tilt" (coming unglued), or to prevent anger or frustration from clouding their reason. The best ones also possess a nearly supernatural insight into their opponents intentions and are masters at disguising their own.

In all this, Johnny Chan is peerless, watching and listening to Hellmuth's attempts to draw him in, he employs a form of mental jujitsu that will take his opponent's energy and turn it against him. The other players at the table seem annoyed that Hellmuth, by focusing on Chan, is cold-shouldering them. A couple make big bets at Hellmuth as if to get his attention, but by doing so they play right into his hands. Since this is no-limit, in which a player can bet all of his chips on any turn of the card, two of them get more of Hellmuth's attention than they could possibly want; one folds in the face of a big Hellmuth bet (chips equal power!); the other calls and is eliminated. The rush continues: Hellmuth's chip-step structure has climbed $110,000 high. Later on Chan will say, "With this kid you have to stop him or else he'll just keep on going." For now Chan does nothing. As tough as it must be to watch Hellmuth roll on unchecked, Chan merely sits there in his white-with-orange-fringe Fila warm-up suit. He presses together his thin lips, blinking deliberately, a cardsharking yogi slowing his heartbeat so that when all the air is sucked out of the room, he alone can breathe.

THE FUNNY THING is that Johnny Chan didn't even know they had poker in Vegas the first time he went. At sixteen, he already had a taste for the big bet, and he flew in on a junket with friends from his hometown of Houston. It had taken months, working in the family Chinese restaurant and playing poker against the boys from K.C. Air Conditioning and Repair, to build up a bankroll. In Vegas it took him two days, betting five hundred dollars a pop at blackjack, to blow it. He went home dead broke.

Six months later he was back, but his luck was no better. In fact, Chan had to tap out a half dozen times before he had a vision of his future: "I was at the Golden Nugget," he says, "when I stumbled across the cardroom. I went, `Poker games. Jesus!' Up until then I just hadn't known. I got two thousand on my American Express card and sat down in a pot-limit hold `em game."

Three hours later Chan was wondering what the hell he'd been doing at the blackjack tables. He had twenty thousand revelatory dollars in front of him and a very different life. But revelation doesn't come easy. The next day, playing head on head with a drowsy-looking Texan named E. W., the eighteen-year-old Chan got busted in a matter of hours. If it was hard to stomach the loss, it also got him thinking: there are levels to this, and then there are levels. One thing was sure, he'd been bitten.

In 1979 the twenty-one-year-old Chan dropped out of the University of Houston and moved to Vegas. "He was a wild player back then," recalls poker pro Bob Ciaffone, who finished third to Chan in the 1987 World Series. "He was just always shoving money into the pot, bluffing and moving around." He was also broke most of the time. "I took a job working as a fry cook at the Fremont Hotel," Chan remembers. There are people who talk about him in those days going straight from the kitchen to the cardroom at the end of a shift, still wearing the little white apron around his waist.

"C'MON, BA BY, I'm running away with this thing," Hellmuth goads, after stealing an ante. It's the third straight he's snaked. His legs are bent under his chair; only the toes of his wriggling brown penny loafers touch the garish green carpet.

Chan sips some lemonade through a straw and shrugs. But in the very next hand, in position to steal the two-thousand-dollar ante himself, he makes a six-thousand-dollar bet. The players to Chan's left fold. It comes to Hellmuth. Leaning forward, his heels tapping restlessly, he peers at Chan's remaining chips. "How much you got in your stack, baby? Huh?"

Chan clears his throat. His chirpy tenor doesn't work right after hours of disuse. Hellmuth, smirking, dismantles forty thousand dollars of his stairway and pushes it into the pot, saying, "Let's go, baby!" Forty thousand is all Chan has left. The railbirds lean closer. Then, in one quick motion, Chan pushes all his chips into the center and flips his cards over. A pair of queens. Hellmuth swallows. His lips retract. He turns his cards, too: a pair of nines. The western-bow-tied dealer burns a card and flops three up in the middle, burns and turns another, then another. The only card that can rescue Hellmuth is a nine, but it doesn't come.

As Chan rakes in the monster pot, Hellmuth tries to hide his disappointment. "I thought you were trying to run me over, baby!" he blusters. "I learned better!"

"You don't miss a trick," Chan says, allowing himself the thinnest of smiles. "I just missed a forty-thousand-dollar trick against you, baby," Hellmuth mutters. Underneath the table, his leg is vibrating like a tuning fork.

With his most dangerous foe on near-tilt, Chan takes command of the tournament. The next day, he blitzes over Hellmuth and the remaining players on the way to his third straight tournament win at Binion's, along with the $194,000 first prize. Chan will say later: "I let my ego get out of hand when I was younger, too. But Phil will be world champ someday. All he has to do is learn to tuck it in a bit."

JOHNNY CHAN LIVES in Cerritos, California, in a perfect neighborhood for a man with a permanent poker face; the endless rows of neat, one-story stuccos give nothing away. He prefers this southern Los Angeles suburb to Vegas because of its proximity to the Bicycle Club poker room in Belle Gardens, scene of a lot of the heaviest action these days. But there is something else: he is more anonymous in Los Angeles, less worried about people finding out where he lives and breaking in. Still, even here, with a visitor he's been expecting, Chan does not put out the welcome mat. The afternoon I arrive, he greets me at his door, dressed in boxer shorts and a yellow T-shirt, wiping three hours of sleep from his eyes after an all-night session at the Bicycle. Rather than invite me in, he suggests I wait for him out in my car. When I do not retreat immediately, he shrugs and closes the door in my face, saying he will be out in a few minutes.

Suddenly, as I sit crouched in my rented car, taking notes, I become aware of someone standing outside the car window.

"What are you writing?" Chan asks, sliding in next to me.

"Just some notes," I say. "Nothing to worry about."

"I thought you were going to call before you came."

"I did. I left a message on your machine."

"Oh, so you lust thought you'd take your chances, huh?"

"A gamble," I say. "Look, wouldn't it be more comfortable talking inside?"

"No, it's a mess," he says.

I persist, but so does Chan. I'm the first to fold. The rest of the interview takes place in the car. Chan plays his private life as close to the sweat shirt as he does his cards. He's like the master actor gone so deep into his role that even


when he's offstage, he can't shed it. About his history before Vegas, Chan says that he was born in Canton, in the People's Republic of China, the eldest of three children, that he came to this country when he was nine with his parents, émigré's from the violence of the Cultural Revolution, and that he sees nothing ironic in his lifeline leading from the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung to the gambling capital of the world. Most of Chan's closest friends still live in the tight-knit Chinese community of Houston where he grew up. That's where his wife of ten years, Fay, is from, and where she is raising their two children, Jason, seven, and Jennifer, six. He phones his wife and kids nearly every day, but he is not often home with them.

Even in Vegas, Chan keeps to himself. He looks at the cardroom as his "office"; when he sits down to play he is "going to work." For a man looking to live between worlds, it is probably the ideal spot: no one has a history or cares about one, no explanations are ever necessary, and in the only language that means anything, Chan's eloquence is unmatched.

WHILE TOURNAMENTS HAVE MADE poker respectable — players pay taxes on their winnings and get their pictures in the local sports section — the heavy games are played on the side, often while the big tournaments are in progress. In these side games, careful accounting is difficult, and the IRS generally comes up empty. Johnny Chan made $900,000 playing in tournaments in 1988. But by one player's estimate, he made another $1-5 million on the side.

During the first week of the Hall of Fame tournament, before playing in the main event, Chan got involved in a wildly expensive marathon game with a debonair French millionaire. The Frenchman, draped in a charcoal suit, bore a striking resemblance to Yves Montand. He had crossed the Atlantic to test his wits and mettle. In addition to Chan, the lineup included Chip Reese, seen by most as Chan's closest rival in these side games; Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, a two-time world champion and Roger Moore (not to be confused with the actor), who had a "licensed to kill" poker rep.

Because there is an element of luck involved, poker is one of those rare pursuits in which it is possible to compete with the best in the world and not look ridiculous. If broken down into percentages, it would probably come out luck, 10 percent; mathematics and discipline, 40 percent; psychology, 50 percent. In the case of the Frenchman (who insisted on anonymity, fearful that his weakness for gambling huge sums of money would be discovered by business associates and family), it was more than the adrenal rush; it was ego. He believed he could beat these men.

Since this was Vegas, where everyone lives by the golden rule — The man who has the gold makes the rules — the Frenchman set the stakes for the game, decided when it would start and when it would stop. And Chan and the other professionals submitted to his whims because they knew that when the gold dust had cleared, one or two of them would be shimmering with it.

During the first couple of days of what turned into a five-day marathon, the Frenchman's belief in his ability looked like more than hubris. Playing for stakes so high that at times there was nearly $1 mil-lion in cash and chips on the table, the Frenchman kept attacking and retreating at just the right times. The game went on practically round the clock, starting each day at noon, breaking at 8:00 P.M., resuming at midnight and continuing till dawn. And at noon of the third day, when Chan, Brunson, Reese, and Moore made for a far-off back corner table, away from onlookers, and started unloading their racks of chips, as inconceivable as it seemed, the Frenchman was the big winner. He joined them a few minutes later, elegant as always in a pastel-green cashmere sweater and dark slacks, his features full of crinkles and cigarette smoke, his gray hair beautifully coifed. He didn't even seem to mind when Chan greeted him with a friendly "How you doing, Frenchie?"

The tickets ran cold as the session began, and after tossing in his tenth hand in a row, Chan asked the dealer to put in a new deck. It is a remarkable thing, but even at this level of play, players have superstitions. They all know that luck will even out, that over time skill will triumph, but that doesn't stop them, if the cards are running badly, from making a move to change things. During the last two World Series, Johnny Chan kept an orange by his chips and would stroke it periodically. Of course, it was part con too: he wanted other players to think he was lucky. No one who was sitting at the table with the Frenchman bought into that, though, and this time Chan was orange-less.

During a lull in the action, Chan pointed out a well-scrubbed man in a three-piece green polyester suit distributing leaflets beyond the rail. "You oughta go talk to that guy," he said. "He used to be a player. He knows me.

Rick Hamil handed me a yellow leaflet that had two pictures on it. "They're both me," he said as I studied the two images. One said "Old Man" and showed a stubbly-faced, sleazy-looking guy in sunglasses and gold chains; the other said "New Man" and showed Hamil as he looked now, bright-eyed and midwestern wholesome. For more than ten years he'd lived the Vegas life of a big-stakes poker player, but then he'd been "saved." Now he was a born-again Christian minister


come back to save others. He called the casino his "garden." He acknowledged that he knew Johnny from the old days, and added solemnly, "There are very few who don't pay a tremendous price for living this lifestyle. The hunger it produces, the need to have action, can become insatiable. But," he held up a finger, "Chan is one of the very few who approaches this life as discipline and work. He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs or smoke. He's very centered and controlled."

It is true that unlike most poker pros, who tend toward physical sloth, Chan actually exercises in those Fila tracksuits, jogging several miles each day and working out at the gym. Often in the middle of a game he'll get up and run around the casino block to dear his head.

"But what do you think makes him such a control freak?" I asked Hamil.

He shook his head. He'd never had Chan's discipline to keep him from giving in to excess. Not with so many temptations around. Most of the top professional poker players, he explained, had a "leak," a weakness in their character that caused them to indulge in losing propositions — sports betting, craps, blackjack, booze, and drugs. Ultimately, most or all of the money they won was frittered away. "The thing about Chan," Hamil went on, "is that I don't think he's reached a point yet where he's asking if there's anything more to life than what he's doing. Which is what happened to me. What I thought was going to bring happiness was just an empty dream." Hamil nodded at Chan's table. "You see Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese? They've both found the Lord."

"And they're still playing?"

"They don't see any conflict. There are other players who trust in Jesus, too."

Back at the table, Chan's stack of chips had grown. A gray-haired Howard Cosell look-alike in a white jumpsuit was kneading Chan's shoulders and whispering in his ear. When he moved away, across the casino floor, I intercepted him. "I'm the guy who gives Johnny shoulder rubs during the big tournaments," he explained happily. "John Formica. They call me the Italian Stalliori." He said he and Chan used to play together in small hold `em games. But unlike Chan, he'd hit his level and couldn't go higher. He claimed he was Chan's best friend in the gambling world, but that Chan didn't open up to anybody. "Not even to his wife or kids." Last year during the World Series, Formica gave Chan a massage in the break before the final and Chan made him take a thousand bucks. "That's what kind of friend Johnny is," Formica said. "Very generous."

Chan looked bemused a few minutes later, hearing what Formica had said. He told me I should talk to a couple of his "real buddies": Dr. Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Gabe Kaplan, the actor. "Jerry Buss," he said admiringly, "has got all the money in the world. But he's like normal people. He wears blue jeans and cowboy boots. I try to be like him—well, I'm not even close, what can I say? But I'd like to be." Buss and Kaplan, both serious amateur players, happen to be sitting at tables nearby. "I don't want to talk about him," said Buss. Kaplan found it strange that Chan had mentioned him as a good friend. "The only contact we've had is at the poker table," said TV's onetime Mr. Kotter. "I don't know anything about him away from the table. And at the table I don't know much either. He's not into the male-bonding part, which most guys are, at least to some extent. And I don't think it's an accidental thing. He's just deeper into the game than anyone else."

BY THE END of the third day's session with the Frenchman, Chan was up to more than $100,000, and "Frenchie" had given back some of his earlier winnings. Chan appeared to have taken the measure of the Gallic millionaire. Afterward, Chan went to the room Binion's keeps on permanent reserve for him on the fifteenth floor. He apologized for the mess, though aside from a couple of balled-up black socks and a T-shirt on the floor, the room was bare. Tired and stiff, he tried to work the kinks out on one of the two double beds, while I sat at the edge of the other, watching. Hanging his head and shoulders off the foot of the bed, he twisted his neck one way, then the other, while letting his hands brush along the floor. Still in the same position, he rolled his shoulders, sighed, and then swung his body around, let his head sink into the pillow, and put a rolled white towel over his eyes. "What do you want to know?" he asked.

I said I was curious about a hand in which he had caught the Frenchman trying to bluff. "A lot of players," he said, "want to bluff in their mind, but in their heart, they just can't push those chips out there. You have to convince yourself of what you're doing. If you don't really believe it, it shows. But a great player doesn't make his money catching someone bluffing. He makes it when he has a top pair with a kicker and figures someone else for a top pair with a smaller kicker. And he squeezes all the money he can out of him. A lot of times I just call when I sense someone is weak—even if I'm weak, too. I don't raise and try and steal the pot. Because when I call, my opponent doesn't know where I'm at. And on the next card I can get an extra bet from him and then push him out of the pot. But that's a play that's beyond poker,


really." Chan laced his hands across his chest and thrust his elbows down into the bed before relaxing. "What else you want to know?"

I mentioned Rick Hamil and what he had said about the born-agains, Doqle and Chip.

Chan shrugged. He is a non-practicing Chinese Baptist. "That's their lives," he said. "If it makes them happy, fine. I enjoy my life the way it is."

"So is it all about money, for you?"

"If it's not money, what are we playing for?" He lay still for a moment, then lifted the towel from his face and cocked an eye at me. "What I really want to do is win the World Series again this year. The third time in a row. No one's ever done it, If I can do that, they'll think I'm God."

He let the towel fall back across his eyes. I stared at him in the ensuing silence, mystified. I had always imagined that to reach his level of mastery in poker one would have to be like a great novelist, capable of enormous self-knowledge, able to understand the landscape and range of human emotions, able to feel great empathy. But if this was true of Chan it had, strangely, made him not a bigger person but a smaller one, one who knew himself because there was less to know. I asked him what it was that made him able to divine the intentions of the people facing him down across a pitch of green felt. After a long pause and a shrug, he replied, "Instinct."

During the final session with the Frenchman, on the fifth day, Chan took his game to a higher level. Actually, his most advanced poker move may have come on the fourth day, when instead of playing, he stayed in his room and slept. Now with everyone else a little ragged, Chan came down looking frighteningly refreshed. Of the five players, the Frenchman seemed most in need of a blood change. Despite his reflexive elegance, he looked older, shrunk-en, ready to be taken. But the full spectacle of Vegas and its power to induce fever was now manifest: the Frenchman ordered the stakes raised from $800-$1,600 to $1,200-$2,500. This was the moment he'd come for, bust or bonanza, and he wanted it to happen fast.

Now Chan settled down to work, calmly folding a stick of Big Red gum in his mouth and pushing his tinted Yves St. Laurents back against the bridge of his nose. Chip Reese had told me that one of the things he admired about Chan was that "when he wins, he wins the table. He tries to get every last chip."

For a long time, the Frenchman had been catching perfect, but now things began to go against him. One hand in particular put him over the edge. It started with the Frenchman, showing a ten of diamonds, raising Doyle Brunson's jack. Chan showed a six but had a pair of kings (one of them a diamond) underneath; he re-raised, which forced out Brunson, then watched the Frenchman re-raise him. "He don't know what I'm raising on," Chan said, "so when he re-raises, I figure he's trying to sell me on his hand. Make me think he has trips or a pair of hidden aces. But I peg him for two high diamonds in the hole, ace and queen. I know by now he likes to raise on the come. I know if he's got trips, he just calls there to suck me in." On the next card, the French-man caught a ten of clubs, giving him a pair of tens showing; Chan picked up a four of hearts. When the Frenchman bet his pair of tens, Chan raised, then watched the Frenchman re-raise him again.

Almost anyone else would have taken the re-raise to mean the Frenchman now had trips or at least two pair and that it was time to fold. But to Chan it meant the opposite: "When he re-raised me" Chan said, "I knew for sure he's playing two high diamonds in the hole. No way he re-raise me earlier on a pair of tens. And if he got aces with the tens, he don't re-raise me now because he gotta be scared 1 have trips the way I'm betting."

On fifth street, the Frenchman caught a seven of diamonds and Chan got a nine. Still with only a pair of kings, Chan re-raised again in the face of the Frenchman's bet, and this time got only a call. "I figure he still needs a card to make his hand, I gotta bet mine for value. Even though I know he's got four diamonds, he's still about a two-to-one dog against me."

After the sixth and seventh cards were dealt, Chan still hadn't improved. But when the Frenchman bet, Chan called the $38,000 pot with his lonely pair of kings. All that early raising and re-raising, and Chan was certain the Frenchman had nothing in his hand but dreams. Sure enough, the Frenchman's last card — a nine of clubs — hadn't helped; his first two hole cards were the ace and queen of diamonds. Exactly as Chan had figured.

It was inevitable after that: the Frenchman and his money went separate ways, and four hours later I accompanied Chan to the cashier's window and watched him cash out for more than $250,000, fifty banded packets of $5,000 each. This was what they'd been playing for: a quarter of a million dollars. But the money looked unreal, just like little green bricks, no more real than the chips it had been traded for. Chan requested his safe-deposit box — he keeps several around Vegas — and loaded the money in. All the money, that is, save for thirty thousand.

"What's that for?" I asked him.

"Just a little to walk around with until tomorrow. I'll probably lose it at the crap table."

Chan could not stop bluffing. In fact, he'd probably take a Jacuzzi, go to his room, rest up, and get ready to play again tomorrow.

"You don't give anything away, do you?"

His hooded black marble eyes fixed me. Irony was not a part of the poker lexicon. "Look, I'm just a normal person," he said. "I do things other people do." He shoved the thirty grand in his pocket, closing the argument.

As he took his leave of me, I noticed Rick Hamil over near the cocktail lounge, alone, thumbing through his Christian leaflets. Chan strode briskly past on the way to his room. He didn't nod and he didn't take a pamphlet. God could wait until Johnny Chan's luck ran out.