Gambling for Good

July 31, 2008 11:16:35 PM PDT
What would you do with over eight million dollars? That's the question facing World Series of Poker champion and Fresno native Jerry Yang. He recently moved back to the Valley, and I sat down with the reigning champ about how he's gambling for good.It's a moment Jerry Yang will never forget. It was down to the final two competitors in the 2007 World Series of Poker. To knock out his opponent, Yang, with a pair of 8's, needed an 8 or a 6 for a straight. The river card was a 6! With that, Jerry Yang became the 2007 World Champion.

That 6 card changed Jerry Yang's life in an instant. Jerry: "Even today, I'm still a little shocked, to be honest with you. I look at my bracelet, I say, is this really real?" As real as it gets. After winning the WSOP last year, the Fresno native and poker amateur was thrust into the national spotlight, becoming an instant celebrity and multi- millionaire. $8.25 million, to be exact. Jerry laughingly insists, "I like to be viewed as a normal guy. I still shop at Walmart by the way, or Payless Shoe Source for my kids."

Still, his life today is a far cry from the poverty of his childhood. He was born into a family of Hmong farmers in Laos. He remembers fleeing the Vietnamese Communists when they invaded his country, bullets flying around him as he and his family crossed the Mekong River, living at a refugee camp in Thailand.

When he was 12, his family moved to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. But gambling was one thing that was not allowed. His father--a devout Christian--forbade it. Even checkers and chess, because he thought that would be a stepping stone to gambling.

After Jerry won the World Series of Poker, he could have lived anywhere he wanted to. But Yang chose to return to the Valley with his wife and six kids, to be near his parents.

And then he started to give, and kept giving. 10% of his winnings, over a million dollars so far, to Feed the Children, Make-a-Wish, and Ronald McDonald House. He still gets emotional talking about his motivation behind his giving, "I know what it's like to be poor, to have no clothes, no food, no shoes, no toys, and so it is a great privilege and a great honor to give something back to the community."

And through it all, he remains remarkably humble, kind, and approachable. He greeted poker players in the poker room at the Tachi Palace in Lemoore and signed autographs.

He even indulged me, a poker novice. I sat down for a game of Texas Hold 'em with Yang to learn some of his tricks. First he becomes "The Shadow," donning the dark glasses and hat. There's an intimidation factor, after all. He explained, "And I usually go like this, protect my throat, the way I breathe, so people can't see the veins on my side." Then comes the psychoanalysis of his opponents (he was a psychology major in college): "When they throw the chips forward, that usually means they don't have a good hand, they're trying to intimidate you." He says crossed ankles under the table also means a bad hand. And did I mention the praying at the poker table? "Come on Lord, you have a purpose for me today. Let me win."

His playing style, mixing God and gambling, is unconventional, just like his journey here. But he wouldn't have it any other way, "If Jerry Yang could do it, anyone can. So don't give up."

Yang was eliminated from this year's WSOP earlier this month, but he's still the reigning champ. Because for the first time ever, tournament organizers are delaying the final table showdown until November 11th on ESPN.

In the meantime, Yang will continue his charity work with two tournaments scheduled in August benefitting earthquake victims in China, as well as Northern California fire victims.

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