The legend of Johnny Chan is a story that reads like a game of poker. There are moments where the hero of the tale is almost down and out, before an epic comeback and a triumphant finish. In many way, Johnny Chan embodies the game of poker itself. But where did Johnny Chan come from to take the game by storm and what is Johnny Chan doing now?
The Origins of The Orient Express
The story of Johnny Chan is an amazing one, not least because it began about as far away from Las Vegas as it is possible to be. Born in Guangzhou, China, Chan’s family moved to the United States when young Johnny was just five years old, in 1962.
It was much later, with his family owning a chain of restaurants in Texas that the young Johnny Chan learned to pay the game of poker with restaurant staff, ad when he was 21 years of age, he gave up on his University studies to focus on poker as a profession. Rumour has it at the age of just 16, Chan ran $500 up to $20,000 only to lose the lot the very next day.
From Poker Champion to Movie Star
It was in 1987, aged 30, that Johnny Chan truly arrived as a global phenomenon, winning the 1987 WSOP Main Event. In the following year’s tournament, Chan famously won his second (and back-to-back) Main Event, with his famous ‘Look to the Sky’ moment in the heads-up against Erik Seidel. Holding the better hand, Chan looked upwards as if to the Poker Gods, before winning that final hand in dramatic fashion.
It was a defining moment in poker and spawned much discussion over the decades that followed, but perhaps the most defining one in Chan’s career ironically came in the following year’s Main Event. Having eliminated the 23-year-old Phil Hellmuth from the preceding year’s Main Event, Hellmuth got all the way to the heads-up in 1989 aged 24.
As the youngest-ever winner of the Main Event at that point, Hellmuth’s incredible victory against Chan, nicknamed ‘The Master’ as well as The Orient Express, it prevented three in a row for Johnny, and meant he wouldn’t win an NBA Championship ring, which L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss promised him if he managed to win it. Instead, Chan would never get anywhere near the final table of the Main Event again.
Chan did, however, become the most famous name in poker, and despite his World Series defeat, his legend only grew and grew, to the extent that he featured in the 1998 Hollywood poker movie, Rounders.
The Hall of Fame
Having sealed his place in the hearts and minds of millions of poker fans, Chan would be welcomed into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002 aged 50, a full 10 years older than the stipulation for minimum age dictated. By then, Chan had won seven of the 10 WSOP bracelets he now has, good enough for 2nd place on the all-time list of WSOP bracelet winners, second only to the legend that is Phil Hellmuth.
Chan has also won many other events, including four of the six episodes of Poker After Dark that he competed in, the best record of anyone who has taken part in the same number of games. Despite never reaching a World Poker Tour final table, that is the only glitch in the matrix of Johnny Chan’s incredible career, with The Orient Express having won $8.7 million in tournaments alone.
Living in Las Vegas
At the cash tables in Vegas and Macau, Chan is still The Master, and regularly attracted players wishing to learn from him, and happy to lose by doing so. To sit down with Johnny Chan is an experience most poker would dream of doing, even if it costs them money by doing so. A few years ago, this reporter interviewed Chan in Las Vegas at The Rio and apart from it being a privilege, it was a window into the circus sideshow that his poker life is. Adored by millions, to many, Johnny Chan is the definitive Poker Idol and the symbol of what anyone can achieve if they follow their dreams all the way to Sin City and beyond.