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A Noble Sheppard

As the new poker ambassador, 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event winner Jerry Yang answers his calling.

The Main Event of the World Series of Poker is always an international affair that brings in people of every description. Regardless of one’s size, race, class, gender, disability or bracelets already won, it’s the biggest and most level playing field with the biggest payout in the world of competition. And with all the hype surrounding this year’s event—what will the field be? Will UIGEA render it a shadow of its former self?—it was up in the air whether it could surpass last year’s drama. Well, it did in every possible way (except the nearly $4 million less in the first-place prize).

Money disparity aside, however, the march to the final table was a classic, with a narrowing field that comprised of seasoned veterans and upstart talent. The reigning champion Jamie Gold, eliminated just after the dinner break on Day 1d, was on commentary duties, and in the end, it was faith, more than anything, which saw a humble immigrant through with only a couple years of poker experience to fall back on.

It all started with 6,358 and by the business end of the tournament, things were looking very interesting. 1986 world champ Berry Johnston was still in it. Hal Lubarsky from Las Vegas became the first legally blind player to cash in the WSOP Main Event. His great run, aided by a companion telling him about his hole cards and the action around the table, was good enough to outlast 6,000 players into day 4.

With the field whittled to about 230, the banter between 1998 world champion and undisputed Prince of Poker Scotty Nguyen and Great Dane Gus Hansen, with the blinds at with $5,000 and 10,000, translated into unmasked final-table anticipation. “I pick and choose depending on position,” said Hansen constantly shifting his weight after mucking to have a quick stretch, “but I don’t have a specific plan right now.” And then there was sweet Maria Ho, the last of the female players, who was the Cinderella story spectators were hoping for.

Gary Thompson, WSOP spokesman, said there weren’t really any upsets, but there were some bad beats—something Humberto Brenes from Costa Rica can attest to. “Half an hour ago I had $400,000, and now I have $240,000,” he said just before a 20-minute break started on day 4. “But that’s poker.”

Norwegian Dag Martin Mikkelsen entered Day 5 as the big stack with $3.7 million in chips and marked the second time he finished a day at the Main Event as the chip leader. But that’s where his luck ended as David Tran’s pocket rockets annihilated him.

Six-foot-seven Huck Seed also bowed out after making an impressive run to repeat, and substantially improve on, his 1996 World Champion winnings. And without a dedicated game plan, Hansen pushed hard with A -K and ended up losing to Ryan Elson’s pocket jacks. Mortally wounded, Hansen pushed all-in 15 minutes later with K -5 against Tom Peterson’s Q -4 . He was in decent shape until disaster reared its ugly head in the form of a 4 for Peterson. Brenes also couldn’t regain stability after running into the New York live wire Hevad “Rain” Khan who had pocket aces. Brenes had A -K but the Shark had no bite against Khan who finished the day with $6.9 million in chips—a slight demotion to the $8 million during his mid-day peak.

Nguyen (pronounced “win”) started the day with $1.1 million and finished with $1.7 million, making him one of the short stacks, but favourite nonetheless. And the gender of the eventual winner was finally decided toward the end of the day when the lovely Maria Ho was sent back to her Arcadia, Ca., home in 38th place, outlasting last year’s ultimate female player, Sabyl Cohen, who landed in 56th place.

Overall, the day ended well for Californian David Tran as chip leader with $10.3 million with Philip Hilm bearing down on him with $10 million.

Path of Most Resistance

By Day 6, the field was down to 36. Nguyen had to say his last “baby” after busting within arm’s reach of the final table in 11th place. He suffered irreparable damage after he pushed with A -Q on a board reading Q -6 -5 -K , but Philip Hilm from Cambridge, England, had pocket fives for a set. Doubling up, Hilm cut off Nguyen’s life support. 2001 WSOP $2,500 Omaha Hi-Lo Split Eight or Better bracelet winner Bob Slezak was short stacked and pushed in with pocket fours but was outdone by South African Raymond Rahme’s pocket sevens. And much later the next morning, Rahme dispatched Steven Garfinkle to make the final table.

Another bracelet winner, Daniel Alaei, was also sent packing after he shoved with A -Q and ran into Lancashire Jon Kalmar’s A -K . Blanks on the board didn’t help and Kalmar wound up at seat 1 at the final table. Alex Kravchenko, having a banner WSOP, with a bracelet already, came into final table action as the short stack while EPT maestro Philip Hilm had the chip lead with $23 million. Forty-year-old Vietnamese native and Toronto-based poker pro Tuan Lam, who escaped the war via an Indonesian refugee camp, and Kalmar nipped at Hilm’s heels before the noon start with $20 million each.

Lee Childs, who voluntarily took leave from his job with the National Geographic Society, earned seat 2 at the final table with $13 million. But the most conspicuous addition to the final table was the jovial, bombastic Khan. Although the six-foot-four swarthy hulk only had $9 million in chips, his spirited celebrations entertained a relatively subdued final table in the Rio’s Amazon Room. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, stoic five-foot-three Yang from Temecula, Ca., via Thailand via Laos, earned seat 4 with $8.5 million in chips and despite his apparent deficit, he was one not to take lightly.

Day and Late Night

With an impressively international final table set (two English, a Canadian, a South African and a Russian) and action getting started a little past the noon shuffle-up-and-deal time, players made up for any time deficit with eliminations coming in so thick and fast that people were predicting an 8 p.m. finish. Out first was Hilm before he knew what hit him. Lee Watkinson was de-hooded shortly after, then Lee Childs and then, with one last wail to fill the entire hall, Kahn busted out, taking home $956,243 for his 6th-place finish. (To put that in perspective, it’s a far cry from last year when, for example, David Einhorn won $659,730 for his 18th-place finish. But with a winner’s take of $8,250,000, you can’t diminish what’s at stake.) “At this stage,” Kahn said of the final table afterward, “you have to gamble, but I have no regrets. I’ll be back next year. I didn’t make any mistakes and everything was going my way. Now I’m going to challenge myself and learn more about the game.” Chris Ferguson, world champion in 2000 who made it to Day 3 this year, said it’s totally night and day from last year. “[The final table] is going really fast,” he said. “Anything can happen but given the chip count, Jerry’s in good shape.”

Indeed, as after the afternoon break, Yang was dominating with over $60 million. Heavily shaded and capped in black, his slow, deliberate movement with his chips had a certain quiet, yet intimidating purpose. There was no fumbling or fidgeting; no unnecessary movements as he slowly pushed stacks of chips into the pot like priceless figurines and set his fists over the rest of his exposed face. But when things got serious, like when Russian Alex Kravchenko went all in with 7,550,000, he was out of his chair pacing with shallow fist pumps. Sweat developed on Kravchenko nose and Yang called with K -Q to his 3 -3 . The flop was 8 -3 -2 , which gave Kravchenko a set. And when the board finished with 5 -K , Kravchenko doubled up again just before dinner. Upon return, however, and still digesting, the Russian bowed out fourth at 1:30 a.m.

Ten minutes later, Rahme went all in after re-raising to $6 million from the big blind from Yang’s $2.5 million preflop. Yang made the call and the flop came A -J -8 . Rahme checked to Yang who bet out a cool $10 million. Rahme pushed it all in and Yang deliberated for what seemed like an eternity.

Yang eventually made the call against David “Devilfish” Ulliott’s judgement (“He calls too much,” Ulliott said during the dinner break. “It’s going to get him into trouble.”) and showed A -5 . Rahme, deflated, showed K -K . The turn card came 3 and the river, 2 . And so the 62-year-old South African earned $3 million for his third place finish and was ceremoniously wrapped in his nations colours having nearly gone the distance.

By 3 a.m., two remained. Lam, 40 who started at the final table ranked second in the chip count, and Yang sat opposite each other, separated by the $8.2 million avalanche of cash. It seemed only a matter of time before Yang took the title, always chipping away at Lam. But the “death by a thousand cuts” technique seemed to blunt as Lam started his own campaign of gaining ground. The chip count was a ridiculous $100 million to $13 million against him, but one hand at time, and a couple of big pots put the whole outcome into question. It was enough to put the crowd on its feet, especially after a 15-minute break, and by the skin of his teeth, when Lam went all in with suited 4-3 to end up with a measly pair of 4s and won a substantial pot. The chips were then split $109 million to $18 million. Gaining confidence, Lam went all in the next hand and Yang folded again, and to the mild dismay of the audience, it marked the possibility that this could have gone on well into the day.

But that’s where the momentum shift ended. Even waving the Canadian flag across the table from Yang couldn’t help Lam. Yang raised to $1.5 million and Lam re-raised all-in immediately. Yang called right away and the crowd was on its feet cheering. Yang showed pocket eights while Lam flipped over A -Q . Canadian flags shook and chants of “USA!, USA!” echoed throughout vast hall as the flop came down Q -9 -5 , which heightened the Canadians’ hopes of another Lam double-up. Then the 7 came down, and with the 6 , Yang made a nine-high straight to win. So by 3:50 a.m., it was all over and Yang tied Jamie Gold’s record last year of knocking out seven of eight players. But considering Yang entered as the second short stack, his feat has a lot more heft to it.

Now Main Event winner, Yang dedicated his win to his powerful faith in God. “I’ve seen the miracle of God during this tournament,” he said afterward. But some of the work was still up to him, as he had to study his opponents very carefully—especially Lam. “I played some bad hands,” said Lam after cashing out for $4.8 million. “I have a mixed strategy and if I had a hand, I had to move in. That’s the only way to play Jerry.”

When the shades finally came off, Yang passionately spoke like a soft-spoken evangelist about the road that led him to this moment. God, family and friends were first and foremost as well as his dedication to donating 10 percent of his winnings to three different charities: Make-A-Wish foundation, Feed the Children and Ronald McDonald House.

Having six children of his own, and having survived excessive poverty and malnutrition as a child growing up in Laos, he wants to give back to future generations that just need opportunities. “I’m going to put in my two-week notice at work,” said the 39-year-old psychologist who lives in Temecula, Ca. “There are greater purposes in the world for me.” And his wife Sue, a blackjack dealer, won’t have to work besides taking care of their expansive family.

His total investment in the Main Event was $225 after winning a seat through a satellite held at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. When he knew he was going to the Main Event, they provided all his transportation and accommodations. “I said to put me up in the cheapest motel,” he said. “But when I learned I was in the money at the first level, I was so excited.”

The added excitement and gravity of the Main Event win still has to sink in properly, but any plans to attend the WSOP in Europe this September are still in the balance. “I’ll have to speak about it with my wife first,” he says.
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