Poker champ sees duty to share

Winning poker’s ultimate championship and $8.25 million a year ago changed Jerry Yang’s bank account but not his attitude toward life.

His wife, Sue, now drives around their hometown of Temecula, Calif., in a new Cadillac Escalade. A good chunk of the winnings are tucked away in mutual funds and a retirement account. Also, Yang’s six children all own iPods and the cost for their college education has been set aside.

But Jerry Yang didn’t let his victory in the 2007 World Series of Poker’s main event go to his head. He wasn’t even planning to be in Las Vegas for the 2008’s opening event. The timing conflicted with a charity poker tournament he was hosting Friday in Fresno, Calif., to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“This has been a wonderful, life-changing experience for me,” said Yang, 40, a psychologist, Laotian immigrant and born-again Christian. “I’ve been able to achieve a lot of the things I wanted.”

Yang and his family fled Laos in the mid-1970s to avoid the communist takeover. After spending years in refuge camps, he moved to California in 1982. Before winning the World Series of Poker, he worked with foster children.

Yang beat a field of 6,358 players over the 11-day World Series of Poker’s $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold’em world championship event last July. He stormed through the 16-hour final table of nine players after starting in eighth place and personally eliminating seven of the eight competitors.

What made the feat even more remarkable was that Yang had only been playing the game for two years, honing his skills inside American Indian casinos in Riverside County. He won his entry into the World Series main event at a satellite tournament at his hometown Pechanga Casino. His total investment was $225.

The 5-foot-3-inch Yang prayed throughout the final table, often kneeling in prayer in the restroom on breaks. Yang said he would use the winnings to not only help his family, but also help others.

In the last 10 months, he’s made good on that promise.

Yang is involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and the Ronald McDonald House, donating money and his time to the three organizations. He took his family on a vacation to Napa Valley, Calif., but Yang hasn’t turned his back on poker. He still considers himself a rookie.

“I know I’ve been criticized for not being visible, but I have been playing,” Yang said. “I played in about seven of the World Poker Tour events and I also played in several (World Series of Poker) Circuit events. I just haven’t made the final tables, so I’m not on television. I’m a little disappointed.”

Yang has also helped out the Lake Elsinore Casino in Riverside County. When Yang was marching his way through the World Series field last year, the casino paid for his hotel room. He returned the favor over Memorial Day Weekend, hosting the first-ever Jerry Yang No Limit Poker Tournament at the casino.

Yang said he still plays low-limit poker games around Southern California. He sticks with Texas hold’em, saying he’s not ready to venture out into Omaha, razz or other poker variations.

According to the online Hendon Mob Poker Database, Yang has only one recorded poker tournament victory since his World Series crown, $1,324 for 14th place in a $1,000 buy-in no-limit Hold’em event at the Binion’s Poker Open in October. Prior to his championship run, Yang’s poker winnings totaled just above $12,000 in 2006 which included a third place finish at a tournament in Inglewood, Calif.

“I love the game, I love the sport and I love meeting wonderful people,” Yang said. “I’m not a big player. I’m still learning the game. There’s an old Chinese saying; money is good in the pocket, so why risk it?”

Yang plans on playing in just three World Series of Poker events this year — two no-limit hold’em games and the World Championship event, where he looks to become the first champion to successfully defend his crown since Johnny Chan won back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988. Of course, the field for the main event was just 167 players 20 years ago.

“I’m still consider myself an amateur, and I still have a lot to master,” Yang said.

Yang will also enter this year’s tournament with sponsorships; online poker site FullTilt.net and the Tachi Palace Hotel-Casino in Lemoore, Calif. Jeff Bray, marketing director for Tachi Palace, said the casino’s notoriety could grow if Yang’s play reaches coverage on ESPN. He will wear item’s adorned with the Tachi Palace logo.

“It seemed like a natural fit,” Bray said. “Jerry’s a great guy and he’s linked into a couple of local charities we’re involved with.”

For a few months this year, Yang had an agent to handle his interviews and appearances. He enjoys the attention inside the poker rooms.

“I’ll sign autographs and take photos with fans,” Yang said. “I enjoy the attention.”

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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