The Amazing Career of The Poker Star, Johnny Chan


The casino has something to amuse everyone – whether you are looking for something casual with friends or extremely cerebral. Needless to say, poker certainly falls on the latter end of the spectrum. Poker is famous for having one of the lowest house edges of all casino games. But it is also infamously difficult to master. It suffices to say that most stumble on their journey in learning poker and stop at amateur tournaments. Poker skills can take literal decades to hone. That is why the most successful poker player in your local casino is likely to be on the elderly side. There are, of course, a lot of exceptions to this norm – especially at the pro level. For example, we have Chris Moneymaker, who won his first-ever WSOP title at the age of 27. 

Some people become poker prodigies at an even earlier age. Johnny Chan is a shining example of such early bloomers. It is said that Johnny’s first big poker break came at the age of 16 – i.e. when he was not even of legal gambling age. Allegedly, Johnny Chan bought in for a cash game then, turning a $500 capital to a $20,000 bankroll overnight. Some variations of the account suggest that he, sadly, lost the $20,000 in a wager the morning after. In any case, Johnny Chan’s poker career is one of radiant eminence in poker circles. His achievements are certainly worth examining for any poker enthusiast.

Early Life of Johnny Chan

Johnny Chan is not American by birth. He was born in the city of Guangzhou, China, in 1957. His family then migrated to the States when he was 11, first to Phoenix, Arizona – but ultimately settling down in Houston, Texas. Johnny comes from a family of restaurant owners, and his parents owned a bistro in Texas. In fact, Johnny Chan himself was to go down the same career path. His tale turns dramatic from here on. Some accounts say that Johnny had a knack for poker from playing cards with the restaurant staff at an early age. 

It was to pursue this passion that Johnny discontinued his course in University of Houston (in which he was about to major in restaurant management). So here begins Johnny Chan’s poker career, at age 21 – as he drops out of college to become a pro gambler. Most would call this a bold move to say the least. As history will confirm, however, it was the correct career decision. 

Tournament Winnings

There is not much of an account of Johnny Chan’s first four years as a career gambler. His very first ‘in the money’ finish that we have any record of is in 1981. This is Bob Stupak’s AmericanCup of Poker event. He amassed a whopping $130,000 next year as the defending champion of the event. This is where he earned his nickname, ‘The Orient Express’. Johnny Chan has been in a great number of poker tournaments in his long career, and it would be impossible to list them all chronologically.

A better way to chart his course would be dotting his biggest victories. The highest amount of money he ever won in a live tournament was a $750,000 prize money, for landing the runner-up spot in the 2005 ‘Poker Superstars’ 8-hand invitational Sit&Go event at Caesars Palace. Other than the champion, Gus Hansen, the same event featured a number of poker heavyweights from the era: Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey to name a few. Later in the same year, Johnny would score another $400,000 from the very same ‘Poker Superstars’ event. 

While these titles are impressive enough for a man with no family background in poker, these live tournaments are not even what Johnny Chan is famous for. His real talent is on full display in the annals of the World Series of Poker. For those who are still unfamiliar: Johnny Chan has managed one of the rarest feats in pro poker. That is, wins in two WSOP Main Event victories back to back. This was in 1987 and 1988 respectively, earning him cash prizes of $625,000 and $700,000. If he were only slightly luckier, he could even have been among the most famous poker players of all time.

In 1989, he missed the WSOP Main Event top rank narrowly to Phil Hellmuth. More precisely, he narrowly missed the unique honor of three poker main event wins in a row. Anyhow, his WSOP achievements are still worthy of the poker hall of fame. He has earned 10 WSOP bracelets, second only to Phil Hellmuth’s 15. Over a lifetime of tournament winnings, he holds a total of $8.72 million as of now. This makes him second in the list of Chinese pro gamblers to win the most from poker – after Elton Tsang’s $12.75 million. 

For whatever reason, Johnny Chan has always stayed away from online poker. But this has not diminished his popularity by any measure. He is not as big as he was 10 years ago, but he still prominently features in the Poker pop culture. The most notable of such appearances is, of course, NBC’s Poker After Dark. The most successful player in the show, Johnny Chan has won head-to-head against the biggest poker visionaries of his times – including Phil Hellmuth and Chris Moneymaker. 

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