Monday, July 23, 2007

Jerry Yang, Faith, and the World Series of Poker

"Oh baby I reconsider my foolish notion / Well I need someone to hold me but I'll wait for something more/Yes I've gotta have faith" -George Michael

The once-red carpet that would greet me every morning on my way into the WSOP had faded to a grayish rose from six weeks under the searing Nevada sun. The parking lot, once packed to the edges with the sunburnt vehicles of poker hopefuls was nearly empty on the morning of the final table. The portraits of WSOP winners past came down, one by one and the 230 tables that once filled the Amazon Room have all been broken down and carried away. On Tuesday morning, the Rio was almost business as usual. A retail employees' convention had taken over most of the space in the building and the legions of twentysomething iPodded donkeys that once crowded the hallways were replaced by a few hundred polo-and-khakis weaking conventioneers, all sporting name tags and lugging black computer bags. It's up to them now to get drunk at the Tilted Kilt and donk off money at Pai Gow and keep the hookers in business. Because the WSOP is over, at least for another year.

The final card was burned and turned at about ten minutes to four in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Jerry Yang took his pocket eights up against Tuan Lam's A-Q. A queen flopped and the media let out a collective groan-- if Lam won this pot, we might be here another three or four hours. And then the seven of diamonds came down on the turn. Four more outs for Yang. An eight or a six... an eight or a six. I think the media was praying just as hard as Yang at that moment. Laurie the dealer burned and turned the river. And it was a six! The crowd went nuts, chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" as Yang embraced his family. In one of the most international final tables ever seen in the WSOP Main Event (Russia, Denmark, Canada, South Africa, and the U.S.) Laos-born, Southern California-dwelling Jerry Yang, who had run over this final nine with sheer aggression had emerged victorious.

"It's over?" said Jonno with a shocked look on his face as he flipped off his headphones. He'd been logging data into the PokerNews hand simulator for 13+ hours and couldn't believe this seven-week orgy of cards had finally reached its conclusion. Mean Gene and I took off for the edge of the stage to get a better look at the victory celebration. The handful of passed-out spectators that were curled up on the floor or sprawled across chairs at the back of the Amazon Room stirred and awoke, asking "so what happened on the last hand?"

Jerry Yang gave a thoughtful and soft-spoken victory speech. He thanked God and his family and pledged to donate 10% of his winnings to three different charities-- The Make-A-Wish Foundation, Save the Children, and the Ronald McDonald House. He spoke about how blessed he was to be able to raise his family in America after escaping war-torn Laos as a child with his parents and siblings. Yang told us that he'd use his winnings to provide his kids with a quality education and to give back to the people in his community. And he'd let his wife quit her job.

This display was an incredible contrast from one year ago when Jamie Gold strapped on his bracelet. Yes, he made that cell phone call to his sick father, but at that moment in time, most of us were so flabbergasted at the seemingly unstoppable bout of luck that led to his victory, and had been uncovering stories about Gold's Hollywood agent past over the last several days. A guy who sucked out hand after hand and was producing a reality show called "America's Hottest Mom" was taking $12 million home to Malibu. And a young man named Crispin Leyser was watching this all unfold from the bleachers and would go on to sue Gold for half his winnings less than two weeks later.

In Jerry Yang, poker has possibly the best ambassador we could ask for right now. In a time when our ability to safely and legally play this game is being struck down left and right, we've crowned an educated, religious family man as our new World Champion. To hear Yang tell it, God was watching over him during that final table and it was his faith that paved his way to victory.

Hear that, religious right?

Yang's a small, quiet guy. "He's like Yoda" said Pauly this morning as we watched his victory interview on PokerNews. He was barely on the media radar when we got down to four tables on Day 6 and I couldn't tell you the name of one person inside the Amazon Room that picked him to win it all. Most (myself included) were banking on Lee Watkinson, or Alex Kravchenko or Philip Hilm. Yang's not the guy you'll see making an ass out himself at the tables or tilting off his winnings in the pits or slipping into the elevator with a hooker at 4 A.M. He's a psychologist from Temecula with 6 kids who got into this whole thing on a $225 satellite at Pechanga. He's just a regular guy who took a shot.

* * * * *

I've learned a lot about this game since coming here. I've learned that I'll probably never be a great player, or even a very good one. While I tend to make many more correct decisions than incorrect ones at the table, I will never have the mental and psychological fortitude to truly succeed at it. I'm too emotional, and it's something I cannot change about myself. I get enraged when I get bad beated. And frankly, I don't like feeling that way. When I make poor decisions, I beat myself up about it for hours, even days. And I don't like feeling that way either. I also (and it's embarrassing to admit this) sometimes feel like I deserve to win more than other people. I've put in more time, more months, more years, more dollars, more thought than that ass hat across the table that just hit his five-outer on me. I need the money more. I need the respect more. I need something emotional from succeeding at poker and this is not a game that pays positive emotional dividends. I might be a winning player if I had a different emotional makeup. But unfortunately, I'm stuck with the one I've got. I can continue to work on how I handle my emotional responses to the turn of a card, but I'll never have the blank stare of a Phil Ivey, the icy calm of a Katja Thater, or the cerebral indifference of a Howard Lederer.

Additionally, I do not have the necessary detachment from the value of money that is required to be a winning poker player. Until I have a steady income and am completely out of debt, a bet will never just be a bet. It will be the cable bill, or a pair of shoes, or a roundtrip ticket to New York. I never approach a big money situation thinking it'll yield me a bigger bankroll. I think, "well, I can pay off X or Y." It's a recipe for disaster. It's little wonder that I continually lose. It's little wonder I've never had a decent bankroll. And I'm pretty sure it's just dumb luck that I've ever won a tournament. Even the donkeys get lucky once in a while.

Despite all of this, I still play. I still write about the game for a living. I still think about it, and read books about it and cover major tournaments. All of us in the poker media are in the media for a reason-- primarily that we're not good enough to make a living at the game. This WSOP is the beginning of me accepting that. That I'm not good. And that most of the time I feel like shit after playing.

There are parts of me that are a little bit sick. Like the tourists that stuff quarters into the slot machines weekend after weekend, I'm constantly looking for that big score to solve my financial problems. I worked my ass off for 8 years in Hollywood and never saw any money for it. I worked 80 hours a week to earn barely enough to get by. And in the end, it all amounted to absolutely nothing. I know that bitterness leaks over into my poker game. There's definitely two poker players within me-- the player I was before I lost my job and the player I became in the aftermath of that. Deep within myself I know the only way I'll ever crawl out of debt is to write my way out. That needs to be my first thought when I sit down at the tables. Fuck, it needs to be my first thought when I get up in the morning.

These are the things I have to get over to become a winning player. Not playing K-J offsuit out of position or learning how to make more effective re-steals in late-stage tournament situations.
I have to learn to have faith.

I have 72 hours left in Las Vegas before getting back on the road to Los Angeles. I've never wanted to leave this city more. I miss the cool breezes and the moisture in the air. I miss Showcase and my sister, and the bacon at John O'Groats. I miss the ocean and I miss the cool comfort of my own bed. It'll be a long time before the flashing lights and ding ding dings of the slot machines put a smile on my face.

It's been a helluva ride my friends. But it's time I went home.


Unknown said...

Can Yang even spell P-a-i G-o-w ?

Great coverage at the series K, hope there's more coming soon :)

pokerDegen said...

great stuff -- really appreciate the honesty wrt you as a poker player; I can really relate to alot of what you wrote there. I can still remember thinking, durning my last AC trip, "Well, I'm about to raise about 3 tanks of gas." :)

jusdealem said...

I've always loved the honesty in your writing. Great post.