The Year of the Yang

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By Christopher Cosenza

What makes a world champion of poker “worthy” in your mind? Would he need the ability to play all of poker’s disciplines at a world-class level? Is that enough? Maybe it’s a gregarious personality, or maybe a philanthropic attitude. Perhaps it’s a combination of these things.

As the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event winner took a moment to compose himself during his emotional speech, one thing became instantly clear: Jerry Yang is certainly a worthy world champion of poker.

Yang, on-hand to play in a Ronald McDonald House charity poker event at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, was addressing the 60-plus poker fans who attended his instructional seminar when his emotions got the best of him.

During his yearlong reign as WSOP champion Yang met a young boy with cancer who loved to watch poker on television and was thrilled to meet Yang. The recollection proved too strong to merely talk his way through the moment, and Yang broke down.

Before winning his world title and more than $8 million, Yang was a social worker, which explains his love for children and his unending desire to help as many as he can.

“With my involvement, I think we’ve raised about $300,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Arizona,” Yang said after his seminar. “Overall I’d say we raised between $550,000-$650,000, give or take, between Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis and some other local charities.”

And that estimate doesn’t include the million dollars he donated from his WSOP victory, plus the $5,000 the PBKC charity event raised and the $5,000 the kennel club donated in his honor.

Upon arrival at PBKC, Yang very graciously went table to table and shook hands with every player and staff member during a busy Friday night at the state’s largest poker facility. And all of this happened after Yang had endured a monumental delay at the Dallas airport, plus he still had to put on a poker seminar for three-plus hours that evening. That’s how he’s spending his year, and his millions, as a world champion.

But what about Jerry Yang the person? How has his life changed?

He wanted to give two weeks’ notice after he won the title, but his boss wouldn’t let him, insisting he enjoy his accomplishment and making him quit immediately. That wasn’t Yang’s way, but he didn’t argue. Now, with all of that money and free time on his hands, Yang surely must be living the high life, right?

“I get up about 5 a.m., try to get my kids (six of them, ranging from ages 5 to 13) up at 6 a.m. and get them ready for school,” he said. “The bus comes right by my house to pick up the kids. So I spend some time with them in the morning. … After (they) come home from school I spend some time with them, doing homework. I take them to piano lessons, which I was never able to do before. I try to stay as involved as much as possible with my children and my wife.”

But does he miss his old life?

“When I was a social worker I dealt more with the judge and sometimes had to testify against the natural parents,” he said. “It was heartbreaking at times, but it was rewarding at times, especially when we were able to find a good family for a boy or a girl to go to, or a set of siblings. In that sense I miss that part of it. (But) the 9-to-5 day, the rush home trying to get there so my wife can go to work, I don’t miss that part of it.”

Anyone who watched Yang’s improbable march to stardom got a glimpse into his faith, watching him pray at the table during critical hands. And critical is the best way to describe the backlash that ensued. Yang was taken to task on air and in the card rooms for his actions. You might think the criticism wouldn’t affect him given that he could build a fortress of solitude with bricks of money just to shut out the whiners, but it bothered him. And it changed his approach.

“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “Some people might get offended when I pray at the table, so now I just pray in my heart. I don’t verbally or loudly pray anymore. Because No. 1 I want to at least have the respect for them. If I offend anybody I’m sorry, but you know, more importantly, I have faith in my god, and that’s most important to me.”
Yang has found one casualty of his celebrity: the time he used to dedicate to being a devout man.

“I have to admit I don’t get to go to church very often because I’m always on the road,” he said, “but I truly believe my relationship with my god is very strong. And I think it’s a matter with sitting down, of kneeling down, to communicate with God one-to-one and that’s important to me.”

And to hear Yang tell his story of how he won his 2007 WSOP seat, one might be led to believe it was divine intervention.

“There were two tournaments that day,” he said, looking up as if almost being told the story. “One was at Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino for $110, and I was hoping to win that one. But I got busted about 30 minutes after the tournament started. I had a tough decision whether or not to go home or to go to the other casino, Pechanga. And so I made a split decision on the way home. If I turn right I go straight to the casino; if I turn left it would take me home.”

At this moment Yang smiled. “I decided to go to the casino to play in the $225, which I was like stressed because I didn’t want to spend another $225. But thank God I did. And I beat 187 players that day and won the seat.”

But the tough decisions were far from over for the former psychologist.

“Before I decided to take the seat they brought me $10,000,” he said, and here Yang practically breaks into his best Cuba Gooding Jr. imitation. “They showed me the money! And they said you either take the money or you let us buy you a seat and you go and play. And when you have six children and a mortgage to pay, car payments, that $10,000 looks very, very good. It’s a lot of money there. But again, I made another huge decision to take the seat. I went with the intention to have fun and meet some of the world-class players. Some of my poker idols like Johnny Chan, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Daniel Negreanu and Jennifer Harman. And I met them, and I would have gone home happy. But to win the whole thing was really a blessing.”

Yang’s not done following his poker idols, however, as he continues to enter large buy-in events, such as the World Poker Tour and the WSOP, on a part-time basis. As for what’s next for poker’s finest philanthropist since Barry Greenstein …

“I’m putting together a project with Feed the Children right now to go to Laos (where he was born); Thailand first, but eventually try to get into Laos, assuming the government is cooperating with us. We’re gonna try to de-worm some of the kids over there, so probably in 2009 maybe 2010.”

He also is writing his autobiography, From Tragedy to Triumph, which he says should be completed via ghostwriter in October. And what about dealing with the demands of being a celebrity?

“I’m just going to take it one day at a time. It’s more than just being a celebrity. It’s about being a champion, a deserved champion. At the very least, what a world champion should do is smile, shake hands … and just be kind to people. I enjoy it; trust me. I receive tenfold in return. I’m a happy man.”