On the Button: Jerry Yang

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Jerry Yang, a.k.a. The Shadow, is one of the most likable members of the poker community. The 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event champion recently sat with Ante Up’s Scotty Rushing to discuss life after the main event and the upcoming July release of his autobiography.

How has life changed for you since becoming world champion? First of all, my wife and I were both working before my win. I have six children and they were very small then and it was a struggle just like any typical middle-class family; we had the mortgage, the car payment, the school lunches and the things you have to pay. Obviously, my win changed our lives financially, of course, and my wife and I were able to quit our jobs. That was especially important for her because I had dreamed of having her be able to stay home and take care of the kids while I would be the provider and we were not able to do that. So, it was just a very good feeling to be able to do that.

After your win you pledged to donate 10 percent of your winnings to various charities. Can you tell us how you went about fulfilling that promise? Sure, and thank you for asking that question. You know, I went to Loma Linda University and I remember seeing the Ronald McDonald House at the university hospital and seeing families with kids who had cancer. So, before I even went to Vegas I made a pledge to God that if I could just win the tournament I would donate 10 percent to charity and I chose the Ronald McDonald House, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and also Feed the Children.

The reason is that, as a child, I was always sick. Hungry, just no food. Hopeless. It was especially this way in the refugee camp where I lived for four-and-a-half years. I chose those three organizations for a very specific reason: to help kids. Even today I still tour the Ronald McDonald houses around the country and visit with the parents who have children there. Some of these children are waiting to die. It really changed my life to do that, and made me appreciate my life and the lives of my children and what I have today. I am going to continue to do more of that. I have personally raised more than $800,000 on my own, especially for children’s charities and after the win I kept my promise and actually donated more than 10 percent, over a million dollars. I will continue to do even more.

You make no secret you’re a religious man. Did your spiritual beliefs have anything to do with that pledge? Oh yeah. I could have given the money directly to the church but I really felt like God was speaking to me and saying, “You have seen the kids hungry.” So, I just followed my heart.

To win the WSOP main event you really have to overcome a lot of obstacles (the cards, the great players, fatigue) but you overcame a lot of obstacles just to make it to the United States. Do you think your experiences as a refugee helped you develop the qualities needed to succeed at poker, and at life in general? Absolutely. I think that has a lot to do with it, not just in poker, but in life. I remember as a young kid, we didn’t even have a ball to play with. I had never seen a ball my whole life until I came to America. I had seen people play, but I had never touched it or kicked the ball. As a little boy in Laos, whenever our parents would kill a pig, all of the little boys would get in line and wait for the bladder. This truly happened. They would give it to the first boy in line and he would blow it up and tie it and we would use that as a ball to kick until it broke.

Having lived in the refugee camp and seeing a brother and sister of mine die right in front of my eyes, that really changed my life and made me want to work hard. Even today, my kids help me in my restaurant and I try to teach them that nothing comes free, even in America. This is how I put it to them: There is no free lunch, even in America. You have to work hard for what you have. There are a lot of people out there who don’t even have 1 percent of what we have so I try to remind my children of that and hopefully they will grow up to be good citizens and kind and do for others also.

Obviously, we want to talk to you a little bit about your autobiography, which will be released in July. How exciting is that and what can we expect from your book? I am very excited. This is truly a dream come true. The publisher is Medallion Press in Chicago and the book is titled All-In, from Refugee Camp to Poker Champ: The Jerry Yang Story. It’s about my life as a little boy in Laos, my escape from Laos to Thailand and it talks about the struggle we went through in the jungle. Crossing the river with bullets flying above us. I heard kids drowning and adults praying for someone to save their drowning children. Having a bloated stomach from hunger. And then I talk about coming to America, the land of milk and honey if you will. We came here and were in one of the poorest projects in Nashville. I couldn’t believe it. This was America. I learned that a good education was the only option for me. So, the book is all about my life and it ends with the final table of the 2007 WSOP main event. I have a lot of people behind me on this, my charities, some politicians and celebrities. It’s going to do very well, I think.

You own a restaurant called Pocket 8’s. How is that working out for you? We are so proud of that. You know, I opened the restaurant at a time when the economy was not very good, about a year ago, and a lot of people said, “Are you crazy?” I said to them that sometimes you have to take a chance in life, and the construction cost was low and so far I am doing fairly good despite the economy. I feel very certain that the economy will turn around. Obviously, I named it after the last hand I held in the 2007 WSOP. I am so proud of it because I am able to give jobs to some of the young students in town and provide good food for the community. I am a happy man!

It seems like more and more we’re seeing a lot of players who started on the Internet end up at the WSOP main event final table. That wasn’t really the case for you, was it? No. I never played on the Internet before my win. I have always been a live tournament player. I didn’t play very much anywhere before I won … only about two years. Nowadays I play a little online. I like it, I really do. The only thing is, when you have six children you can’t really play as much as you want. I wait until my children are in bed and that’s when I start playing.

Where do you stand on the legalization of Internet poker? I do support online poker, I really do. Some players do better online and some do better live. We should really have the option there for everybody and as long as the online gaming companies are regulated and nothing fishy is going on there I think we should support that.

Does the Shadow have another main-event run left in the tank? Definitely! It’s every player’s dream to win it twice, or even more. You know, the last guy to win it back-to-back was Johnny Chan and I don’t have to do that, but just to win it twice would go down in history as a great moment in poker. With the field size today it’s very, very difficult to do but anything is possible. I would love to do that again. I will continue to play in it every year for as long as I live!

When you walk into that room at the Rio and there are pictures on the wall of past champions, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Jerry Yang, how does that make you feel? The feeling can’t be described. No words can explain it. I have to say the feeling is wonderful to be up there among the greats. Even though I haven’t been playing that much to be among those champions is a great honor, and I am very thankful.

If you could give one piece of advice to Jonathan Duhamel, winner of the WSOP main event in November, what would it be? Everyone has their own agenda, their own goals and objectives. I would say do what you can for the poker community and be there for the fans. I tried to take an active role in that, you know. Going on Facebook and chatting with the fans. And so many of them tell me, “Jerry, you are so good to talk to us.” I’ve heard a lot of pros don’t do that. I think that is the very least that I can do. So, I hope he will do that and help the poker community grow. And I think he will.