Jerry Yang is a nice man.
This past Saturday, less than 24 hours after I contacted him via e-mail, I called Jerry to conduct a phone interview expecting to get some 15 minutes of his time. Instead, we chatted for almost an hour despite not having been acquainted beforehand. He had the temerity to presume he was the fortunate one.
I got the sense that this was his way. Why polish off a quick interview with a stranger when you can chat at length about life, poker and good fortune instead? The topic we were supposed to be addressing was where he's been these past four months since his $8 million victory at the World Series of Poker. The conversation went beyond that, with the champ even allowing me to indulge in personal questions about his spirituality. Above and beyond.
The question I'd wanted to ask Jerry over those months since watching him win was this: "If God isn't changing the order of the cards, why the prayer?" Yang was instantly transformed into poker's holy champion by his calls to the "Lord" on ESPN's broadcasts. It felt a little strange to me (and a plethora of other observers) that he'd think a greater power would invest itself in any way in the turn of a card. My mistake was in my perception of his acts.
"God doesn't love one person more than another person" Jerry answered, assuring me there was no chance the Lord was intentionally pairing him up flop after flop. "I pray to my God for the strength to make the right decision."
Time and again, Yang made tough calls at the final table, trusting his gut instincts in doing so. It would have been easier to play it safe and make folds in those situations, the money and exposure being what they were. In calling out his prayers, Jerry was seeking the fortitude we all seek when faced with those make-or-break moments at the table. "He's giving me the opportunity to make my own choices." He also wanted to share the joy he was experiencing with the being he saw as responsible for it.
The answer convinced me the depth of character I'd hoped for in Jerry was there. The speech Jerry made after his victory, truncated by time restraints on the WSOP broadcast, was moving and heartfelt, describing his escape from his native Laos and his love for his adopted home. It touched the assembled in ways few words could, coming as it did after a 14½-hour poker game. Still, I'm a cynic and needed further proof. I got it in that phone call.
Jerry's strength of character was evident throughout our conversation. After four years of world champions who made headlines as the community followed their actions, Jerry could be bitter about the fact he hasn't received the same treatment. Full Tilt Poker, whose gear he wore at the final table, offered him only a tier two endorsement deal, one that would exclude him from being a TV spokesperson. Despite what could be perceived as a slight, Jerry went out of his way in our conversation to thank FTP and specifically Howard Lederer (as well as Pat Wilmes, the manager at Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino, his sponsor for all but the final day of WSOP) for their support in his run to the title. Apparently, he's holding no grudges.
Looking for something more lucrative, Yang's agent in online gaming, Oliver Tse, approached PokerStars about potential sponsorship. It seemed like a natural fit, since 'Stars had built its reputation on the backs of champions Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem. Even 'Stars was cautious though. There was talk with potential, but the online poker room wanted to see just what it would be getting with a one-tournament evaluation of his skill as a spokesperson. That tournament was slated to be the Asian Pacific Poker Tour event held in Macau just last week. Unfortunately, Yang never made it there.
Despite possessing documentation from both the APPT and the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, he found out once at the airport that the only connecting airports that connect him to Macau in time for the tournament were in Hong Kong and Taipei. Both require travel visas to enter, even as stopovers. The evaluation will wait.
In the time since the WSOP, Yang hasn't been playing all that much poker. The APPT would have been just his second $10,000 buy-in event since July, when he was knocked out of the Legends of Poker three hours after it began. He's been spotted playing in satellites, causing less-wealthy Internet denizens to howl at the injustice of it all, but Jerry shows common sense in answering those criticisms.
"It's money management," Yang proclaims. "Money doesn't come easy. Whether you're working or playing, money comes hard. You need to be smart, manage your money. If you can get in cheap I'm not cheap, but, you do it. Smart businesspeople will agree with me. If I have the same opportunity to play a satellite, despite my having money, why shouldn't I? Doesn't it make more sense from a business perspective?"
It does, not that hungry sharks would ever admit it.
The Yang clan hasn't been extravagant in its spending, but there are advantages to winning $8 million. His wife left her job as a blackjack dealer at the Pala Resort and Casino in California to be a stay-at-home mother, a welcome change after years of the couple alternating day and night shifts to keep one parent at home. "It was very tough. You stay together and make it work, because it's family. I have more time with my family now, more time to do charity work."
A good portion of the money spent has gone toward just that. Yang has donated over $1 million to charity if you include his pending donation to Feed the Children. Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and the foster family agency for which he once worked have been the main beneficiaries. He's also played in four charity events and given money to relatives in need.
Asked about the changes his newfound fame has brought to his life, Yang spoke like a man unburdened by the pressures that come with that attention. "There's been lots of recognition. It's a good thing, signing autographs, posing for photos, people telling me they liked me. They liked my donations and putting God first in my life. It makes me want to do more for the community."
Is that enough though? There are those who say that spending sparse time at the poker table doesn't fulfill the "obligations" that come with the crown. However, as we've seen with men like Mike Sexton, some of poker's best ambassadorial work has been done away from the table. Indeed, there's a lesson to be learned from Yang's example: Winning today doesn't obligate one to lose tomorrow. It's Jerry's attitude and his love for the game that will ultimately prove most valuable in how he represents the game. "One of my major goals is to be a great ambassador for the poker community. It's a game of socialization, where people can challenge one another. We must all support poker. Some do it for a living, some just for leisure, but ultimately, we must all rally together and support poker."
Given that he hasn't received the same opportunities as some of the champions before him, it would be easy for Yang to take a different stance. Having played for only two years and played the tournament of his life, it would be easy for him to take the money and run. Instead, he wears the crown with pride, both in his accomplishment and his industry. It reflects well on poker's newest ambassador -- a nice man.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff Magazine and worldseriesofpoker.com. You can hear him interview Jerry Yang this week on his roundersradio.com podcast Wise Hand Poker radio.