Poker champ's memoir weaves tale of winning with his family's escape from Laosby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — On Thursday, Concordia University in St. Paul will welcome an unusual guest for a Lutheran liberal arts school — world champion poker player Jerry Yang.
There's a lot that's unusual about Yang, as he makes clear in his new memoir "All In." Just try to imagine doing this: pushing forward millions of dollars across a table, knowing you may lose it on the flip of a card.
Yang doesn't have to imagine it. He's done it many times.
"A typical raise would be like $3 [million], $4 million, And when you raise $3 [million], $4 million and someone comes on top with $12 million..."
He pauses to laugh.
"Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do," he concludes.
Yang won more than $8 million at the World Series of Poker. Yet he said it's not the most significant moment in his life.
He was born 40 years ago in a Hmong village in Laos, when his father fought alongside General Vang Pao against the Communists. The family eventually fled to Thailand where they lived in a refugee camp for four years.
"I lost a brother and a sister in the camp due to diseases and malnutrition," Yang said. "At one point I passed out and my father thought I was dead. They were actually preparing for my funeral."
Somehow he came around. All the time in the camp they kept waiting to hear if their application to go to the U.S. had been approved.
"I remembered when ESPN asked me, immediately after my win, they said 'Is this the happiest day of your life?' And I said 'No. This day can never compare with the day they called my father's name," he said.
The family ended up in Nashville, Tenn. Yang arrived with just one pair of pants, a shirt, and his first ever pair of shoes.
He said his father told them they had two options, work or study. Yang plunged into education, ultimately earning a master's degree in psychology.
But Yang never played poker. It ran against his family's devout Christian beliefs.
"My father was a disciplinarian, in a good sense of course. But we couldn't even play checkers or chess, or any games that would be a stepping stone to gambling," Yang said.
Then one evening in 2005 flipping through the TV channels, Yang stumbled across a poker game on ESPN. It fascinated him. He told his wife Sue he wanted to play. She immediately said no. Having worked in a casino, she'd seen lives ruined by gambling.
Yang wouldn't play unless Sue agreed, but he couldn't shake the idea.
"I made a promise to her that I would take only 5 percent of my paycheck every month to play," he said. "And if I lost it all I would wait for the next month. And by building that trust she became my best supporter."
Yang said he's not a gambler: he's a poker player. He studies the game and having worked as a family therapist in the California courts, he knows how to read people.
"I could sense when they were lying to me, or pulling my leg," he said. "I used some of that at the poker table. I would study my opponents, anything above the table, and how they made their bets, whether or not they pursed their lips, or they twitch their necks or whatever, and I use some of that against them."
Yang grins when he said he learned he doesn't have a poker face.
"I'm not a very good liar to be honest with you," he laughs.
Which is why he always wears a large cap and mirrored sunglasses at the table.
Just two years after starting to play he won the world title.
Yang's memoir weaves his poker story with that of his family's escape from Laos. He also talks about his faith, and how he prays at the poker table — not for specific cards, but for the wisdom to do the right thing. He donates 10 percent of his winnings to charity.
While Yang lives in California there's a reason he's launching his book tour in St. Paul on the Independence Day weekend. He said he wanted to come to Concordia University to do his first ever signing because of the school's Center for Hmong studies.
"I want them to see that Jerry Yang has not forgotten his heritage, his people, and I wanted to do the first book signing in a public place like that to show I am part of you and you are part of me, and we are here together," he said.
He'll also appear at the annual Hmong soccer tournament in St. Paul over the weekend. Having often been hungry as a boy, Yang is now fulfilling a childhood dream. He and Sue have a restaurant called "Pocket Eights" named for the cards that won him the world championship.
- Morning Edition, 06/30/2011, 7:25 a.m.