Johnny had started going to Las Vegas at the age of 16 where he gambled at the poker tables even though he was underage. At that time, the 1970s, the casino owners and managers didn’t care how old you were, as long as you came with money. In those days most of the casinos were owned by private owners. There wasn’t any venture capital money, or corporation money from other places, such as New York. Today’s Las Vegas is very different and full of major corporations, such as The Venetian, MGM Mirage, Wynn’s and Harrah’s Entertainment.
In the early days of Chan’s poker career, he would go into a casino and play poker with Las Vegas old time players. These poker players, played every single day and were considered hustlers. Chan refers to them as “Rocks”. Those players would see Johnny coming and think they saw a sucker. They thought he was a young Asian kid who couldn’t play poker at all. Little did they know! He would regularly use his extraordinary poker skills to beat them at their game.
When Chan moved to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player, he had a few struggles in the beginning. Many of the poker players that Johnny played against tended to underestimate his poker skills because of his Asian decent. It was very unusual, at that time in Las Vegas, to have a poker player of Chan’s nationality. Many times when Johnny would place a bet the others players would call him. The players did this because they wanted to see what he had in his hand. Some people believe that because Chan is Asian it was, and still is, harder for many poker players to read him.
In his early years as a professional poker player, he was considered to be a very hot headed young man that had some talent as a poker player. Many other poker professionals of that time including Doyle Brunson, said that Chan had to learn how to control his temper. They also believed that this young Asian, with the aggressive playing style, needed to learn when to stop playing.
Johnny always has played poker very aggressively and has been called a bully at the poker tables on occasion. He didn’t always win every time he played, there were times that he had to sell some of his things in order to keep the bankroll he needed to play poker alive. It wouldn’t be long before the young Asian man would become one of the greatest poker players in the world.
Chan attributes some of his early success to the fact that many players had not previously played against Asian players. He shot to fame in the late 1980s, winning the championship event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in two consecutive years (1987 and 1988). A videotape of the 1988 WSOP final heads up match is featured in the movie Rounders, in which Johnny makes a cameo appearance. He almost won a third consecutive title, but finished in 2nd place in 1989 to Phil Hellmuth. He is the last player to win back-to-back WSOP Main Events, a feat many prognosticators think he could hold forever given the increasingly larger fields. Jerry Buss, an avid poker player and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, promised Chan an NBA championship ring if he could win three in a row.
Chan is known for keeping a “lucky” orange in front of him on the table, and after the second consecutive WSOP title other players began bringing fruit to the table in hopes of increasing their luck. Chan says he only had an orange with him because of the pleasant scent, as smoking, which was allowed in many tournaments then, bothered him. Chan was once a smoker, but now he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol.
In 2005, Chan became the first player to win ten World Series of Poker titles, defeating Phil Laak in a Texas hold ‘em event. He is currently tied with Doyle Brunson for second place with 10 World Series of Poker bracelets, behind Phil Hellmuth (11). He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002.