Minutes before the cards are shuffled up and dealt at Event 2 of the Johnny Chan Poker Classic in Richmond, B.C., the man of the hour is outdoors, leaning against a wall of the River Rock Casino. He's inconspicuous - track jacket, ball cap, blue jeans - apart from the very large and expensive-looking pre-game cigar he puffs.
It's enough to make passersby look twice and, after the second glance, rubberneck a third, fourth and fifth time to confirm that they're in the company of one of the greatest poker players in the world.
The likes of Johnny Chan don't show up in the Vancouver suburb often, so when they do, local rounders take notice and come to pay their respects. Tournament organizers expected a Day 1 crowd of 500 on Sunday, but entrants reached the 600-person cap. Day 2's last-minutes hopefuls were turned away after learning the short-handed No-Limit Hold'em event was also a sellout.
"I love Vancouver, and I love poker," he told PokerListings.com in an interview before settling in at the tournament table Monday. "This is a match made in heaven."
The event, apparently, is the latest beneficiary of Chan's golden touch.
There are the back to back World Series of Poker championships, a three-way tie with Doyle Brunson and Phil Hellmuth for most gold bracelets, a successful poker room and lucrative endorsement deals. Save the occasional bad beat story, Chan does little complaining these days as he prepares to win his 11th bracelet, fulfill a lifelong dream of owning a casino, and embark on a new business ventures that includes a flirtation with rap music.
He explained it all to PokerListings.com.
How did you become involved with the tournament?
I did a seminar here about six months ago. It was a great turnout and the casino asked if I'd like to host a tournament, and I said, 'I'd love to. Let's talk.' That's where history began. We made history yesterday. There were supposed to be 500 players and there were 600 players. So it's great. Today I think we sold out. So it's a great tournament, and I'm very excited, very happy, and this place is good.
I've heard you've been here a couple times. What keeps you coming back?
The food. (Laughs) Summertime is so beautiful. Whistler - I took my kids hiking; in the winter you go skiing. It's a beautiful city.
Are you going to play in many events this week?
I'm going to play in at least three.
Do you still enjoy tournament poker?
I love this game. I love this game.
The World Series of Poker is coming up. How are you feeling about that?
I feel great. I'm looking for my 11th gold bracelet. I'm going to be the first player ever to hit 11. Hopefully.
Does that add any pressure at all?
It's another day at the office. There's no pressure.
How many events will you play in this year?
Possibly 10-15. They have so many. They're going to have 40-some events. How are you going to play them all? You'll burn out.
What do you think about Harrah's adding so many?
I think they're bloodsuckers. They just try to make as much money as they can. They're wearing everybody out. They shouldn't have that many tournaments. In the old days - the World Series of Poker when it was at Binion's - there were like 10-12 tournaments and everyone was burnt out back then. But now you're talking about 40, almost 50, events - how can people play their A-game? They get so tired, you know?
Have you cut your schedule back to not overtire yourself?
I have to. It's like going to work and working 15-16 hours every day. How many days can you do that? For two months, it's almost impossible.
You did make it out to the Wynn Poker Classic. I saw you final tabled at that.
Aw, man. I took the baddest beat - it's true. I had pocket aces in front of the button, and the big blind had A-K. I raised it. We both had approximately half a million dollars in chips; I probably had a bit more. He re-raised me like $100,000; I just called. Then he moved out $300,000 or $400,000 more; I call. The flop comes Q-T-2 and the next card was a jack. I was looking for a king just to tie. Unfortunately the king didn't come off, and I lost my pot. If I had won that pot I would have won the tournament. What are you going to do?
Did that frustrate you or make you want to go out and look for a win?
It's pretty frustrating. It's just so hard to get down there and once you do get down, I wasn't playing so-so, I was playing great. And when you have a hand - pocket aces in Hold'em - if you're not going to put your money in there with aces, you might as well not play at all.
Aside from poker you have a lot of business ventures - your poker room, hotels, dealer school. Is this something that is more interesting after so many years of playing poker?
I love the business part of it. Poker you can only win so much and play so much. But in business you can guarantee the money is going to be in the bank tomorrow - or even today. (Laughs)
Oh, by the way, I'm doing an energy drink too - Orion Energy Drink; it's a brand-new thing. And also, we're doing a rap song for Orion. It's cool. Phil Hellmuth and Layne Flack - we're all going to be in the video, and they're going to show it on MTV.
Really? Are you going to be doing any rapping?
I'm going to try. But I am going to be in the video.
Do you listen to rap?
Only when I'm playing to keep my mind clear and stay focused. So I've got a little rap in me.
What about your hotel purchases? Is that bringing you closer to your dream of opening a casino?
Actually, the place we're buying is a casino-hotel. We've made an offer already so we'll see where we go from there. I'm very excited. I'm flying to New York next week and to close the deal and try to get the $50 million to buy this hotel.
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Until May 13, though, Chan will be in British Columbia, headlining his own tournament and playing to win a piece of the $2.8 million prize pool. But with the weight of an 11th gold bracelet on his wrist, time's short until fans will find the two-time champion in his element: stacking chips at the World Series of Poker.