On any given day during the 19902 and 2000s, you could walk into the Bellagio in Las Vegas and see some of the world's best poker players playing high-stakes poker in the "Big Game."
Doyle Brunson. Chip Reese. Jennifer Harman. Barry Greenstein. Phil Ivey. A literal who's who of the Poker Hall of Fame.
You would also see another of poker's first super stars, Johnny Chan.
You have to be very well respected to play in this game and, not coincidentally, also have the bankroll to play $1,000/$2,000 blinds.
Tossing around hundreds of thousands of dollars was nothing for Johnny Chan during his poker heyday. While he's made more than $8.7 million dollars in tournaments, it likely pales in comparison to the money he's made in cash games. And from simply being Johnny "F'ing" Chan.
From Canton to Hong Kong to Phoenix to Houston
Like most poker players though, Johnny Chan put in work to get to that point. A LOT of work. As an immigrant from China life wasn't always so easy for him and poker wasn't a path his family wanted him to take.
He grew up modestly in Guangzhou, China, until the age of six when his family immigrated to Hong Kong. Four years later the family made the move across the Pacific to America.
First the family settled in Phoenix and then in Houston, where they started up a restaurant business.
Chan didn't speak much English when he first came to the United States and picked it up along the way as he attended school and acclimated to American culture. One American pastime he did learn quickly was bowling.
When he wasn't helping out in the family restaurant, he was at the bowling alley throwing strike after strike. It was at the bowling alley he discovered poker, which turned into his real passion.
Turned $500 to $20,000 in One Night
He started out in nickel and dime games with friends, which quickly turned into much bigger money as he joined in the underground game at his family's restaurant. However, once he started winning too much too often, he was kicked out of the game.
At 16, Johnny Chan decided to try his luck at the card tables in Vegas. He took $500 and sat down illegally at a poker table and turned it into $20,000 in one night. In what became a regular pattern for Chan during his early poker career, he turned around and lost the whole bankroll the following night.
Instead of jumping right into a poker career Johnny Chan eventually went to college in Houston and studied hotel and restaurant management in order to take over the family business someday. The poker bug had taken hold, though, and at 21, he quit school early and moved to Vegas to pursue a poker career.
His play had its highs and lows in those early years. Johnny Chan went through periods where he'd have to pick up a temporary job or hawk his possessions to keep going, but he was determined to make it big in the poker world.
Doyle Brunson once said about the "hot-headed kid" that he had talent but "he didn't know when to keep his temper under control or know when to quit playing."
One thing Johnny Chan had on his side - besides that talent - was his Asian ethnicity. He went to Vegas during a time when there weren't many Asian players trying to make it big with poker. He said people would underestimate him and even call a bet just to see what he had, assuming he wasn't that great a player.
Johnny "F'ing" Chan
By 1982, something had clicked for Johnny Chan. He gave up his four-pack-a-day smoking habit, started exercising and eating healthier, and his play began to improve. That was the year he entered The America's Cup of Poker in Las Vegas and earned the nickname "The Orient Express" from Bob Stupak after knocking out 13 of 16 players in a little more than 30 minutes.
He went on to win the tournament and since then has won a record 10 World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, two of which were from back-to-back Main Event wins in '87 and '88. His 1988 final against Erik Seidel was later immortalized in the movie Rounders, where he became known as the fearsome "Johnny F'ing Chan."
He would have made it three Main Event wins in a row in 1989 if it hadn't been for then newcomer Phil Hellmuth. Chan blamed fatigue and overplaying his final hand, A-7, for his second place finish. But to date his back-to-back-to-back Main Event performances might be the greatest in WSOP history.
In 2002, Chan got his chance to prove his talent against Hellmuth. The $2,500 No-Limit Hold'em event of the WSOP came down to the two again, this time with Chan coming out on top to win his seventh bracelet.
His WSOP wins also made his trademark orange famous. Johnny Chan liked to bring an orange to the poker table as an air freshener back in the day when smoking was still permitted inside the casinos.
Since the rules have changed, the orange has gone from a practical accessory to a lucky charm that Chan always has at the table with him during tournaments.
Well Rounded and Still a Threat
Johnny Chan was one of the most well-known players during those days and is still considered to be one of the most well-rounded poker players in the game; his tournament wins are not only in Texas Hold'em events, but also in Omaha and Draw poker.
The event, as mentioned, that helped propel him even further into the spotlight was the movie Rounders, in which he made a cameo and appeared in footage from his 1988 win in the WSOP Main Event over Erik Seidel.
Sitting at a table with Chan was considered the pinnacle of poker excellence at the time - and winning a pot against him was a sign you had what it took to really make it in this game.
Chan was fittingly inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002 and continues to make his mark in the poker world.
He's competed in every World Series of Poker Main Event since, mentored 2006 WSOP Champion Jamie Gold during his epic run and continually proved he's still a threat for another bracelet in any event.
His latest WSOP Main Event cash came in 2018.
Along the way Chan has been involved in any number of business opportunities, from poker books and strategy sites to reality TV shows and online poker sites.
His ultimate goal, he's said, is to open up a casino of his own to manage. Chan has already proven he has the drive to do anything he puts his mind to, so perhaps people will one day be heading to Vegas (or Macau or Manila) to the Big Orange Hotel and Casino to watch some of the world's biggest poker players in the Johnny Chan Poker Invitational.
Barry Greenstein on Johnny Chan
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnny was the best No-Limit Hold'em tournament player in the world. Since then, he has used his tournament success as a vehicle to get himself involved in different business ventures. He is still a skilled player, but he plays very impatiently as if he is late for a meeting.
"He used to be very weak at Limit poker, but he improved his Limit game significantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is probably surprising that I listed Pot-Limit Omaha as his best game, but I am going by results, and his best results over the last few years in side games (and even in the WSOP) have been in Pot-Limit Omaha.
"Johnny is one of the few players whose superstitions seem to prevent him from steaming. If he loses a hand, he often asks for a deck change. If he loses with a certain dealer he often takes it personally, sometimes getting into it with him. If he keeps losing, he quits.
"Once he said to me, "I've never lost more than two hands with the same deck and I've never lost more than three hands with the same dealer."