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    Poker king Yang is all in on Valley

    Poker king Yang is all in on Valley
    Stephen Magagnini
    Saturday, Jul. 31, 2010

    MERCED -- Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill becomes the Jerry Yang show on a crowded Friday night.

    A tickled 3-year-old ducks into her mother's chest as sheets of flame burst over four open grills sizzling with steak, chicken, shrimp, scallops and lobster. Chefs and customers scream "Sake Bomb!" each time a patron pounds the counter, sending a shot of sake perched on chopsticks into a tumbler of beer.

    The man in the black shirt and cap mopping down tables, cheering on customers and signing autographs in this Central Valley eatery isn't one of the bus boys. He's Jerry "The Shadow" Yang, the multimillionaire card shark who owns the joint.

    Next to the sushi bar you'll see a poster of "The Shadow" raking in $8.3 million at the 2007 World Series of Poker.

    The 42-year-old Hmong refugee from Laos has become a legend among Southeast Asians -- a champion of underdogs who has given away more than $2 million.

    His long-shot victory has transformed the social worker and father of six into a genie for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. And his charity poker tournaments have raised $800,000 for Chinese disaster victims, California fire victims, Boys & Girls clubs, schools and hospitals.

    He plans to bring the Jerry Yang show -- sushi, community service and all -- to Sacramento as soon as he finds the right chef.

    So, how did a Hmong refugee who arrived here at age 11 with very little education grow up to be a poker genius and sushi impresario?

    The pain of a constantly empty stomach, he says, was the driving force that taught him self-discipline and motivated him to do more than expected.

    Yang was a poker novice when he went to Las Vegas in 2007 to compete against more than 6,000 others for a seat at the final table.

    The good-natured refugee ambushed his competition by repeatedly going all in -- betting all his chips and pressuring his opponents into folding hand after hand. At the final table, he bluffed poker pro Lee Childs, who folded a pair of queens and gave Yang the $19.4 million pot.

    On the final hand, Yang's pair of eights -- the famed "pocket 8s" -- came from behind against Vietnamese refugee Tuan Lam's pair of queens. Yang hit an inside straight on the last two cards to take his place in poker lore with Texas Dolly Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Johnny Chan.

    Yang, who had been playing poker for just two years when he won his World Series seat, has been coming from behind all his life.

    At age 7, he and his family were fleeing through the jungles of communist Laos when the Pathet Lao caught them and held an AK-47 to his head.

    "My father and uncle threw themselves on the ground, pleading with them not to kill the kids," he said. "We were taken to another town after we promised not to escape again."

    From 1962 until 1973, Yang's father served in the CIA's guerrilla army under legendary Gen. Vang Pao. Thanks to ESPN and YouTube, Yang is considered the second-most-famous Hmong behind the general.

    But he almost didn't make it out of Laos. The night his family tried to cross the Mekong River into Thailand "was the longest night of my life," he said. "We must have had 23 people in a little wooden boat. Bullets were flying across between Thai and communist soldiers. I heard kids crying, mothers crying, kids drowning -- I still have nightmares about it."

    His family spent four years in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, where he watched several cousins die of malnutrition. "When I heard my family was going to America, it was the happiest day of my life -- winning the World Series doesn't compare," he said.

    fresnobee.com


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