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October 20, 2014

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Jeff Haney on how the new face of championship poker came from unlikely origins, gained fame lightning fast and plans to give away part of his winnings

1. Jerry Yang, Temecula, Calif., $8.25 million

2. Tuan Lam, Mississauga, Ontario, $4.84 million

3. Raymond Rahme, Johannesburg, South Africa, $3.04 million

4. Alex Kravchenko, Moscow, $1.85 million

5. Jon Kalmar, Chorly, England, $1.25 million

6. Hevad Khan, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., $956,243

7. Lee Childs, Reston, Va., $705,229

8. Lee Watkinson, Cheney, Wash., $585,699

9. Philip Hilm, Cambridge, England, $525,934

The newest de facto worldwide ambassador for poker spent part of his youth in a refugee camp in Thailand, began playing the game only two years ago and prays to a deity who's fluent in poker lingo.

Jerry Yang, a 39-year-old psychologist, social worker and deeply spiritual man from Temecula, Calif., has pledged to donate to charity 10 percent of the $8.25 million he won at the World Series of Poker and plans to devote even more to missionary efforts.

But there were a couple of times Yang was on the verge of elimination from the World Series championship no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament, he said after winning the 2007 "Big One" early Wednesday at the Rio.

Once, for instance, he risked a big chunk of his stack of chips with just a pair of 4s and ran smack into an opponent's higher pocket pair.

It was then Yang - like a lot of poker players, including some who are probably more reluctant to admit it - turned to prayer.

"I kept saying, 'Lord, give me a set,' " Yang said, using the common poker term for three-of-a-kind. "And there was a 4 on the flop."

Another time, Yang needed an ace or a 4 on the final card to fill a straight and extend his tournament life.

"I said, "Lord, if you want me to win this, put the ace or the 4 on the river,' " Yang said. A 4 came, and Yang lived to fight on.

"I've seen miracles," he said.

After Yang secured his victory in the World Series of Poker main event - by filling another inside straight - ESPN commentator Norman Chad asked him whether this was the most tournament poker that the Lord has ever watched.

The remark drew appreciative applause and good-natured laughter from the crowd that had stuck around to see the end of the 15-hour-plus final table - and from Yang, a native of Laos who said his family fled to Thailand to escape communist oppression.

"You go to some countries on the Asian continent, and you can't even worship," Yang said. "The communist people burn the Bible. I just sponsored my uncle from Laos. He came through the political asylum program. He witnessed the communist soldiers (who came) to their villages and burned their Bibles, chased them and tried to kill them.

"I truly believe that God brought my family to Thailand and then to America, and now we have a better life. So I can't ask for more. This is the greatest country in the world."

Yang finished atop a field of 6,358 entrants who put up $10,000 apiece to compete in the 38th annual World Series main event, the most prestigious tournament in poker.

Although Yang, who has a master's degree in health psychology, does not make his living playing poker, he plans to embrace the role of poker ambassador that comes with winning the world championship.

"Poker is a great opportunity for many people," Yang said. "Some do it for a living. Some of us have a regular job. There's nothing wrong with that. We should all support and promote poker as much as possible."

As a socially conscious family man - he and wife , Sue, a blackjack dealer until now, have six children - Yang figures to represent the game well. He called his World Series victory the best day of his life, with the possible exception of the day he learned he would be coming to America.

"I know I can do a lot of good with this money," said Yang, who pledged donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and the Ronald McDonald House. "I want to give something back to the community. I know there are a lot of needs out there. Hopefully, I can make a difference."

Yang, who won his $10,000 World Series buy-in through a $225-entry satellite tournament at the Pechanga casino in Southern California, entered the final day of the main event with a "short stack" of chips but played aggressively, won a few crucial pots and took the chip lead.

Once it came down to a four-handed game, Yang played classic "big-stack" poker, forcing his opponents to make tough decisions and demonstrating a willingness to risk his money rather than sitting back and playing a waiting game.

Yang played "position" well, frequently popping raises or reraises when he had the advantage of acting last in a hand.

Like last year's champion , Jamie Gold, Yang single-handedly sent most of his final-table opponents to the rail, personally eliminating seven of the other eight starters. Like former world champ Phil Hellmuth, Yang's physical movements were controlled and deliberate, making it difficult for the other players to get any "reads" or discover any "tells."

Yang plotted his action-oriented strategy the night before the final table began, he said.

"When I sat down and meditated, I knew I was the short stack and I knew I would have to be aggressive in order to be successful," he said. "I did have some cards at the beginning that really helped me, but there were times I bluffed, too. I knew that some of my opponents were playing a little tight, and I wanted to take advantage of that."

The final four had an international flavor, with Yang facing Tuan Lam of Canada (second place, $4.84 million), Raymond Rahme of South Africa (third place, $3.04 million) and Alex Kravchenko of Moscow (fourth place, $1.85 million), whose stoic demeanor had more than one observer making comparisons to Ivan Drago of the fourth "Rocky" installment.

"When I was young I was more emotional," Kravchenko, 36, said. "I would go crazy when I lose. Now I don't like to waste my energy. I learned that one day you win, another day you might lose."

Yang KO'd Rahme by pairing an ace on the flop to sink Rahme's pocket kings. Rahme said he regretted playing back at Yang after Yang made a big postflop bet.

"It was the only mistake I made the whole tournament," said Rahme, 62 .

Holding a huge chip lead heads-up, Yang called Lam's all-in bet with pocket 8s, a small favorite against Lam's ace-queen. The flop paired Lam's queen, but when a 6 came on the river, Yang completed a 9-high straight, becoming the 2007 world champion and the new face of poker.

"There's no way," Yang said, "to describe what I'm feeling inside."

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