From Tragedy to Triumph: The Story of Jerry Yang from Poverty to Winning the 2007 World Series of Poker
Quite possibly the first time most people heard of Jerry Yang was on national television when he played as an amateur in the World Series of Poker Championship. There, beside a small mountain of money, laid cards waiting to transform the life of a refugee. And beside those cards sat a man waiting to transform the lives of others.
And then he won.
The crowd exploded in frenzy, cheering on a Hmong refugee, with chants of “USA!” as his family gathered around and held him in celebration of his victory. Later, Jerry would be seen on poker magazine covers, dressed in black, sunglasses hiding his tears, almost overshadowed by the pile of money before him.
After more than 16 hours of play at the final table, Jerry became the ultimate winner and kept the most prestigious title of all poker in America. With courage and timed aggression, he knocked out seven of his opponents and became the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion. His prize included $8.25 million dollars and the coveted championship bracelet.
During his interview with Txhawb, Jerry recalls memories of his childhood. “As a young boy,” he jokes, “I was a troublemaker. My childhood days were similar to the American folk tale, Tom Sawyer.” One time, in his village, he recruited the neighborhood gang to raid the village’s chicken coops and break all the eggs. He was mischievous but smart, and had a lot of energy as a young boy.
When the Secret War in Laos ended in 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao targeted many of the Hmong who sided with the Americans. So they fled their homes and journeyed to Thailand in search of refuge. Jerry’s family was among this group. They lived in the Ban Vinai refugee camp for over four years.
“I think my life in Thailand molded me to be the person I am today,” he shares, “that was the turning point in my life. I saw the suffering, the people dying. My mother died giving birth to my younger brother, and that motivated me. If I had not gone through Thailand and the refugee camp, I would have been a different person.”
While in the refugee camp, he lost a brother and a sister to malnutrition and he, himself, nearly succumbed to the same fate. One day he passed out from hunger, a twelve-year-old boy and his unfed, swollen belly.
“No one expected me to live,” he says, “they already began preparing for my funeral.” But as they prepared, he suddenly awoke.
Jerry sees the death of his siblings, as well as his own near death, to be motivating forces behind all that he now does; believing that, as others around him perished, there was a purpose as to why he was given a second chance at life.
This purpose motivated him to finish his first year of school in America, which was the fourth grade. He maintained a successful attitude, skipped two grades and went directly to the seventh grade. Focusing on his education, Jerry admits he “never had time to go out with friends.” Yet with the support of the local Seventh Day Adventist Church, this focus on his education allowed him to surpass his father’s goal of simply graduating high school. For Jerry, next came college.
Although he was accepted to several universities (including places like UC Davis and UCLA), he chose to do his undergraduate studies at Pacific Union College, where he studied Biology. Jerry graduated in 1990 at the top 1% of his class. He then applied to ten medical schools. He was accepted by eight, and he chose Loma Linda University.
At Loma Linda, he enrolled in a dual-degree program (MD & PhD). Jerry fulfilled his requirements for the MD portion and was still working on his dissertation for his PhD when he decided to take a job with San Bernardino County as a Health Educator to support his wife and children. While working in the public sector, Jerry became fascinated with the human psyche and decided to pursue a degree in Health Psychology at Trinity College of Graduate Studies.
Poker and Winning
About two years ago, Jerry was working as a clinical director for a foster family agency in Southern California. Before that, he was a regional vice-president for a private company specializing in subacute care. Jerry managed over twenty-six subacute care units within the California-Arizona-Nevada region.
One night, he and his wife were watching TV and channel surfed onto a poker show. As they watched a professional win, Jerry pointed to the TV set and said to his wife, “I can do that. And when I win, I will use the money for good.” Jerry remembers the disapproving look on his wife’s face.
His wife was skeptical considering Jerry had never played a game of poker. In fact, he had never played as much as checkers growing up. His father had forbidden gambling, which included checkers and chess. He eventually convinced his wife by promising that he would spend no more than 5% of his own income and use his winnings to help others.
Much like his schooling, Jerry committed himself to learning poker, proving to be a quick learner. He excelled by “buying a couple of poker books, watching more television and making trips to the local casino.”
“I started winning and could not believe it,” says Jerry, “I became known as The Shadow.” Many of his competitors cursed and yelled at him that he was like their shadows that followed them everywhere. They were frustrated because Jerry kept winning at the poker table.
In May of 2007, Jerry played in two qualifying tournaments before he won his way to the World Series of Poker. His first tournament at the Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino ended in a quick loss. So quick, that on his way home he made a last minute decision to take the fork in the road to the casino in Temecula, where the cards fell his way and found him victorious among the 187 competitors.
As the winner of the tournament, the casino offered to either reserve a seat for him at the World Series of Poker Championship in Las Vegas on July 7, 2007, or give him ,000 cash. He chose to enter the tournament with merely “the intention…to go and meet some of [his]poker idols that [he]had seen on TV.”
Arriving at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Jerry was one of 6,358 hopefuls vying at the tables. He used his rookie low-key and knowledge of the human psyche and behaviors to his advantage during play. Jerry studied his opponents and survived his first few days of the tournament, scooting him to an early lead.
He also applied a tenacious style of game-play during the tournament. This technique brought him all the way to the final table. Jerry admits being one of the “least skilled players at the final table with a small shot to win,” and the least number of chips. But his strategy and luck allowed him to outlast all the other competitors and become a World Champion.
The story could have ended here – with Jerry winning close to million (including sponsorship money), buying his wife a new car, and retiring. But it did not end here because Jerry knew he still had a purpose to serve.
In a quiet, unassuming voice, Jerry as the 2007 World Series of Poker Champion, speaks modestly, acknowledging that he has been “blessed” far more than his family could need. He only wishes to use his fortune to help others. Throughout the interview he appears more moved by the events that followed his victory at the World Series of Poker Championship than by the actual win itself.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, he pauses, than shares, “as a simple man and a champion who gave something back to the community.”
After winning, Jerry made large donations to three organizations that support children. The first was The Ronald McDonald House, as he remembered how during his graduate years at Loma Linda University, the organization had given charity and lodging to families who traveled long distances so their children could undergo chemotherapy. Some of these families were Hmong.
The second charity was the Make-A-Wish Foundation where he learned that over 23 Hmong children had been assisted in making their dreams come true. But more then this Jerry shares that helping all children “have a special place in his heart.”
He felt a direct connection with the third charity, Feed The Children, an international relief agency based in Oklahoma. Jerry remembered seeing Feed The Children provide aide to the Ban Vinai refugee camp when he lived there as a boy.
In all, Jerry has donated over one million dollars of his own money and has raised over $300,000 for charities. During the past year as a World Champion, he traveled to many places around the world playing poker and hosting charity events. He used his celebrity status to raise money for disadvantaged children of all cultural backgrounds.
In the future, he plans to establish the Jerry Yang Foundation Scholarship Fund to provide funds for Hmong students in college. He wants to go back to Thailand to help struggling orphans. And he also plans to build a Hmong museum, which he knows will take some time.
For Jerry, this is simply the beginning of his journey to become a champion of the people. He is a contributor whose heart called him to give gifts that are only beginning to unfold. And he is creating an impact, which will be felt long after he places his final bet or bluff.