Those who know me know that I like poker. I've been playing since I was a kid when I'd hang around watching my uncles play stud - later I learned draw and even lowball. But I never took it seriously until the poker explosion a few years back, no doubt brought on by the Net and Chris Moneymaker's win in the WSOP main event.
Most think that Vegas is the capitol of poker and rightly so, but what's significant is that LA is a major location in the poker world. As such, it's a huge contributor to the phenomenon of so many good Asian players in the poker world, what with such a high percentage of Asians to begin with here. The first time I walked into the Commerce Casino, reportedly one of the largest poker palaces in the world and one of the major stops in the poker world, I couldn't believe it; table after table with Asians, all grinding away (that didn't come out right, but for those unfamiliar, it's poker parlance). On top of that the vast majority of dealers are Asian, male and female.
Which is all prelude to the following article by Daniel Negreanu, who's one of the poker world's most respected players and a good guy that everyone likes. Since I've been watching poker on TV I've always thought like Negreanu in terms of (Indonesian-American) John Juanda - the guy's a consistently remarkable player and the fact that Negreanu wrote what he did about Juanda is really cool. The fact that Negreanu's one of poker's elite players and wrote this is pretty amazing.
Oh, and I could be wrong, but I believe he has a thing for Asian women. But anyway...
From Card Player, no date; see hyperlink.
Asian Poker Players
I grew up in Toronto, which is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. It was common in a classroom of 30 kids to see 20 countries represented. While growing up, I saw that racism was virtually a non-issue. If you watched the news, you'd see a Jamaican woman doing the weather, an Indian woman covering entertainment, a Chinese man covering business, a black man doing sports, and the anchors were from Greece, Italy, Russia, or Israel. Talk about a melting pot, Toronto was like a utopia of peace and harmony among cultures. I'm so proud of my hometown, and I know for a fact that it's had a very positive effect on my view of the world.
Having said that, in the poker world today, I'm not so sure that I see the same respect for other cultures that I did back in Toronto. I think the most neglected group of poker players are the Vietnamese. When I say neglected, I'm referring to the amount of media attention they get for their accomplishments. There are two exceptions, of course, Scotty Nguyen and Men "The Master" Nguyen. They garner their fair share of attention because both are very colorful characters. I could provide you a list of Vietnamese players whom you rarely hear much about who play much better than many of the players that ESPN spends a lot of time covering. Nam Le, Hung La, David Pham, John Phan, J.C. Tran, Can Kim Hua, Minh Nguyen, Vinnie Vinh, Tuan Le, and so many more that I could fill the rest of a page. And I didn't even touch upon the great side-action players, such as Ming Lau, Chau Giang, Danny Dang, and others.
So, why is it that we hear more about Dutch Boyd on ESPN than we do Minh Nguyen? Well, the answer should be obvious to most: It's all about marketing. American culture doesn't embrace Asian heroes very readily. You can look at Hollywood as a perfect example of that; you don't see many Asian actors headlining blockbuster films (outside of Jackie Chan, of course).
Overall, the Asian man isn't as respected in our society as he should be, in my opinion. He is often ridiculed, but rarely taken seriously.
Oftentimes, the language barrier is a big reason why it's hard for us to relate to the Asian poker player. Many of the successful Asian players on the tournament circuit speak broken English, and that doesn't necessarily make for "good TV," which is what it's all about these days.
Perhaps the most underrated and neglected superstar in our game today is John Juanda. Without question, John has been the most successful tournament player in the world over the last five years. His consistency is unrivaled. If you had to pick one guy to make a final table, your best bet would be John Juanda, hands down. Yet, I'll often read the message boards on the Internet and notice that John's name is rarely mentioned among the lists of greats. Those lists are often laughable, obviously, but John's name should be a mainstay on any list of "superstar" players. His results speak for themselves.
Does all of this matter in the bigger scheme of things? No, I guess not. But it has always bothered me when soft-spoken, well-mannered poker players aren't recognized for their ability and are pushed to the back, while the loud and boorish take center stage. Now, John Juanda is hardly soft-spoken! If you know John as well as I do, you know that he is a master in the art of the needle. He is an absolute joker at the poker table, needling anybody and everybody. His humor is always good-natured, of course, but I personally don't think John's personality has really shone through on television the way it should. That's too bad, too, because John has really come up with some zingers!
On another note, it's very hard to ignore how successful the Asian players are in tournament poker. Of the top 20 in Card Player's Player of the Year Standings, nine are Asian (eight are Vietnamese and one is from Indonesia). So, what is it about the Vietnamese that makes them so good? Is it in their blood? Are they naturally smarter than people in most other cultures?
John Juanda came up with a theory that I thought was very profound. He explained to me that when he first came to this country, he spoke little if any English. So, when he played poker, all he did was watch the action and study people's body language. If someone was talking to him, he couldn't understand what the person was saying, but based on body language and facial expressions, he would make educated guesses as to what the person was saying. John went on to say, "You learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking." Think about that for a moment, as I think it's a great life lesson.
I have asked others for their opinions as to why Asians seem to do so well as a whole in poker, and have heard a wide variety of answers: "They are hungry. They work hard because they know they have to." "They don't take things for granted." "They have a lot of heart." All of those responses seem to be reasonable explanations, as far as I'm concerned.
More specifically, there is yet another group of totally neglected poker players in our society - Asian women. If you look around the high-limit sections in either L.A. or Vegas, you'll see that the limit hold'em games are chock-full of strong, aggressive Asian females. In the ladies event this year at the World Series of Poker, there were four Asian women at the final table: Huong Doan, Millie Shiu, Tracy Phan, and Karina Jett. Where did they finish at that final table? First, second, third, and fourth, respectively.
For Ladies Night II on the World Poker Tour, a tournament was held with more than 300 players for the last seat in the televised event. Who won it? Lavinna Zhang, who'd been playing for just six months. Then, at that WPT final table, she played brilliantly and easily could have hit the parlay, coming in second to Isabel Mercier.
I'm not really sure the rest of the world is noticing how strong the Asians are in the poker world, but I'm writing this column to let everyone know that I've sure noticed!