LAS VEGAS (AP) – California psychologist Jerry Yang pounced when he sensed weakness. When he needed outside help, his prayers were answered.
Yang began playing poker only two years ago, but he quickly jumped from eighth in chips at the final table and won the World Series of Poker’s main event. He used his dominant position to knock out seven challengers and take home an $8.25 million payday and poker’s most coveted bracelet early Wednesday morning.
“I study my opponents very carefully, and when I sensed something, when I sensed some weakness, I took a chance,” said Yang, 39. “Even if I had nothing, I decided to raise, reraise, push all-in or make a call.”
Yang and a huge mountain of cash were all that was left after plowing through a field of 6,358 players that began to play in stages July 6. Everyone paid or won $10,000 to enter the no-limit Texas Hold ’em main event, the biggest poker tournament of the year.
The ethnic Hmong immigrant from Laos had nearly the shortest stack of chips when nine finalists began play at about noon Tuesday. Despite being the smallest player at 5-foot-3, the married father of six was an intimidating force at the table from the beginning whenever he stood up to stare down an opponent or to reach for his chips.
In what surely will be one of the most talked-about faceoffs this year, Yang quickly declared an all-in reraise on the ninth hand of play. Lee Childs, a 35-year-old software engineer from Reston, Va., folded pocket queens, face up, on a board with a seven, four and deuce.
“I raised when I had even deuce-four. You know, nine-10; seven-deuce even,” Yang said. “And, fortunately, they folded.”
Later, when players fought back, they were quickly dispatched.
Philip Hilm, a 31-year-old Dane making a living playing poker in England, busted out after pushing all-in against Yang with a pair of fives after the flop and the chance for a flush.
Yang made the call holding an ace and king for a pair of kings and Hilm never improved, finishing ninth for $525,934.
“I couldn’t just sit and let him dominate the table like that,” Hilm said. “I don’t know if he was really catching lots of cards or if he was just lucky at the right moments. I guess we’ll know when we watch the TV.”
Lee Watkinson, a 40-year-old poker pro from Cheney, Wash., pushed all-in before the flop with an ace and seven, but Yang read through the show of strength by calling with an ace and nine. Watkinson finished eighth for a $585,699 payday.
“I was playing for the bracelet,” Watkinson said. “I wasn’t going for third, fourth or even second. I wanted to make a play and be a contender.”
Childs, who quit his job a month ago to play poker for a living, finished seventh with $705,229 when he went all-in with a king and jack against Yang, with a jack and eight. Childs lost when an eight came on the turn.
“My goal when I came in to the tournament was to trust my instincts, make the right decision and hopefully not get unlucky,” Childs said. “I was that close to doubling up.”
Hevad Khan, an Internet poker pro from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., finished in sixth when his ace and queen of spades couldn’t top a pair of jacks belonging to a surging Yang. Khan didn’t seem disappointed with sixth place and his $956,243 payday as he celebrated with friends in the audience.
Jon Kalmar, a 34-year-old poker pro from Chorley, England, was the only player to bust out against someone other than Yang. He lost a head-to-head bet against South African retiree Raymond Rahme when his ace and king failed to improve against Rahme’s pocket jacks.
Kalmar proclaimed himself “thrilled” with his prize and said he intended to use his $1.25 million in winnings for finishing fifth to pay bills and perhaps buy a car.
Alex Kravchenko, 36, was Yang’s next victim, when he was all-in before the flop with an ace and king but Yang nailed three of a kind, holding a pocket pair of eights. Kravchenko finished in fourth with $1.85 million.
Rahme went down when he pushed all-in with pocket kings on a board with an ace. After several minutes of pacing and a stare down, Yang made the call holding an ace and a five, for two aces, and Rahme shook his head in resignation.
“That was the only mistake I made in the whole tournament,” Rahme said.
When play got down to heads-up, Yang faced another refugee from South Asia, Tuan Lam, a 40-year-old Vietnamese Canadian online poker pro from Ontario.
Yang had 104.5 million in chips to Lam’s 23 million and it took several hands for both players to get into an all-in confrontation.
Lam made his move with an ace and queen of diamonds and Yang called with pocket eights.
When a queen, five and nine came on the flop, it looked like Lam, waving a Canadian flag, would be on the verge of an unlikely comeback.
But a seven on the turn and a six on the river gave Yang a straight, sealing a win.
Lam earned $4.84 million for his second-place finish.
“I was patient and waited for the big hand, but the cards came out different,” Lam said. “I have been through a hard life. And I will be going back to Vietnam and giving back.”
The finalists ranged in age from 22 to 62, and hailed from five nations: the U.S., Canada, Russia, England and South Africa. By birthplace, players also were from Laos, Vietnam and Denmark.
Each had their section of fans in the audience, and the arena took on the air of an Olympic event as supporters broke out into national songs every time their player won a big hand.
From the time he made it into the money with a guaranteed $20,320 a week ago, Yang vowed to give 10 percent to charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children, and the Ronald McDonald House.
After making $8.25 million, Yang said he planned to put his children through college, allow his wife to quit working and give back to the community.
“I had a strategy last night. The only way that I could win this tournament was by being aggressive from the very beginning and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. “And thank God I was also able to pick up some good cards at the same time.”
On the Net:
World Series of Poker, www.worldseriesofpoker.com
Associated Press Writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report.