Poker’s rich history and strategic depth combine to give it a thrilling competitive scene. Competition in poker is a core part of the game and various legends have left their marks throughout history. These players have undoubtedly, in one way or another, changed the game, not just from their tournament wins but also from their contributions to poker strategy. As a result, today’s competitive poker scene is fascinating, with players constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In this article, we’ll look at one of poker’s early superstars: Johnny “The Orient Express” Chan.

Johnny Chan is a Chinese-born American professional poker player with over $8.6 million in tournament winnings. He is an incredibly well-rounded player, known for his success in Texas Holdem, Omaha and Draw poker. He is a living symbol of poker greatness. His status and prestige was immortalized in the 1998 cult classic movie, Rounders. During a pivotal flashback scene, Chan falls victim to a bluff by the main character, who considers the successful play to be a sign that he is ready for the ‘big leagues.’

Chan was the first player to win 10 World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets and he is tied with Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey for the second-most bracelets won by a single player. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002, has starred in various poker TV shows and mentored 2006 WSOP Champion, Jamie Gold, during his championship run.

Early Life

Like many other pro poker players, Chan’s early life wasn’t the easiest. He was born in Guangzhou, China in 1957. His family emigrated to Hong Kong when he was six and then to America when he was ten. His parents opened a restaurant in Houston, Texas while acclimating to the new culture and language. Bowling was a new American pastime he learned to enjoy and it was at a local bowling alley where he discovered his true calling: Poker. He initially played casual games with friends, but quickly became good enough to participate in the underground poker games at his family’s restaurant. In fact he was so good that he was eventually kicked out for winning too much and too often. At sixteen, he decided to try his luck in Las Vegas. Although it was not legal for him to play, he managed to find a seat at a poker table. There was one night during these early days of his poker career that he turned $500 into $20,000. But, as it so often does to most people, Vegas got the better of him, and he lost it all the following night. 

Unlike many other pros, Chan didn’t go directly into professional poker. He went to college in Houston, studying hotel and restaurant management so he would be ready to take over the family business. At least, that was the plan. When he was twenty-one, he quit school and moved to Vegas to pursue his dream and, unsurprisingly, his decision wasn’t well-received by his family.

During these early years, his play was inconsistent. He’d have high points but would often have to take a temporary job or sell his belongings to keep playing. Doyle Brunson once called Chan ‘hot-headed’, claiming he had talent but “didn’t know when to keep his temper under control or know when to quit playing.”

The Orient Express

By 1982, Chan was turning his life around. He quit smoking, started exercising regularly, and began eating healthy, all of which had a positive impact on his gameplay. The same year, he entered the America’s Cup of Poker in Las Vegas. Here, poker player and casino owner Bob Stupak gave him the nickname “The Orient Express,” after watching him knockout 13 out of 16 players in an astounding 30 minutes*. He won the tournament and from there, his career took off. To date, he has won 10 WSOP bracelets in a variety of events including Seven Card Stud, Deuce to Seven Draw, and Pot Limit Omaha.

His first WSOP main event win came in 1987, where he earned $625,000 and the coveted World Series of Poker bracelet. Though this may not seem like much, it was tremendous in that era. The following year, he successfully defended his title, winning his second WSOP in a row, something only two other players in the world have done. He was just short of winning the WSOP a third time, narrowly losing to a young upstart known as Phil Hellmuth heads-up at the final table. During this time, Chan was known for his calm, calculated, and precise playstyle, complete with an uncanny ability to read his opponents. Oh, and the trademark orange he brings to every game. While he initially brought it as an air freshener to contend with the old, smokey poker rooms, it eventually became his signature good luck charm, at his side whenever he played.