Can Yang save poker's face?

19 July 2007

It seemed odd when Jerry Yang started praying aloud at the final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event. Poker players don't normally ask for divine intervention while playing a game often associated with the devil.

At first, I was incredulous. I am a God-fearing man. And I'm not afraid to admit that I believe in the power of prayer, but asking for help from the Big Guy during a poker hand? That's a bit much, given my experience watching people pray on the battlefields of Iraq.

I was a little bit insulted, and actually quite put off. I found myself cheering against this "ordained" would-be-champion. But all that changed once Yang spoke after winning Main Event.

The guy seems honest.

We'll have a year to see whether he makes good on his promise to donate 10 percent ($825,000) of his winnings to charity, but what a commitment.

Yang is a former refugee (Laos) and a father of six, who couldn't afford the $10,000 buy-in. He told Norman Chad after the event that when he made the money ($20,000), he had already planned to donate 10 percent of it to charity.

That's something coming from a guy who wouldn't reveal where he was staying during the Main Event, but told the crowd "You don't want to go there."

Putting large amounts of money in the hands of someone who will do good things with it is good for the man, the world, and interestingly enough, the game of poker.

Poker needs positive press like this to fight those who do harm to the game's reputation.

Jamie Gold, last year's Main Event winner, and by default, this year's ambassador of the World Series of Poker, hurt poker's reputation by initially reneging on an agreement to split his $12 million winnings.

Gold, who I truly believe is a decent guy, elicited sympathy initially because his family was having financial troubles due to his father's awful fight with ALS.

But his legal battles and his subsequent claims about his excellent poker play during the 2006 Main Event made him a villain of sorts, at the very least, someone who did not really champion the issues facing poker like Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem. This did little to change public perception that poker players are inherently selfish.

Yang is the anti-Gold. He thanked God and his family for his win, admitting freely that without outside help, he never would have become a World Champion. He didn't talk about how good he was or how much he deserved to win. And he was so intent on donating his winnings; he already had it handed out in his mind before he even won.

If Yang spends the next year committed to charity work, he could help erase the stereotype of the selfish poker player.

Annie Duke alluded to this stereotype when she listed reasons for running a WSOP charity tournament to help the situation in Darfur. Her efforts, along with the bankrolls of dozens of players, raised more than $500,000 for a cause that desperately needs it.

Add that to Yang's monetary promise and Phil Gordon's Put a Bad Beat on Cancer campaign, where players donate one percent of their WSOP winnings to cancer research, and you have a WSOP that raised more than $2 million for charity.

The battle over Internet poker in America is where this charitableness might help most.

U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) called the poker world out during a House Financial Services Committee hearing last month. He pointed to the biographies of several Full Tilt Poker pros in his monologue, not veiling his contempt for people who started professional gambling lives before they were of legal age.

His opinion is not uncommon, especially in the halls of Congress. Gambling is often deemed a sin and the political is world very aware of the powerful Christian conservative vote.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was pushed through Congress by legislators like Bachus. And it hasn't been repealed because few elected officials are willing to stick their neck out for an issue with large moral implications.

But what if the newest poker champion is a man of God?

Imagine Bachus trying to call Yang out. The new champ fled communist Laos with dreams of making it to a country that champions freedom. He put his faith in God, allowing the Almighty to guide him to America. And then he chose to play poker.

Yang openly prayed during a major poker event and referenced God hundreds of times during his play and interviews. He believes God has guided him throughout his life and he has no qualms that on his path was a felt covered poker table.

By the way Rep. Bachus and others, Yang is also endorsed by Full Tilt Poker.

Call me crazy, but with three different attacks on the UIGEA released in the past six months, is this the straw that breaks the camel's back? Will a God-fearing champion become a beacon for the oppressed world of American Internet poker?

I think there's a chance.

The disenfranchised poker players of the U.S. should praise Yang, a man who puts his faith in God. While he's using his winnings to do some good, maybe he'll change some minds. And just maybe, the world will see that poker is not such a bad thing.


Mucking McLane

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