LAS VEGAS — It took 16 hours of poker but the tenacious Jerry Yang would not be denied. Yang came into the day as one of the short stacks and proceeded to rampage his way through the competition. By the end Yang had left countless players in his dust and proved he could be a champion:
Jerry Yang came to the USA when he was 13, from war-torn Laos after four years at a refugee camp in Thailand.
Tuan Lam grew up in Vietnam during the war there and immigrated to Canada at 19 after two years at a refugee camp in Indonesia.
Both played their cards right.
Shortly before 4 a.m. here Wednesday they combined to win more than $13 million at the Main Event at the World Series of Poker, which lived up to its name with a third-place finisher from South Africa and a fourth-place finisher from Russia.
"This is a dream come true," said Yang, 39, a psychologist and social worker from Temecula, Calif., after winning the gold bracelet and top prize of $8.25 million in only his second year of playing poker.
Lam, 41, was the last to be eliminated in a field that began with 6,358 players on July 6. He won $4,840,981 after canceling a trip he had planned to visit his family back in Vietnam so he could to play at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
"I wanted to go back and do some things for my family, but at the last minute I changed my mind because I wanted to play in the World Series so bad," Lam said. "I'm thinking when everything settles down, I'll go back."
The nine-player final table began play just past noon Tuesday. During 161 hours of action, the atmosphere resembled an Olympic arena.
Final Hand plus Interview:
Lam, who resides in Kitchener, Ontario, was cheered on by Canadian fans. Third-place finisher Raymond Rhame, 62, of Johannesburg, who won about $3 million, had a South African rooting section sporting green T-shirts that said, "All African Poker … Everybody Loves Raymond."
Flag-waving Russian fans supported fourth-place Alex Kravchenko of Moscow, who won nearly $1.9 million.
A boisterous group of fellow British players backed fifth-place Jon Kalmar ($1.3 million) of Chorley, England.
The top finisher among U.S. natives — sixth-place Hevad Khan, 22, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — had college buddies among his fans.
Yang's boosters included his wife, Sue, a native of Thailand whom he met in the USA, his parents and other family members and friends.
After his victory, in an interview with ESPN's Norman Chad, Yang mentioned how thrilled he was to shake hands with former champion Johnny Chan. "Today, it's even better than that. I get to sit next to you at the final table with over $8 million," Yang said to Chad.
Wrapped bundles of cash representing the top prize were piled on the table as Yang and Lam played their final hands. While the bundles had $100 bills on each side, inside were $1 bills. But the $8.25 million Yang took home was real.
Yang, who works with foster children in his job as a psychologist and social worker, said he will donate 10% of his winnings to Make-A-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and Ronald McDonald House.
"I have six kids of my own. I remember being a child myself when I came through the refugee camp," he said. "I understand how bad it is to suffer nutritionally, physically. I used to have a big, old stomach when I was in a Thailand refugee camp because we didn't have good nutrition."
Yang's heritage is from the mountain people of Laos, the Hmong. "The communists invaded my country back in the '70s," he said. "My family immigrated to Thailand."
It wasn't an easy move. He said that before reaching Thailand, his family was captured by communists. "We were threatened that if we tried to escape, we would be hunted and killed," he said. "Thank God, we made another attempt and we were successful."
At the start of the final table, Yang stood eighth among nine players with 8.5 million in chips. Through aggressive play, he went into the final hand with 107 million in chips compared to Lam's 20.5 million.
Yang directly eliminated seven of the other eight competitors, matching the feat accomplished last year by Jamie Gold when he won a record $12 million.
On the final hand, with Lam making one, last, all-in attempt to double up his chips, Yang got the winning straight he needed on the final card, the "river" in the parlance of Texas Hold'em poker.
Yang won his seat by winning a $225 satellite tournament in California instead of paying the $10,000 entry fee. Though he describes himself as a "very part-time" poker player, he's honed his skills for two years in the highly competitive, legalized card rooms of his home state.
Yang joins the recent list of improbable recent champions in the Main Event, including 2003 champion Chris Moneymaker, a Tennessee accountant who won his seat in an online tournament.
"I think this story is up there with Moneymaker," said Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the 2000 champion, who was among the spectators at the final table.
"I think it's an even better story than Moneymaker because a Laotian refugee makes it a better story. It's like Moneymaker plus Scotty Nguyen," added Ferguson, referring to the 1998 victory by the Vietnamese-born Nguyen.
Lam, who has been playing poker for 12 years, bought his way into the World Series and almost became another Vietnamese-born champion.
Lam's introduction to poker came after a friend asked him to work as a card dealer in a social club. He quickly realized he could make more money dealing and even more if he was playing at the table.
"The first couple of years I didn't do very good," he said. "I read the (poker) books. I learned the game from some of my best friends, and I started from there."