With an almost dismissive gesture, he tosses two banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills -- each containing $5,000 -- into the middle of the table. The stakes are raised by $16,000. The railbirds at the Four Queens Casino in Las Vegas lean a little closer to the emerald poker table. Is Chan holding a lock? Or is he simply blowing smoke after being frustrated by several straight losing hands? The game, Kansas City Lowball, isn't Chan's best or favorite, but it's poker, and Johnny Chan has a reputation for being one of the best all-around poker players in the world.
His opponent, a lanky young Swede with dark, brooding eyes, leans possessively over several towers of neatly stacked chips and caresses a thick bundle of hundred-dollar bills. His posture suggests a large bird of prey crouched over a fresh kill, not wanting to yield his treasure to a fellow predator. A long moment stretches into several seconds. Five compatriots from Sweden cluck softly in their native tongue as they await his move.
The Swede peeks again at his cards. He's merely playing for time as he weighs the strength of his hand against the $10,000 that it will cost him to see Chan's. He stares into the distance for the tiniest clue, something, anything, to replace the question mark that's so obviously hanging over his head that it might as well be encased in a comic strip bubble. Chan sits impassively, impenetrable as a tombstone, as he waits to see if his brinksmanship will be rewarded. Boredom, mostly, is all he gives away.
Finally, the Swede shakes his head, looks away and wordlessly flips his cards into the middle of the table. Chan does the same as the dealer sweeps the meld of black chips and hundred-dollar bills into his corner. For a gambler of Chan's stature, $16,000 is not a large pot, but he'll tell you that it's always a relief to make the winning play. The win puts him $11,000 ahead for the afternoon.
"Not bad for a day's work, huh?" he says.
Over dinner at an opulent Chinese restaurant called Lilly Langtry's on the second floor of the Golden Nugget Hotel, Chan confides that his $10,000 gambit was nothing but a bluff. "A big bluff," Chan proclaims as he nimbly separates a garlic-cooked shrimp from its stubborn husk. "I had to make my move to attack. When I attacked him it worked." He produces a pen and without hesitation begins to broadly sketch his strategy on the cream-colored table cloth. The big circle represents the pot, the arrows show his attack posture and a few percentages are added for good measure. No one offers even a sideward flicker at the curious faux pas. Our waiter removes the remains of an eighty-dollar plate of raw lobster with nary a glance at Chan's makeshift blackboard. Chan uses the same pen to sign off the check, which comes to an astonishing $187 for the two of us. Reluctantly reaching for my wallet, I ask my dinner companion if this meal is comped. To my profound relief, he nods. My wallet stays put.
Like many high rollers in Vegas, Chan rarely pays for his meals. They're provided by the hotel, in this case the Golden Nugget, which happily picks up the tab for Chan's suite, meals and any food or drink he wants stocked in his room. Chan asks only that green tea and Evian water be sent to his room. "I don't drink," he informs the VIP host, who seems intent on turning his suite into a high-rise speakeasy. It's not uncommon for hotels to supply high-spending patrons with every available luxury -- legal and otherwise -- especially if their guests are prone to dropping small fortunes at the gaming tables. Tonight Chan merely glides through the Golden Nugget's splashy casino, beeper and portable phone tucked into his designer warmup suit, as he makes his way to his office -- the high-stakes poker tables.