What does one of the world's most successful poker players earn in a year?
Chan won't answer that sensitive question except to say that it's over $100,000. What he's really saying is that the tax collectors don't need to know the specifics of his gambling prowess. They'll learn all they need to know about his income when he files his tax return. But Uncle Sam certainly collects a chunk of change from this gambler. "The government loves me," he says.
Brunson, who's been making his living playing poker since the early 1960s, says the top players make "way over $100,000" per year. He would not venture a guess at Chan's income except to say, "He does well."
Chan was audited in 1982 but managed to keep the investigators at bay. "I won the case; they made a mistake. I asked the investigator a simple question: 'How many gamblers do you know that pay any taxes on their winnings?'" Chan laughs at the memory. "He could not name me more than ten people in the whole country."
While many poker players are known for their vices, Chan is known for just the opposite. He doesn't drink, smoke or chase women. "Women and poker don't mix," he says. "They break your concentration." He also exercises regularly, is popular among his peers and is considered a good family man. Life would be perfect for Chan, except that he missed his calling.
Shortish and roundish at 5-6 and 160 pounds, and without the classic chiseled features of a screen star, Chan nevertheless insists he would have made a great actor. Theatrics are an essential part of poker, he points out. After his win at the 1987 World Series of Poker, Chan says he had offers to appear in a gambling movie, but had to reject them because the money wasn't good enough. "Now I regret it," he says. Is the regret fueled by the fleeting opportunity at celebrity? No, says Chan. "I am a celebrity."
The odds of becoming a top-notch high-stakes poker player are probably as low as carving out a successful acting career in Hollywood. Surviving in the green-felt jungle of the poker world is a formidable task because it takes more than a thick bankroll and a good head for cards. Insiders will tell you it takes heart, the courage to risk everything when the odds are in your favor. For every poker professional who has overcome those odds there are hundreds of wanna-bes who failed the test.
Johnny Chan almost became one of them.
He was 16 when he took the plunge. Armed with a bankroll built through at job at his father's Chinese restaurant ("Long hours, lotta work," he recalls) and his winnings from informal, but highly lucrative, poker games, he flew into Vegas on a junket with some buddies. Bristling with confidence, he made straight for the high-stakes blackjack tables -- and was cleaned out in two days. Despite his losses Chan now had the "bug", and the rest of his life would never be the same. What followed was a series of Vegas gambling sprees, most of which ended in financial disaster. Chan loved the action, but admits he didn't know when to quit. It was a cycle that would take him years -- and several hefty bankrolls -- to break.
Despite his strong attraction to the gambling world, Chan pursued a more traditional path after high school, enrolling at the University of Houston to study hotel management. The only problem was that any aspiration to work in a field that paid maybe $30,000 a year paled in comparison to the glitz of high-stakes gambling. Chan told a reporter that $30,000 would only be enough for him to see two cards in a high-stakes poker game. By the time he was 21 the gambling bug won out over studies and he moved out to Vegas to become a professional gambler.