MERCED – Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill becomes the Jerry Yang show on a crowded Friday night.
A tickled 3-year-old ducks into her mother's chest as sheets of flame burst over four open grills sizzling with steak, chicken, shrimp, scallops and lobster. Chefs and customers scream "Sake Bomb!" each time a patron pounds the counter, sending a shot of sake perched on chopsticks into a tumbler of beer.
The man in the black shirt and cap mopping down tables, cheering on customers and signing autographs in this Central Valley eatery isn't one of the bus boys. He's Jerry "The Shadow" Yang, the multimillionaire card shark who owns the joint.
Next to the sushi bar you'll see a poster of "The Shadow" raking in $8.3 million at the 2007 World Series of Poker.
The 42-year-old Hmong refugee from Laos has become a legend among Southeast Asians – a champion of underdogs who has given away more than $2 million. His long-shot victory has transformed the social worker and father of six into a genie for the Make-A-Wish-Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. And his charity poker tournaments have raised $800,000 for Chinese disaster victims, California fire victims, Boys & Girls clubs, schools and hospitals.
He plans to bring the Jerry Yang show – sushi, community service and all – to Sacramento as soon as he finds the right chef. He's already scouting restaurant locations in Elk Grove and Roseville.
So, how did a Hmong refugee who arrived here at age 11 with very little education grow up to be a poker genius and sushi impresario?
The pain of a constantly empty stomach, he says, was the driving force that taught him self-discipline and motivated him to do more than expected – and unexpected.
A poker novice
Yang was a poker novice when he came to Las Vegas in 2007 to compete against more than 6,000 others for a seat at the final table.
The good-natured refugee ambushed his competition by repeatedly going all-in – betting all his chips and pressuring his opponents into folding hand after hand. At the final table, he bluffed poker pro Lee Childs, who folded a pair of queens and gave Yang the $19.4 million pot.
On the final hand, Yang's pair of eights – the famed "pocket 8's" – came from behind against Vietnamese refugee Tuan Lam's pair of queens. Yang hit an inside straight on the last two cards to take his place in poker lore with Texas Dolly Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Johnny Chan.
Yang, who had been playing poker for just two years when he won his World Series seat, has been coming from behind all his life.
At age 7, he and his family were fleeing through the jungles of communist Laos when the Pathet Lao caught them and held an AK-47 to his head.
"My father and uncle threw themselves on the ground, pleading with them not to kill the kids," Yang said. "We were taken to another town after we promised not to escape again."
From 1962 until 1973, Yang's father served in the CIA's guerrilla army under legendary Hmong General Vang Pao. Thanks to ESPN and YouTube, Yang is now considered the second-most-famous Hmong behind the general.
But he almost didn't make it out of Laos. The night he and his family tried to cross the Mekong River into Thailand "was the longest night of my life," he recalled. "We must have had 23 people in a little wooden boat. Bullets were flying across between Thai and communist soldiers. I heard kids crying, mothers crying, kids drowning – I still have nightmares about it."
His family spent four years in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, where he watched several cousins die of malnutrition. "When I heard my family was going to America, it was the happiest day of my life – winning the World Series doesn't compare," Yang said.
They arrived at his uncle's place in Nashville in October 1979, and 48 people crammed into a four-bedroom apartment. His dad, who couldn't speak English, got a job buffing Gibson guitars for $2.35 an hour.
Yang said he was so small and malnourished, he was placed in fourth grade at age 11. He got straight A's and skipped fifth grade.
The family moved to Fresno, where he enrolled in Fresno Adventist Academy and graduated as valedictorian. To pay his tuition, he mopped floors and did odd jobs at a nursing home from 3 to 7 a.m. every day.
He attended Pacific Union College in Napa, where he earned a master's degree in health psychology. He spent the next next eight years working with foster kids in Temecula in Riverside County.
"The brutal abuse I came across was beyond my comprehension," said Yang. "These kids are so helpless; they can't do anything about it."
Reading one's opponents
Yang said he stumbled across poker while channel surfing. After watching a few poker tournaments on TV, he figured, "I can do this," read a few poker books and started playing after work.
His background in psychology, he said, helps him read his opponents.
"I take notes on them during bathroom breaks," he said. "If they throw their chips in fast, they're trying to intimidate you, the sign of a bluff. When they purse their lips after a bet, that's also a sign of weakness. If they push their chips in slow motion, you better watch out – they have a good hand."
The keys to great poker, he said: self-discipline, reading people and money management. A born-again Christian, Yang also believes God has plenty to do with it.
After winning the World Series, Yang quit his social work job but didn't lose his interest in helping kids. He and his wife regularly review requests for help. "If I feel the project's worth doing," he said, "I contribute what I can."
His wife, Sue Khang, quit her job as a blackjack dealer the day Yang won the World Series so she could stay home to raise their six children.
"Before, we couldn't even afford to go to Disneyland. Now, they're taking piano lessons, karate lessons – and working at the restaurant," Yang said. "There's no free lunch in America."
Yang said he had dreamed of owning a restaurant since he was a famished 10th-grader in Fresno. "Being a refugee boy, I've always been hungry," he said, as customers poured in on a recent Friday. "My father was working for minimum wage, and we couldn't even afford apples – I had this craving for apples."
Every six months, his aunts or uncles would take the family out for Chinese buffet. "I thought, if I have my own restaurant, I can eat whatever I want."
He discovered sushi four years ago and has grown to love the textures, colors and health benefits. "It takes art to design a sushi roll," Yang said. "To me, it's a beautiful thing."
Taking the initiative
In poker lingo, many thought Yang was "drawing dead" by opening a high-end restaurant last September at the depths of the recession. When he anted up $540,000 to open Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill in Merced, "a lot of people made fun of me," he said.
But Yang didn't win the World Series by playing it safe. "Sometimes you have to take the initiative, do the opposite of what other people are doing," he said.
Pocket 8's draws customers from all over California, many of them Hmong Americans. Three young Hmong from Fresno at the sushi bar on a recent Friday said they were there to support Yang because he gave $1,000 to Hmong Voices, an effort by teen filmmakers to preserve Hmong history by interviewing elders.
"Jerry gives out money to help youth everywhere," said Fresno City College student Thai Lee.
Some question whether Yang's quick rise to poker millionaire sends the wrong message to Asian American communities struggling with problem gambling.
But Yang said it doesn't have to be a problem.
He said he mentors about 50 poker players around the nation and counsels his students, "Don't bet more than 5 percent of your paycheck every month. I promised my wife if I lose that, I'll wait until next month to play. That's how you build discipline."
Yang's ability to read customers has contributed to Pocket 8's success, said bartender Alex Kang. "It's a family business, and there were a lot of mistakes in the beginning, but he's very personable and he knows how to carry on a good conversation and make people feel welcome."
Yang hopes to do the same in Sacramento County.
"I really like Elk Grove; there are a lot of brand new communities," he said. "I think I'll do well."