Asian Poker Legends
Growing up in Karachi, Owais reveled in the accomplishments of countrymen who brought the field hockey and cricket World Cups home to Pakistan. After migrating to the United States and the University of California at Irvine, Ahmed was able to add another world championship to that elite list in 2011 when he won the $2,500 Omaha Hold’em/Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo event at the World Series of Poker. He overcame a three-to-one chip deficit against Mike “The Grinder” Mizrachi to win the title at the final table.
Ahmed, whose day job is as a data warehouse analyst and supply chain manager has remained busy at the World Series, cashing at least twice every year since 2010, reaching five final tables.
Dao Bac (Vietnam)
Dao Bac was born in Vietnam in 1956 and came to the United States when he was 33 years old. Married with two children, Dao made his way as a professional poker player after graduating from the card rooms around Southern California.
A winner of major tournaments and frequent presence in cash games, Dao broke through for a bracelet in 2007 in the $1,000 S.H.O.E. Event. S.H.O.E send players thought rotating tables of Seven-Card Stud, Limit Hold’em, Omaha High-Low, and Stud Eight-or-better. He immediately gave the gold bauble to his wife, Hanh Nguyen. A practicing Buddhist, Dao is often spotted at tournaments peering into a leather-bound prayer book when he is out of a hand.
Johnny Chan (China)
Johnny Chan is at the vanguard of Asian players competing in poker tournaments in the West. He was born in 1957 in Guangzhou, hard by the Pearl River in the Guangdong province of South China. While he attributes his success to the unfamiliarity of traditional players going against Asian players, Chan himself was in Phoenix, Arizona with his family by the time he was 11 years old, learning American ways.
Chan eagerly adopted the conventions of his new land and went to the University of Houston with an eye towards hotel and restaurant management. He decided he would rather manage stacks of chips in a casino, however, and dropped out to pursue the life of a professional gambler in Las Vegas. Despite his scant time in Asia, Chan picked up the moniker “Oriental Express,” following a demolition of a final table in 1981 in less than an hour.
He certainly rolled over opponents like a freight train. Chan won the Main Event at the World Series of Poker in consecutive years in 1987 and 1988. Jerry Buss, who disposed of his substantial real estate fortune on poker and the Los Angeles Lakers, offered Chan an NBA championship ring if he could win three in a row. The Oriental Express almost made it, losing to Phil Hellmuth in a heads-up showdown at the final table in 1989.
Chan became the first player to win ten World Series of Poker titles and he has made it to 27 final tables. He is known for playing with an orange in front of him, which some interpreted as an Asian mysticism but he claims it is just an air conditioner to help ward off the cigarette smoke in the casino. Chan has written books and done consulting work for casinos and game designers. He also owns a fast-food franchise in the Las Vegas Stratosphere Hotel.
David Chiu (China)
David Chiu was born in Nanning, China before making his way to the United States and Colorado where he ran a restaurant. He took a second job dealing poker and gradually found himself more often on the other side of the table. He began entering tournaments and in 1996 when he was 36 years old. Chiu narrowly missed reaching the final table that year in the World Series of Poker $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’em Main Event and finished 10th. As a consolation, Chiu reeled in his first bracelet by winning the $2,000 Limit Hold’em event.
Chiu is partially deaf in both ears, a consequence of a swimming accident. He claims this helps him concentrate and gives him an advantage in reading his opponents at the table. Whatever accounts for his poker magic, Chiu has cashed at the WSOP every year since 1998. All told, the easy-going Chiu has pocketed cash 67 times at the World Series and brought home five bracelets.
Quinn Do (Vietnam)
Do came from Vietnam with his family to Seattle when he was 11 years old, back in 1986. When it came time for college he headed over to the local University of Washington to begin a career in criminology. He never made it to graduation, ditching the schooling not for gambling but for life as a restauranteur. He was dishing out Vietnamese fare in Seattle and Los Angeles when he took up poker in 2004.
The very next year Do was in possession of a World Series of Poker bracelet, taking down the field in the $2,500 Limit Hold’em event. Since then Do has cashed six times in the WSOP and been a consistent performer on the World Poker Tour with three money finishes and one advance to a final table. He fought his way to second place money behind Phil Ivey in that tournament, the 2008 LA Poker Classic.
Nani Dollison (South Korea)
Nani learned poker from her father when she was growing up on the Korean peninsula. On New Year’s Eve 1972 when she was 18 years old Nani headed for America on the arm of her new husband, a United States serviceman. The marriage did not see another new year and Dollison was soon working in California card clubs running chips and dealing cards.
Dollison began honing her game in cash events in the card clubs but did not try tournament play until 1998 after moving to Tunica, Mississippi to distribute cards at the Horseshoe Casino. She worked part-time and studied the masters at no limit Texas Hold’em when she got the chance. She learned her lessons well enough to win bracelets in 2000 and 2001 in the $1,000 Women’s Championship and in 2001 scored her biggest win at the World Series of Poker by taking the bracelet in the $2,000 Limit Hold’em event, cashing for $441,440.
Dollison has since given up her casino jobs, supporting herself at the tables. She has piled up eight finishes in the money at the WSOP and finished as high as 115th in the Main Event in 2005.
Hasan Habib (Pakistan)
Hasan Habib first enjoyed widespread recognition in Pakistan when he emerged from his hometown of Karachi to win the 14-and-under national tennis championship. He left Asia to attend the University of Redlands and study business. Habib eventually started a nationwide chain of video stores but saved enough time to play casino poker. He took home his first tournament cash in 1993 at the age of 31.
Seven years later he was competing at the final table in the Main Event at the World Series of Poker and finishing 4th. In 2005, Habib became the first Pakistani to win a WSOP bracelet at the $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo Split event. He has snared 25 money finishes at the World Series and reached three final tables on the World Poker Tour. Any angst over the demise of the video tape has been soothed by over $5.5 million in tournament winnings.
Thang Lu (Vietnam)
The player they call Tiger Luu owns two WSOP bracelets, winning the $1,500 Omaha Hi-Low Split-8 or Better back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. Luu left his native Vietnam for the United States when he was 17 years old and worked as a dealer in Las Vegas while he sharpened his playing skills. The lowball specialist likes to say his favorite poker game is Badugi, a variation that plays like Triple Draw with low hands.
Tony Ma (Vietnam)
As a seaman in the South Vietnamese Navy, Tony Ma had been on many missions in the Vietnam War but April 29, 1975 was different. While at sea his cargo ship received word that the South had just surrendered and so the captain did not stop sailing until the boat reached the Philippines. The sailors received asylum but were forced to leave their families.
Tony received an American sponsor in the United States and wound up in southern California where he worked as a ship welder and truck driver. His off-hours were spent at Pai Gow Poker tables and playing dominoes. One day while playing cards he was struck by the inspiration that he could make $100 a day just playing cards. It seemed like a good idea to his wife so he set off with a $5,000 bankroll to become a professional card player.
He entered his first tournament in the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles in 1994. In a field of 300, Ma finished sixth. He returned home and painstakingly wrote out the mistakes he had made that produced that unsatisfactory result. By 1996 he was at the World Series of Poker and winning his first bracelet in the $5,000 Limit Hold’em Event.
Ma has notched over 20 money finishes since then and added a second bracelet in the $2,000 Limit Hold’em Event in 2000. In 1999 he was tabbed as Card Player Magazine’s Player of the Year. After his first 15 years as a tournament poker player, Ma had pocketed over $4,000,000 in winnings – about $750 a day.
Men Nguyen (Vietnam)
Men Nguyen was born in 1954 in Phan Thiet and left school when he was 13 years old to drive a bus and earn money for his family. He spent most of his formative years working on a plan to escape Communist Vietnam. Finally in 1978 he boarded a boat with 87 countrymen and sailed to Malaysia where political asylum from the United States was waiting. He moved to California.
While studying to become an American citizen Nguyen joined a junket to Las Vegas in 1984. That weekend Men sat in on his first poker game. He was soon a regular, generating so much action he was called “Money Machine.” Citizenship arrived in 1986 and his first tournament win came a year later. Nguyen shoveled his poker winnings into a dry cleaning business and then a furniture store but he found such commercial ventures to be a drain on his poker time. By 1990 he was at the tables full time.
Men Nguyen has never won the World Series of Poker but has copped more than 75 other tournaments. He has cashed 79 times at the WSOP and claimed seven bracelets in five different events. Four times Nguyen has been named Card Player Magazine Player of the year and his tournament winnings are well north of $10,000,000.
But beyond all that Nguyen is recognized as one of the finest mentors in the game. Many consider him to have trained more tournament winners than any other teacher. So many, in fact, that Nguyen is most often referred to simply as “Men the Master.”
Minh Van Nguyen (Vietnam)
One of Men the Master’s star pupils has been his cousin, Minh Van Nguyen. Nguyen splashed onto the poker tournament scene in 1999 and in 2002 stormed to a 24th place finish in the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Main Event at the World Series of Poker. The next year he made it all the way to 11th while capturing his first gold bracelet in the $1,500 Seven-card Stud Hi-Lo Split. In 2004, Nguyen won another bracelet by battering the field in the $1,500 Pot Limit Hold’em Event. He has been a regular money casher at both the WSOP and the World Poker Tour.
Phi Nyugen (Vietnam)
Known for his mild-mannered approach to the game, Phi Nyugen early on gained a reputation for going deep into tournaments. He won gold bracelets at the World Series of Poker in back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004 in No Limit Hold’em events and has cashed regularly in both the WSOP (21 times) and on the World Poker Tour (six times).
Scotty Nyugen (Vietnam)
The Prince of Poker was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1962 but his mother quickly hustled him out of the war-torn country. He spent time in Taiwan before obtaining a sponsorship and coming to the United States at the age of 14. He gave his sponsors cause for regret when he was booted out of school for spending more time in poker rooms than classrooms.
Nyugen eventually went through dealer school and started casino work. He would regularly give back his nightly wages at the poker tables and became known for amassing – and losing – substantial bankrolls. He also became accomplished at going through large quantities of legal, and illegal, substances.
By his thirties Nyugen had honed his game to become a formidable tournament player. He won his first gold bracelet in the 1997 $2,000 Omaha 8 or Better Event and the following year triumphed in a memorable Main Event when a full house of nines over eights was dealt on the table in the final hand and Scotty happened to be holding J-9. His elation was short-lived however as he got the news that one of his brothers had been killed in a car accident back in Vietnam while driving around and celebrating Scotty’s victory.
Nyugen has been known for his emotional and sometimes boorish play which culminated at the final table of the 2008 WSOP $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship Event. Nyugen walked away with his fifth gold bracelet but alcohol-fueled tirades against fellow competitors and even waitresses left his public reputation in tatters. Nevertheless, the Prince of Poker remains the only player with first place trophies from the WSOP Main Event, the WSOP Players Championship and a WPT Championship. He is also one of only 19 competitors to pile up over $10 million in tournaments winnings.
David Pham (Vietnam)
David Pham was born in South Vietnam at the height of American involvement in the war in southeast Asia in 1967. When he was 17 years old he boarded a boat for the United States with 144 other refugees; only 45 survived the Pacific crossing. Pham found a job in his cousin’s laundry business but he wound up learning more about inside straights than pressing shirts – his cousin was the famed nurturer of poker playing talent, Men “The Master” Nyugen.
Cultivating an aggressive style, Pham’s first foray into professional poker was disastrous as he went bust. Pham and his wife ran a nail salon while he practiced some more. When he next took the plunge into poker it was in Atlantic City. This time he prospered and in 2000 “The Dragon” cashed in 17 major tournaments and was named Card Player’s Player of the Year. The next year he was wearing his first golf bracelet for lacerating the field in the $2,000 S.H.O.E Event.
In 2007, four major tournament wins led to another Player of the Year nod. Pham has made 11 final tables in the World Series of Poker, winning two bracelets. He has stormed nine final tables on the World Poker Table and another on the European Poker Tour. He maintains his base in Bell Gardens, California, one of only five cities out of 88 in Los Angeles County that allows casino gambling.
John Phan (Vietnam)
The Vietnamese-born Phan has been playing poker since 1990 when he was 16 years old. “The Razor” is known for having one of the sharpest minds in the game. And with a busy tournament schedule he needs to maintain a sharp edge. After a string of money finishes at the World Series of Poker, Phan broke through in 2008 by thumping fields in the $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em Event and the $2,500 2-7 Triple Draw Event.
While the cards were hot, Phan burned through the World Poker Tour and won that title as well. When 2008 ended, The Razor had accumulated enough points to be named Card Player’s Player of the Year. Phan has 16 WSOP cash finishes and is closing in on $6 million in tournament chips.
Kevin Song (South Korea)
Kevin Song has finished as high as 20th in the World Series of Poker Main Event and copped a bracelet in 1997 in the $2,000 Limit Hold’em tournament. He has cashed at the WSOP 33 times and taken home first prize in the Diamond Jim Brady event, the L.A. Poker Classic and the Legends of Poker Tournament.
Not a bad resume for a fellow who considers himself nothing more than a semi-professional player whose main vocation is selling Southern California real estate. Song dabbled in poker as a teenager in South Korea, where he remained until he was 30 years old. Once in the United States, he did not take up serious poker until 1992. His part time job has brought in more than $3 million.
Suk-Min “Steve” Sung (South Korea)
The Sung family left Seoul for California when Suk-Min was seven years old in 1992. He got interested in playing poker by watching his father and was never able to shake the game from his system. He enrolled at the University of California at San Diego to follow an economics and computer engineering curriculum but no one was betting on the sheepskin. Sung dropped out to live the life of a professional poker player.
In 2007, when he was just 22 years old, Sung made his first two final tables at the World Series of Poker. Two years later he won his first bracelet in the $1,000 No Limit Hold’em event and in 2013 Sung raked in over $1.2 million by trumping 175 entries in the $25,000 No Limit Hold’em Six Handed event. He has also reached the final table three times at World Poker Tour Championships.
Willie Tann (Singapore)
One of the game’s elder statesmen, Willie Tann grew up in Singapore during the days when gambling was illegal. He played at university with his classmates while studying law. He continued his law studies in England and that has been his home base since the 1960s.
Tann made a final table at the World Series of Poker in 2000 at the $1,500 Pot Limit Omaha event and five years later he snagged a WSOP bracelet by winning the $1,000 No Limit Hold’em event. Tann has seven money finishes at the World Series but he is best known for his mentoring of up-an-coming players from his village of Bovingdon in Hertfordshire. On the circuit Tann is known as “The Dice Man” but is also known to answer to the names of “The Governor” and, for his reputation as a teacher, “Mister Miyagi.”
An Tran (Vietnam)
In his 63rd year in 2015, An Tran has earned the moniker of “The Boss.” He was born in Saigon in 1952 but has long hung his hat in Las Vegas. It took him until 1989 to cash at the World Series of Poker but two years later he was sporting a gold bracelet, dismissing the field in the $1,500 pot limit Omaha Event.
In 1992, Tran went on a tear, reaching six paid final tables, setting an all-time record. He did not win a single time, however. The Boss also reached the final table in the WSOP Main Event in 1996 but wound up fifth. He has cashed 43 times and pocketed nearly $1 million from the World Series but still has won just that one bracelet. Tran has an explanation – he sold his 1991 bracelet and believes he has been under a “curse” ever since.
J.C. Tran (Vietnam)
Justin Cuong Van Tran is the youngest of eight children. In 1979, when he was two years old, the entire brood moved from Vietnam to California. Tran enrolled in California State University in Sacramento and stayed to earn a degree in Business Management Information Systems. But Tran was spending most of his time gathering information at the Capital Casino.
Tran began cashing inn the World Series of Poker in 2004 and reached final tables that year, the next and in 2006. That final year he found a seat at an impressive 10 final tables in major tournaments, including four on the World Poker Tour. In 2007, he had his poorest showing at the World Series of Poker but was named the World Poker Tour’s Player of the Year.
Tran’s first WSOP bracelet came in the 2008 $1,500 No Limit Hold’em Event by beating back a massive force of 2,718 entrants. That was worth $631,170. A second bracelet came in the 2009 $2,500 Pot Limit Omaha. J.C. has visited 11 final tables at the WSOP and six on the World Poker Tour which have led to over $12,000,000 in tournament winnings.
Kenny Tran (Vietnam)
Kenny Tran still sends home a chunk of his poker winnings back to his extended family in Vietnam. Plenty of that cash has come from his style of play which has caused some to call him “Sick Call Kenny.” That style was cooked up while working at a California McDonalds and playing poker at a local bowling alley.
In his mid-twenties in 1999, Tran began making his first tournament appearances. He burnished his credentials as a high stakes cash player at Los Angeles’ Commerce Casino and picked up a gig as a sponsored pro online with Full Tilt Poker. Tran has finished as high as 16th in the Main Event at the World Series of Poker and in 2008 he scored a bracelet and more than half-a-million dollars in the $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em World Championship.