"You could play a million years and it would never happen again," says poker legend Doyle Brunson, who himself won the world championship in 1976 and 77. "Not only did Johnny win it twice and come in second, he won two other tournaments in between. He won four big tournaments in a row and came in second in the next one. It was very extraordinary."
Kathy Hudson, a shift manager at the poker room in Binion's Horseshoe and a Chan-watcher for a dozen or so years, echoes Brunson's assessment: "It's so incredibly difficult to overcome the field anymore. But if somebody does it, it might be Johnny. I don't think there's too many people who would want to play no-limits hold 'em with him."
"As far as I'm concerned, Johnny's always the favorite to win the World Series," says T.J. Cloutier, an affable former pro-football player who now makes his living at the poker table. "He's the best at reading other players. At least 90 percent of the time he's right. He's one playing jesse."
To put Chan's accomplishments in perspective, Amarillo Slim Preston, one of the game's most colorful and widely known pros, has captured the no-limit Texas Hold 'Em event at the World Series of Poker only once, and that was in 1972, when just eight players were invited to compete. According to Chan, Preston's reputation as a master cardslinger is more a tribute to his charismatic public relations style than his skill at the table. "Amarillo Slim won't sit in on a game with me," Chan declares. "I'd eat him alive."
Confidence, maybe even arrogance, is a key component of Chan's mindset. "I came to this town with $120 and started playing at the three-dollar tables. You don't have to have a lot of money to become a poker player, but you gotta have faith in yourself." Chan says there are only a handful of players as talented and successful as himself, naming, among others, Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson. "The rest come and go, and they get lucky and win a tournament and you never hear from them again."
He describes his playing style as aggressive. "I like to attack," he says. "Not too many players try to bluff me. If there's any bluffing or stealing, I'm going to be the one doing it." His feisty tone contrasts sharply with a calm exterior that radiates composure, even under the severe mental stress of million-dollar pots. "I don't sweat," he says. "I'm the coolest poker player you'll ever meet."
Chan's brash banter is backed up by his financial success. He's won nearly $2 million in the World Series of Poker, and that's only one of the five major tournaments -- with more than $1 million in prize money -- that are held annually at Las Vegas casinos and Southern California poker rooms. Also consider that he's been winning poker tournaments since 1983, when he earned the nickname Orient Express for his fast and aggressive style.