Synagogue deals in poker champ

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One more example of the valley's diversity:

Congregation Beth Shalom is holding a poker tournament Saturday, the proceeds of which will benefit the synagogue's education program.

They'll play Texas Hold 'em, a game named for a state that's in the thick of the immigration debate.

The tournament's star attraction will be Jerry Yang, who was born in Laos, migrated to the United States and won $8.25 million in the World Series of Poker in 2007.

And Yang, a born-again Christian, was recruited for this event by Loren Gonella of Modesto, whom I wrote about awhile back because he's a Jewish guy who plays Santa Claus for the kids at the Redwood Center.

The poker tourney offers the chance to test your skills against Yang, who ranks 19th on the career earnings list with $8,370,927, and teaches others how to play high-stakes poker.

His story is compelling, and it certainly didn't begin or end four years ago with a fortunate hand of cards at a Las Vegas table.

Yang, 43, is a Hmong born in Laos in 1967. The CIA had recruited his father to serve in a guerrilla army, led by Gen. Vang Pao, that fought against the communists. Yang's family tried to flee the communist regime in Laos when he was only 7. They were nabbed by a communist patrol and had rifles pointed at their heads before his father talked the captors into letting them live.

The Yang family came to the United States when Jerry was 11, and after moving to Fresno, he progressed through the school system to become his high school class valedictorian before going on to earn his master's degree in health psychology at Pacific Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Napa.

Yang then moved to Temecula, where he spent eight years in social work.

One day, watching poker on TV, he decided he wanted to play. He began studying the game and entered his first tournament in 2006. He left social work and, a year later, won the World Series of Poker from a field that began with 6,000 players. He took home the $8.25 million from the $19.4 million pot. Yang has had two other notable paydays: $75,000 and $30,380 in tournaments last year.

After winning the 2007 event, he began his practice of donating a percentage of his winnings to charities by splitting $825,000 among the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and the Ronald McDonald House. Overall, he's given more than $2 million to charitable causes, including Hmong causes.

He's also opened restaurants in Madera and Merced he calls Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill. He met Gonella at the Merced restaurant about 18 months ago.

"I go in there once a month or so," Gonella said. "Generally, I'll see him there. We struck up a conversation about what's going on (the synagogue's fund-raiser). He said, 'It's a good organization and a great cause. I'll be there.' "

Texas Hold 'em for charity at a synagogue with a world champion from Laos recruited by a Jewish guy who plays Santa Claus.

Diverse enough for you?


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