I have written twice before about 2007 WSOP main event winner Jerry Yang and his unprecedented overt display of religiosity at the final table (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/07/mr-destiny.html and http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/10/more-on-religion-at-poker-table.html). You'll need to read those posts if you want to understand some of the details in this one, I think.
Last night some web surfing on another poker-related subject led me to the archive of articles that Gary Wise occasionally writes for ESPN (http://sports.espn.go.com/keyword/search?searchString=gary_wise), and there I noticed an interview he did in December with Yang (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/poker/columns/story?columnist=wise_gary&id=3140073). Now I have to rant on this subject again.
This is the part of the article that first raised my hopes about getting a straight answer to the obvious question Yang's public propitiations raised:
The question I'd wanted to ask Jerry over those months since watching him
win was this: "If God isn't changing the order of the cards, why the prayer?"
Yang was instantly transformed into poker's holy champion by his calls to the
"Lord" on ESPN's broadcasts. It felt a little strange to me (and a plethora of
other observers) that he'd think a greater power would invest itself in any way
in the turn of a card. My mistake was in my perception of his acts.
"God doesn't love one person more than another person" Jerry answered,
assuring me there was no chance the Lord was intentionally pairing him up flop
after flop. "I pray to my God for the strength to make the right decision."
Time and again, Yang made tough calls at the final table, trusting his
gut instincts in doing so. It would have been easier to play it safe and make
folds in those situations, the money and exposure being what they were. In
calling out his prayers, Jerry was seeking the fortitude we all seek when faced
with those make-or-break moments at the table. "He's giving me the opportunity
to make my own choices." He also wanted to share the joy he was experiencing
with the being he saw as responsible for it.
Unfortunately, that's as probing as Mr. Wise got. He apparently did not confront Yang with the fairly obvious discrepancies between his answer here and what actually happened last July.
For example, in the hand that knocked out Lee Watkinson, Yang is heard saying this, after all the money was in and the hole cards were exposed, so that no further decisions by either player were possible: "Come on, Lord. You know your purpose for me.... You have a purpose for me today.... Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, c'mon, let me win this one."
OK, Jerry--explain to me how those words can plausibly be interpreted as pleading for God to help you make correct decisions, and not as a request for a conclusion to the hand favorable to you.
Similarly, in the hand that eliminated Lee Childs, Yang pleads, "Let people see your miracle." Again, I can't see any way to interpret that as a prayer for Yang to be given strength to play to the best of his ability, coming, as it did, after all of the chips were in.
As further evidence, here's what the Las Vegas Sun reported as happening before the final table:
Once, for instance, he risked a big chunk of his stack of chips with just
a pair of 4s and ran smack into an opponent's higher pocket pair.
It was then Yang - like a lot of poker players, including some who are
probably more reluctant to admit it - turned to prayer.
"I kept saying, 'Lord, give me a set,' " Yang said, using the common poker
term for three-of-a-kind. "And there was a 4 on the flop."
Another time, Yang needed an ace or a 4 on the final card to fill a
straight and extend his tournament life.
"I said, 'Lord, if you want me to win this, put the ace or the 4 on the
river,' " Yang said. A 4 came, and Yang lived to fight on.
(Note that the link to that story in my first post is now dead, but the article can be found here: http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2007/jul/19/jeff-haney-on-how-the-new-face-of-championship-pok/.)
I don't know how Yang's own words could be any more explicit. "Lord, give me a set" and "put the ace or the 4 on the river" are not prayers to be helped in making correct decisions. They are overt, unambiguous requests for divine intervention to change the order of the cards being held in the dealer's hand.
With that in mind, let's look in more detail at what Yang said to Mr. Wise. Below is my transcript of the critical section of the interview, which you can hear in full at http://cdn.libsyn.com/roundersradio/12-05-07__Gary_Wise_Full_Show___Jerry_Yang__and_Chip_Reese_memories__.mp3. This portion occurs between about 28:05 and 30:10. I tried to be as accurate as I could be in making the transcript, and I'll take responsibility if I accidentally introduced any small errors.
WISE: The question that I asked you in our conversation a few days ago was one that was meant to clarify for a lot of people some misconceptions, and that was whether prayer could affect the result of hands, because at that final table obviously you prayed very long and very hard and very loud to God, and I feel a lot of people interpret that...
YANG: You're right, absolutely.
WISE: And I think a lot of people interpret that to mean that you felt that, y'know, if you called loud enough, you could get a better turn card.
YANG: [laughs] Oh, that's pretty funny, Gary!
WISE: But you see what I'm saying, this is the misconception that a lot of people have been operating under, y'know, so
YANG: [more laughter] Absolutely, yeah, you're right.
WISE: [Crosstalk makes it difficult to hear a few words here] c'mon, God, gimme an ace, y'know?
YANG: [more laughter] No. I did not say that. C'mon.
WISE: Well, no, you didn't say those words, but I think a lot of people interpreted your prayers that way. So why don't you, why don't you take this opportunity to straighten them out a little bit? What, uh, why were you praying to God?
YANG: OK. I wanted to, this is such a very, very interesting question, and I'd be more than happy to answer that question. First of all, I don't want the fans, I don't want anybody out there to, to think that I'm praying to God to give me the cards. That's not my intention whatsoever. I believe in my God. I pray to my God for the strength and the guidance to make the right decision. And at that point when I pray to my God I say, you know what, I leave everything in his will, I ask him for his guidance, his strength, to give me the strength to make the right decision for myself. That's all I'm asking from my God. I'm not asking God to change the cards.
To Mr. Wise's credit, he's the only one to date, as far as I have been able to learn, who has asked Yang directly about this apparent bit of bizarre theology. Unfortunately, though, he then let Yang off the hook with an answer that is obviously false, or at least woefully incomplete, and flagrantly inconsistent with Yang's own words immediately after the event.
My disappointment in having my hopes for an answer raised, then dashed, prompted me to do a Google search for other Yang interviews, to see if anybody else has pressed him on this point. As far as I can tell, nobody has. Here's the list of interviews I was able to find:
All of those appear to have nothing useful on the question at hand.
But in an ESPN radio podcast with Phil Gordon (http://ne.edgecastcdn.net/0000A6/espnpod2/espnradio/poker/poker070807.mp3), Yang makes this comment, at about 14:10:
"Winning this, this thing, this whole thing, I think I give all the glory and credit to God for obviously giving me some good cards...."
Then, starting at 26:05, he says, "God brought me through each step of the way. I believe that God had a plan for me and to win the World Series of Poker and win this amount of money. That is why I dedicate to giving back something back [sic] to the community. So I give the glory, all the glory and credit to God, because of him I won and I believe that there was a miracle hand that happened during the World Series. I was on the verge of being eliminated like three, four times, but the river card just happened to bail me out, so I believe that God and the Holy Spirit was [sic] there with me. I truly believe in that."
So he does unquestionably believe that God arranges the deck. I don't see how you can believe that precept, and that God answers prayers, yet not believe that one's prayers asking God for specific cards will result in the cards in the dealer's hand changing.
One other interview captures another piece of evidence: http://pokerati.com/2007/08/01/re-meet-jerry-yang/. Here, Yang is asked, apparently right after the WSOP, whether, on the final hand, he expected the river to bring the 6 that filled his inside straight. (He needed one of the four 6s or one of the two remaining 8s to win the hand.) He says that yes, he "absolutely" expected it. "I remember the second day, my chips went down, I started with 738,000 or so, and I went down, and I prayed for the 4 on the river, and the 4 came and gave me a wheel. And today I felt it, somehow I felt that. I say, oh please, either that 8 or that 6 at the river, and when the 6 came I was so excited."
Again, how can he reconcile this with the later claim that he does not expect God to intervene in order for him to win hands? Does he not remember what he said before? Has his theology shifted in the interim? Does he think that we're all too stupid to notice that he is now denying what he openly admitted to before?
Yang is being blatantly inconsistent in his responses to various interviewers.
I hope that this changes. I hope that at least one member of the poker media takes the initiative to press Yang with the hard questions that so far he has been allowed to duck. Quote to him what he has said, point out the contradictions, and keep nailing him with direct questions until he either admits that he really did intend his propitiations to affect the outcome of specific hands, or explains (if it is possible) how his repeated words that sound as if that's what he is doing can reasonably be interpreted in a way that is consistent with his post hoc explanations.
I hate the fact that I have to include this disclaimer, but I do: As far as I can tell, everybody who has had contact with Yang agrees that he is an incredibly nice, humble person, a good family man, generous with his winnings, with an amazing personal life story. I don't dispute any of that. I'm focused narrowly on trying to understand what I consider a weird, even borderline delusional, belief that saying the right things to the right deity in the middle of a poker hand will supernaturally cause a different outcome for that hand than would have occurred without the player uttering those magical words. I remain quite confident that Jerry Yang does actually believe that, despite his later denials.
Fitting comics below borrowed from http://goberude.blogspot.com/.
Addendum, February 3, 2008
1. I apologize for the weird line spacing in the foregoing post. Blogger does something mysterious to an entire post when there are sections that are block-indented. I haven't been able to figure out how to counter it. I hope the content is still worthwhile, even though the visual presentation is less professional than I would ideally like it. I'm slowly learning, and someday I expect I'll be able to set such things right.
2. Gary Wise was kind enough to not only write back to me (I sent him an email to alert him that I was talking about him--I figure that's the polite thing to do), and post a comment here, but quickly drafted a very thoughtful reply on his own blog. See http://www.wisehandpoker.com/blog/index.php/gary-wise/2008/02/03/an_interesting_debate.
I'm sympathetic to his dilemma: Press too hard, and you get shut out entirely in the future, because people such as Yang have no obligation to do interviews at all, and when they do, they have a lot of reporters lined up who want in, and they can cherry-pick the best and/or easiest ones. As I said above, give him credit for even broaching the subject, when nobody else has, as far as I know.
I agree with his observation that my role as an independent, unpaid writer (and one that precious few people in the big poker world pay attention to!) gives me the luxury of more freedom to be blunt than he can afford. I hope it's helpful that I put the hard questions out there into the ether, even if I don't have access to the only one who can answer them. Perhaps in some intangible way, more people seeing the hard evidence of the stark contradictions between what Yang actually did, and what he nows says that he did, will eventually seep back to him, and prompt him to reflect more on the whole thing, and maybe comment publicly about it at some point.
3. One commenter takes me to task for getting "worked up" about the whole thing. I'm not sure how to respond to that. First, I'm not "worked up" in any emotional sense. I'm intensely curious about the overt contradictions in Yang's statements, but I feel not one speck of personal investment in the matter. I don't expect that I could change Yang's mind about his beliefs, even if he were perfectly clear as to what his beliefs are (and I don't think he is; I think his thoughts on the matter are terribly muddled, and that he hasn't really ever wrestled with himself as to what he believes God does and doesn't do). Nor am I particularly interested in doing so.
But f'r cryin' out loud, this whole blog is devoted to my pointing out things in the poker world that I don't like, that I think should be done differently. That includes griping about things a whole lot more trivial than whether there is a supernatural being that controls the shuffle even more directly than the dealer does. Doesn't that seem like a rather important thing to know? If you are facing an opponent who has a omniscient and omnipotent being hovering over his shoulder, one who knows what you've been dealt and might whisper that information to your opponent, and one who can wiggle his nose like Samantha on "Bewitched" and change your aces into a 2-7 offsuit if it pleases him to do so, wouldn't you want to know that? I think I'd ask for a table change, if I knew that I were up against that kind of sorcery.
Conversely, if your opponent is so addled in his thinking that he believes that he will win any hand if he counts backward from 100 by sevens while twirling his left thumb clockwise, isn't that something you'd like to know? If there is no ethereal creature waving an omnipotent magic wand to rearrange the cards in the dealer's hand, but your opponent fervently believes that there is, isn't that information worth having?
I think, as a general rule, that truth and consistency are pretty important things. Yang is in a position to potentially influence how a lot of people view our game. If he were on the speaking circuit telling the world that there is a purple unicorn that he talks to--visible only to him--and that the unicorn talks back to him, and the unicorn uses its magic powers to put the cards that Yang needs on the board when he asks in just the right way, wouldn't it concern you that that's a pretty bizarre image of poker to be presenting to the world? Well, objectively there is no difference between that and what Yang is actually telling everybody. He believes in a powerful, invisible, supernatural being that wants Jerry to win, one who moves the cards around in the dealer's hand to make that happen, if Jerry just incants the right words at critical moments. That's weird. That's nuts, frankly. If he were to couch that idea in any way other than putting the specific label of the Christian god on it (the unicorn, for example), he'd get locked up in the looney bin and deemed unfit and unsafe to raise his own children until he got put on enough Thorazine to quiet his demons.
Yeah, I think that having one of the currently most visible players of the game announcing, basically, that he's borderline hallucinatory, is kind of important, as subject matter goes in the poker universe. It's probably more important than whether casinos give too-small and watered-down servings of Coke, or whether Phil Hellmuth is occasionally way off in his on-the-spot odds calculations, or whether a particular poker movie was a waste of $6 to see, or whether the El Cortez poker room is worth visiting, or whether David Apostolico made an error in how he recounted a specific WSOP hand in a magazine article, or how annoying it is to have poker players leave stuff under the table that I end up stepping on. Yet all those, and a couple hundred others, have been the targets of my musings here. Look at it like this: If Yang really did start publicly recounting a unicorn theory, would you think that worthy of attention from poker bloggers? If yes, then why should I, or we, ignore what he says because he phrases it in a more common supernatural vein than in a less common one? I can't see that the commonness or uncommonness of a delusion--if indeed it is a delusion--makes it any more or less valid a topic of discussion. Conversely, if it is not a delusion, if Yang really does have the key to access omnipotent powers on behalf of his poker game, should I deem that an unimportant topic of conversation? Seems pretty important to me to know whether that's really true or not.
Finally, I will invoke what I assume is a tenet of Yang's own faith: "[B]e ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3: 15, King James Version.) Shouldn't Jerry Yang be willing to live up to this, assuming he views it as a directive from the God he worships?