All inby Jerry Yang
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In this intimate profile of an unlikely poker champion, the life story of Yang is laid out--from his difficult Hmong childhood to his success as a professional poker player.
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By Jerry Yang
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Jerry Yang
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the Shadow of Vietnam
Some people will tell you everything in your life was predestined. Those who believe in God say the Lord did the planning for you. Others blame fate or the gods or karma. The consensus is that your life is set, regardless of what you do or don't do.
My people, the Hmong, have a phrase for this: dlaim ntawv, which, loosely translated, means "It's just your luck." Its literal translation carries a heavier meaning: "a piece of paper"; that is, a document on which all the events of your life have already been written out. That means everything has already been predestined, and there's nothing you can do about it. Your path has been set. For those born on a good path, a pleasant life; for those born on a hard road, a lifetime of difficulties until a predestined death.
I don't believe in dlaim ntawv, but if I did I might have been tempted to conclude that the paper written out for me contained nothing but bad news. I know that sounds funny coming from a man who caught a lot of lucky cards to win the 2007 World Series of Poker, but it's the truth. I say this because I was born into a people whose history is filled with bad news and difficult paths.
Originally, my ancestors came from China, where we were derogatorily called the Miao, a word that basically means barbarian, or Meo, which implies slavery. Both words are offensive to my people.
Life was tough enough for the Hmong in China, but it was destined to become even worse. In the eighteenth century, the Chinese emperor slaughtered the Hmong royal family and enslaved most of our people. In time, many Hmong fled for their lives and escaped south to Vietnam, Thailand, and northeastern Laos.
My people settled in Laos, where they carved farms out of the sides of the mountains. When I came along, my father farmed the same way his ancestors always had. With a machete, he cleared all the trees on a hillside. He then piled up the brush in the center of the field and set it on fire. Once the field was cleared, he carved rows onto the hillside, where he planted rice. After a few years, the soil wore out and the field stopped producing a crop, which meant he had to move on to another hillside and start the process all over again.
Dad never owned a tractor or chainsaw or any sort of modern tool. Everything had to be done by hand, with machetes or crude axes. The Hmong had farmed like this for generations, and if the world had simply left us alone, we would have farmed like this for generations to come.
But the world would not leave us alone.
My father came into the world at the beginning of the end of the Hmong way of life. During World War II, the Japanese had invaded all of Indochina, including Laos. Hmong warriors fought alongside the French against the Japanese, even though they were not part of the regular army. As the war drew to a close, a new threat emerged. The Vietminh, a group of Communist revolutionaries from North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh, invaded. The Vietminh organized a Communist insurgency in Laos called the Pathet Lao. A few Hmong joined the Communists, but most fought alongside the French against the Vietminh and the Pathet Lao. Even though the French pulled out after their defeat to the North Vietnamese in 1954, the Hmong continued defending their homelands on their own.
When the United States took up the fight where the French had left off, the Hmong were right there beside them as well. No one, not the Royal Lao family or the South Vietnamese or anyone in the region, were as loyal to the United States as were the Hmong. As my people say, dlaim ntawv: it was just our luck that we chose to ally ourselves with the world's greatest superpower in the one war they were destined to lose.
In 1962, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, along with the North and South Vietnamese countries and the Royal Lao family all signed an agreement in Geneva that declared Laos a neutral country. Any foreign army in Laos was supposed to immediately exit and allow us to govern ourselves. The North Vietnamese refused to leave. Rather than end the war, the truce actually escalated the fighting. Soon nearly every Hmong man was drafted to join forces against the Communists of the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam.
My father, Yang Lo, was drafted into the Royal Lao Army in 1962. He was seventeen years old. His older brother, Yang La Zang, had been drafted a year or so earlier and was already a lieutenant. After La Zang had joined the army, my father had taken over the family farm for his mother. His father, my grandfather, had died a few years earlier.
No family wants to have two sons fighting in the army at the same time. When my father was drafted, his mother was in a difficult position. With young children still at home, she didn't know how she would keep the farm going. Without it, the family wouldn't survive. The Lao Army was so desperate for soldiers that they drafted the two brothers anyway.
After coming from his small village, my father felt overwhelmed when he arrived at the military base in Phuxe for basic training. You must remember that life for the Hmong had changed little over the centuries. We didn't have running water or electricity, automobiles, or any kind of machinery. Most of us lived in the jungle in bamboo houses with thatched roofs and sustained ourselves by farming and hunting. When my father showed up at the army base with the rest of the new recruits for basic training, he'd never ridden in a truck or seen an airplane up close.
The base consisted of several wooden buildings with tin roofs, dirt roads, and several large fields. A Lao officer herded my father's group into one of the buildings, where another officer handed him a uniform and asked, "What's your shoe size?"
My father didn't know what to say. He'd never worn shoes.
The officer glanced at him, made some sort of sarcastic comment, then shoved a pair of boots at him.
Almost all of the Hmong recruits had the same conversation with the supply officer. Because we lived such remote, primitive lives, the Lao people from the lowlands looked down on the Hmong as nothing but a bunch of dumb hillbillies. Something as small as my father not knowing his shoe size confirmed the lowlanders' suspicions, at least in their minds.
Nevertheless, the Hmong had always been strong warriors, and our jungle survival skills made my people the perfect guerrilla fighters. The Lao royal family desperately needed us in the war effort to survive the onslaught of the Communist armies.
After receiving uniforms, my father's group was herded to a large field in the middle of the base. A platform had been set up on one end. General Vang Pao, the great Hmong military leader, walked out on the platform and gave a brief speech welcoming the new draftees into their grand struggle for freedom against the Communists.
The general had barely finished talking when a Lao Army officer marched out and started barking orders. Other officers began directing the draftees to different parts of the base. My father's military training was already in high gear.
A few of the officers were Hmong. Others were Lao and Thai. Walking amongst all of them were the first Americans my father had ever seen other than the missionaries who'd visited his village.
No matter who barked orders, my father knew who was really in charge of the camp. These Americans didn't wear military uniforms but were CIA officers. My father didn't know it at the time, but he'd come into the army at the moment the CIA had decided to launch full-scale guerrilla and counterinsurgency operations to try to drive the North Vietnamese out of Laos. As luck would have it, my father and the rest of the Hmong serving in the Lao Army were the foot soldiers assigned to carry out this strategy.
Basic training consisted of learning to shoot a military rifle, to throw hand grenades, to load and unload ammunition, and to set traps for the enemy. All the while, in the distance, the trainees could hear shelling from fighting between Pathet Lao and Hmong soldiers.
Even though my father was officially part of the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong were never considered regular army. Drill instructors didn't waste time trying to teach him and the other Hmong how to march or anything like that. Instead, every day consisted of new lessons on fighting and surviving under extreme conditions.
About the time my father had acclimated to the army base, the training ended. General Vang Pao needed soldiers right away. After sixteen days of preparation, my seventeen-year-old father was declared ready to fight.
When it came time to ship out, my father asked if he could be assigned to the platoon of his brother, La Zang. General Vang Pao granted his request. Dlaim ntawv. It was just his luck that this would send him to some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
Under the direction of the CIA, General Vang Pao sent my father's unit behind enemy lines to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary supply line for the North Vietnamese troops fighting in South Vietnam. Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the war in Vietnam would probably have ended in a matter of months. Almost the entire path ran through Laos and Cambodia. As far as the Hmong were concerned, stopping the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam did nothing to help drive the Communists out of Laos. However, because the United States had asked General Vang Pao to send troops to attack the North Vietnamese along the trail, that is exactly what he did.
My father had no idea where he was going when the orders came to ship out. Before that, he had pulled his brother aside. "No matter what happens, La Zang, I will not leave your side. If we are meant to die, we die side by side."
"Absolutely, we are in this together to the very end."
While this may sound overly dramatic to some Western readers, the Hmong and Lao armies were not like the American military. When fighting grew fierce, or when men went down with injuries, the situation often degenerated into every man for himself. If you didn't have a close relative watching out for you, you didn't survive long.
My father and La Zang had not only each other but also the privilege of serving with their uncle, a longtime army veteran who'd fought alongside the French against the Japanese during World War II.
On the night my father's basic training ended, several American helicopters dropped into the training base.
"This is it. Let's go," La Zang yelled to his platoon. "Everyone, grab your gear and follow me."
My father grabbed his M-1 and small pack and took off after La Zang, who was in a dead sprint toward one of the helicopters. Their unit jumped in and took off.
Throughout the flight, my father closed his eyes and prayed. Two weeks removed from a stone age village, he now flew over the jungle, headed straight east. He'd never even ridden in a car, let alone a helicopter.
A short time later, the chopper dropped.
"Go, go, go," La Zang yelled.
When they landed at the primitive base camp, my father had never been so glad to see solid ground. La Zang gave their unit eight hours to rest and eat.
It would be the last time my father would sleep for another two days.
My father's first mission as part of an elite guerrilla fighting squad of twenty soldiers set the tone for his four years in the army. His platoon was ordered to go to a hill overlooking the Ho Chi Minh Trail and wait. Communist soldiers were supposed to come down it sometime that day, most likely in the morning.
"Our instructions are simple," La Zang explained to his platoon. "General Vang has ordered us to keep them from reaching their destination no matter the cost. Get some rest, brothers. You'll need it."
The platoon marched a full day and night through the jungle to the rise overlooking the trail. My father spent the entire time praying to God and to his ancestors for protection.
His prayers were answered. The unit managed to reach its destination without being fired upon.
As they waited for the enemy to arrive, they rested to regain their strength.
A heavy fog hung over the valley below. They could hardly see anything. A rumbling sound came from a distance.
La Zang stood, motioned to his unit, and passed the word: "It's time."
They attacked, taking the Communists by surprise. A fierce fight ensued. My father and uncle's platoon inflicted a great deal of damage on the enemy and drove them back.
Grenades filled the air. Explosions went off all around my father, who would later call it the worst day of his life. All around him, Hmong soldiers lay wounded or dead. He came upon one soldier whose face had been blown off. Other men lost arms and legs to landmines and mortar shells. He had never witnessed so much death.
The worst was yet to come.
My father looked over just in time to see an explosion knock his brother to the ground. Fearing he was dead, my father rushed to him.
La Zang was alive, but the shrapnel from the grenade had cut into his stomach. Medical tests would later show that his large intestine had been cut in three places.
My father knew his brother would die without immediate medical attention.
When the Communists retreated, my father and great-uncle picked up La Zang and joined the platoon heading back toward the base while a couple soldiers fell back and set booby traps to keep the Communists from following.
About an hour later, my father heard the grenade booby traps exploding behind them. They were being chased. Though the platoon picked up their pace, the Communists closed the gap.
Finally, my father's platoon reached a place in the highlands where the trail narrowed between jutting rocks overlooking a cliff. All the while, they could hear the Communists gaining ground. To have any hope of escape, they had to take the trail.
"That's it," one of the soldiers said. "We can't carry your brother any longer. He's slowing us down. If we don't leave him here, we'll all be caught and die."
La Zang turned to my father. "They're right. I've lost so much blood I probably won't make it. Leave me. There's no need for all three of us to die here."
"No, brother, I won't do it," my father said. "I will never leave you behind."
Then my father and his uncle walked to the path through the rocks, blocking the platoon's path of escape. The two of them raised their guns, and my father declared, "If I have to die to save my brother, then so be it. But know this: we will not leave him behind. If you refuse to help him, it will not be the Communists who kill you. I will. If he dies, we all die."
Seeing the look in my father's eye, the other soldiers knew he and his uncle were serious. My father was prepared to fight against his entire platoon to save his brother.
"Okay, okay," the other soldiers said, "we will not leave La Zang behind."
They managed to get through the rocks without getting caught. The Communists stopped their pursuit but radioed ahead to others in the area.
While mortars rained on my father's platoon, they raced for one whole day and night to make it back to their base. My uncle survived, but two others from the platoon were killed by the mortar attacks.
Sadly, a few years later, after my father left active duty, La Zang was captured by the Communists. Along with his entire family, he disappeared into a Pathet Lao reeducation camp. My father would not see him again for thirty years, when we were able to locate him and bring him safely to the United States.
That first mission set the tone for the rest of my father's time in the army. Over the next few years he fought, often going days without sleep, always surviving on little food or water. Most of the time, he lived on whatever he could find to eat in the jungle. He slept in ditches and foxholes, in downpours and blistering heat.
At one point, he pulled off his wet boots and found his feet had turned white from the nonstop rain. He thought he might develop trench foot or gangrene if he didn't take the time to let his boots and feet dry out, but the constant shelling kept him moving on.
As luck would have it, one mission my father barely survived would later help save his family. In 1963, my father was stationed in a base that overlooked a valley. The Hmong controlled the mountains on one side of the valley, the Communists the other. Day after day the two sides lobbed mortars and exchanged machine gunfire.
The Hmong depended on American cargo planes for their supplies. The planes didn't land but instead dropped the supplies by parachute to the men below. Most Hmong platoons received their supplies this way.
One day my father heard a huge explosion in the sky. Everyone looked up and noticed a cloud of smoke where an airplane was supposed to be. A few minutes later, a call came through the radio reporting that an American plane was down.
"Get your platoon and go find any survivors before the NVA get to them," the commanding officer told my father.
Excerpted from All In by Jerry Yang Copyright © 2011 by Jerry Yang. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jerry Yang is a psychologist and a former social worker who worked with at-risk children for several years. He lives in Fresno, California. Mark Tabb is the author and coauthor of more than 20 books, including Mistaken Identity, A Promise to Ourselves, and The Unusual Suspect. He lives in Indiana.
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