Trip to Korea has Khan thinking, acting differently
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – Last year, every time Hevad Khan was on camera, it was like "A Night at the Improv." Nobody, including Khan himself, knew what he was going to do next.
Was he going to get up and do a dance, the kind you'd see late at night from a drunken cousin at a family wedding? Was he going to do a Lambeau Leap into the crowd? Or would it be the classic, "I'm a bulldozer! I'm gonna bulldoze this table!" rant?
"It was entertaining to watch, no doubt about it," admitted ESPN analyst, Norman Chad, who certainly doesn't need a lot of material to work with in order to make his viewers laugh. But he got plenty of it from Khan during last year's Main Event. "I almost felt like I should have sent him 10 percent of my paycheck. He was that good."
But those who came to the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino this year looking to see Khan give'em a "Lets do it!!!" yelp or be on the receiving end of a high five from him while sitting in the Milwaukee's Best Light No-Limit Lounge, went home deeply disappointed. The same goes for the millions of TV viewers who will tune in this summer looking for a new Red Bull-induced jig from Khan.
Hevad Khan is a changed man, both at the poker table and away from it. And even though the crazy Hevad Khan went much further in last year's Main Event and made more money, the placid and peaceful Hevad Khan is happier with himself. And in the end, he says, that's all that matters.
"I've come to realize that results really don't matter that much to me any more," said Khan, who busted out midway through Day 4 on Friday to finish 240th and cash for $35,383, one year he finished sixth and earned nearly $1 million. "I've set a much higher plateau for life. It doesn't thrill me to win a pot any more. I've trained myself to expect to go deep every time I enter a tournament.
"The long-term goal is always to win, so losing a pot here or winning a pot there, doesn't matter that much. I don't put any kind of emphasis on any one pot any more."
Following last year's Main Event, Khan was a burgeoning star in the poker world. His claim to fame was that he multi-tabled 43 games at a time online at PokerStars under the now infamous name "RaiNKhaN" on his 17-inch monitor. Then, after turning his attention to live games, he earned three cashes in his first WSOP. Suddenly, the affable 6-foot-5, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. native had plenty of money in the bank and sponsorship opportunities beating down his door. It should have been a great moment for the kid who dropped out of State University of New York-Albany to become a professional poker player.
Instead he was miserable.
He contracted walking pneumonia right after the WSOP ("I got it because the air [in Las Vegas] is so filthy," he added) and ended up bed-ridden in his brother's place in Pennsylvania for almost two months. It was at that point he started to do a lot of soul searching.
"To be honest, I was a really fucked up kid," Khan said with sincerity. "It was a lot to handle, going from zero to hero so quickly. I was taking advice from people who weren't the real reason I had got there in the first place. I finally decided that I had to figure things out and try to do it myself and with the people I trust most."
Khan says that he had always wanted to travel to Korea. He has a close friend that lives there, but in the past he always had some sort of excuse not to go.
"But after the World Series, I had no excuse," he said. "I decided I wanted to travel to figure things out so I went to Korea for a month."
After 30 days of very little poker, and plenty of pep talks from his friends who traveled across the world with him, Khan came back to the U.S. a changed man and a changed poker player. And, as he points out, a better man and, in turn, a better poker player.
"It salvaged my life," he said in a serious tone.
As a result, his demeanor at the table can not be more different. He's still good-natured. He still smiles. He still looks like someone you would have no problem approaching and asking for an autograph.
But the Red Bulls have been replaced by water and a bowl of strawberries and blueberries he periodically pulls out from under his chair. Instead of standing up and baiting an opponent during a tense moment, Khan now goes into a trance. He stares down in front of him with no expression on his face. He slowly rocks back and forth. He looks like he's about to fall asleep.
And no matter what happens when the hand is over, there is no big reaction either way. When he wins, there is no must-see TV moment. And when he loses there's not much of a reaction either. Amazingly, he takes it all in stride.
"People are surprised, especially the guys with the TV cameras in their hands," he said with a sly smile. "And at least once a day I have someone say, 'Come on, give me a bulldozer.' But I can't help it. That's just not who I am anymore."
In a way, it's a good thing Khan more than toned down his act because the WSOP instituted a new rule this year that says, "excessive celebration through extended theatrics, inappropriate behavior, or physical actions, gestures or conduct may be subject to a penalty." Some have even called it the "Hevad Khan Rule."
"Yeah, his name came up more than once during the conversations we had about the new rule," admitted Tournament Director Jack Effel with a laugh. "The thing is, Hevad got some bad publicity from all of that stuff last year and that wasn't right because from what we saw, it was all in good fun. But we felt we needed something in place this year in order to prevent anyone from getting hurt.
"The good thing is that he's proved that he can still be a very good poker player even if he keeps his composure. That's what I'm glad to see the most."
Indeed, Khan has proven to still be a force at the table. Since returning from Korea with a new outlook on life, Khan has racked up more than $200,000 in winnings, including a victory over a strong field at the Foxwoods Poker Classic in March. He's playing on a regular basis, both online at PokerStars and in live tournaments across the world, as far away as Macau and as close to home as Atlantic City.
Khan credits part of his success to his new approach, but most of it to the fact that he's simply a better player.
"There are numerous things that I can do at the table now that I couldn't have done a year ago," he said. "Situations come up at the table now, and I know exactly how to play them, when last year it would have confused me."
As for his bid to make the final table again falling short, Khan said it was just the way the game works.
"Last year I was a tight player that just happened to get a real good run of cards at the right time," he said. "The funny thing is, this year I'm a better player but [I didn't fare as well]. That just goes to show you how much that it's all about the cards."
So what's next for Khan? You can bet that there will continue to be a lot of poker as he expects to travel and play about eight months out of the year. You can also bet that he'll carve out some time to get back to the place where his remarkable transformation all began.
"I'm definitely going back," he smiled as the thought of another trip to Korea came to mind. "I love it. I can't wait to get back."