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China Paul: King of the Lonely Ironbutts

by Bob Pajich |  Published: Jul 11, 2012

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The guy with bad breath and a face like a mush ball shouts through me to his buddy at the next table, a large but shrinking bonafide lummox with hanging ears and large gold rings, “Did you hear about China Paul?”

The ancient Italian turns with his mouth open but before he could answer the guy shouts “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” He looks right at me and laughs. “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” and he shows me a big smile of rotten, smelly teeth.

Someone followed “China” Paul Leung home after a night at the Meadows Poker Room – the other casino in western Pennsylvania – and pistol whipped him. He called me the night before I played with rotten teeth and said the guy took around four grand and gave 20 stitches. He sounded sedated and sad.

For the past six months, China Paul had blown up my phone after he told me he was attempting to set the world record for consecutive days playing poker. Since Rivers Casino opened, located 40 yards away from Heinz Field on Pittsburgh’s north shore, he hadn’t missed a day at the card tables and is convinced this was some kind of world record.

When I talked to him last August, he had played more than a year in a row for about 3,700 hours. He had the Bravo stats to prove it, and he handed me a stack of printouts detailing his play. He calls himself the Ironman on his phone messages, as in, “Hey, this is China Paul, the Ironman.”

All the semi-regulars know China Paul. He wears all black. His small, round sunglasses are his eyes. He walks with a limp. He won’t say how old he is. Sometimes he’s hard to understand but not so hard to hear.

He often places a picture of himself with a Vegas showgirl behind his stacks. If everyone limps to him and he holds pocket aces, he’ll go all-in like he’s mad at everyone for getting in his face. He’s pulled out an envelope full of hundreds, challenging players, but when they accept, he retreats and takes a walk through the casino floor to fiddle with the slots.

A poker room shift manager says he feels a little bad for him but not too bad.

Leung is no longer allowed to play at Rivers and that’s why he was driving home from the Meadows, way out in Washington County, the night he was almost killed. He was expelled from Rivers for taking advantage of how the casino recorded player’s rewards bonuses it gives to its slots players. Or something like that. His explanation was an oval and I don’t know where the ends meet. He’s fighting the ban, but for now, he has to extend his “world record” out in the relative boonies.

This world record, this poker “achievement,” is an important and essential part of his existence. He’s told me several times that he’s counting on it to make him some cash. Over the last half year, I’d get texts letting me know where he was at, how long he had played. Four hundred days straight, then 500 days straight.

He already pressed me to write his full-length bio, says it will be a New York Times best seller. China Paul says he got a kid from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to help him with the YouTube video, and mentions one of the most famous viral videos from the last few years, the one with the little boy waking up in the car after a visit to the dentist.

“Is this real?” the boy asks his dad in the video, staring at the window, seeing God-knows-what, feeling like nothing on Earth. China Paul knows the dad made some money on the clip’s popularity and is convinced he can make bank on a video, too.

China Paul on Novocaine would be 100-times more interesting than listening to China Paul talk about playing all those hours and still no one would watch it. I don’t have the guts or bedside manner to tell him the unlikeliness of his fame straight to his face.

As far as I could tell, the only thing China Paul has is China Paul and this idea that playing so many days of poker in a row is a commodity.

He’s put a lot of weight on his world record and needs to know how to make some money off it.

He dreams of going on talk shows and even mentioned induction into the Poker Hall of Fame.

A few weeks later and another text on April 3, 2012: “636 days straight 5898 hours 9.27 aver. 165,100+”

The Meadows may be far from the city but it’s a really nice card room. Away from the casino floor, just outside huge glass doors, horses run for money. A nice snack bar is nearby and a quiet, dark bar is right near the room. I like playing there though I haven’t been there since China Paul made it his home base.

Back in the early Fall, when he fed his crinkled and stretched accent into my digital recorder during an interview that pushed two hours I asked him if he’s profitable. He smiled like he expected me to ask that. He said:

“Playing this way isn’t the most optimal strategy,” and he laughed.

After we were through, he grabbed a plate and made his way through a buffet line set up for VIP guests, a line he had no business being in. When China Paul’s robbery story hit on the news, it earned him a forum thread on Two Plus Two.

“This individual is a coward. He should be a productive member of society instead of preying on people like me,” Leung told WPXI.

On the phone with him the day after he was attacked, he is high on pain pills and obviously shaken. Part of his ear split from his head. A man followed him to his apartment above How Lee Chinese restaurant and beat the crap out of him with a pistol. Leung’s sister-in-law heard the ruckus, opened the door and got the hot end of a gun shoved in her face. Leung ended up with a gloved hand in his mouth during the struggle.

“I started to scream. I said, ‘Help, help help!’ As I was doing that he put his glove in my mouth and tried to shut me up. I bit him with everything I had,” he said.
That envelope full of cash Leung used to antagonize people with was gone.

The police think they got the guy, a man who went off the deep-end this winter and spent a crazed few days raping women at gunpoint. Leung’s robbery is now only a footnote to this scary story. The man knew Leung from the poker tables. That bragging envelope surely was burned in his brain and it’s easy to follow someone home who hasn’t taken a day off in almost 700 days.

So China Paul wants an update and here it is: Maybe some people will gasp in awe at your Ironbutt achievement or maybe they’ll mock its futility, but the dealers and players at Rivers Casino still talk about you and that’s more than most. The only dollars you’ll get from stringing these days along are the ones you take and fame in one issue of a poker magazine – I hate to tell you — adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Just watch. ♠

Bob Pajich is a writer and poker player based in Pittsburgh. He’s written about poker and the people that make the game so interesting since 2005.