Chan moved with his family in 1962 from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, then in 1968 to Phoenix, Arizona, and later in 1973 to Houston, Texas, where his family owned restaurants. He was going to continue in the family business, but when he was 16 he went on a junket to Las Vegas, Nevada. When he was 21, Chan dropped out of the University of Houston, where he was majoring in hotel and restaurant management, and moved to Las Vegas to become a professional gambler.
Chan attributes some of his early success to the fact that many players had not previously played against Asian players. He shot to fame in the late 1980s, winning the championship event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in two consecutive years (1987 and 1988). A videotape of the 1988 WSOP final heads up match is featured in the movie Rounders, in which Johnny Chan makes a cameo appearance. He almost won a third consecutive title, but finished in 2nd place in 1989 to Phil Hellmuth. He is the last player to win back-to-back WSOP Main Events, a feat many prognosticators think he could hold forever given the increasingly larger fields. Jerry Buss, who was an avid poker player and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, promised Chan an NBA championship ring if he could win three in a row.
Chan is known for keeping a "lucky" orange in front of him on the table, and after the second consecutive WSOP title other players began bringing fruit to the table in hopes of increasing their luck. Chan says he only had an orange with him because of the pleasant scent, as smoking, which was allowed in many tournaments then, bothered him. Chan was once a smoker, but now he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol.
Chan competed in the $400,000 Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament in February 2005. He came back from only having $20,000 chips out of $3,200,000 in play to finish in second place to Gus Hansen. Chan later competed in Poker Superstars II during the summer of 2005. He defeated 22 of the best players to make it to the finals. Then he defeated Todd Brunson in the finals after three matches to win the $400,000 first prize. Chan appeared in Poker Superstars III where he made it as far as the semi finals but was defeated by Todd Brunson after three matches.
On NBC's late-night show Poker After Dark, a six-person $20,000 buy-in winner-takes-all tournament, Johnny Chan has the distinction of having the most victories to date with four wins in six appearances. He came in second and fifth when he did not win.
His appearances in which he made it to heads-up were:
WSOP Champions - originally aired Jan. 15-20, 2007 - Won heads-up against Chris Moneymaker
Golden Men - originally aired June 11–16, 2007 - Lost heads-up against Joe Hachem
World Champions - originally aired Feb. 11-16, 2008 - Won heads-up against Phil Hellmuth
International - originally aired Feb. 25-Mar. 1, 2008 - Won heads-up against Patrik Antonius
Dream Table III - originally aired Mar. 23-27, 2009 - Won heads-up against Jennifer Tilly
One of Chan's earliest victories in poker was in Bob Stupak's 1981 American Cup poker tournament. Johnny Chan made it to the final table, and defeated all 9 other players in less than an hour. After this feat, Stupak gave Chan the nickname "The Orient Express".
In addition to playing poker, Chan owns a fast-food franchise in the Las Vegas Stratosphere Hotel and is a consultant for various casinos and game makers. He has aspirations of opening his own casino. Chan has also written for Card Player magazine. He appeared in the first (2006) and 2011 seasons of the GSN series High Stakes Poker.
In 2005, Chan collaborated with Mark Karowe to release Play Poker Like Johnny Chan (ISBN 1-933074-48-5), an instructional book on several different types of poker. On November 28, 2006, the follow-up titled: Million Dollar Hold'em: Winning Big in Limit Cash Games (ISBN 1-58042-200-4), which focuses on limit hold'em strategy, was released.
In 2007, Chan launched an online poker room, ChanPokerOnline.com. It closed in August 2008.
Chan wrote a regular article in the bi-monthly magazine Trader Monthly.
^He has another Chinese name "Chen Qiangni" (traditional Chinese: 陳強尼; simplified Chinese: 陈强尼; pinyin: Chén Qiángní) which is also commonly used by Chinese-language media. It is a transliteration of "Johnny Chan" (as "Chen" for "Chan", "Qiangni" for "Johnny") rather than his Chinese birth name.