Winners & Losers: Hung Out To Dry

American Idol contestant William Hung revealed his gambling problems

William Hung was always a bit of a wild card. Maybe you don’t remember him. In 2004, he auditioned for the TV show American Idol and came off as a nerd with a terrible voice.

He unleashed an off-key version of She Bangs by Ricky Martin. Dressed in the manner of an uncool 10-year-old, he promised to sing from his heart.

I guess he did. But the acerbic Simon Cowell was unimpressed. He described Hung’s try-out as “grotesque”. See for yourself:

Somehow, Hung made it onto the show – despite dancing worse than I do, which is saying something – captured the public’s imagination and turned into a viral sensation.

He took a ridiculous long-shot of a gamble and it paid off: Hung became beloved for his innocence, if not for his talent. He released an album that made it to number one on Billboard’s independent charts, snagged some offbeat acting work, became a motivational speaker and even did a TED Talk.

Eventually, of course, the novelty of goofing on Hung wore off. Showbiz fizzled and he found himself with a non-glam job as a statistical analyst with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

On the side, he played poker, at low stakes, with some successes (according to thehendonmob.com, Hung cashed for $108,295 between 2014 and 2023). But it’s impossible to know whether or not he actually netted a profit as a tournament player. We don’t know how much he lost.

Uncontestable is that he harbored a dream. “I think it would be awesome to [play poker professionally],” he said, when interviewed by Maria Ho at the Battle of Malta poker tournament in 2015.

She asked if playing as a tournament pro would be better than appearing on American Idol and he replied, “Oh yeah. I think so. Yeah.” It was a bit of an uh-oh moment. And, for what it’s worth, he bombed out in Malta.

Nevertheless, Hung told recently told People Magazine that, three years ago, he took a serious gamble by becoming, well, a gambler. Specifically, he cashed in to try his fortune as a professional poker player.

At first, he claims, it went great. Hung played low to medium stakes, put in 1,500 hours and won $100,000 during his first year of serious cash-game play. That is what he maintained to the hosts of Red Chip Poker podcast.

Then, as was made clear in People, the hustle hustled him. Hung maintains that the trouble came when he turned “greedy” and figured he could beat sports betting, play craps, baccarat and, who knows, possibly every other carnival game in the casino.

Big mistake for a guy who played classic, basic, tight-aggressive poker and found success in the soft games near Los Angeles, where Hung lived. In a mea-culpa published on his LinkedIn, Hung wrote about his downfall. He admitted wanting to “become one of the gambling kings, just like in the classic Hong Kong movies.”

Maybe he was too antsy to stay for the end of the movie. The one Chinese gambling movie that I’ve seen (while cooling my heels in a Beijing hotel room, needing a break from watching female pole vaulting on TV), it ended with the one-time high-roller casino player going broke, owing money to Shanghai gangsters and making ends meet by boxing kangaroos. Takeaway from that one: kangaroos’ claws are deadly.

To Hung’s benefit, he wound up in People instead of the ring. After burning through his money and his marriage, he quit gambling, found a new wife, regained his job at the Sheriff’s Department.

What I figure is that Hung should not be too hard on himself. If he did not have a bit of the degen gambler in him, he would have never possessed the madman gumption to try out for American Idol, we wouldn’t know who he is and I would not be writing this.

We need crazy gamblers in the world and we all need to unleash our inner Hung every once in a while. Just steer clear of the carnival games when you do it.

Michael Kaplan

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players" comes out in 2024) and has worked for publications that include Wired, GQ and the New York Post. He has written extensively on technology, gambling and business — with a particular interest in spots where all three intersect. His article on Kelly "Baccarat Machine" Sun and Phil Ivey is in development as a feature film.