$10,000 in Three Weeks: An Interview With China’s ‘Queen of Poker’

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In recent years, the popularity of poker in Asia has exploded. One of the more accomplished players who’s made a name for herself is Celina Lin, known as “China’s Queen of Poker.”

Originally from Shanghai, China, the 32-year-old Lin has quite the winning track record in her poker career. She became the first female poker player to ever win the Macau Poker Cup Red Dragon main event in 2009. Three years later, Lin won again, becoming the first person ever to win the main event twice and pocketing over $110,000 from that win.

According to the Global Poker Index, she currently ranks No. 4 overall in China and No. 1 amongst female players in the country. According to Hedon Mob, Lin’s all-time earnings for live tournaments nearly total $500,000.

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Lin was initially introduced to the game, which she fell in love with almost immediately, by a friend back in 2004. From there, she began reading everything she could about the game and built a bankroll of $10,000 within three weeks.

Aside from poker, Lin has always had a passion for entrepreneurship. Back in college, she ran a side business fixing computers and buying products overseas for resale on Ebay. She sees the risks taken in poker as being similar to those taken in business, according to Business Insider.

Recently, Lin dove deeper into her early poker career and what it’s like competing in a male-dominated industry in an email interview with NextShark.

You had been quite entrepreneurial before you got into poker — how did you get to become so business-minded at a young age?

I don’t think I sought out to be an entrepreneur per se. I like controlling my destiny, versus putting my life in the hands of someone else. Some of my early business success was just seeing an opportunity and making the most of it. I approach poker in the same way.

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What did your parents think of you getting into poker? Did they try to push you to “safer” career alternatives?

I played poker for about two years before I told my mum and dad. People outside of the poker world commonly see the game as gambling and not like an entrepreneurial job. Even jobs like acting, singing and writing are concerns from the point of view of a parent since you are gambling on your ability to find a movie, gig or a publisher. So I was very much aware that something like playing cards for a living would not go over well until I could prove myself.

When I came around to telling my parents about my occupation, it was totally lost on them even though I was able to live off of poker winnings for years. It took more time, and after I showed I was successful with the trophies, magazine covers, sponsorship, etc. they started to see that this was a sustainable career path and not gambling.

You’ve been called China’s “Queen of Poker.” How did you get that nickname and how do you feel about it?

It’s certainly not how I introduce myself, LOL. I think the description gained popularity after I did a two-part video interview with PokerNews last November.

It was taken out of context when the interviewer asked me something to the effect of, ‘As the godmother of poker in China, what is your view on the future of poker there?’

To me, my immediate response was ‘godmother’ just sounded old! I didn’t really think when I responded, “I would like to think of myself as more … the queen of poker …” but the editing made it look as though I dubbed myself a nickname because the question wasn’t shown. And then it became the title for the interview.

On one hand, it’s flattering, and I’m confident in what I do.  But I also don’t have such a big head to think I’m royalty by any means.

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Tell a little more about how you improved your game? Was it books or a mentor? Or just that you kept trying and learning as you go?

It’s everything, whether it be books, hand history review, poker players I respect, online sites, etc. I’d apply new things I learned into each poker session and then continually review my game and see what mistakes I made so I could  improve. I still do that today because the game is always changing, and players have so much more information available to them on the internet now.

Playing online definitely sped up my learning curve since you see so many more hands than you would playing exclusively live.

Like business, the poker industry is heavily male-dominated. Have you seen any big challenges because of your gender?

Like you said, it’s probably not much different than women in most other businesses. But the great thing about poker is that it doesn’t matter what your gender, religion or sexual orientation is. If you have the buy-in, you can challenge the best in the game, and that equality is something I love about tournament poker.  We all pay the same amount money and start with the same amount of chips.

Is it hard to get recognition from male players? Sometimes. Guys may say Miss Jane Doe just got lucky after a big win or that she is only sponsored to be a pretty poster girl.

But all poker players, men and women, aren’t measured from a single event but from longevity of consistent results. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished, and being a female is less of an issue nowadays.

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What would you say is your style at the poker table, and why does it work for you?

I don’t know if I have a singular ‘style’ of play. My method is really adapting to my opponents’ tendencies and optimizing decisions based on what I think they’re doing. I’ve gone from playing exclusively live to playing exclusively online to now a combination of both. That gives me a good feel about different kind of players and what their strategy is. I’m always looking to adapt and adjust, which gives me a lot of flexibility as to how I play.

Being someone in your position, girl or guy, requires a lot of time and energy in order to succeed. What are your thoughts on being in a serious relationship when you’re still coming up in life?

I believe in finding a balance in your life. Since I’m based in Macau, I primarily travel and play the Asia Pacific poker circuit so I’m not far from home. That gives me time for other passions in life, which is important for me.

Tell us your most memorable story involving poker.

My most memorable was the time I won my second Red Dragon title. I remember we had nine players remaining in the tournament and it only took four hours to play down to two players. For those who don’t know, that’s pretty quick when playing for those stakes.

But it took me another six grueling hours – and watching the chip lead going back and forth – to finish off the last opponent. It was gratifying and exhausting all the same time.

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Poker can be emotionally draining. How do you deal with the variance of the game? Could you share with us one of your low and high moments?

I’m pretty comfortable with the swings in poker and keep a balanced life so I don’t really need to ‘deal’ with it. I like to go jogging to clear my mind, but that’s regularly and not just when I lose.

The competitor in me is never happy with anything but winning, so that’s a lot of low moments. But the lows aren’t really that low. If I bust out of more than one tournament in a single day, that can be more irritating but I just get over it and get ready to play the next day.

My highs come from the major wins. Obviously I was really happy to win the Red Dragon events. I was also really excited to win my first Spadie at the Asia Championship of Poker since the quality of players are so much stronger than your average tournament.

If/when you have kids, would you want them to go the same route you did and pursue a career in poker?

I would support them in any career path they choose. I think the key is to be passionate about what you do, and if you are, then you’ll find success. I’d be much more concerned if their job involved a high probability of injury like the military or a physical sport. But again, I’d still support it if that’s what they loved and wanted to do.

I’m blessed to have understanding parents and want to be the same.

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Where do you see yourself in 10 years, and do you see poker as still being a part of your life?

That’s something I like to keep for myself. The poker part of the question is easy.  Poker will always be a part of my life at some capacity. One of the beautiful things about the game is the freedom. Even if I played less, you don’t have to really retire from the game like you would in something like tennis. But I still love playing and have lots of goals to achieve, so retirement isn’t on my mind at all.

Celina Lin is currently part of PokerStars’ Team Asia Pro. Follow her on Twitter @celina_lin

Photography by Kenneth Lim courtesy of PokerStars LIVE Macau

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