Celina Lin on poker in China; women at HS; and more

Celina Lin on poker in China; women at HS; and more

When you spot the dampness in one’s eye, you know the doors of vulnerability are ajar. You get a sneak peek. Trust flows for the briefest moment. You move deeper into life. Trivialities boil with the teabag, and the essence of connection emerges in the steam.

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Most poker players guard their heart behind a wall of steel smeared in Colman’s English Mustard, producing an anorexic like-response to questions designed to excavate deep into the heart. Whoever is hiring the trucks will be disappointed. There is no load to carry.

Sitting in the corner, eating dinner, alone, quietly observing something or other on an iPad, I sense that Celina Lin doesn’t like mustard. I ask to interview her. She politely agrees. I take her number and run away like a child afraid to ask for what he wants.

I text her back.

How about now?


Celina Lin on poker in China; women at HS; and moreI rush back downstairs no longer afraid. The sun is setting over the mountains. I take my seat and start with the first thing that enters my head.

How’s life?

“Life is good. I just completed EPT Monte Carlo, and there’s SCOOP online so I’m looking to put some online hours in when I can,” says Lin, legs crossed, hands on her lap. “Monte Carlo It’s one of my favourite stops. If I was to pick any stop in Europe, that’s the stop I would always go to, and I’ve had a lot of success in the past three years there. But this year, my boyfriend Randy {Lew} has been doing exceptionally well. This year he has carried the team for us, he final tabled the National Event, and I managed to final table one other and cash in three in total, so it was an excellent trip overall.”

I remind Lin that Randy is no longer her ‘boyfriend’. The lad went to the trouble of getting down on one knee to slip a handmade gold paper ring on her finger, the least she can do is refer to him as her fiancé.

Lin laughs before saying: “That’s correct; I’m still not used to saying that. That’s quite interesting because as poker players we are used to having that freedom; that carefree mentality, even when we were like ‘We are gonna get married, let’s set a date’, we still haven’t yet. It’s one of those things where you push things back because we don’t even know where we are going next week. You know, for May we are like ‘Do we go to Vienna to finish up SCOOP, then what happens after that, when do we go to WSOP,’ it’s one of those things where you never know what’s on the agenda.

I never made the grade myself. But I spent enough money trying. I have been to war, and poker was the reason. It even said so on my divorce papers. I often wonder if it’s essential for the other half to understand the toothaches and tightropes of the game.

“People would give you two very different takes on that one”, says Lin. Some would say never date a poker player – and that applies to both men and women. But I think there are some people you meet, similar to Randy and I, who don’t see themselves as ‘real poker players’ in some ways. As we went through the journey of being ‘poker players’, we never really looked at mathematical probability or EV or equity to make decisions.”

Lin pauses wistfully; flicks a stray fringe away from her eyes, and her mouth kicks back into action.

“We base our decisions on what makes us happy. I would say we have been able to survive as long as we have in this kind of community because we have stayed very true to ourselves. Where we wanted to do something, we said ‘Yes’, where we didn’t want to do something, we were uncomfortable with, we said ‘No’. That applies to hanging out with friends. There are some people we think we would connect with on a great level, and there are those that we don’t think we would click with. We sit down and have a drink with the former, and tell the latter we are busy.”

I find the phrase ‘real poker players’ interesting enough to ask for clarification. 

“We meet people from all walks of life and have a lot of friends who have or have had ‘normal’ jobs, so they aren’t ‘real poker players,’ says Lin. “Poker players, first of all, start off when they are very young, and it dictates what kind of personality you end up having as you grow up. I think as you guys will probably see, the majority of the recreational poker players didn’t do this from the get-go. They started off with a career; a businessman or something of that kind and then they got into poker, so they see it as an enjoyable, recreational activity and I love playing with players like that on the table. To me, poker is supposed to be fun. I have stopped wearing earphones because I love having great conversations with people on the table.

“I never put up a fuss. I have never called the clock on anyone. I want people to have fun. I enjoy that vibe. When you go through hours of playing, and people are having fun, time flies. I don’t realise I am sitting on the table for ten hours. But when you have people with headphones on, staring you down, calling the clock, it makes it feel much more uncomfortable. I see why a lot of recreational players wouldn’t want to play in that environment; it would be rather intimidating. How we are on the table and how we are off the table, we’re the same.”

Celina Lin is the face of PokerStars in Asia. She has earned close to a million bucks playing live tournaments, including nine titles. And yet here she is, talking to me, as the biggest games in the world take place a few beams of wood above our head. I ask Lin why there aren’t more women playing in the highest echelon of the game?

“I think there’s a part of our personality as we are growing up, that leads us to seek out things that are more stable,” says Lin, thoughtfully. “When you offer a woman the life of a poker player it’s tough. You could have a long streak of losing months, but you’re meant to look at it over the long term, especially if you are playing live. That span of a ‘streak’ can continue for a long time because the amount of tournaments you are playing a year is vastly different from playing online. Online you could play 20-a-day. In EPT Monte Carlo I played maybe six events.

“That can be hard to swallow for a female who is always looking for stability. We look for stability in a family, in our relationships – we don’t like having that question mark, the unknown, on the horizon. I like to know where I’m going to next. I want to plan early and Randy’s like, ‘don’t worry, so what if we pay an extra 100/200 bucks for a flight’. That’s kind of his mentality, “Oh we will deal with it when it comes at you’. For girls, we would like to know what’s happening; we would like to know the plan, we would like to know each step of the way.”

On June 1, the Chinese Ministry of Culture pulls the plug on social poker apps in the People’s Republic. Investigators have found that social poker apps have been used as a gateway to illegal real money games. Executives from Ourgame Holdings, the owners of the World Poker Tour, have been arrested. Tencent’s relationship with the World Series of Poker changes and even PokerStars have curtailed their relationship with the City of Dreams. It’s like someone has thrown a lit Pall Mall in a trail of gasoline, and the entire poker ecosystem in China is lying at the end of the line. I ask Lin for hew view.

“It’s a market that needs regulating in some way. It just comes down to how to go about doing that,” says Lin. “I think the problem right now is that we are getting cash games very much mixed in with multi-table tournaments. The majority of players who push Texas Hold’em are the best players, and the biggest names in poker in China are all multi-table tournament players, and they are like, you can not categorise them as the same, you are going to see that over time the tournament player are the ones with constant results.  You are gonna see people like David Peters consistently perform well. There are so many names out there, even in main events, where you’re like, ‘How do they do it’?

“You cannot ignore consistency. The problem is it is so new to the market that they are like ‘Oh, well we do not know what it is’, if it is anything that involves getting your money in the middle and going for a flip, it’s got that feeling of gambling. The thing about poker is that if you played it, you would realise you don’t have to be in a casino to play it. It’s very close to all the other games like blackjack, and you don’t finish your decision making after you put your money in. Every single hand is dependant on the individual that is playing, and that is important. So you can usually have many different variations of play in one particular hand, that dictates the outcome, and with blackjack, it’s not like that, it’s essentially one or two decisions, one or the other right!

“It’s a lot more like chess, but the problem is because we play with chips and usually play in a casino, it’s got the vibe of it being a much more of a casino type of game. But if you went about it in the ‘mind sport’ kind of way you could technically record people’s chip stacks with numbers on the side, with a counter or something, like points, that’s something that is possible. The other people’s argument would be, with these tournaments if people call it a sport then people should not have to pay money to buy themselves into these tournaments, but mostly now we are talking of sponsorship. Are big name brands gonna start sponsoring? You know, in the past in some China tours, there have been significant named brands that have sponsored tours to some extent, but how to get to a point where we can distinguish between the two. At some point, someone needs to come in and regulate, in such a way where it ticks specific boxes.”

Celina Lin on poker in China; women at HS; and moreAnd it’s such a shame that this was happening when all the signs pointed to rapid growth in China. The WPT, WSOP and PokerStars were all building a head of steam, and then in a heartbeat, it’s gone. It must be especially hard for Lin who has enjoyed so much success in Macau. I ask her why she does so well in the region?

One of the most important reasons I do well, is I remember the players I’ve played with and I have a history with them,” says Lin. “I can think back to previous hands or what type of player I am facing, so this now is very much skill, you have to have a good memory. Can I recall a particular player I played with 6/7 years ago, things like that? I also think as someone who is relatively self-aware, it’s essential I know what they think of me, how they see me and how do I use that to my advantage. As a woman, I believe that when I go and play in Macau, I sometimes think that people don’t know me, but they all do and everybody who has come from China. At this point, I have to assume they all do know me and figure out how this changes the way I play.

And if they don’t recognise the Chinese Poker Queen, the PokerStars Team Pro logo hanging on the arm like a nicotine patch might give the game away.

“It does give it away, and if it didn’t people are going to start advertising for me. People will be like ‘Do you come to Macau to play often?’ Or somebody will be like ‘Don’t you know who she is?’ I get that a lot, the success of the live events in Macau showcases how great of a team was built there. I remember back in the days; there were 6/7 of us who were trying to put together a tour. The EPT has 200 employees knitting things together, but in Macau, you can only have local dealers.

“We had to overcome a lot of hurdles. Danny McDonough’s return is great for EPT. He single-handedly built the Asian team and everybody that’s still there. We were talking about all the chairs that are in the City of Dreams poker room, there are like 200 of these Ikea type chairs, people like Danny and Fred, everybody took off their suit jackets, and they were in a garage at the casinos putting together all these chairs for the players. That’s how much blood and sweat has gone into building a poker room in Macau.”

I admire Lin because against all the odds; she is thriving in a male-dominated environment. As a father of an 18-month-old old daughter, I would be as proud as baking apples if she grew up with the same courage and confidence of Celina, so I ask her to give an old man some daughterly advice.

“That is a really, really tough question, “ said Lin. “Randy and I want a daughter ourselves. We have talked about this. Do we teach them to play poker? It’s a big question because with the Internet they’re going to find out or be introduced to what we do at some point.”

I point out that there are a lot of positives, including bringing her intended siblings to beautiful destinations like Montenegro. 

“The glitz and glamour of beautiful places and everything is very similar to social media, and not a lot of people recognise that fact,” says Lin. “It puts forward the most attractive picture of poker, but what about the other side of the game? Since last November I got heads up for my fourth Spadey, pocket aces, versus ace-queen and I, had the guy covered, and he managed to hit a gutshot-straight on the river to end up winning the tournament and ever since then my aces have gone down, all in pre-flop situations, about eight times in a row now. And when I have kings, I run into aces. It’s been atrocious. In the last series, I hit a set twice on the flop, only to be re-setted on the turn and this is all in on the flop too, so it’s a brutal journey and I think that surrounding yourself with the right people is by far the most important thing.

“I don’t get along very much with other girls very often. They are not as competitive as me, and that’s something I see as a good and bad thing. I have developed a very tomboy type of personality, very similar to all the women that play poker because we are very competitive. Now by being competitive, you question yourself – am I ever going to be content, am I ever happy because you are trying to strive for more, for better. Right, well I have reached the level I am at, I am at the envy of a lot of people, but do I want to play with the big boys? How do I get to the best I probably could be as a poker player? That’s a question you always ask yourself and what do I need to give up to get that? What is the trade-off? What is the sacrifice? And that is something that I think everybody deals with; it’s a vast topic. Is it going to make me happy? What do I have to risk? Do I have to find backing? Do I have to be at somebody else’s mercy to play these big games?

“As people know, a lot of the players are backed by groups of players who have power and money to dictate where they go, what to do and what tournaments to play, to choose, they don’t so much have that freedom. Just the other day I was talking to Randy, I was like ‘If you were to give up some of the freedom, or whatever and have someone telling you what to do, what does that mean?’ Have you then gone backwards as a poker player? So what is that perfect level of financial freedom and not having to worry about being your own boss?

“My sister, who is 12 years younger, is almost like a daughter to me, so as she was growing up I would always teach her and probe her, ask all of these questions and see how she answers. I would ask her and my cousin, who is the same age ‘What is your ideal job?’ and they both gave me the same answer and I think it is something widespread nowadays. They said they wanted to lie on a beach being an Instagram model, and I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve failed’ because I think, especially in this day and age, it is very, very easy to question yourself. You see so many things that are photoshopped; you see so many things presented in such a perfect manner, where you start asking, ‘Am I pretty enough?’, ‘Am I skinny enough?’, ‘Am I tall enough?’ Thigh gaps, whatever the new trend is that people come up with, I don’t know, I can’t keep up with it.

“Liv Boeree was saying that if you spend 15 minutes a day doing your makeup, that’s a whole year in your life doing makeup but what does it mean? Are you doing your makeup to make yourself feel better? Are you doing your makeup for someone else?  What is the purpose of what you are doing?

“You should always be asking ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ ‘Is this really where I want to be?’ and ‘Is this going to make me happy?’ I like talking to people openly about these questions because those are the questions I feel people do not talk to each other enough.  People are more likely to sit with each other and be like ‘What is the weather like? Where have you been?’ That kind of thing. They don’t ask the big questions in life like, ‘What do you want to do before you die? What are your bucket list things? If you could say one thing to your father or mother, what would it be?’ You know, those sorts of things that make you stop and think, because, during our journey growing up, our parents all tried to do the best they can.

“I asked my dad this question recently ‘Do you regret having children?’ And his answer was very interesting, and he told me honestly, and I was not offended by it at all. He said that he really enjoyed the journey and the laughter and everything, but if he could choose again he probably wouldn’t have children because he says that he sometimes feels helpless at how his children may turn out and I think a lot of parents feel that way.

“A lot of parents feel like, I have so much to do with how my child grows up but sometimes in hindsight you actually can step back and go, you know sometimes society, occasionally social media, sometimes people they are friends with, actually have a lot more to do with how your kids actually end up being. You’ve just done the best job you possibly can giving them the fundamentals that they need and then almost everything else is virtually out of your control.

“Sometimes in my sister’s case, there are somethings she is going through as a 24-year old that we want to interfere with. Whether it’s her choice of boyfriends or things like that or telling her maybe, she should do this with her job, and the question I ask her is ‘Why do you feel this way?’, ‘Why do you do this?’ And if she gives me the correct answer, then I’m happy with that, and that’s all that matters. To me, I’m like, why do you not want to work for a private practice, because she’s a physiotherapist, she goes well, because right now she is working with elder people in an old people’s home. She likes the feeling of helping people, the elder people whose children do not visit very often. She’s built very good relationships with the older people. She feels like she contributes to their day-to-day life and she’s like ‘I’m happy and content’, so when she gives me this answer, I don’t want to push her anymore because she gave me the right answer. If she told me, ‘Oh I can’t be bothered’, then I’m like no, no, no, no, no, that’s the wrong answer, that’s not how you should be thinking, but if you give me the right answer, then it’s ok.”

Celina Lin on poker in China; women at HS; and moreAs a parent of two children, one 17-years, and another of 18-months, the lack of self-compassion I have with myself when it comes to doing the right thing is as unwelcome as frozen toes trotting up my calves. I share this with Lin. 

“Compassion? I think that people just do not put themselves in enough situations that they are uncomfortable with. You always want to hang out with people who say the best things about you; you don’t want to hang out with people who disagree with you. You don’t want to hang out with people that may not think the same way you do. You always want to be surrounded by people who agree with you, have the same hobbies, have the same likes – but by putting yourself in a situation you are uncomfortable with, facing people who do not agree with you, who do not see the same perspective as you do, offers you another angle where you can actually become compassionate over time.

“It’s tough because being in your comfort zone makes you feel safe and feeling safe is something that as human beings we try to seek out, whether it’s having a home, having your own bed – these things make you feel safe. When you start stepping out of your comfort zone, you feel stressed, anxious and that’s why usually people like to be in their comfort zone.

“That’s sometimes applied to a poker player who plays above their level. A lot of poker players prefer to play around the same stakes because if I bust at a 1k tournament, it’s not a big deal. If they bust at 10k consistently, then that’s gonna hurt. You have the big names out there who are going for it. They are like, ‘I’m just going to make it. I’m going to go broke ten times but do you know what I’m just going to pick myself up and keep doing that’.

“Not many people have that ability to keep doing that because once you go broke, having to pick yourself up and having to do it over and over again, it’s really, really tough, especially in this sort of poker environment where everyone has got to do so much better. The money you make in poker does not come as easily as it used to, so people do worry about that rainy day. What happens with that rainy day fund and things like that, so you are much less likely to take those risks, but I think that in terms of self-growth, those are the risks you could take.

“Take scuba diving; I’m scared shitless of the water. I think my biggest fear would be drowning. I had this reoccurring dream when I was about six. Do you know there is the Bund in Shanghai is? So Shanghai is my hometown, and there is this ledge you can walk along, and it is very, very dark. One second I would be on my dad’s shoulder’s, I remember this vividly because my dad used to carry me on his shoulders and I would see the fireworks. So I’d be taller than everybody else, and then I would walk on the side of the Bund sometimes, but he would be holding me. Then one day in my dream I would fall into the water, and that darkness in the water would envelop me, and that is so, so scary, for me. I love the water, but I would do it in a pool. The idea of scuba diving, where you would panic, and you would want to rush to resurface quickly, really scares the crap out of me.”

As Lin comes to terms with her new challenge of scuba diving, I dive deep underneath the waves and ask her one last question: how does poker make you feel?

“I think that I can describe my journey with poker and my relationship with poker as both love and hate. I believe all poker players go through it. I think you love it when you’re running great. Everything you are doing seems to be working out. You’re getting the maximum chips out of each pot that you are playing, nothing stands in your way, you feel invincible, and then you go through periods of time when you question yourself like, am I even any good? Why is it that I can’t win? You feel like you should be betting the river here, and you do bet, but instead, you think I am just valuing myself because the opponent is always way ahead, they are always way ahead and you’re always the betting lead, it’s like what am I doing?  Am I looking at the game differently? Am I looking at it wrong? You keep questioning yourself, especially at times where I would say you are tired.

“When you play a really long online schedule at times, especially in a different  timezone and you get to a point sometimes in a tournament when you are like, ‘You know what, I don’t care how much money I am going to win, I just want to go to bed,’ and you get that feeling, you think what am I doing, it’s very much like that and then you know I actually look at some of the places poker has taken me and I ask myself would I have ever gone there if I didn’t have poker in my life?

Like Montenegro.

“I had never heard of it until last week, and it is so gorgeous and so beautiful. I saw the sun setting, and I guess seeing different cultures, meeting different people. Even bad experiences like Budapest where we changed 200Euros for Belarusian, it was like 40cents, things like that and it helped me go, well you know what Randy if this well dressed old man had to pull this stunt then well he probably needs the money more than we do. He probably needs to feed his family and especially when there are not a lot of tourists around during the winter periods; times can be tough you know, let’s see it as a donated share.

“With poker and every aspect of life, you need to see the humour in it. Hopefully, my sister and my daughter are going turn out well because I gave them the good fundamentals that they can use in life like I built good fundamentals when I learned poker.”