Oct 12, 2017
Celina Lin Discusses how Poker Became the "Golf of China"
By RTR Dennis
Celina Lin Pei Fei is one of the most-successful poker players in Asia. She has nearly $900,000 in poker tournament winnings and is one of the game's biggest stars.
But both Lin and poker have had a tough road to respectability in Asia. In fact, the toughest challenge in Lin's poker career involved convincing her parents that it was a legitimate job. That said, let's discuss more on Lin's poker career along with the game's rise in China.
Lin had to Explain that Poker isn't Like Baccarat or Blackjack
Poker is different than other casino game in that it contains a great deal of skill. Of course, the general perception is that poker is a gambling game.
And it was a challenge for Lin to convince her parents differently when she began playing the game professionally.
“Culturally, it is something that is frowned upon, that was one of the hurdles,” she told the South China Morning Post.
Born in Shanghai, Lin and her family moved to Melbourne when she was 9. By the time she turned 25, Lin had become a serious poker player who was on the verge of a PokerStars sponsorship deal.
Lin decided to move from Melbourne to Macau for poker purposes in 2007. But not before trying to convince her parents that it was a good decision.
“My parents did not understand the game and they felt like it was very similar to playing blackjack and baccarat," she explained. “Because poker tournaments are organized inside a casino, people relate it to all the other games. I had to say to them ‘No, you do realize we play against other players, we are not playing against the house? We make decisions after we’re given information.'"
But after three months of convincing, Lin was finally able to get her parents on board with her new career decision. And now, her father is one of her biggest fans.
“He displays all my trophies in the living room for everyone to see. It’s been a journey for my family and me.”
Lin Started before Poker Became Socially Acceptable
Now 35 years old, Lin began playing poker in the Melbourne's Crown Casino as a 22-year-old university student. She also played online poker and quickly won $10,000 to build her bankroll.
Lin got her first big break when she won the 2012 Macau Poker Cup's Red Dragon Main Event along with $110,077.
It was hard for Lin to stick with poker in the early days because gambling is illegal in China. What's more is that the game was considered taboo in the 2000s. However, attitudes are changing these days.
“It’s become the golf of China, it’s become one of those very prestigious games to be seen playing,” she said, while mentioning that over 60% of the last Red Dragon field consisted of Chinese players.
“It’s not the old school shady underground feel that you get when you think of poker, it’s much more glamorous now. It’s very much in fashion as golf was.”
Asian Poker Boom is Starting
With victories in 2009 and 2012, Lin is the only poker player to have won the Red Dragon Main Event twice. That said, she's positioned to benefit from what she sees as a budding poker boom in Asia.
“I would say it started around 2007, roughly about 10 years ago,” she explained. “The first time I visited Macau I played the Red Dragon main event at the Macau Poker Cup and there were 30 players."
Lin added, “Just recently we had a record-breaking 1,350-odd players for that event. It’s massive, in 10 years we have seen amazing growth in players from Asia."
One thing that Lin believes is fueling the Red Dragon's success is the relatively small buy-in. “The title is accessible to pretty much every poker player because the buy-in is very small, roughly US$2,000."
More Women are Playing Poker in Asia
Men still make up the majority of Asian poker players. But Lin has seen more and more women taking up the game lately.
“It has changed [the world over] but it has been a lot more obvious in Asia," she said. "I have seen probably 7 per cent of the field are females [in Asia] and I think that number would be much less in North America."
In turn, Lin has become a cultural icon among many of these aspiring female players.
“Girls have come up to me and said ‘I watched a video of you and I’ve heard what you do and it gave me the confidence to learn the game and try it,'" said Celina. “They are able to be very independent because of it and they actually come and thank me when they see me."
She went on to say, "That makes me really happy, I feel like I’m doing something that’s allowing these girls to grow. They’re like ‘there’s this girl, she’s been doing it, why can’t we?’ I feel like when a girl from China has done well in poker, you can see that confidence within her.”
Lin Likes Poker Success More than the Money
Many poker pros are motivated by money above all. But Lin loves winning trophies just as much as anything.
“When I found poker I realized it’s something that I wake up wanting to do every single day,” Celina said. “I like collecting trophies. I have 11 and it’s something that keeps driving me.”
Lin shows her passion for poker by buying into as many tournaments as she can. This is all the more impressive when considering that PokerStars doesn't foot the bill for anything beyond Main Events.
“I play every single one [of the side events]. I’m usually there from the beginning of a tour until the end." Lin added that she'll be playing every event possible in the Asian Championship of Poker in Macau, which starts on October 13.
“It brings the best players from all over the world to Macau to compete for a US$13,000 buy-in for the main event," she said. “I think the best finish I’ve had in that event was two years ago in 22nd place and competing with the best in the world is something that everybody has to try."
Despite her success and sponsorship deal, Lin isn't resting on her laurels.
“It really drives you to want to do better and it humbles you at the same time. The reason I have been able to stay afloat playing poker tournaments around the world is because I’m constantly having to learn more about the game.”
Lin has done so well in poker that her dad – who once looked at the game as pure gambling – now wants to learn from his daughter one day.
“He looked into it more and he said ‘when I retire, I want you to teach me to play poker,'" she said.