Chinese poker queen Celina Lin overcomes cultural barriers to drive game to new levels of ‘glamour and prestige’

Having convinced her family of the values of poker, the 35-year-old is now inspiring a new generation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:11pm

She’s China’s most successful female poker player and is idolised throughout Asia, but for Celina Lin Peifei the first step to stardom was convincing her family of the game’s values.

For Lin, who was born in Shanghai before moving to Melbourne at the age of nine, it was a hard sell when she decided to leave Australia for Macau in 2007 to become part of PokerStars’ professional team.

“Culturally, it is something that is frowned upon, that was one of the hurdles,” the 35-year-old says.

“My parents did not understand the game and they felt like it was very similar to playing blackjack and baccarat.

“Because poker tournaments are organised inside a casino, people relate it to all the other games. I had to say to them ‘No, you do realise we play against other players, we are not playing against the house? We make decisions after we’re given information’.

“It ended up taking almost three months to turn my dad around and when he did he was really proud.

“He displays all my trophies in the living room for everyone to see. It’s been a journey for my family and me.”

Now based in Macau, Lin lived in Hong Kong “on and off” for a period and still enjoys escaping to Hong Kong for a “break” from Macau.

After discovering the game in Melbourne’s Crown Casino on finishing university as a 22-year-old, Lin built a US$10,000 bankroll playing online in just three weeks and has gone on to become one of Asia’s most recognisable players.

A childhood of playing games ensured poker felt very “natural” when she started and she has won numerous high-profile tournaments, with her win at the Red Dragon main event at the 2012 Macau Poker Cup netting a cool US$110,077.

Despite gambling being illegal in China, people play poker for fun and the game has become a status symbol – Lin estimates up to 60 per cent of the last Red Dragon field were Chinese.

“It’s become the golf of China, it’s become one of those very prestigious games to be seen playing,” Lin says.

“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.”

With wins in 2009 and 2012, Lin became the first person to win the Red Dragon twice and has witnessed poker’s boom in Asia first hand.

“I would say it started around 2007, roughly about 10 years ago,” she says. “The first time I visited Macau I played the Red Dragon main event at the Macau Poker Cup and there were 30 players.

“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.

“The title is accessible to pretty much every poker player because the buy-in is very small, roughly US$2,000.”

While men dominate tables in casinos across the globe, Lin can see the balance shifting slightly in Asia, something she has played a huge role in.

“It has changed [the world over] but it has been a lot more obvious in Asia. 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,” she says.

Watch: Celina Lin chats poker

“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’.

“They are able to be very independent because of it and they actually come and thank me when they see me. That makes me really happy, I feel like I’m doing something that’s allowing these girls to grow.

Changing the game: Macau bets big on sports in bid to shed its gambling image

“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.”

After recently winning back-to-back women’s events – “it’s been a hurdle for me because I’ve had a lot of difficulty learning to play against other women, funnily enough, because I am always playing against guys” – Lin dreams of one day winning a high roller event.

But being China’s most successful poker player doesn’t necessarily mean endless riches, even if career earnings of US$898,200 are not to be sneezed at, and it is success rather than money that motivates Lin.

“When I found poker I realised it’s something that I wake up wanting to do every single day,” she says.

From modelling to MMA and now WWE: bombshell Zeda finds her Chinese roots through wrestling

“I like collecting trophies. I have 11 and it’s something that keeps driving me.”

Such is her love for the game, Lin plays as much as she can, paying for buy-ins out of her own pocket when PokerStars are not covering her entry into main events.

“I play every single one [of the side events]. I’m usually there from the beginning of a tour until the end,” she says, highlighting the upcoming Asian Championship of Poker in Macau, which starts on October 13, as the biggest series she plays.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

While the game has taken her to places like Monte Carlo, the Bahamas and Barcelona, Lin still makes sure she visits her extended family in Shanghai whenever possible.

And when the time comes, she is looking forward to showing her dad exactly why she loves poker so much: “He looked into it more and he said ‘when I retire, I want you to teach me to play poker’.”