In 1985 when I was 5 years old, my family emigrated from Tian Jin, China to Toronto. By the time I was seven, I’d gained a basic understanding of poker from watching movies and TV and would set up poker games between me and my stuffed animals. I’d concoct hypothetical scenarios for each player and make decisions on what I thought each of them would do.
I’ve always been drawn to games of strategy.
In 2006, I went to the University of Waterloo, often referred to as the M.I.T. of Canada. Since we were all a bunch of super competitive analytical type students, the school was a hotbed for poker players.
I got a dealer’s license after my first year of college and for two summers I worked at the Canadian National Exhibition charity casino, initially as a dealer and then a floor supervisor.
As I became more immersed in poker, my grades suffered and eventually I lost the full scholarship I’d received to attend Waterloo. Instead of giving up poker, I began playing more, hosting games at my apartment to cover my tuition so my parents wouldn’t find out.
In 2010 with the encouragement of my friends, I started traveling to try my hand at playing in tournaments.
My first major tournament was the $10,000 World Poker Tour Fallsview event in Niagara Falls where I won my way in by winning a couple of events at the $500 level. I wasn’t yet familiar with the concept of selling actions (finding investors to back me) so I basically put most of my net worth on the table. I was horribly outclassed, but got to meet many poker legends and got hooked on the poker lifestyle.
As I started traveling to play, my parents realized what was going on. I made a deal with my mom that I’d travel for a year to play as long as I promised to settle down and get a real job. I ended up with two half a million dollar finishes within nine months, so she let me keep going.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem glamorous, but poker is also mentally and physically draining.
There was a time where I was playing nonstop; it was like being on a hamster wheel. When I wasn’t competing, I was studying anything I could get my hands on about the game.
Poker is a game where you’re playing against other players, but it’s also very mathematical. It’s important to understand what general tendencies are, and study which game theory is optimal for any given situation in order to exploit your opponents and their tendencies.
In the past you could be quite successful playing a heavily exploitative style, but these days the game is a lot harder, so studying is important to compete at the highest levels. While I’m successful by most measurements, there’s another tier of players above me at the highest levels. I have a poker coach I study with who belongs to that tier.
The game is not only mentally draining but physically as well. Often we sit at a poker table for up to 14 hours, with limited breaks just to use the restroom or make a quick call.
Poker is a hard way to make easy money. I don’t know any pros that would actually recommend it for a living.
Don’t get me wrong — I love poker. It’s allowed me to travel to places like Italy and China and meet some truly amazing people, but the game can be a cold and lonely place. When you’re doing well, it means someone else isn’t. There comes a point when you see some of the worst aspects of humanity.
By 2017, I didn’t like the trajectory my life was heading, so after a brief marriage to a fellow player, I left the circuit to live life at a slower pace in Vancouver. I planned to move into a completely different field, but recently I kept having poker opportunities knock on my door that I couldn’t refuse.
Now that live events are back, I’m getting back into poker in different ways.
I’m doing live poker tournament commentating work in English and Mandarin because there’s a broader international audience these days. During COVID, I also became a board member and instructor with Poker Powher, an organization whose mission is to empower women from all walks of life by teaching them to play poker.
Poker can arm women with essential life skills like learning the beauty of risk, negotiating like a pro, and taking control — lessons they can take from the game room to the boardroom for the rest of their lives.
By Xuan Liu, as told to Jenny Powers August 7, 2021 at 05:00PM