“Get to China, people. Get some gold.”
Those were the words of the reigning World Series of Poker Main Event champion and Player of the Year Greg Merson upon spending three weeks playing poker in the famed high-stakes games in Macau.
Indeed, the East is experiencing a poker boom of sorts, and already, superstars like Hong Kong’s Jay “pocketjays” Tan are beginning to emerge.
Born in Los Angeles, Calif., Tan spent her childhood in Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia, living in Hong Kong until the age of four and the Sydney for the next 21 years. It was in the “Land Down Under” that Tan grew up and received her education.
“I grew up in a family of strict Asian values where my parents prioritized a good education above all else,” Tan told PokerNews. “I excelled in my studies at a young age and attended one of the best primary schools and leading female high school. As a teenager I already began to appreciate the finer things in life and in order for me to do that I decided to take up part time jobs throughout my schooling to sweeten up the already generous pocket money I was receiving from my parents. My first job was at a local bookstore paying $6 an hour, cash in hand and I would work two hours a day every day after school and half day on weekends. I was paid roughly $100 per week, which was a lot for a 14 year old back then.”
When she turned 18, Tan took a job at an American Express call center where she handled calls in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, all while continuing her educational pursuits.
“I was balancing work and studies by working three days and going to university three days, Tan explained. “I had no weekends for two years as I worked on Saturdays and Sundays. It was tough at times because I didn't really get to be a teenager like my friends who went clubbing and partying every weekend! My parents were confused, too, but I knew I wanted to make money from a very young age and I wanted to do it on my own.”
Tan, who has an admitted passion for cars, invested those first paychecks in a new Mini Cooper. By the time she had paid off her car loan, she had already bought a second Mini Cooper—an upgraded Cooper S convertible. She also went from a 250cc bike to a 400cc bike. Needless to say, she was living the life for an 18-year-old girl and even earned a reputation as an “adrenaline junkie.”
After working odd jobs as a cosmetic consultant, a personal assistant, and at an emergency roadside-assistance call center, Tan decided it was time to get serious about what she was going to do with her life.
“Growing up I never really knew what I wanted to do. Nothing quite seemed to fit. I really wanted to be a vet, but the thought of putting down animals and taking life away like that upset me,” Tan said. “So I thought I'd study a Bachelor's in Media and Communications majoring in Japanese. Yes, very strange.
"After I graduated I still had no clue. So one day I just decided 'Hey, let's try banking!' So I went and enrolled to do my masters. I just woke up one day and decided to commit an extra three years of my life to more studying. I figured bankers get paid decently so why not? Hey, it also made my parents happier.”
At 25, after finishing her Masters of Business in Finance & Accounting, Tan moved to Hong Kong, where she currently resides, to further a banking career. So how did a girl obsessed with work and education become acquainted with poker? The same way millions of other players did—by watching it on TV.
“I'd always loved card games from a young age. One night whilst cramming for an exam the next day during university I turned on the TV and watched my first ever poker tournament,” Tan explained. “It was an epic moment for me because after that I couldn't stop thinking about the game. Finally, a month or two later, I went to a friend's house and they were playing a home game so I thought I'd try my luck. I had no idea what I was doing but I still won and from there onwards I was absolutely hooked. I pretty much hit the small stakes cash game tables with zero experience right away after that and learned on the job.”
In April 2011, Tan managed to book her first tournament cash by finishing 18th in the 2011 Macau Millions HK$2,200 No Limit Hold’em event for HK$25,000. She was hooked, and before long, she decided to pursue the game full time.
“The main factor leading to my decision to turn pro live was that I realized my heart was always there and my mind was always thinking about poker,” Tan said. “My parents were not impressed. I remember the night I'd booked my biggest win in Macau, I was so happy that I took the cash and the first ferry back to Hong Kong to visit my parents. It was 1 a.m. and I stacked up all the cash on the dinner table and my mom just stared with her jaw open before asking me how much there was. When I told her with a smile she went back into her room and refused to talk to me for days. She thought I had been sitting on the baccarat table gambling 'my entire life away' and that I had gotten lucky with a momentary win.
"Dad on the other hand has a slightly more open mind so he was more accepting, but even he just muttered a few words and left it at that. It took a few months of explaining poker tournaments and some general concepts to them before they started to become more accepting of it.”
Despite their initial hesitation, both of Tan’s parents came around. “To this day, most if not all my relatives still think I work in a bank,” Tan said with a laugh, “and I believe my parents would prefer to keep it that way for now!"
Tan’s enthusiasm, beauty and skills eventually landed her a coveted sponsorship deal with Bodog, which helped introduce her to a worldwide audience. “Getting signed by Bodog was literally a dream come true,” Tan admitted. “I have so much respect and admiration for the brand, it is such a good fit for my personality and values that it was an easy decision. As a poker player it is amazing when you are given a rare opportunity to be sponsored and to represent a brand that believes in you. I am so honored that Bodog chose me and gave me this opportunity.”
Being a sponsored pro allowed Tan to travel the Circuit a bit more, which is where she met her boyfriend and fellow poker player “Hong Kong” Kenny Wong. It also allowed her the chance to finally play in the Southern Hemisphere’s most prestigious tournament.
“I had always wanted to participate in the Aussie Millions but when I was actually living in Australia, I could never take the time off work to go. Neither did I also have enough experience or confidence to do something so brave,” Tan explained. “This year I was lucky enough to go because of Bodog's support, a more flexible work schedule and my boyfriend Kenny, who wanted to go back for the title this year! I was actually undecided about the Main Event until I got there and checked out the feel of the series.”
Tan ended up playing the Main Event, an event her boyfriend had finished runner-up in the year before. It proved an educational experience as Tan found her femininity worked to her advantage.
“One of the more memorable overall experiences was that on almost every table, there seemed to be a male who would try to bluff me,” Tan said. “I must've been wearing my invisible 'please bluff me' sign on my forehead because they just kept sending me free chippies. I can’t complain! I loved it. The perks of being a female poker player — some men just love underestimating you and will use their ego to make potentially bad decisions. Oh well, one man's loss is one woman's gain!”
Indeed, all those chips added up and soon Tan embarked on a deep run in the six-day event. Even after Wong fell in 28th place for $36,949, Tan held strong on her way to the final table, which included poker heavyweights Dan Shak and Patrik Antonius. The latter eventually eliminated Tan after his held up against her in an all-in preflop confrontation. Tan finished in seventh place for $158,355, by far the biggest score of her career.
“When I focus and reflect on all the positives, I am quite proud to have come so far especially being my first ever Aussie Millions,” Tan said. “However, when you're just six places away from $1.6m AUD and the prestigious title, isn't it so easy to suddenly forget the positives?”
Had she won the title, Tan admitted she would have bought a Ducati Monster, but since that didn’t happen, she took a more conservative route with her prize money. “I wish I could go on a shopping spree but the money is currently banked and saved as renovation money for our new home,” Tan said. “I did pay off the credit card from excessive Melbourne shopping so not all was lost.”
Even though she didn’t get the title, which eventually went to Malaysia’s Mervin Chan, Tan did share in a rewarding experience alongside the love of her life.
“I probably wouldn't have made it so far if it weren't for his continuous support and great advice. His tips were so helpful and valuable as he is so familiar with the structure and fresh with experience from the previous year. He is a great player and I was so lucky to get all that advice during the tournament. Just discussing and dissecting hands after each day was incredible help for me to reassess the mistakes and optimum plays I made.
“To this day we still can't believe that we made it so far together and that I final tabled the year after he did. How often does someone lose their exclusive final table bragging rights just one year later! Granted he still has the bigger win booked but who knows, Coach Wong would be proud if I overtook him one day.”