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A Poker Life: Cate Hall

Poker Rookie Makes Three WPT Final Tables In First Year On Tour

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In the years following the end of the poker boom, it has become less likely for a player to explode onto the scene ‘out of nowhere.’ For the most part, the names at final tables are familiar: the high-stakes superstar continuing their dominance or a mid-level pro making their breakthrough or a local enthusiast finally finding their rush.

Cate Hall is one of the few players in recent years to go from complete outsider to competing at the game’s highest levels seemingly overnight. Her very first live tournament cash came in July of 2015. In less than a year, she has cashed in 12 events, making three World Poker Tour main event final tables, and very nearly capturing that tour’s Player of the Year award.

Along the way, Hall also drew attention to a number of ways in which the poker world still has room to improve when it comes to being a welcoming community for female players, reinvigorating a conversation on gender issues the game sorely needs.
Here is a look at the 32 year old’s journey so far and how she came to be one of poker’s most exciting rising stars.

Phases of Interest

Hall was born in Tucson, Arizona and grew up there. She stayed in Arizona for her undergraduate studies. Like many other poker players, she took an early interest in contests of strategic thought.

“I’ve always been interested in competitive games to some extent,” said Hall. “I didn’t have much experience playing cards when I was younger, though I did learn to play from my grandmother when I was seven or so. These kinds of things have always been attractive to me because I like mental competition.”

Cate HallShe played chess competitively from elementary school through high school and in college got into ‘gaming’ generally, playing the online role-playing game World of Warcraft heavily for a year or so while she was working towards her undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and philosophy.

“For all of my life I’ve had phases of interest. It’s really changed from year to year. I began college thinking that I would be a research scientist and got a job in a lab as a research assistant working in molecular chemistry and biochemistry. By my senior year, I had gotten bored of it though, as I do of all things (laughs) and decided that I was not going to be happy spending my life in a lab. So I ended up doing a dual-degree program and graduated with a second degree in philosophy, with the intention of going to law school.”

After graduating, Hall worked as a clerk for a firm in New York for two years and then moved to Washington D.C. and worked for an appellate boutique firm for the next four years that specialized in Supreme Court and Court of Appeals cases. The demands and stress of her legal career began to grate on Hall, which lead to her next phase of interest: professional poker.

Poker = Freedom

“I played a little bit of poker in college in home games around the time of the poker boom. Everybody was playing it and it was a lot of fun,” said Hall, who didn’t play much during law school, despite being not too far from Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Around two-and-a-half years ago, she started taking weekend trips to a casino in Charles Town, West Virginia to try out poker as a hobby again. When nearby Maryland Live! opened its poker room, Hall started to spend more time playing, mostly in low-stakes no-limit cash games.

“I think the primary motivation for me to pursue poker was not anything having to do with the game itself, but rather had more to do with the fact that I was not happy as a lawyer and really wanted to do something different.”

Hall was doing well enough in the games that she could finance her lifestyle for a couple of years while playing poker, but acknowledges that she didn’t believe that the decision didn’t necessarily have a positive expected value in terms of her earning potential.

“When I left my job, I knew that I would never make as much money playing poker as I would as a lawyer and that will continue to be true even if I were to win the main event. Lifetime, I am definitely sacrificing money by not being a lawyer, so it really doesn’t have anything to do with thinking that poker would be profitable. It was just something that I enjoyed doing and I thought it would be nice to spend my time doing something I actually liked for a couple of years.”

“The freedom that comes with being a poker pro is just absolutely amazing and my life up until the point that I left my job as a lawyer was basically working non-stop with a rigid schedule and being accountable to someone at all hours of the day. It had been that way for me since college.”

While Hall admits that the autonomy inherent in being a poker pro was one of the things that attracted her to this lifestyle, she also professes a great interest in the game itself.

“It’s not just something I do to pay bills. It is something that is endlessly interesting to me because it is such a complicated game. The better you get at it, the more you realize how much you have to learn, the more you realize that there are levels above you that you are just oblivious to at your current skill level. I really enjoy that challenge.”

Whirlwind Ride on the World Poker Tour

Shortly after officially leaving her law firm in 2015, Hall was able to attend the World Series of Poker for the first time, which to her was a “pilgrimage of sorts.” Her intention was to primarily grind cash games in Vegas during the series, but ended up catching the tournament bug. Her biggest score of the summer came in a $777 buy-in no-limit hold’em event in which she finished 33rd out of a field of 4,422 entries.

Cate Hall“That experience of going to day three of a big event was really exciting and gave me an appreciation for why people played tournaments,” she noted. “Up until I made a little bit of a time investment in tournaments, I still felt that they were a lesser form of poker when compared with cash games. Short stack play is such a huge part of tournaments and I think that deep stack play is a lot more interesting, strategically. But that started to change once I got a bit more experience playing tournaments.”

“It was incredibly exciting. I felt like overwhelmed by the experience,” says Hall of making her first major final table ($3,500 WPT Maryland Live!) where she ultimately finished fifth in the event. A few weeks later she made the trip to the WPT event Montreal and eked into the money. The next tournament trip she made was to the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic at Bellagio. It was only her second $10,000 buy-in event ever after having played the WSOP main event in 2015. She had gone out to Vegas with the intention of playing cash, but decided to take a shot and was able to satellite in.

“Having spent more time in the poker community by that point, I knew enough to be a bit awed by the people around me. Every day I was playing with amazing players. The process of going through that tournament and making that final table was huge.”

With another cash in the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open main event, she overtook the lead in the WPT’s Player of the Year race and was five-for-five in terms of cashing in WPT events so far that season. She played the L.A. Poker Classic and Fallsview Poker Classic festivals without cashing any events. Hall experienced the demoralizing side of tournament poker after spending a lot of money on buy-ins without seeing any return. She spent some time at home thinking it over and, although she was frustrated, she decided to fly out for the WPT’s ultimate series in Florida.

“I realized that I almost certainly would never have a better shot to win something like the WPT Player of the Year. So I went down to Florida for the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown.”

Hall cashed both the $3,500 buy-in main event and the $10,000 Seminole Hard Rock Poker Finale event. She busted the latter and returned to the final table of the first event, which was delayed a day, coming in as a short stack among ten players with the chance to overtake the lead by finishing in the top three.

“I set myself up with a really great opportunity to win the Player of the Year race, which I obviously fell short of. Going into the final day… was completely surreal and such an exciting experience.”

Highlighting Poker’s Gender Issues

While Hall’s play has put her in the spotlight over the past year, her actions while the poker world was paying attention have also been noteworthy. When Hall made her first WPT final table last fall, she told those running the event that she would not take the traditional final table promotional photos with the Royal Flush Girls, spokesmodel / ambassadors for the tour. Hall took to Twitter at the time to say that, “Few things so clearly signal that poker is a man’s game as the Royal Flush Girls.”

In the wake of that move, she has become a bit of a focal point for discussions of gender issues in poker.

“I think that the poker community in general is a bit retrogressive in terms of gender issues. It is really hard for people within the community to see that because it is all they know. When I bring up things that I have a problem with at the table I’m frequently met with, ‘That’s just the way it is’ as an explanation,” says Hall.

Hall has done her best to express her opinions and interact with people who disagree, but is reluctant to be a focal point for the topic’s discussion.

“It’s weird because, before I got into poker, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about gender issues. I didn’t experience a level of sexism in life that I found problematic,” said Hall with some measure of surprise in her voice, due to the fact that she has spent much of her life in fields that are historically male-dominated: researching and working in science and math, being employed at a law firm that was 95 percent male, she ran an all-male editorial staff at a newspaper and even when back when she seriously dabbled in video games like World of Warcraft.

“I’ve been in male-dominated communities my whole life and can say that the poker community is different from the others in that it is more unwelcoming to women than basically any environment I’ve been in. As someone who is kind of an outsider stepping into the community for the first time I hope that it is valuable for me to sort of point out the extent to which poker has fallen behind.”

“Now that I have made an issue of a couple of things I have sort of become this ‘spokesperson’ for gender issues in poker, which is a really weird position for me to be in,” Hall continued. “Gender issues are neither a subject of particular interest for me or something that I know a ton about, but I still have people messaging me on Twitter asking me for my opinion on things.”

Making the poker world a more welcoming place for women is a complex problem without one single solution, but Hall thinks that a good place to start would be the way the game is advertised and marketed. A shift in strategies that would be less exclusively geared towards one gender could make a huge difference in how potential female players perceive the game.

Looking Forward

Many poker pros realize that they likely can’t play the game as their sole income forever. Hall is one who explicitly plans on only playing for only a short time.

“Poker is something that I’m not planning to do for a long time, probably only a year or two more,” she admits. “As I look forward to what I want to do next, it will dictate what I do in the coming years in terms of poker.”

She hopes to use the freedom and autonomy of the profession to allow her to see and experience things she wouldn’t otherwise be able to before moving on to her next job.

“I might want to work for an effective altruist organization, or work for a NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that is focused on rationality or I might end up going back to grad school to help me in one of those fields,” says Hall. “I really don’t know.”

In the meantime, her head is in poker. With a debut year like she just had, who know what she might accomplish before she starts her next phase? ♠