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Capture the Flag With Susie Zhao

by Brian Pempus |  Published: May 10, 2017


Susie ZhaoPoker pro Susie Zhao is widely regarded as one of the top mid-stakes cash game players in the country. Zhao, who calls Los Angeles’ Commerce Casino her home base, is a $5-$10 and $10-$20 grinder who uses a loose-aggressive (LAG) style of play.

Though she focuses on cash games, Zhao does have two deep runs in the World Series of Poker main event over the last five years. Her skills on the felt led to her recently joining the team of instructors at The Poker Academy.

Card Player had a chance to speak with the poker pro about her card-playing career.

Brian Pempus: Do you think a cash game is a good place to network with people?

Susie Zhao: Absolutely. I think that the best cash game players are the most respected poker players anywhere, in any casino around the world really. You’re there [at the table] every day. You sit and you play and you talk with people, so it’s a decent place to network. It’s not something that I have utilized much in the past, but it is something I’m trying to utilize now. People who have played with me over the years have approached me for coaching, and I haven’t coached anyone in my own player pool, but it’s something I’m considering now.

BP: Does coaching help you improve your own game?

SZ: Yes, because you have to verbalize everything and you have to be able to show logic and correlation. It makes you examine the math a lot harder. The vast generalizations that you make are backed up by logic and math and all that good stuff. It has certainly improved my game. I have enjoyed coaching people at different skill levels, some people who I think I could bring to be one of the best in the game to some of the novice types. That has helped me partition the explanation of the logic. How do you explain the logic to someone at the [novice] level versus someone who is trying to become one of the top players? That certainly has helped me examine player types more specifically.

BP: What are the challenges in translating a thought process that happens in your mind during a hand and putting it into words? Phil Ivey, for example, has one of the sharpest poker minds in history, but when you hear him break down a hand it isn’t the most polished and coherent compared to top coaches out there.

SZ: I think that as time goes on, especially in the poker climate in 2017, everyone is getting better and thinking a little more in general, but not everyone is able to verbalize his or her own logic. Especially with getting into coaching I’ve realized how important is to be able to convey concepts. Poker is more than simply knowing the fundamentals; it’s about using the fundamentals.

BP: How do you handle situations where someone at a table wants to pick your brain about a hand while you are still involved with the session? Have you ever tried to dumb down your poker theory in these spots in order to not give anything away?

SZ: Absolutely. For better or for worse, I have historically taken a very avoidant but promotion for the goodness of the game approach to poker learning. I think it’s important for people to enjoy the game, and for our industry to stay an industry. The reason why $10-$20 no-limit rarely runs or is rarely good at Commerce—it used to be incredible—is because people are constantly talking poker at the table in a way that makes lesser-skilled players feel bad. People who are successful at anything have egos. Some pros are saying, “You played that hand horribly, why did you do that?” I take the opposite approach. It’s important to make the player pool have a good time. It’s also important to make sure they underestimate me. However, as I am getting into coaching and taking it very seriously, I have a lot of information that I haven’t shared with many people.

BP: Do you find that people give you less action as a result of them being more aware of how well you know the game?

SZ: That is kind of the kicker. I’ve discussed this with friends before. It’s a combination of the way I look and the style I play, which is extremely LAG, almost bordering on maniac. That’s the style in live poker these days that really crushes in any sort of decent mid-to-high-stakes game, anywhere in the country. If you go into any casino for a live game, the best players in that game will be playing extremely LAG, optimally and correctly. If you combine that style with the image of being a crazy girl, it can help your hourly rate because it can misrepresent your ranges in a lot of ways. People think you are this crazy person who is constantly betting. In the past, I’ve been aware and utilized my image.

BP: What’s your bread and butter game?

SZ: The game that I play most is capped $5-$10 no-limit hold’em. It’s a $1,500 cap at the Commerce. I also play uncapped $5-$10 and $10-$20 no-limit, along with some $5-$5-$10 pot-limit Omaha. Those are the stakes I’ve been at for the last several years. I used to play higher, but I’m happy with the variance with where I’m at. The capped and uncapped games are drastically different. The skill level is higher at uncapped games. In the Commerce capped game, because of Black Friday, there has been an influx of just so many regs and kids moving here in the last few years. The average skill level in the $5-$10 game has drastically risen. It’s pretty decently high compared to elsewhere in the country. I’m actually in Florida right now playing in a new card room that opened and visiting my friend, and I’m just shocked that this uncapped $5-$10 game even exists in 2017. It’s outrageous. I think that’s what a lot of The Poker Academy course I will be teaching will be on, playing in a player pool that is thinking. How do you play against people who are generally thinking about a lot of fundamental things? How do you bring yourself to the next level? How do you beat people who are trying to beat you? How do you take yourself beyond that?

BP: Given where we are at in poker, do you think it’s fair to throw the traditional poker player stereotypes out the window? Is it better to assume that no matter what the player in the cash game looks like, they could be a strong player?

SZ: I think appearance is very misleading in poker, because so many people trend toward that look with the headphones, the snap-back hat and the hoodie. Those are rarely the players who three-bet light (laughs). The cornerstone of the market for poker learning is people who understand the fundamentals but have difficulty breaking into the higher levels. To judge anyone based on appearance, especially clothing, is a stretch, especially for someone under 35. For older people, clothing can be an indication. But if you are good at poker you don’t have to sit at the table very long to extrapolate information about their game. If you have seen someone play a couple hands, or sat with them for an hour, you should be able to get an idea about their game, especially if you see a showdown. In 2017, the things we should be looking for in live poker are really just how people approach poker. It’s not the 1980s Mike Caro book anymore. It’s not about how they stack their chips. It’s about extrapolating small things and taking that into thinking about their ranges. It’s less magical than people think it is. People want to get reads based on how someone is breathing or holding their arms, but at the end of the day it’s about ranges. I think people watch me live do a ton of antics. I speak during hands, I feel comfortable playing a big all-in pot and having a conversation with you. After you have honed your game, after you have thought about the math and the concepts, the live reads and the psyche stuff comes at the very end.

BP: Do you ever show cards to help get the misreads going?

SZ: Absolutely. I don’t think there is anything wrong with showing hands. I don’t think you should show them with any sort of regularity. With showing hands, you are essentially saying that this is information that I am letting you know that I now know that you know. If anything, I would tend to show hands with players I don’t know rather than with regs. You are saying, “we are starting this game and we don’t really know each other, but I want you to know that I bluffed you in this big hand and that’s how I want to start the rest of our poker relationship.” For people who are good, who you play against constantly in your player pool, that’s not necessary. People think that a lot of things are for the fun of the game, but if you are playing enough you realize that they can give boosts to your hourly. So sure, it might not show results today or tomorrow, but being animated in ways and optimizing lines against certain players, they are all tiny boosts. When you think whether to do anything like showing your cards, it should be for the purpose of increasing your EV and hourly. It shouldn’t be because you just like it. ♠