Cathy Zhao has become an integral part of the World Poker Tour management team since joining the company four years ago. (WPT photo)

In honor of International Women’s Day, PocketFives is shining the light on some of the women in poker who have made poker their lives and their careers and are an integral part of moving the game to new heights.

Any poker player who entered a World Poker Tour event over the last few years has likely run into Cathy Zhao at some point or another. The soft-spoken Zhao has quickly become a highly respected, very influential member of the poker world. She came to the United States for education, and ended up using her years of worldwide experience to bring a refreshing voice to a poker industry that is constantly evolving.

“I was born and raised in a small city in central China. I was pretty sure my parents’ wish was for me to get into the best college in China and then go back to that little town to find a stable 9 to 6 job. I’ve always known that it was not going to happen, but I also didn’t expect to work and live here in the (United) States when I was in my 20s,” Zhao said. 

Zhao came to the United States for college, and it didn’t take her long to earn an undergrad and Master’s degree. She admits she did not have much interest in poker before she came to America, but that she quickly gained an appreciation for it when she explored her career options. 

Where I am from, poker is not encouraged by the government, and I didn’t step foot in a casino until when I was 21 while visiting the US. I’ve always had interest in business and honestly, poker was not my passion to begin with but because of the people in this industry it has grown on me.”

With Chinese being her first language, it only made sense that Zhao started her work for the WPT in China. As soon as she started working there, Zhao realized that she might have found her calling.

“I mainly worked at WPT Sanya and WPT Beijing and a few other events in the Asia region. I have to say those were great memories, especially the ones at Sanya and Beijing. It really was like a festival for everyone, where you can just feel the pure excitement and satisfaction in the air.”

From there, she branched out to start working events in Europe and the United States. Her roles gradually expanded, until she was offered a great opportunity to take the lead for the WPT’s mid-major tour, WPTDeepStacks. 

“I eventually moved to the US and took the lead on all events, including televised events and live streamed events. I was in a great position experiencing an industry in different stages in different markets and that’s when I started to believe I can do something in this path. In 2019, there was an opportunity for me to take over the WPTDeepStacks tour and I have been here ever since.”

Zhao might have made it look easy, but her success was far from that. Zhao had to navigate the challenge of learning a second language while adapting to her new life stateside. Zhao said that learning poker and talking to poker players actually helped her English a great deal. 

“There were a lot of challenges when I stepped in this industry and even now. English being my second language did not help at the beginning as I was always doubting if I said the right thing or if I spoke in the best way. I am still learning the language. One funny thing is that because of my (interaction) with poker players, my poker lingo has grown so fast and sometimes non-poker players may not quite get what I am speaking. I find it quite amusing,” Zhao said.

When Zhao is not focused on work, she says that she likes to keep things low key, mostly enjoying private time with her husband, Ping Liu, a professional poker player. The couple met at a WPT event and were married soon after, with WPT CEO Adam Pliska serving as a witness. Zhao also enjoys one particular hobby that has helped her with learning her second language. 

“I am definitely a private person outside my work. I like outdoor activities like hiking deep in the mountains or simply strolling by the beach. I absolutely love stand-up comedy, both in English and Chinese (in Chinese it’s called “cross-talk”). It’s hilarious and brilliant and I am still constantly amazed by how ‘boundless’ western comedians are in their shows.”

As far as what the future holds for this rising star, Zhao expressed her simple desires while touching a bit on the broad strokes that she hopes to implement in her position of power in poker. 

“For poker, I want to do my work well. My hope is for everyone who plays at our events to enjoy it and feel special, and maybe go back home with a story to tell. Being in my position, I also want to be a good business partner to those who brought us to their property,” said Zhao.

Zhao continued, talking about the need to grow poker in America still. “I also realize the needs for new players in the North American market. Poker needs increased globalization too as it would benefit every party. There is a limited amount I can do, but I want to take the advantage where I am now, to do my part, however small it is.”

She may have grand visions for the WPT and the poker world, but Zhao also revealed something that she really wants at the moment. 

“I want to have many new experiences and cannot wait for Covid to be over so we can travel more, go to concerts, etc,” Zhao said. “Also, I am looking to adopt a goldendoodle puppy.”