Applause broke out among players and dealers in the Elements Casino poker room one afternoon in July as Tu “Stephanie” Dao made her way inside. It was a bit unexpected and overwhelming for Stepahnie, but it was a special day after just winning poker’s biggest trophy — a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
Only days earlier, she topped a field of 193 players to win a $3,000 No Limit Hold’em tournament for $176,868. She’d been playing in the casino for 15 years and management now wanted to honour her. She smiled at such a warm reception among a group she knew well.
“They called me up and asked me if they could post my picture in the poker room,” she says. “I dropped by and signed some release forms so they could post it. It was a good feeling when I walked in and they all applauded. Everyone was so thrilled because I was the only bracelet winner in the Hamilton area.”
There were plenty of hugs and congratulations, and her photo was soon hanging on the wall. Stephanie then got back to work — ponying up $2,500 and jumping in a $50/$100 cash game. She was ready to play some cards.
Fierce on the Felt
The percentage of women in a major poker tournament is usually around 4–6 percent. Many in the poker community are trying to change that — reaching out to women players with seminars and women–only events. A growing number of female players could increase tournament sizes and grow the game.
Considering those numbers, Stepanie is a bit of an anomaly. The 44–year–old poker pro from Hamilton has been making her living at the poker table for years.
Many unfamiliar with the poker world may have seen the $10,000 WSOP Main Event on ESPN. It’s the most prestigious tournament in the world, but the series also features other events throughout the summer. Of 89 bracelet events this summer at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, only two women won tournaments open to both sexes. It became the biggest tournament score of her career. Normally a cash game player, Stephanie now hopes the big win is a sign of more things to come.
“Her poker career is amazing,” friend and fellow player Jordan Fisch says. “She might be the most feared female player in local cash games. Stephanie is a very adaptable poker player. Being adaptable to play so many different games and forms of poker, and play them very well, is quite a talent.”
Fisch says on one occasion at a local home game Stephanie played, a few other players tried to exclude her from meetings because she was “too good.” While she may be a force at the tables, friends know her as someone always quick with a smile or laugh. The stereotype of a player in a hoodie staring silently at the table doesn’t apply.
“Stephanie is a super nice and thoughtful person and always tries her best to help people around her,” says Fisch, who lives in Toronto and credits her with giving him plenty of advice that has made him a better player. “She is also very fun to be around. Her laugh at the table is contagious and can be heard from a mile away when you’re in the poker room. Everyone is usually in a good mood when she’s at the table”
Reaching one of the highest achievements in poker didn’t come easy. In 1975 the Vietnam War came to an end, and in the coming years hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees packed into boats and fled the country looking for better opportunities abroad. The war ravaged their country and many Vietnamese chose to leave after Vietnam came under the grip of communism.
Stephanie was one of those. Her family was poor, but by age 8 her parents saved enough for her mother, Hoa Nguyen, to take Stephanie and her brother out of the country.
“It was really bad,” she says of life in her home country. “It was not a good life. We escaped and were on a boat for 52 days before we landed in Hong Kong. We almost died on the boat. We got stopped by Chinese officials and had to beg for food.”
After landing in Hong Kong in 1983, they stayed in a refugee camp for two years before the Canadian government sponsored them to settle in Hamilton. She’s called the city home ever since. But even landing in Hamilton came with challenges. The family was poor and Hoa was only 30 facing life in a new country without knowing the language or how to provide for her children.
“She had a really tough time raising us,” Stephanie says. “We were on welfare for the first couple years.”
But Hoa kept the family together, working three or four jobs at a time — picking tomatoes, sewing, cleaning houses, babysitting, whatever paid the bills. After a rainy day, she’d head outside to pick worms for fishermen. She could earn $22 a can and could pick three or four cans worth a night.
“My mother is an amazing woman,” Dao says. “We truly appreciate her for her hard work. She raised us by herself. When we escaped Vietnam, my father decided to stay back to sell what we owned, but then ended up marrying another woman so he never came over to meet up with us.”
Playing Cards for Cash
After reaching Hamilton things slowly began to get better. Stephanie and her brother attended school and learned English thanks to ESL classes and making friends. The family adapted to a new way of living.
“Life here is definitely so much better,” she says. “We were so fortunate to be able to come to Canada and live the life we have right now.”
In high school, Stephanie didn’t participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. With her mother working, she helped with cleaning, housework, and caring for her younger brother. As her mother made more money, the family moved into better parts of town.
By age 25, Dao was married with a daughter and a son. Another son would follow a few years later. After working as a dealer in some private poker games to make some extra cash, she began playing herself. Seeing thousands of hands as a dealer helped her game. She sharpened her skills in live games and online.
By her early 30s, Dao was a seasoned veteran at the table and making much more than her previous jobs as a waitress at a karaoke bar. As a cash game player, she could jump in a game anytime and then head home when needed — as opposed to traveling the tournament trail and leaving her family behind.
Tournament poker also tends takes more time and as most poker players know, often resulting in finishing out of the money. There’s a high variance in tournament play, and Stephanie found security in playing cash games — and she was winning.
“I played about two or three tournaments a year at most,” she says. “And for a five–year stretch I didn’t play many tournaments at all because I just found tournaments were dead money, and I wasn’t good enough to win. I stopped playing them until the beginning of this year.”
That proved good timing. At the $1,100 World Poker Tour event at the Fallsview Casino in February, she finished seventh for $41,219. At the WSOP this summer, in the $1,000 Ladies Championship she finished fourth for $69,063. Adding a bracelet only cemented a successful return to the tournament felt.
“This year I’ve played a total of five tournaments and made a deep run in two of them,” she says, “which is pretty good.”
to Poker Champ
Life as a full–time poker player hasn’t always been easy. She and her husband separated four years ago. He didn’t gamble, but worked as a slot technician at a casino and supported her life as a professional poker player. Her children haven’t always been happy seeing mom going off to play poker however.
“The truth is, my kids were never supportive of me playing poker because they like me being home more,” she says. “They always wanted me to find another job. I always told them that I couldn’t find anything else where I would get paid more than what I’m doing now. I explained it to them and finally they were okay with me going away to play here and there to bring some money home.”
Her daughter is now 21 and her sons are 19 and 11. While they’d prefer Stephanie to have a traditional 9–to–5 job, the Daos have found a way to make it work.
“Stephanie is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” friend and fellow player Ben Underwood says. “Her children didn’t fall far from the tree as they are nothing but pleasant. They attend great university programs and are very successful. The mom in Steph comes out at the table — making sure everyone is comfortable and well fed.”
The win in Vegas seemed unlikely. That same day, she registered for an earlier tournament at noon and was eliminated about 8 p.m. The $3,000 event began at 3 p.m. and she registered late with the stakes (known as blind levels in poker) high compared to her starting stack. Friends said she was crazy.
“I decided to get in and sure enough I picked up three pots right away,” she says. “Boom — I doubled my stack.”
The big hands continued and she advanced past the second day of play, reaching the final table as chip leader. Her kids may not have been crazy about her poker life growing up, they were definitely following the action online as she finished off her win.
“I’m very happy,” Dao told WSOP.com right after her win. “My kids are watching. I’m making them proud.”
Getting to the winner’s circle didn’t come without some good fortune. High–stakes poker involves plenty of skill, but luck plays a factor sometimes. At one point, she faced a crippling blow if not for some luck. She called an opponent’s big all in bet and was a big underdog with Ace–Jack against an opponent’s Ace–King, but hit a winning straight.
“That hand was critical,” she says. “I picked up a lot of chips and was able to survive. I knocked him out and then knocked out two more players after that. It was a great feeling.”
She plans to put the money into her poker bankroll and some of it toward her children’s college. A family vacation is also in the works over the Christmas holidays — possibly Jamaica or the Dominican
Since her separation, Stephanie has lived with her mother, who helps watch her younger son while she is playing poker. She plans on staying in Hamilton with no plans on leaving anytime soon.
“I’m used to the Hamilton life,” she says. “No traffic and nice people — life here is slow and easy.”
While running deep this summer in Las Vegas, friends and family blew up Stephanie’s phone offering support. It was a great feeling knowing so many in her adopted hometown were backing her. Friends at the Elements and Niagara casinos, where she’s a regular, know how much winning a bracelet means.
“Her recent win certifies her as a player,” Underwood says. “Getting a WSOP bracelet is the most prestigious accomplishment a poker player can receive. It was pure elation being there when that final card was dealt. After the win she treated for a table of about 30. That’s just a small fraction of the people rooting her on who didn’t happen to be in Vegas at the time.” V