Luck, according to Sosia Jiang, New Zealand's fast-rising tournament poker star, is an independent variable.

The 39-year-old reasons that just because fortune has smiled on her up to now – and she has a half-million dollar cheque to prove it – it doesn't mean that it won't continue to.

Jiang has a small bankroll of aphorisms like this, but those who have watched her progress from poker outsider to deep-stacked tournament winner say this one is a classic example of false humility.

Luck, of course, has played a part in her success. Luck and poker can never be dissociated. But Jiang is something more important than lucky.


She's good; really good.

To define Jiang by her strategic nous, or her ability to process on-the-spot win-loss probabilities would be to sell her short: she's also a rags-to-riches tale; the classic immigrant-made-good story.

Though she might come across as the angel at the table, according to the godfather of New Zealand poker, Jiang is the "silent executioner".

And this is the executioner's story.

Jiang came to New Zealand as a 7-year-old in the mid-80s at the vanguard of a wave of Asian immigration that would transform the country's largest city.

The family – father Youngkang Jiang, mother Lee-yee Lin and brother Honglin – had arrived from Inner Mongolia, where they were forced to live due to their "unfavourable" status with the Chinese communist government.

Any vestiges of Xanadu and the great Khanate under Genghis and Kublai were long gone by the time Sosia was born. Inner Mongolia, an autonomous Chinese region that wraps around independent Outer Mongolia's border with China, was a scarred and callused land.

"It was post-Cultural Revolution. It was quite a stark period of communism in China," Jiang, nursing a flat white in an upmarket Newmarket cafe, says. "There hadn't been much economic progress. No one had anything so you just didn't know anything different. It was very austere. We lived in a concrete block house with concrete floors."

Jiang's memories of Mongolia have faded. The move to New Zealand was such a traumatic upheaval it now feels like that is where life started, but every so often a memory will flit through her consciousness.


"It was pretty interesting. It's funny, my childhood memories, it's almost like there's a fissure. I have very vivid memories of that early period in New Zealand and it's hard to distil what are my actual early memories before that versus what is told to me."

The Jiangs came to New Zealand in part because maternal grandmother Picktao Young was already here, a refugee from the Vietnamese-Cambodian war.

"She and my mother lost touch for about 20 years. All of my family is ethnic Chinese but my mother was born in Vietnam and was sent to China to further her education. China had the Cultural Revolution and Southeast Asia had its own mess so they actually lost touch for about 20 years.

"My grandmother started sending letters back to China to last known possible contacts and one of these eventually made it through a number of hands and made it to mum."

The joy of familial reunification was tempered by the knowledge that life in New Zealand would be no land of milk fat and manuka honey – not initially anyway.

"At my very first day of primary school I didn't speak a word of English, I didn't know the alphabet," Jiang recalls. "They pulled this poor Vietnamese kid out of the class to try to help me and we quickly realised we didn't speak the same language. It was futile.

"You'd be struggling to enrol your kid in any school in Auckland these days and not have a Mandarin-speaking student there to help them. It was a different time."

A fast learner, within a couple of years it would be Jiang being pulled out of class to assimilate the new kids, but it was a different story for her parents who arrived with no money and no friends.

"My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to language school because they needed to start working straight away," Jiang says.

Sosia Jiang has quietly become one of NZ's most feared players. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sosia Jiang has quietly become one of NZ's most feared players. Photo / Brett Phibbs

All Youngkang and Lee-yin had to fall back on was the idea that if they could get their kids into good schools, then anything was possible.

So they worked. Relentlessly.

"My parents worked literally 365 days a year for more than five years. They held down multiple jobs."

The Jiangs had no toys; they had no discretionary cash for luxuries like holidays, or even day trips. They did, however, have a couple of decks of cards.

"My father had always loved games. The one thing we did always have is, when they had time, card games as a family. From the time my brother was capable of holding two decks of cards in his hands, that's what we did for leisure."

Jiang can't remember what it was called exactly, but it was likely to be one of the popular Sheng ji family of games.

Those evenings were high energy, they were fun. Though they didn't know it at the time, the Jiang children, Sosia and Honglin, were learning principles of strategy and decision-making that would be useful when the game changed to poker and the stakes changed from conceptual points to actual money.

Tournament poker differs from online poker and cash games for reasons both subtle and obvious.

To this point, Jiang's focus has been on tournament play. She has little online pedigree and describes her first forays into that world as "terrible".

She is more comfortable in cash games but doesn't like to play at the casino because the "rake [house take] is too high and the stakes are too low".

So she has made her name at tournaments, picking up big wins in Macau, Australia and Auckland, as well as several smaller cashes, where you don't win the event but progress far enough to make money.

The tournament premise is simple: you pay a buy-in (entry fee), receive your chips, then try to end the tournament with everybody else's chips. It is a format that lends itself to aggression: bluffs are often rewarded, though a bad or misplaced one can end your campaign on the spot.

"It comes down to understanding tournament strategy. If you're going to win the tournament, you need to accumulate all the chips – that's how the game works," Jiang says. "There are only two ways to accumulate all the chips: you keep getting good hands that win at showdown; or you win by aggression.

"You don't get good hands often enough to win you too many tournaments so you need to employ pretty aggressive strategies, but there's a time and a place."

Jiang tends to get her times and places right.

Jackson Zheng has been playing poker for 11 years and played against Jiang in her first live tournament. He recalled her playing spectacularly until she got unlucky towards the end.

It left a lasting impression on him, so much so that while he rates Europe-based New Zealander David Yan as the country's best tournament player, he says Sosia is definitely in "a small handful of players in the second tier".

"She's very much up there," Zheng continues. "She has never been afraid to go with her reads even if it meant being wrong occasionally. A lot of inexperienced players won't do that because when you get it wrong you can end up being embarrassed."

If you think that makes Jiang one of those classic movie-type players - think the Matt Damon-John Malkovich vehicle Rounders – who sees signs that no one else can and bets accordingly, that would be over-selling it.

Zheng says his poker compatriot is more likely to bet according to the "flow" of the game.

Jiang has a more detailed self-analysis.

"I have pretty good instincts. It's not that I think I have a good read on people, it's intuitively with the information around you and … everybody gives off some non-verbal signals. Even subconsciously, you're taking all of that into account.

"I'm actually quite anti tells-based play," she says of betting based on a tic or physical mannerism you think you might have picked up off an opponent. "Basing huge decisions on some sort of guesswork is not sound play. However, it's relevant to informing some of your decisions at the margin, if that makes sense.

"Fundamentals are the most important thing however you'd be remiss to ignore some of the physical information you have from the environment around you."

It is this ability to hold all the information that is relayed to you in every hand you play in a steel-trap mind and use it at the appropriate moments that separates the amateur from the professional.

It is what makes Jiang, according to a text from New Zealand poker godfather Jack Efaraimo to the Herald's resident poker expert Steve Holloway, the "silent executioner".

"I thought I was crazy at times but SJ is crazier," he messaged Holloway after sharing the final table with Jiang at a recent event in Auckland.

In this context, crazy is crazy good, but to work out why she progressed seemingly effortlessly from casual player to big player, you have to again reach back into Jiang's past.

It is here where you discover she doesn't do anything by half.

When the out-of-zone rejection letter from coveted Epsom Girls Grammar arrived in the letterbox like a slap in the face, the Jiangs faced a choice: send Sosia to the state co-ed they were zoned for and warned against, or spend everything the family had saved on a private education.

Ever since their arrival in New Zealand they had been conditioned, rightly or wrongly, to believe that a good school was the key to unlocking the social mobility unavailable to them in China. So Jiang remembers clearly her father, in between shifts, putting her in the car and driving her to every independent school in the city.

She took an entry exam at Diocesan School, where most girls grow up wanting for nothing, and when a spot opened up late, her father was invited to spend everything he and his wife had worked multiple jobs for there.

He accepted.

Jiang was aware of the sacrifices being made for her. She was not about to waste the opportunities presented.

From the terrified 7-year-old paired with a non-Mandarin speaking Vietnamese girl on her first day at primary school because they looked vaguely similar to one of Auckland's most moneyed environments, Jiang made every class count.

Dio turned into the Australian National University and a double degree in commerce and Asian studies. That turned into a graduate law programme at the University of New South Wales, where she also worked in brokerage at Macquarie Bank.

Macquarie sent her to Hong Kong after they acquired a Pan-Asian business. She was then shoulder-tapped to join a boutique brokerage, CLSA. Fully committed to the corporate treadmill, Jiang would subsequently leave Hong Kong to run CLSA's new Shanghai office, but not before the former British colony would leave an indelible mark on her.

"My boss at the time invited me and a couple of people from the Hong Kong firm to a home poker game," Jiang recalls.

It was 2008. After years of study, long working hours and a refusal to acknowledge glass ceilings, Jiang, nearing 30, had found a game that allowed her to use her mathematical ability and love of strategy in a recreational setting.

"Nobody is ever immediately good. I'm pretty sure I won money the first time I played but they call it beginner's luck for a reason," she says. "When you first start, you're either happy because you've won a bit of money or you're a little bit steamed because you've lost some and want to win it back. There's motivation to keep playing in both scenarios."

Jiang made another discovery around this time: younger brother Honglin was spending as much time playing online poker as he was studying for his statistics PhD.

"This was the heyday of online poker. He gave me some guidance, recommended a couple of books and gave me some tips on how to improve my game. Looking back they were super, super rudimentary days, but it was so important to have someone to discuss strategy and hands with."

At the time of writing, according to poker database The Hendon Mob, the siblings' careers have run in uncanny synchronicity. Honglin is sixth on the all-time New Zealand money list, Sosia is 7th; Sosia is 2309th on the all-time tournament money list, Honglin is 2162nd; Sosia's biggest cash prize was US$498,000 she collected for winning a tournament in Macau, Honglin's US$525,000 for coming second in a European Poker Tour tournament in Monte Carlo.

What makes Sosia's story more remarkable than Honglin's is, frankly, biological. There are just three women in the Top 100 New Zealand poker earners, and Jiang is the only female in the top 40.

"Do I have an advantage because I'm a woman? That's a question I get a lot," Jiang says.

Her answer is universal, and instructive.

"If someone is going to play poorly against me because of some irrational assumption or stereotype they've made, they're just going to be a poor player, full stop," she says. "So when they play poorly, I can't say it's because I'm a woman because honestly those people are just bad against everyone.

"Poker is unadulterated competition and because it's a strategic game I don't see any reason it needs to be the purview of mostly white, male under 30-year-olds. Anyone is capable of getting better at the game. It's different from other sporting pursuits because you don't have physical limitations in that respect."

The growth of poker as a sport and televisual spectacle is paradoxically difficult to understand and easy to explain. Watching people look at cards is, in isolation, duller than dishwater, even if the stakes are high. What engages people is the fact they all think they could do it, and they all have their own ideas about what each player should do in any given situation.

Poker, Jiang says in one of her frequent moments of crystal-cut clarity, is like those Automobile Association surveys that reveal that 80 per cent of New Zealanders believe they're great drivers when you need only to drive once down the main street of New Plymouth to know they're mostly awful.

"The thing about poker is it allows a lot of room for self-delusion," she says. "I include myself in that. It's very, very difficult to truly understand where you are versus your competition. Because of the element of luck involved, when you lose it is pretty easy to blame it on bad luck and when you win it must have been because you're really good. I'm well, well aware that I am significantly above EV, expected value, in terms of my skill level in these tournaments and logically, over a long period of time, what I can expect to win."

Though she treats poker partly as an applied mathematical exercise, it doesn't make it a bloodless pursuit of chips. She is quick to point out that, above all, she is having fun.

"That is the beauty of poker. That's why No Limit Texas Hold 'Em is possibly the greatest game out there. It is so, so simple. Everyone has two cards and all you have to learn is the hands you can make with your two cards and the community cards and what beats what.

"Anyone is capable of learning the rules, however it is incredibly, incredibly complex. This is why I love it. It must be one of the only strategy games left that has not been solved by computers. The fact you can bet any size at any point means the game tree is unbelievably complex."

Gambling is part of its inherent culture but she points out it is so different from buying a lottery ticket or betting on fast animals because you can influence the outcome.

"Poker is fun, it is exciting but I am not interested in donating money to other poker players. If I'm going to make donations I'd rather give it to positive charitable causes."

While in Shanghai, Jiang's life tilted on its axis once more. Her mother, by this time living back in China with her factory foreman father, was diagnosed in 2009 with late-stage lung cancer.

Jiang had an epiphany of sorts, decided she wanted to be a teacher and encouraged her parents to move back to New Zealand to be near her.

"My mother wanted to come back and spend time here. She missed the place, but my father viewed his time in New Zealand as very dark years. It was laborious, he had very few friends, very little leisure time and he had no positive associations with his time here."

He relented, however.

Jiang moved back in 2013, studied and started teaching before taking a break after three years.

Personal circumstances saw her commuting back and forth to China frequently, so she'd schedule the trips with big tournaments in gambling haven Macau.

On one of those trips she won. Included on the final table were global poker royalty Dan Smith (9th all-time money winner) and Nick Petrangelo (30th). She found herself at a table with Isaac Haxton, one of the best players in the world.

"I was on my phone saying, 'Oh my God, I'm sitting next to Ike Haxton.' I'm having one of those moments," she says, before slipping out of her reverie. "I'm pretty good at zoning out, at blocking out unimportant information. I used to work on a noisy trading floor so one of my strengths is I'm able to be quite focused. I don't want to sound callous because we're talking about big sums, but you can't think about the monetary value of what you're doing."

Which is easier said than done when the difference between first and second at that tournament was $200,000, or about three years of her teaching salary.

"Your thoughts just need to be about chips and decisions about chip accumulation and strategy. If who you're playing with and the amount of money at stake is going to faze you, you need to be playing in a different environment."

Jiang won that tournament with an aggressive hand she'd not normally call. But her large chip lead allowed for some latitude.

"I raised, he shoved [put all his chips in] and anyway, we get there."

To close on a cliche, the chips have so far fallen Jiang's way. In the past few months she has won a tournament in Australia for US$197,000 and won $14,000 with a second-placed finish at the Canterbury Champs.

She plans to dedicate more of her time to the game she loves.

More importantly, her mother is still alive and fighting fit, five years after Chinese doctors started preparing her for palliative care.

"There is a non-zero chance that she was misdiagnosed in the first place," Jiang says.

Just this once, non-zero represents odds she's happy backing.