Aaron Zang: From Magic The Gathering to Winning the Triton Million for Charity

You know how it is.

One minute you’re a broke high school student, playing Magic The Gathering (MTG), parents bailing you out, and then in a blink of an eye, you’re a billionaire competing in GBP £1,000,000 buy-in poker tournaments.

From the daily grind of low stakes online poker games to competing against the top pros and wealthiest entrepreneurs around the world, the story of Aaron Zang is incredible.

It’s a new story because, for most of the poker world, Zang has been a ghost – a fact that changed in the summer of 2019.

Triton Million: A Helping Hand For Charity

The final duel of the Triton Million event in London was a scriptwriters dream. At one end of the table sat Bryn Kenney. Win or lose, the New Yorker would become the All-Time Money List leader with more than $30m in live tournament in the money (ITM) finishes.

Aaron Zang stared done his barrel. An unknown entity in the popular poker press. If Kenney was the chalk, then Zang was the cheese having invested tens of millions on tournament buy-ins gaining nothing and failing to rank in top 100 on China’s All-time Money List.

East v West.

Professional v Amateur.

Extrovert v Introvert.

The winner would receive the lion share of GBP £30.6m, and there was only ever going to be one winner.

Kenney not only had the edge in experience and skill, but he had momentum and a massive chip lead. Fans of Kenney believed it a foregone conclusion, passing around expensive bottles of whiskey in pre-triumphant salutes. 

How did this make Zang feel?

“Their behaviour fell within my tolerance range,” said Zang. “There were no personal attacks. After all, our desire for victory is different. His desire to win is stronger. Poker means more to him. He has spent more than ten thousand honing his craft, compared to my mere few hundred hours. So, I think his behaviour and that of his rail is normal.

“The experience of competing against these top players during the tournament made me realise that the technical aspect of poker is extremely high. In my judgment, the value of recreational players is only about 30%. In comparison, the pros are as high as 170%, which may not be so accurate, but the point is – the technical strength gap is huge. I have never even read a poker book, so I lag in terms of strategy. Also, I have spent most of my time, in recent years, focusing on my business.”

No poker books.

Strategy deficits.

Lack of experience.

It didn’t matter.

On this day, the Poker Gods were on the side of Zang. He turned the chip deficit around and won the title and £GBP 13.78m (RMB 125m) in prize money. 

On Magic The Gathering

After Zang had beaten Kenney pandemonium ensued. As the press clamoured to stick a mic under the nose of Kenney, Zang staggered around in a state of shock and awe, full of adrenaline, and nowhere to dump it. 

By the time he sat down with us, there was no expression of outward excitement. Instead, we witnessed the quiet demeanour that Zang had carried throughout the tournament. A calm sense of power radiated from him, and everyone around him could feel it.

“When I played the Magic The Gathering (MTG), I won the national championship,” Zang reminisced. “Right now, I feel like I did back then. Something unexpected happened. The experience at that stage has a significant impact on me now. 

“I was just a high school student at that time, with no money, so what should I do? Play MTG. This game was not acceptable to everyone in the traditional environment of China at that time. Once I participated in a tournament and successfully went into the last eight, but since I was a high school student, they disqualified me. Nevertheless, the organiser finally gave me the prize. I have always been very grateful for that.

“Compared to the game itself, the more essential things are the friendships I made back then. They helped my life tremendously. At the time, my outlook on life and my values swayed. They helped me to establish correct concepts in life. Without their guidance or had I met terrible people at the time, my current thoughts and attitudes may be completely different.

“Most of a person’s knowledge and information is obtained from the outside world, such as your teachers, your living environment, various media and friends around you. I can only say that I am relatively lucky. At the critical node of my life, I received a set of survival ideas and values about this society that is more suitable for me.

“Books have also been important to me. “Defeat the Dealer” in particular inspired me. It enables me to establish correct concepts early in the game. It teaches me how to win, how to stand on the winning side, what should be done and what should not be done. Some things don’t seem to suffer much, but in the long term, they will make you lose everything. Some things seem to have only a little advantage, but through slowly accumulating, then you can’t lose. So, I think reading some good books will be very helpful in your life. ” 

On Macau 

In 2005, a 23-year-old Aaron Zang graduated from university. In a confused state of not knowing what to do, he followed a friend named Zhao Jie onto a poker table.

“I was really smart at that time,” said Zang. “I searched the Internet for how to play poker and deposited on partypoker. What a coincidence, today, I am playing poker with its boss! A lot of things connect in the unseen world. At that time, my parents regularly gave me pocket money, and I deposited it online to play. Most of the time, I lost it. But I think this game is quite suitable for me because I can always win in the live game. But back to online, I still saved and lost. Until New Year’s Day in 2006, my mother and I went out to pay New Year’s greetings. An uncle gave me 1,000 yuan as a gift, and I deposited it again. I started winning and turned 1,000 to 400,000 yuan. That was the first pot of gold for me, and I can finally get rid of living off my parents and live on my own.

“I started to go to Macau regularly in 2007. It was a great time to be a reg in Macau. It feels like Macau is your home. I stay where I want to stay, eat what I want to eat and buy anything I want to buy. Also, there is a lot of money to win everyday. My parents are very easy on me and support me playing poker full time. They believe in me because I have never done anything beyond the pale since I was a child, although I am in a relatively high-risk occupation. Now that their son has grown up. He can be accountable for his actions. Also, they are old, and their intervention may not be correct.

“Since playing poker, my bankroll management has been particularly good. Over the years, I have never lost more than 30% of my total bankroll. Sometimes your life is made up of all kinds of chances. You just can find what you are good at and then go to do it, as if arranged. Just like some people are good at scientific research, some people are good at painting, and I am good at playing poker, just like a talent. Playing this game for me is always about winning. I can feel that my opponents are worse and more conservative than me.

“Still, many people are afraid of losing. Let me give you the most straightforward example: Why should I buy insurance when playing poker? I have never bought insurance since playing poker. Buying insurance is -EV. This is one of the simplest truths, but why do so many people still do it? Someone has experimented and found that human nature is afraid of sudden bad news when they can make stable money, then they will buy insurance. And conservative people’s attitudes toward money, attitudes toward mathematics, and perceives of EV all have some problems.” 

On Bitcoin

“I was still a reg in 2013 when I learned about bitcoin through a friend. After researching it, I was very interested. Then I set up a bitcoin company in Shenzhen. This business has been in succession until now, and I have also made some friends in the currency circle. Later, for many years, I didn’t play poker very much and mainly focused on the financial market, and my principal investment was in the secondary market. That is to follow some market focus, such as the science and technology innovation board. In China, finance is a large sunrise industry full of development potential. At the same time, we are also working on private equity funds. Everything is in order and goes well. All in all, it is an honour to work with my current colleagues. They are all excellent partners.” 

On The Flipside of Fame

We ask Zang how much honour winning Triton Million brought to him.

“Nothing to speak of, because I always have a correct attitude toward poker,” said Zang. “I can only say that I happened to be the lucky one in this tournament. I met Tong (the runner-up of EPT) on the way. I told him I was the least afraid of losing in the field because I never thought of winning. The probability is too low as your strength is poor, so your chance of success is particularly low. Brother Sabah has just said that he has known me for nine years and never felt that my tournament play is good, proving that anyone can win this game (laughs). 

“What I didn’t expect is as I ran deep, my desire to survive became stronger. When it goes to Heads Up, I even thought about not winning and letting the first place go. I am a very secular person and have no religious beliefs. But my worldview is for less pain in the world. 

“If I win the championship, it will be overwhelmingly publicised by the media, which is not suitable for me and not good for many Chinese players either. Many people will think: Wow! This person won so much money; then I don’t want to work hard. I also want to go to Macau to play poker. In the end, it may be bad for their family and worse for all society.

“To be honest, I don’t want poker to be over-promoted in China. Many people can’t figure it out. The competitive side of the brain is not shown. Instead, the bad side of morals has inspired. Over the years, I have discovered one thing: it is particularly difficult to persuade a person, and you cannot expect everyone to have a correct understanding of one thing. In China, poker may not be treated correctly by everyone. This will lead to many unfortunate situations. By then, the pain in the world has increased. This is not what I want to see.

“Perhaps as time goes by, the national policy gradually gets better, people’s ideology gradually improves, and the public’s attitude towards poker will be biased to the good side – like Bill Gates who plays poker as entertainment. So this game is just for relaxation, and it will become a good thing. It just needs to settle slowly.

“For many people, I think I should be kind to them, but the people who hurt me the most in life are none other than those who are addicted. So this thing is also very bothersome to me, because I am a big beneficiary in gambling, and everything I do dealing with numbers is profitable. But it may also be because of this that some of my friends were badly affected, and eventually, we cannot be friends any more, and their families were also hurt. Some truths are particularly simple, but everyone understands things differently. No matter what you repeatedly say, they may not be able to understand. 

“For example, I have been working in bitcoin for many years. I have seen many people around me suddenly evaporate, and some even commit suicide. I think the existence of bitcoin aggravates the pain of this world. It inspires the evil side of people. Whether it is hacking the exchange’s, an inside job, friends deceiving each other or using bitcoin for MLM, it’s inspired all kinds of evil. Although it is a great invention like poker, I think it’s not particularly good for the world. It adds a lot of pain to the world. ” 

On Getting Old

There is a saying: “The crash of middle-aged people is often quiet.”

We asked Zang to remember the moment when he realised he was no longer young?

“I can tell you very clearly about that moment,” said Zang. “It was two years ago, when I was in the shower, I suddenly realised I had a lot of white hair. At that moment, I knew that it is impossible to change again – I am getting old, which is irreversible. A turning point, a signal appeared. 

“Middle-aged people are particularly stressed, with old and young at home, and your annual prosperity is particularly poor. If bad things happen at that time, such as investment failure, family sickness, people are crushed. Middle-aged people have a particularly difficult time in China, especially in Shanghai. Now there are traps everywhere. Everyone wants to make life better, but how? Not everyone has this kind of ability. Some people choose the right path and have the ability to succeed, while some people are perplexed, then they choose the wrong road and may enter a vicious circle.

“The world is cruel. Everyone wants to exploit each other. Everyone wants to reap others. Just like playing poker – you want to win others’ chips. There are too many of these things happening in China, whether it is the financial market, the MLM market, or any other speculative market. And who is suffering in the end? The ones with poor cognition, or those who want to change their lives but do not know the world correctly. What should those people do? If it happens to be a middle-aged person, and also the mainstay of the family, if he lost too much in stock futures, the family will be ruined. The family is the community of society. Only when the family is stabilised will society become better. If the family is unstable, society will not be stable either. 

“Moreover, after middle age, everything starts to enter a slow decline process. What does the endpoint look like? Everyone already knows clearly. Your physical power can’t get better and better, and your white hair can’t turn black. Both strength and energy enter a process of spiralling decline. However, the pain and confusion have not decreased, because you find that you are farther and farther away from your previous dreams, and farther and farther away from your peak. I still have this feeling of powerlessness many times now.

“So I think people still have to be more active and work harder,” said Zang. “Only if you work harder can you increase the probability of winning and increasing the likelihood of living better in this society. Thus, don’t complain if you don’t want to work hard. 

“When in a bad mood, I recommend that you can do some exercise. Good health is your own wealth. You can see your figure and appearance are getting better and better. At least one aspect is improving. You can find yourself changing. 

“Besides, you should do more reading. Books are the crystallisation of the wisdom of each author. There is so much information in the society now. You cannot get all the information by yourself. But reading books can use the essence of others, and get some inspiration. You can understand the world only if your cognition improves; then you can appreciate the joys and sorrows, and the operating rules of the world so that you can better deal with it.

“If there is one thing that can make a person love and dedicate his life, it is happy for him. Because so far, I still haven’t found something that I can say I am very passionate about and willing to devote my life to. I can only say that I do a lot of things with some utility, some hobbies, and some actual needs. Of course, the demand is to make money. The utility may be for some fame and doing something for the society, and I don’t hate this thing. But you see, if a person can find something that he loves and be willing to dedicate his life, then he will be the happiest person. 

“This era will still reward people who work hard. As long as you have studied things deeply, society will give you fair treatment. Now the information is equal. As long as you are excellent, society will provide you with correct positioning. You don’t need to worry too much for this. As long as you’re on top of a specific field, someone will take you out of the value depression automatically and put you in a place you should be. So try to do what you like.”

Author: Jeremy Shelton