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From poker pro to slaying victim: Susie Q's unlikely story

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

White Lake Township — The mystery over the slaying of a professional poker player in July remains, even as friends and family welcomed news of an arrest in the case.

While preparing a memorial honoring the life of a talented, high-stakes player, they cautiously embraced the news. But they're bracing to learn the truth about the death of Susie Zhao, 33.

“This is a horrendous thing that has happened,” said Kinga Wierzbicka, a friend since middle school. “It’s amplified because we have no answers.” 

Police said Sunday a 60-year-old Pontiac man has been arrested in connection with the death of the professional poker player from Waterford Township.

The man was taken into custody about 9 a.m. Friday after his vehicle was stopped near an area freeway, according to White Lake Township police. No charges have been filed and no other details were released.

Susie Zhao

Zhao had recently returned from Los Angeles to live with family in Waterford Township. 

Her body was found at about 8:05 a.m. along the edge of the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area, clad in jogging pants and other clothing, lying in a parking area on Maceday Lake and Cross roads in White Lake Township, police reported.

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources worker last checked that area around 11:45 p.m. the night before, said Detective Lt. Chris Hild of the White Lake Township Police Department.

Hild has said her death could be related to her travels on the poker circuit.

For her friends, the loss of someone so lively and with no likely enemies is difficult to fathom.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to stop thinking about it. It’s not something you can let go of,” said Michelle Lagrou, a friend since high school.

Zhao’s close social circle is working to ensure the fun-loving woman who once described herself online as a “knowledge seeker/adventurer/Little hippie” is not forgotten.

“She did not deserve this,” said Meredith Rogowski, a longtime friend. “This is a horrible tragedy and I hope this doesn’t define the life she lived.”

Susie Zhao, pictured in 2017.

Those 33 years, they say, were anything but ordinary.

Immigrating from China as a child, Zhao, known as Susie Q, grew up in Troy and lived not far from Somerset Collection, her friends said.

After middle school, she attended Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, then Northwestern University in Illinois, Wierzbicka said. According to Zhao’s Facebook page, she studied psychology and business.

Gaining friends was easy for someone whose vibrant personality matched the colorful outfits she favored.

“She just had a beautiful aura,” Wierzbicka said. “People loved her. She was just super bubbly. She had one of those personalities you wanted to be around.”

Following successful poker sessions as a youth and online gaming in college, Zhao parlayed her playing prowess into a professional career, her friends said.

In time, she moved to the West Coast and graduated to competing in tournaments that earned her more than $150,000 between 2009 and 2017, according to a profile on the World Series of Poker website.

The website for Hendon Mob, touted as the “largest live poker database,” listed her winnings as more than $222,000, including $73,805 at an event in 2012.

“Being able to quickly turn a little money into a big pot of money gave her the freedom to live life how she wanted, and she got a lot of satisfaction dominating in a mostly male profession,” Rogowski said.

On a Twitter profile, Zhao described herself as being able to “prance like a unicorn in a sea of horses. I proficiently play high stakes poker for a living. Its kinda weird because I'm a girl.”

While a deftness at reading people and creative thinking made Zhao a formidable opponent, she inspired loyalty, said Yuval Bronshtein, a professional player who first met her during a competition more than a decade ago. “Everybody liked her. Everybody rooted for her.”

Clayton Fletcher, a comedian, remembers meeting her during the 2015 World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas when they played at the same table. 

“First prize was something like $8 million, but you wouldn't have known there was that much at stake from the atmosphere of joyful (camaraderie) at our table,” he told The Detroit News.

“Susie immediately got the party started by introducing herself to all her opponents, making silly jokes, and basically putting us all at ease with her great sense of humor and disarming smile. As a professional comedian, I really appreciated her style and attitude: buoyant and whimsical between hands, but focused and extremely competitive once the cards were dealt.”

As Zhao rolled to success, she never lost touch with her Metro Detroit friends — whether sending random texts or meeting up when returning to the region for holidays. The year several members of the group turned 30, she invited them to celebrate in Las Vegas, showing her “super-generous” nature, said Lagrou.  “She was never too big to care about us.”

Zhao with Kinga Wierzbicka, left, in California, 2016.

On July 12, the last day she was seen alive, Lagrou said Zhao had just returned from a weekend trip up north, near Saginaw, with her and others.

Relatives last saw her at their home around 5:30 p.m., Hild said.

While awaiting results from an autopsy to determine the cause of death, investigators have been examining whether her poker background is related, Hild said. “We’re also looking into where she was and who she was with locally here in the few days prior to her death.”

The FBI has also been investigating, said Special Agent Mara Schneider, public affairs officer for its Detroit office.

Although friends recall Zhao did not divulge some aspects of her life, they doubt she had enemies. “I don’t know anybody who might be mad at her,” Bronshtein said.

Those who joined Zhao for New Year’s Eve parties and other festivities over the years savor their memories while also wrestling with a question about her death: why?

"We just want to know what happened," Lagrou said. “We’re trying to figure out for our own peace of mind."