When four heads-up poker specialists took on the AI program Libratus – a poker supercomputer built by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh – in January 2017, the bot decimated its opponents, producing an exceptionally high win rate equivalent to 14.7 big blinds per 100 hands. “I felt like I was playing against someone who was cheating. Like it could see my cards,” said one of the challengers, Dong Kim, when the match was over. “I’m not accusing it of cheating. It was just that good.”
What you won’t have read about is the successor to Libratus – a new, more advanced poker supercomputer named Simulatus, built by a team at Pennbrook University in Philadelphia—and the first (and to date, only) challenger it took on.
In the summer of 2017, Simulatus–ever improving after millions of hours of deep analysis–played a three-day heads-up battle against a human. This time the bot was on the losing end. Drastically so. The human–who specialised in live games and had never played a single hand of online poker prior to the challenge–beat Simulatus over thousands of hands at an even higher win rate than Libratus achieved.
The human victory was so exceptional and surprising that the results were never released to the public–at both parties’ request–until now. But who was this mystery player so gifted they could not only beat but destroy the strongest poker computer ever developed?
Turns out he might be the greatest poker player of all time. And you’ve probably never heard of him.
Today, the 68-year-old is so reclusive he’s commonly referred to as the Thomas Pynchon of high stakes poker, after the notoriously publicity-shy novelist. Rarely seen, the stories of the enormous private games he’s invited to and the vast amounts he has won throughout his career are now the stuff of poker legend.
Chaoxiang Liu was born in 1952 in Ningbo, a major port and industrial hub in east China’s Zhejiang province, just south of Shanghai. “Chao doesn’t speak much of his childhood,” says Sully Krueger, Liu’s close friend and former neighbour. Although Krueger did recall Liu telling him that as a young boy he was once banned from Ningbo’s famous Tian Yi Ge library for his voracious reading appetite. “He read so many books in one day it took the librarians a week to put all the books back,” Krueger says.
Naturally gifted at school, Liu skipped several grades but would ultimately drop out at the age of 16. Little is known about the following decade of Liu’s life (“He mentioned travelling a bunch and at one point working on a Caribbean cruise ship,” says Krueger) but he turned up in Ashland, Oregon in the late 1970s. “He lived a quiet life,” recalls Krueger, who owned the house next door. “He always seemed to have money, but I never saw him work a job.”
At some point between leaving school in 1968 and arriving in America in 1978, Liu discovered the game of poker. Stories have recently emerged of Liu playing in high stakes cash games throughout that time, everywhere from Saigon to Sydney, London to Las Vegas.
“He was this young, skinny kid but he’d turn up and clear us all out,” says Dusty Boorman, who regularly played with Liu in the late ‘70s. “He was so confident that one night he played blindfolded. We’d call out the flop, turn and river and tell him the bet sizes, and without ever seeing his cards he beat us all for a honey bun [slang for $100,000].”
Rumors of Liu’s talent at the tables spread. By 1984, the television show 60 Minutes got wind of Liu and tried to investigate the legitimacy of his seemingly impossible poker abilities. They were unable to get anyone who had played with Liu to talk. Similarly, when Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton was assigned to profile Liu in 1985 – the first feature on a poker player the magazine had ever commissioned – he couldn’t track down Liu’s whereabouts.
We now know that’s because Liu was playing in some of the most private poker games ever held. The world’s wealthiest families, including royalty, would fly Liu in to play in their home games. “They knew they were going to lose to him,” says Boorman. “It was more for the theatrics of it all. He was their evening’s entertainment. Chao always seemed to know what you had and for those rich folks it was worth losing a few million to get to see him play in person.”
Liu’s reputation preceded him. By the late 80s, he was rumored to be playing with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the infamous Silicon Valley cash game. During the 90s, it’s believed he played with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods on private jets. “The stakes were tiny for Chao, but I think he had fun,” Boorman adds. “He enjoyed being around other geniuses.”
He didn’t just play with the wealthy and famous, however. Liu also battled against the world’s very best poker players at the highest stakes running in Las Vegas, winning just about every session he played. According to Boorman, if the World Series of Poker wasn’t televised, Liu would have 30 bracelets by now. “He never wanted to be on TV or be famous or nothing,” says Boorman. “That’s why he avoids tournaments.”
You won’t find a single cash for Liu on the Hendon Mob, leaving some of poker’s legendary cash game players to speculate on how much they believe Liu has won throughout his career, many of them estimate he may be poker’s only true billionaire.
Oona Johnson, considered one of the best cash game players of the 80s, recalled one particularly remarkable hand she witnessed. “We were playing a huge game at a now-defunct Las Vegas casino,” she tells me. “A billionaire was in town splashing around and for some reason, he took a disliking to Chao. I never understood why. Chao was such a sweet, quiet man. He just won all the time, which probably rubbed this guy the wrong way.”
According to Johnson, the billionaire then challenged Liu to play a heads-up battle for astronomical stakes. “In one of the first hands Mr. Billionaire raised him big,” she says. “Chao called and the flop was [ad][qd][kd]. Chao check-called a big bet and the turn was the [td]. Chao check-called again. The river was the [4c] and when Chao checked the billionaire shoved. Chao looked him up and down then tossed in a chip to call. The billionaire couldn’t believe it and tried to muck but the dealer turned over his cards: [2s][3s]. Everyone thought Chao must have at least a flush to call such a large shove. Nope. He turned over [5h][2h]. He won the pot with just a five-high.”
Plays like that are unheard of these days. In fact, it sounds like something from a James Bond film. Were there ever suspicions that Liu was cheating? “Never,” says Johnson. “I saw him play against the smartest poker minds and the best business people in the world. They all loved him. They all lost to him too, but they had great respect for his ability. His integrity was never in doubt.”
When online poker began to boom in the mid-2000s, Liu refrained from ever signing up to a site. One person Liu spoke to during that time was online poker player Arnold ‘Bluff2yoFace’ Chen. “He told me he had no interest in playing online, where his ability could be questioned,” Chen tells me. “I think he thought people would believe he was cheating.”
When Chen was asked if he thought Liu would have been a big winner in the online nosebleeds, Chen replied: “Absolutely. He was ahead of everyone 40 years ago. He was ahead of everyone 20 years ago. He’s probably still ahead of everyone today.”
Due to Liu’s lack of interest in online poker, it came as a shock to Chen that he agreed to battle against Simulatus. “I think he’s been searching for a true competitor his entire poker career and he was hoping Simulatus could finally give him a challenge.”
When Liu ended up beating the computer at an absurd win rate, he requested the results not be released to the public. Naturally, Simulatus’ developers were happy to keep it quiet too, while they made their improvements.
Nobody has seen or heard from Liu in several years, with the last known sighting taking place at the European Poker Tour Monte Carlo in 2017. One Super High Roller regular – who wishes to remain anonymous – claims he was invited to have dinner with Liu at Liu’s tiny rental apartment in Monaco (“He’s won so much in poker but even I was staying in a nicer place,” the player tells me. “Chao isn’t interested in material things.”) At some point during the meal, the two made a bet which Liu went on to lose. The cost of losing the bet? Liu had to play the €100,000 EPT Super High Roller the following day.
“He never wanted to be on camera,” the player says. “So, he turns up the next day and registers with his face almost completely covered. The other guys playing couldn’t believe they were about to play with such a legend.”
It was clear Liu didn’t really want to be there though. “On the very first hand, he was under the gun and must have sensed something. He shoved all-in for 200 big blinds and the guy in the big blind wakes up with pocket aces. Chao has the seven-deuce off. It was as if he knew he had the perfect opportunity to bust and get out of there as fast as possible.”
To date, nobody has ever had a chance to interview or even photograph Liu in action.
The greatest trick the best poker player of all time ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, he’s gone.