Poker pro and former dealer Liz Lieu lets us into her world: “Poker’s a mind game and if you’re not 100 percent focused you can go through all your money and that’s what happened to me”

She’s got one of the prettiest faces in poker but there’s a lot more to Liz Lieu than meets the eye…

The player

Name: Liz Lieu
Resides: LA and Las Vegas
Style of play: Very aggressive
Tournament winnings: $593,370
Biggest win: 36th World Series of Poker 2005 – $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em; 5th, $168,590

Be very careful the next time you decide to insult someone, even if you do it in Swedish. It could end up costing you a lot of money.

Just ask Erik Sagstrom, or as many an online loser knows him, Erik123. He stumbled across one of the world’s most accomplished cash game players, Liz Lieu, on a $200/$400 table when she was running particularly bad. She lost pretty much every hand she played, getting rivered on some, being outplayed on others. She knew she wasn’t playing well but she’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide. Sagstrom took her for the best part of $34,000, and then made one of the biggest mistakes of his life: he called her a fish.

Sagstrom compounded his mistake at the Bellagio Five- Diamond Classic. He told Lieu’s sponsor that he could beat her live anywhere she wanted to play, any day. Lieu snapped his hand off and thus begat one of the most infamous heads-up encounters of all time – quickly dubbed Beauty vs the Beast – set to play out over three $200,000 freezeout games at the Venetian Casino, Las Vegas.


But Sagstrom wasn’t finished with the mind games. The Venetian had agreed to host the game in return for a burst of publicity for its new cardroom. And without a manager at the time Lieu decided to get everything sorted herself.

She set up a photo-shoot but Sagstrom failed to show. It was rearranged and he bailed again. By now the Venetian was getting twitchy, concerned that the game wasn’t going to happen. In the end Lieu personally guaranteed it and said that if Sagstrom ducked out she’d challenge anyone else who cared to take up her offer. It was enough to ensure that the elusive Swede, come the day, was ready and waiting.

The game was brutal. The $200,000 buy-in for each game made it possible for one player to win $600,000 from the other over three matches. The first game started late in the day so both players agreed to a finish at midnight, the winner being the player with most chips. Lieu had Sagstrom close to the felt three or four times but he refused to die, picking up hands at crucial times. When the clock struck midnight Lieu was down $45,000, and Sagstom took a 1-0 lead.

The next day Lieu stormed back to take Sagstrom’s $200k in about two hours. But after returning to his hotel Sagstrom asked Lieu to play out the remaining chips from the day before, keen to get his hands on the rest of her cash. Lieu wasn’t up on the idea. ‘We’d agreed to play one game a day and I was tired, so I said, “let’s do it another day”, but he demanded we play, so we played again. I knew I was at a disadvantage because he had the chip lead and he took my remaining $155,000 in about the same time I’d cleaned him earlier to level it at one-all.’ Lieu picks up the story going into the third and deciding leg.

‘The third day lasted eight hours. He had me down to $20,000 at one point and at the levels we were playing at, that meant one more hand and he’d have won the whole thing. I ended up winning the pot and went on a hot streak, betting and raising everything. I ended up winning it.’

This was more than just another victory over a fellow player. This was her high-risk shot at proving she could compete at the top of the game with the very best, man or woman. ‘And we got a lot of interest’, she says brightly. ‘I’ve never seen as many women show up to watch a game.’

School’s out

Despite the victory Lieu still had her detractors. ‘Nine out of 10 people were saying Erik was going to win 3-0 or 2-1, and then, when they heard I’d won, they started saying it was a promotion stunt – that he’d just let me win. There’s a lot of pride involved in poker – there’s no way he’d just let me win a game like that.’

Luckily, Lieu didn’t get to where she is now by listening to critics, and when talking to her you can hear the self-belief that courses through her. Born in Vietnam in 1974, Lieu and her family moved to Colorado, America, when she was one.

Asked what it was like growing up in the States in the 70s and 80s, she replies with a single word – ‘Fun!’ And school? ‘I hated school, never was good, always ditched. The only thing I was good at was maths. I hated English, hated science, hated it all, and I ground my way through high school. I started working as a hostess at a restaurant and helping my parents with the mortgage. My grades started dropping and dropping.’

And so, at the age of 18, Liz Lieu found herself hanging around with friends, not doing much, when she was offered an interesting business proposition. One of her friends planned on setting up a Pai Gow game in Colorado. This was around the time that Hold’em was getting popular and he asked Lieu to partner him – he’d handle the Pai Gow and she’d take charge of the poker game, hosting and sorting the dealers. Lieu had two qualifications: she’d been playing Chinese poker for years with her friends for a dollar a point – high stakes for teenagers – and she knew all the gamblers in the area. She decided to take a punt, took him up on his offer, and the game, hosted at a social club in Colorado, started to grow.

‘It became really big, really quickly’, remembers Lieu. ‘A lot of the players that came to play owned Chinese restaurants and they used to play Pai Gow for high stakes – up to $10,000 a hand. We’d get them to play poker when they were waiting for a Pai Gow game and $20/$40 limit was nothing to them, so there was huge action with them capping, capping, capping.

Pretty soon we were running two games a day.’ As the game grew, Lieu found covering for the dealers as well. For the next three years she dealt, observed, and learnt, but inevitably the game got hot and Lieu decided to move into the casino, where she earnt her money – and invaluable experience – dealing in $5 maximum limit games (a limit that still persists in Colorado to this day). She trained herself to watch the players and, after about a year-and-a-half, she found that she could read eight out of 10 hands before the players turned their cards over. ‘When I was able to do that I decided I was good enough to start playing,’ she says.


And like other dealers-turnedplayers, Lieu judged the transition to perfection. She started flying to Vegas once or twice a month, playing in the $80/$160 game, building a bankroll, and doing very nicely for herself. Eventually she relocated to Vegas to turn pro. Once there she met a guy, moved in with him and seemed destined for a happily-ever-after finish, until things turned sour. Lieu’s boyfriend at the time was an amateur poker player who wanted to make it big. Lieu wanted him to succeed badly and loaned him money. ‘We’re talking a six-figure sum,’ she says sadly, ‘and he just disappeared with the money. I never saw him again.’

This betrayal led to the only time in her life that she’s gone broke. ‘I couldn’t figure it out,’ she says. ‘The last conversation I had with him was normal, but after that there was no closure. Poker’s a mind game and if you’re not 100 percent focused you can go through all your money and that’s what happened to me. I was so distracted, I was clueless. All I could think about was why it happened. I went through almost $400,000 in a month. I was playing a $300/$600 game like it was a $3/$6 game.’

Salvation came from an unlikely source. It’s generally acknowledged that other poker players outside your close circle of friends aren’t generally that interested if you’re broke. What good are you without a bankroll? But when Lieu starts talking about top tournament pro John Phan, you know instantly that he had a profound effect on her life, way beyond the immediate material help he offered.

‘He just saw something in me,’ Lieu says. ‘We weren’t even close friends at the time but he basically gave me everything he had to get me back on my feet. He never criticised me, he just said one thing which really woke me up. He said, “Why don’t you turn all your pain and suffering into strength. I believe in you. I know you’re capable of being one of the greatest players out there.”

That really hit me. After he said that I just thought I can’t let him down, and I changed my life and got back on track. When you’ve got the motivation you will conquer your goals. I owe him a lot and that’s how we became such good friends. He’s like my family now, I’d do anything for him.’


Since Phan stepped in Lieu has never looked back. Predominantly a cash player, she’s tweaked her game in the past couple of years to take on tournaments, notching up several big wins already. She narrowly missed out on a WSOP bracelet in 2005 and pocketed $148,370 by winning the $1,000 event at the LA Poker Classic in February this year. But cash is still where she’s most at home.

Lieu plays at $400/$800 and $1,000/$2,000 games – stakes that are as big as you can get without approaching the Big Game, something she’s still not interested in playing in.

‘I want to stay in the range I’m comfortable, where my bankroll’s solid and I’m not in a position where I’m playing scared money,’ Lieu says. ‘I play to make money and to support my parents. That’s a motivator for me and it gives me a lot of discipline. It’s pressure but pressure’s good sometimes.’

It’s good that Lieu thinks like this, because talking to her you get the impression she’s not going to rest until she conquers the world or dies trying. She routinely talks about 16-hour days, packed with playing poker, maintaining her various websites and seeking out new business opportunities. She’s getting heavily involved in charitable work in Vietnam and is committed to spending more time doing this in the future. It’s a helter-skelter life that demands success, yet she still finds time to hang out, go clubbing, and meet up with her non-poker friends back in Colorado and Chicago.

This is what she calls her ‘peaceful time’, the part of her life that grounds her and recharges her batteries. ‘It’s a time away from hearing about bad beats,’ says Lieu.

But as soon as she’s lulled you into thinking that she doesn’t spend every minute of the day working she’s back on it. ‘My goal is to break into the mainstream,’ she gushes. ‘I’ve got a couple of things in the works. I’d love to get into fashion, and eventually want to design my own clothing range.’ But this doesn’t signal a move away from poker. If she gets pushed for time she’ll just make more hours in the day.

As she says herself, ‘Poker’s the one thing I’m really good at. Talk to me about the stock market or real estate and it goes in one ear and out the other – I’ve just got no interest. But mention cards and something in my head goes ping.’

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