World’s Biggest Crypto Fortune Began With a Friendly Poker Game

With $96 billion, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao is closing in on tech titans including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix draws princes, movie stars and world-famous athletes every year to party on Yas Island, the entertainment hub about 30 minutes from the centre of downtown.

Mingling among them last month was a figure charting an unlikely ascent: a former McDonald’s burger-flipper and software developer who, practically overnight, has vaulted into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest people — cryptocurrency pioneer Changpeng Zhao.

CZ, as he’s known to cryptophiles, is quickly becoming a fixture in the United Arab Emirates, meeting with royalty in Abu Dhabi who are eager to bring his Binance exchange to the country, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

He has scooped up an apartment in Dubai and hosted dinners near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and on the city’s Palm Jumeirah island — making him the most prominent personality in the nation’s booming crypto scene.

Changpeng Zhao
Changpeng Zhao
Photographer: Ore Huiying/The New York Times/Redux

In a region known for dizzying wealth, Zhao, 44, fits right in: His net worth is $96 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. It’s the first time Bloomberg has estimated his fortune, which exceeds Asia’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, and rivals tech titans including Mark Zuckerberg and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Zhao’s fortune could be significantly larger, as the wealth estimate doesn’t take into account his personal crypto holdings, which include Bitcoin and his firm’s own token. Binance Coin, now called BNB, surged roughly 1,300% last year.

Binance’s success underscores the vast riches being created in the unshackled cryptoverse, even with recent declines, but controversy has swirled around the firm.

Banished from China — where it was founded — the company faces regulatory probes globally. The U.S. Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service are investigating whether one entity Zhao controls, Binance Holdings Ltd., is a conduit for money laundering and tax evasion, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Spokesmen for the DOJ and IRS declined to comment.

Binance’s future may hinge on whether it can reconcile with the world’s regulators and find a welcoming location to establish its headquarters.

For now, though, the money is pouring in.

Binance generated at least $20 billion of revenue last year, according to a Bloomberg analysis of its trading volume and fees. That’s almost triple what Wall Street analysts expect Coinbase Global Inc., a publicly-traded firm with a market value of $50 billion, will collect for 2021.

“Coinbase might appear to be the 800-pound gorilla from a U.S. perspective, but Binance is significantly bigger,” said DA Davidson & Co. analyst Chris Brendler.

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