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Guy Laliberté: Feeding on the high-stakes game

Guy Laliberté could never lay claim to being the best poker player in the world, but he’s always loved high stakes — at and away from the table.

Born in 1959 in Quebec City, he grew up fascinated by the circus. His parents took him to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which fed his interest in performing and being on the move.

“From a very young age, I cherished the dream of travelling,” he said in a 2012 interview. The quickest way I thought I could achieve that dream was by playing music. I learnt to play my father’s accordion and started organizing small events and school outings. I raised enough money to travel to Europe, one-way, for a voyage of discovery.”

Guy Laliberté performed through high school and once he graduated, took to the streets, where in addition to playing music, he spent his days breathing fire and walking on stilts for spare change. For a time, he was part of a group of circus performers called Échassiers de la Baie and toured Canada with them.

At one point, Laliberté attempted to take on a regular 9-5 job at a power plant, but it was short-lived. The plant went on strike soon after and he returned to performing.

The circus was calling, after all.

He met up with a group of street performers on stilts and together they started a street festival, which grew into something they felt belonged under a big top.

In 1984, Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix created Cirque du Soleil, which was supposed to be a short-term project. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Quebec government to mark the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada, it turned out to be a perfect fit for the celebrations and soon grew legs of its own.

“Through a lot of hard work and hard years, we pulled through, a major break happening in 1987 (with Cirque Réinventé), with our very first entry to the USA at the LA Festival. It was a do or die situation! We made it. We became the flavour of the month and we pursued our creativity,” Laliberté told Bluff Europe.

He says the goal of every show is to offer escapist entertainment for a few hours, “provoking an emotional bond through artistry, music, lighting and amazing human performance.”

Cirque’s big acrobatic extravaganzas have redefined one of the world’s oldest art forms. They’re no small gamble, rather each is high-stakes undertaking with huge production costs — each permanent show typically runs between $40 million and $50 million. Now one of the biggest live entertainment groups in the world, its shows are performed on six continents, under the signature yellow and blue Big Top and have drawn in more than 100 million spectators.

From that initial group of 20 street performers, Cirque now has close to 4,000 employees (1,700 based in Montreal), including 1,300 artists from more than 50 different countries. It generates between $800 million and $1 billion in annual revenue.

Along the way, Guy Laliberté earned the nickname Roi Soleil (king) and his own net worth is estimated to be somewhere between $1.37 billion and $2.6 billion.

Laliberté owns an island, a boat and seven homes: that’s not bad for a busker.

Of course, as the New York Times noted 2011, “He didn’t make the leap from accordion-playing street performer to one of the world’s most influential and powerful entertainment impresarios by setting his sights low.”

While he’s fierce, he’s also said to be “a very nice bulldozer.”

Guy Laliberté stepped away from the day-to-day business in 2008, returned in 2012 and in 2015, sold his majority stake in the company to a group of outside investors. Cirque, however is still based in Quebec.

“Life has been good to Cirque du Soleil and to me,” he says.

Online poker, however? Not so much.

While he’s met with much success with the circus, Guy Laliberté met his match in Full Tilt Poker. According to some poker sites, he lost around $26 million between 2008 and 2009 playing $500/$1000 games, gambling under several different screen names, including ‘LadyMarmalade’ and ‘noatima.’

He told Le Journal de Montreal, he not only “got bent over” but “provided the Vaseline himself.”

Guy Laliberté later claimed he was colluded against by so-called friends while playing. They worked together, using uncovered bank accounts and ripped him off.

“I was an idiot. I was drawn like a school boy,” he said. “I should have remembered that I am a dinosaur of the internet.”

For a while, he held the title of a whale and was a bit of poster child for losing at online poker, but it did little to sink his love of the game. It seems he was hooked and happy to be.

“I have always enjoyed gaming,” he said in 2012, noting it was a friend that first brought him to a poker table. “Immediately, I enjoyed the social aspect of the game – that very distinctive friendly competition.”

“I also like the fact that you have to read the players, their way of playing, their strategies. It’s a game that fits my personality quite well. Now I have many friends in all types of circuits all over the world, and it is a great social distraction for me.”

Given his costly online burn, Guy Laliberté has long since backed away from the computer and sticks to the live felt. He’s finished fourth at the World Poker Tour in Las Vegas and he appeared in Season 4 of “High Stakes Poker.”

His passion for poker has evolved, however, and he’s become better known for his philanthropy than his playing.

In 2007, he created One Drop, an international non-profit. At the core of its mission is water as a transformative force to improve living conditions, as well as give communities the ability to care for themselves and their families sustainably.

To take his cause to new heights, two years later he became the first poker player in space and used his time onboard the International Space Station to raise awareness about areas on the planet where people lacked fresh water. He reportedly paid $35 million for his 12-day trip to space, but said it was worth every penny.

“I approached it in the same manner I approach all the most important projects in my life. I like to kill many birds with one stone. For me, personally, it was to be one of the most interesting challenges to take on. Since I knew there would be a lot of media attention, I knew it would be an exceptional opportunity to give One Drop the awareness and the publicity it deserved,” Laliberté said.

As all space explorers have a mission on their journey, his, as an artist, was poetic social mission and marked the first ever artistic program broadcast from space and 14 different cities on Earth.

“I am a true believer of soft medicine and touching people at the heart to get a message through. One Drop was popularized on the world stage from that moment on.”

Back on earth, Guy Laliberté published a book of photography chronicling his time in space entitled ‘Gaia’ and dedicated all the profits to One Drop.

In further support of that effort — and in his eternal quest for high stakes — he joined with the World Series of Poker in 2011 to announce the first ever poker tournament with a $1 million buy-in.

Nearly 50 poker pros and businessmen took part in the Big One for One Drop the following year, including Laliberté, who earned his way to the final table and finished 5th. The $1.83 million prize was his largest tournament score, but it was nothing compared to the $18.3 million former magician Antonio Esfandiari took home as the winner.

To date the event has raised more than $20 million for One Drop and is set to go once again this summer at the WSOP.

In business and at the table, this father of five never shies away from a high-stakes game. Little surprise then that even the sky’s not the limit for this Guy.

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