It's the holy grail of poker, really. The "whale" - a big-moneyed, amateur poker player with a bottomless bankroll, an eye for the gamble and next-to-no sense of what's truly happening on the felt. Ask any poker oldtimer about the days a big-time whale rolled into their town and you'll see a gleam in their eyes likely only matched on their wedding day(s) or the birth of their children. Or, likely, never matched at all. Life outside of poker ceases to exist when a whale surfaces and any poker player with a pulse lives for a seat in the game - if only for a few hours. Lifetimes bankrolls can be made in one epic session, and a lifetime of stories too. In honor of the Discovery Channel's now-infamous Shark Week, guest blogger James Guill takes a look at some of poker's biggest-ever donators in a five-part series we've dubbed #WhaleWeek. First up: Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberté.
By James Guill
When the topic of big-time whales in the poker world comes up Guy Laliberté is almost certainly near the top of everyone's list.
Best known by the general public as the founder of the multi-billion dollar cash cow Cirque du Soleil, Laliberté's passion for the game of poker has seen him become a fixture on the high stakes poker world despite the fact that he has lost countless millions in the game.
His legacy in poker might very well become the charitable Big One for One Drop event at the World Series of Poker. But he made his name in the poker community with some epic sessions of online charity that fueled the careers os some of poker's most famous stars.
Guy Laliberté, Destined to Perform
Guy Laliberté seemed destined to spend his life as a performer. As a young boy, his parents took him to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and that experience sparked an interest in the circus and performing.
Laliberté was highly involved in performing arts throughout high school and, after graduating, he began his career as a street performer. Soon after, he joined up with performance group Échassiers de la Baie and continued to perform as an accordion player, fire-eater and even stiltwalker.
Laliberté made an attempt to take on a standard job at a power plant but when the plant went on strike Laliberté returned to performing.
In 1984, Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix founded Cirque de Soleil and what started out as a one year "project" soon became one of the greatest spectacles in the world. Since that time, the company has expanded internationally and has troops performing in 40 countries annually.
Annual revenue from Cirque du Soleil is estimated to be around $800 million, giving Laliberté a personal wealth of around $2.6 billion.
WPT Final Table Makes Laliberté Household Name
Laliberté's fame extended beyond the world of entertainment in 2007 when he finished fourth at the World Poker Tour Season V World Championship in Las Vegas.
His finish earned him $696,220 and instantly put him into the poker spotlight. Afterwards Laliberté became a featured player on shows such as Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker.
Laliberté went on to lose one of the largest pots in High Stakes Poker history, a $818,100 pot to Doyle Brunson.
Poker's Biggest Fish Ever? #1 in Online Poker Losses
If Phil Ivey is the poster child for winning at online poker then Laliberté is the poster child for losing at online poker.
In early 2009 Laliberté was rumored to be playing on Full Tilt Poker under five different screen names including noatima, patatino and LadyMarmalade. Those accounts lost a combined $17.1 million on Full Tilt in 2008 alone.
Laliberté's slide only got worse. According to estimates his total losses at online poker are around $26 million lifetime. The biggest beneficiaries? Tom "durrrr" Dwan, Phil Galfond and the Dang brothers, Di and Hac.
Big One Sets Record for Largest First-Place Tournament Prize
In 2011 Laliberté and WSOP officials announced the first ever poker tournament with a $1 million buy-in.
Dubbed "The Big One for One Drop," $111,111 from each buy-in would go towards Laliberté's One Drop charity, an organization striving to provide access to clean drinking water around the world.
A field of 48 poker pros and businessmen took part in the event and Laliberté earned his way to the final table, ultimately finishing in 5th place.
The $1.83 million for fifth was his largest tournament score but paled in comparison to the $18.34 million won by Antonio Esfandiari for first. Esfandiari is now poker's all-time money winner thanks to this event.
With a seemingly unlimited bankroll, it's unlikely that we'll see Laliberté give up high-stakes games anytime soon. His One Drop charity events have also become the event of choice for the World Series of Poker.
While he may be considered a whale, he is one that appears happy to be hooked.
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