Remembering Rene Angelil
The best Rene Angelil story I’ve heard was once told by his wife, the electrifying singer and stage performer Celine Dion. I also have a few stories of my own in this tribute and obituary.
While being interviewed on American television by Barbara Walters, Celine Dion was asked point-blank about her husband’s reported high-stakes gambling, which constituted a significant portion of his recreational time. Angelil lived in Las Vegas during the final ten years of his life. No doubt during much of that period, Angelil enjoyed hanging out at casinos, and spent many hours in poker rooms, especially. Angelil entered tournament events at the World Series of Poker every year and was often seen sitting down in No-Limit Hold’em cash games nightly at Caesars Palace while his wife was taking center stage to standing-ovations at the sold-out Colosseum Arena.
“Is your husband a compulsive gambler?” was the gist of the question.
Celine Dion leaned forward and thought carefully about the question before answering. She admitted that Angelil loved to gamble. He craved the action, she said. “The truth is — Rene’s a gambler. Of course, he is. And, I’m glad he is,” Dion said matter-of-factly. “One reason I’m glad he’s a gambler I’ll give you: Because he mortgaged his house so that I could do my first album when I was 12-years-old. We had absolutely no money at that time. Want to talk about being a gambler? That was a really big gamble. That’s probably the biggest gamble we’ve ever done.”
That riveting remembrance about Angelil from his wife about taking an enormous chance on an unknown longshot no one had ever heard of before and risking everything he owned on a teenager who would ultimately sell tens of millions of recordings and become one of the world’s most popular singers reveals so much about the man who passed away earlier today, at the age of 73 after his long bout with cancer.
Angelil’s life has ended, but within the collective memories of the poker community — which is how I came to know him — remains a dignified presence who never once called attention to himself nor sought out any special treatment. During the WSOP, he often walked the hallways anonymously. Few around him were aware he was the husband and manager of a bona fide musical diva and one of the biggest draws in the history of the Las Vegas Strip.
Given his net worth, Angelil didn’t need the money he might conceivably win from games of chance. He could have been victorious in poker’s world championship, and it probably wouldn’t have changed his life a bit. He also didn’t talk much at the table, his shyness due in part to being French-Canadian and partially uncomfortable with the English language. So, it’s very likely he loved to play poker purely for the sake of the game and the inherent strategic challenges it posed to a man who by all accounts already had just about everything — a beautiful and famous wife, global celebrity, a vast fortune, and three healthy children. His nightly sit-downs inside the Caesars Palace poker room, always between 7 and 10 pm promptly when he usually bought in for the sum of $1,000 (sometimes less), were a mere pittance of his financial empire — something akin to most of us playing poker for what amounted to pennies, if not matchsticks.
I played several poker sessions with “Mr. Angelil” (as everyone called him) over the years. He rarely ever said a word. He also played much tighter than anyone would have possibly expected. Unlike many celebrities who tend to get caught up in the betting action and lose their chips rather quickly, Angelil often played like a rock when I witnessed him sitting in a game. The funniest moments I can recall happened when newcomers used to sit down and have no idea who he was. Sometimes, they’d try to bluff him out of pots with bets of a couple of hundred dollars, utterly unaware he’d reportedly once lost $9 million out in the pit before taking up poker instead of playing the sucker games. During the height of the poker boom sometime around 2007, a funny incident happened that still makes me chuckle.
The game had just been called down and started when a couple of younger players joined our table during the March Madness basketball tournament weekend. Celine Dion was performing across the hallway over at the Colosseum, and Angelil was hunkered down in his usual No-Limit game, held in what was called the “high limit” section, but was actually rather modest in size. Perhaps no more than $15,000 was sitting on the table at any time. Angelil probably had handkerchiefs that cost more than that.
The new players were annoyed by the large crowd out in front, blocking the aisles, and congregating in front of the Colosseum entrance prior to the start of the upcoming Celine Dion concert. One of them muttered something to the effect, “Who in the hell would want to go see her?” A few of us knew Angelil. Our eyes darted over to catch a glimpse of his reaction. Angelil didn’t flinch an eyebrow. He just sat there stoically looking straight ahead. Perhaps he hadn’t understood any of the conversations. A few hands were dealt out and the two younger players continued to talk about Celine. By this time, Angelil had clearly become aware the discussion was about his wife. He glared across the table at them but still said nothing.
Sometime later, Angelil got involved in a big pot with one of the complainers. The kid had flopped top two-pair, or something like that and made what for this game was a pretty big bet. Angelil was on a flush draw and announced “all in.” The kid snap-called. Angelil ended up making his flush, busting the kid who started to get up from the table. As he was raking in a mass of $5 chips scattered all over the felt, Angelil deadpanned a line that had half the table in stitches and the remainder wondering what all the commotion was about.
“I’m so happy. Now, I can afford to see Celine Dion,” Angelil said with a grin.
That’s as big a grandstanding move as you’d ever see or hear from Angelil. Most of the time he said very little, other than exchanging simple pleasantries. During major poker tournaments, Angelil was unaccompanied most of the time and didn’t seem to seek out friends within the community. I suspect he felt it necessary to keep up his guard somewhat, given the obvious risks and pitfalls of being widely looked upon as a source of staking. One could understand a certain need to remain reserved. Still, that didn’t stop him from being one of us.
Most of my encounters with Angelil were pleasant one- or two-sentence encounters. As a representative of the WSOP, I approached him regularly. I always wanted him to feel like he was appreciated without ever being pandered to. From my experience, I think he liked being looked upon as “just one of the guys.” In some ways, that was the ultimate compliment and the ideal sense of personal freedom to not be pointed at as “Celine’s husband.”
About four years ago, I had the opportunity to sit beside Angelil at a special show at the Wynn which was put on by the famous French singer and actor Patrick Bruel, who had invited me as his guest. I was tempted to ask Angelil if he remembered the incident that happened years earlier at Caesars Palace when Angelil won a small verdict of poker justice. Instead, I passed on the chance to test his memory and left him alone. Sometimes, that’s the ultimate sign of respect — which is not badgering someone.
Angelil had his faults like anyone else. As much as he cherished his privacy, total anonymity wasn’t really possible given our obsession with celebrity culture and the constant media gossip. His gambling was very much a part of who he was and to a great extent the reason he and his wife ultimately became so rich and famous.
Earlier today, Angelil lost his final struggle, undoubtedly a battle with a deadly disease he’d like to have won, or at least postponed a while longer. Angelil will be remembered by those like me within the poker community not so much for any significant tournament victories nor high-stakes cash game winnings, but rather for his constant grace and the stately hauteur he brought to every table. Angelil probably didn’t finish as a winning poker player. But he certainly ended his life as a winner — and a huge one at that. Moreover, we were winners for having had him as part of our game and a proud resident of our city.