David Baazov and the Future of Online Poker

To understand the root of Montreal gambling mogul David Baazov’s success, you’d have to have somehow stumbled upon him roughly twenty years ago, at a Dunkin’ Donuts at three o’clock in the morning. There he would have been: sitting in a booth under the glare of 24-hour florescent lights, droopy-eyed, trying valiantly to keep his head off the table. Trying, and failing.

He was 16. He was living on the streets. And he was exhausted.

Driven by a powerful instinct he did not yet understand, he had dropped out of Cégep after a single semester. His father was not impressed, and promptly threw him out of the house. Baazov was cold, hungry and dejected — and too damn proud to go home. So there he was, in an all-night donut shop, stubbornly saving face.

Young, uneducated guy brazenly goes after the biggest player in the online gaming industry…and wakes up a billionaire before his 34th birthday.

While Baazov would soon mend fences with his family and get an apartment on his own, that brief two weeks of homelessness proved pivotal. “It honed some part of me,” he says. The ordeal planted the seeds for the character that would later make Baazov famous. And, not for nothing: very, very rich.

The CEO of Amaya is on the line from his office, a modest converted warehouse in Pointe-Clair, an industrial suburb just west of Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. The space is low-key, adorned mainly with family photos and sports memorabilia from charity auctions. Not exactly the lavish global headquarters you’d expect of a man who’s become the digital version of Sheldon Adelson.

Baazov’s firm has, after all, become a giant in online gambling. Amaya owns mega-brands like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, with a combined registered user base of 93 million people. The company Baazov founded in 2005 is now the largest publicly-traded online gaming company in the world. It’s worth $10 billion dollars, or roughly a quarter of the industry as a whole. His personal net worth? Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $800 million.

“On the one hand, the story of Amaya’s takeover of the Rational Group under Baazov’s leadership is the stuff of MBA mythology,” says David Weitzner, Assistant Professor of Strategy at the Schulich School of Business. “Young, uneducated guy brazenly goes after the biggest player in the shadowy online gaming industry with nothing more than attitude and charisma, convinces one of the biggest private equity funds in the world to finance him, and wakes up a billionaire before his 34th birthday.”

But there’s always another hand.

At 35, Baazov is having his Master of the Universe moment, with the leadership awards, speaking engagements, panel invitations — and intense insider scrutiny, including a potentially crippling insider trading investigation — to prove it. Here he is at the top of his cinematic rise. But how’d he get there? At some point, he had to bet the house.