Daniel Negreanu’s back to back WPT titles have taken him to the top of the player rankings again: “It was testament to the work I had put in before when I didn’t have success and was proof that my strategy is the best strategy”

Daniel Negreanu’s triumphant 2004 was capped by two historic WPT wins. Here, Daniel and his opponents recall Kid Poker’s monster year

Borgata Poker Open 22 Sept 2004

Daniel Negreanu’s run in 2004 was the stuff of poker dreams. It was a year where Negreanu himself admits he could do little wrong and nowhere is this more apparent than his back-to-back wins at the Borgata Poker Open and the Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic.

The two wins, just three months apart, netted him $ 1,117,400 and $ 1,770,218 respectively. But to Negreanu it was not about the money but more a desire to cap off a triumphant year – one which included a WSOP bracelet and countless player of the year awards – and also to cement his place as a poker icon. As Negreanu entered the final table at the Borgata he sat in third chip position up against poker heavy weight Phil Ivey and emerging pros like Josh Arieh and chip leader David Williams.

David Williams:
I was determined to prove to myself that I deserved the final table finish at the 2004 WSOP. At the time I was starting to wonder if this was the life for me. But by Day 3 I was just making every hand and my confidence was surging and I coasted to the final table with a big chip lead. I knew that the final table had some of the game’s best players and that a chip lead wasn’t enough to ensure victory. I just wanted to continue to play smart aggressive poker.

Daniel Negreanu:
I was loving it. In 2004, pretty much everything I did was top notch. I was always prepared which was something that stuck out about the whole year. I’d already had some success winning a bracelet and winning player of the year so coming into the final table I loved the fact that it was really tough because it felt like it could be epic.

David Williams: This was my first time playing any of them other than Josh Arieh who I faced at the WSOP main event. Coming up against Ivey and Negreanu, I just knew that I had to throw them a curveball and be unpredictable.

Crowd favourite, Phil Ivey was the first to exit when he went all-in with A?-Q? and was called by Josh Arieh, with a pair of threes. The flop came J?-10?-4?. The 3? turn had Ivey drawing dead to a King and the river 7? sent Ivey packing.

Williams: I was actually hoping Phil would go out in third and Daniel in second since they were my two favourite players in that order at that moment. But I really didn’t care that he was out first. I was just happy that one more competitor was out.

Negreanu: You’d think from a financial perspective I’d be saying: ‘Yes, Phil Ivey’s gone’ but if you look back at any other real sport, for example, without Frazier there was no Ali. Those great rivalries are what makes epic events. I felt like I’d love to someday be heads-up with someone like Phil. That’s what people want to see.

Negreanu proceeded to almost single-handedly take down the field. Next to fall was the only amateur at the table, Brandon Moran. With A?-K?, Moran made it $ 75,000 to go. Negreanu raised $ 175,000 over the top with pocket Jacks. Short-stacked Moran pushed all-in for $ 513,000 more and Kid Poker called. A board of 9-4-4-Q-3 knocked the Chicago amateur out in 5th place.

Negreanu: At that stage, when you are six-handed, the hand values go down and the range of hands that a short-stack is going to go all-in is much wider so a pair of Jacks there looked to be well in front of what he could have. I felt like I had the best hand and I could have him in bad shape if he had two sevens or two eights. And I could also afford it. I came to the table with a good stack of chips and it just seemed like the right play to make at that point.

With A?-9? on the button, Negreanu brought it in for $ 160,000. Chris Tsiprailidis came over the top of him for $ 690,000 more. Tsiprailidis had a very tight table image at this point but Negreanu sensed a bluff. Chris flipped over 5?-3?, with Daniel saying: ‘I caught you!’ The board failed to help Tsiprailidis and he was out in fourth.

Negreanu: This play is 100% down to reading the situation and reading the player and what he is about to do. I know how Chris likes to play and how he likes to play me. I’m also aware that he knows that I am going to raise on the button a lot and that he needed to get back in the tournament so he’s going to make a move on me sooner or later.

So, I felt like if I made the raise and he moves in I’m going to have to get a gauge for how he does it and I may have to make a big call because this is a perfect opportunity. I felt like he had waited long enough that it would look legitimate from his perspective. So, I thought he’s going to make a move sooner or later and then when he did it I picked up a subtle tell in the speed and the way in which he threw his chips in. I thought: he has nothing.

I know he likes to re-raise me a lot because he knows that I will fold unless I have something really strong. So I called him pretty quickly, already foreseeing – even before the hand is dealt – that if I raise on the button he’s going to re-raise me. I insta-called. I actually said something to him like ‘I think you’re making one of those moves…’ and he was. That money, for his stack size, was valuable. He needed that pot – my raise and the antes. So he was going to go after it no matter what his hand was.

Kid Poker continued to drive towards the heads-up with the elimination of Josh Arieh. Off the back of successful bluffs on both opponents, Arieh tried a trick too many when he bluffed all three streets only for Daniel’s 9-6 to hit a straight on the river to set up a heads-up battle against David Williams.

Negreanu: I was really surprised that Josh could raise me on the river. I felt Josh plays position against me – he’s going to play it pretty tough. I knew he was capable of making a three-barrelled bluff but I didn’t necessarily think he was bluffing – if I had I would have raised him at some point. I hit my gut-shot on the river and bet an amount that screamed of wanting to get called – it looked like a value-bet. He instantly moved all-in and I thought: wow, really?

There was a higher straight on board but I certainly couldn’t throw the hand away. And then I called him and he had nothing. I thought it was a really big mistake on his part because he should have realised that it’s very unlikely for me to bluff that card on the river. But he was obviously fooled into thinking that I was drawing to a certain hand and trying to represent another, which wasn’t the case – I was drawing to the hand that I hit. He thought I would bluff that amount where obviously I didn’t. It was just too risky a play and I think he knew it as soon as he did it. There’s no way I would ever fold a hand at that point.

Williams: I was very excited to be facing Daniel heads-up as he was my favourite player. It was very surreal to be facing my poker idol for the WPT title. I was very excited. I knew it would be difficult but felt that it would really validate me as a poker player to take him down.

Negreanu: I perceived David to be young, really aggressive but a lot less experienced than myself. I felt like if I waited him out he would make the bigger mistakes. He was jabbing and killing me in all the small pots. He was really taking an aggressive stance and really pushing me around and taking all that money. I was basically sitting there waiting to trap him.

Eventually, although he won most of the little battles, I won the war because I forced him into some key mistakes. One mistake with Kings against Queen-seven and the final hand where I had the Aces.

Williams: I knew he wanted to chop away at me and not let it come down to a big pot with luck involved for a lot of chips. I felt that if I put a ton of pressure on him he would lay down a lot of hands thinking he could wait for better spots. I hoped to get him low so that eventually he would have to gamble and go with a hand. I turned the chip lead around but I knew that it wasn’t over until he had no chips left. I didn’t want to get cocky and lose my focus.

An epic battle, where the chip lead swung back and forth, came to a head as Negreanu found pocket Aces, for the second time in three hands. Williams limped with K?-6? and Daniel made it $ 400,000 to go. Williams called, and then flopped top pair as the board came K?-J?-8?. Daniel made a value bet of $ 400,000, and Williams calmly pushed all-in. Negreanu excitedly asked, “What’s that? You’re all-in?” Standing up Negreanu paused with a smile and called. A dejected Williams saw Negreanu flip over Aces. The turn and river came J?, Q? for Kid Poker to take his first WPT victory.

Negreanu: The last hand explained the whole match I was trying to play. He was looking to be very aggressive and attack my bets but I was basically waiting for hands and for him to make mistakes. He limped in with King-six, can’t fault him for that, and I raised from the big blind with Aces. And that’s a spot where I really hadn’t been bluffing and doing that. So that’s a spot where he could have got away from the King-six but he wanted to play the position.

And then the flop came K-J-8 with 2 clubs. I decided to bet some of it not really sure what’s going to happen from him. And he immediately moved all-in which made me pause slightly to make sure that I’m right. We were basically dead even in chips at this moment so this is the whole tournament. So I called and won the pot.

Williams: The blinds were so high in relation to our stacks and I had top pair. We had been playing fairly aggressive and weren’t very deep so I don’t believe I could have folded. I have been told this was the best-televised heads-up (at the time it aired) ever. It was truly epic. We played heads-up for hours (four I think) and it was very tough on me. I have never had an experience like that again. I wanted that title more than anything in the world, especially versus my favourite player. But at the same time I was happy that Daniel had finally won a 10k event and felt that if there was anyone to lose to, he was the person I would want it to be. I’m just disappointed that I still don’t have a 10k title yet.

WPT Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic 16 Dec 2004

Just three months later, Negreanu reached the final table of the Five-Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio. It was his fourth WPT final table of the season and Kid Poker was ending the year on a high by taking several Player of the Year accolades.  Negreanu entered the final table the overwhelming chip leader, with Californian Vinny Landrum looking the main threat.

Negreanu: I was already in a place where I felt like I could do no wrong. I felt like I was playing tournament poker better than ever. It felt easy to me. I felt extremely confident. An important thing to me was winning the Card Player Player of the Year award – I was leading the whole year but the night before that event, David Pham won a tournament to pass me. So I basically had one chance left – 366 players and I had to come ninth or better.

Humberto Brenes: We had both taken different routes to the final table in this tournament. With 20 players left, Daniel was a big stack, as was Johnny Chan. Daniel raised and Johnny raised. Daniel moved all-in and Johnny called. They both have Ace-nine and Daniel made the flush to knock Johnny out. This made Daniel a very big stack. He played very well as big-stack and maintained this to the final table. Whereas, I was short-stacked going into the final table.

Negreanu: I think someone with less experience could have been overwhelmed by the size of the chip lead but I was very comfortable. I understood that I didn’t have to do anything crazy at all. So I played my game and was very cautious. In fact, in the first half an hour I didn’t really play any hands at all. I just bided my time.

Nam Le was the first to exit the final table. After losing a big pot to Humberto Brenes, he found himself on the short stack and pushed all-in with K?-Q?. He was called by Vinny Landrum but had his K?-J? dominated but a flop of J?-7?-3? and a turn and river of 8?, 9?, sent Nam Le out in sixth.

Negreanu: Nam Le was the one who worried me the most as I had very little information about him other than the fact that I knew he was good. I had played with him throughout the tournament and he kind of had my number a little. So when he went out I was a little bit relieved.

Steve Rassi soon followed Nam Le and Landrum and Jennifer Harman had both been reduced to short stacks as Brenes and Negreanu took it in turns to take pots down. Harman was the first to go, shoving with A?-7? but Landrum hit trip threes on the turn to knock the Las Vegas favourite out. Landrum’s table life was short however and he soon busted out in third to set up a heads-up contest between Negreanu and the charismatic Costa Rican, Brenes.

Negreanu: To be honest I felt relieved to get heads-up with Humberto because I had experience of playing him heads-up at a Hall of Fame event and I beat him. I felt that his passive style worked really well with the way I liked to play. I could play my game and be a little more aggressive than him, grinding him down without taking any large risks.

Brenes: Daniel had a 5/1 chip lead on me going into heads-up. But I enjoyed the heads-up – I had a very good time. He is a nice guy. His mother was in the audience and when I saw her I shouted: ‘Mama! come on Mama!’

With blinds and antes up to a staggering 80,000/160,000/a50,000 Negreanu quickly pushed his massive chip lead to 10,415,000 over Humberto’s 865,000. But Negreanu’s commanding lead was to be pegged back as Brenes doubled up with pocket Queens, and then ran a perfect bluff, forcing a bad fold after Daniel had flopped top pair with a weak kicker. Humberto then called Daniel’s pre-flop bluff, and his pair of Kings held up to further claw back some chips.

Brenes: I remember I made a very good bluff and at that moment I shouted: ‘Mama, I bluffed your son!’ Negreanu: I understood that just because I had a big lead there is going to be one crucial hand, where there’s going to be a very good chance that he doubles up. And that’s what happened – he doubled up to about 4 million. But from there the only risky point I felt was when he played was the final hand, where he could have doubled up I thought: ‘Oh boy, if I lose this pot I’m in big trouble.’

Brenes fancied his 8?-7?, after flopping top pair on a 7-4-3 rainbow board. Brenes bet 400,000, and Negreanu came over the top for 1,000,000 more, and Brenes pushed all-in. But Negreanu flipped over K?-7? and the turn 6? and river 3? gave the Canadian his second WPT event of the season.

Negreanu: In that last hand I was very confident that the K-7 was good – the question was how good. How far ahead was I? I felt he had a draw but the blinds were high enough that it was a chance I had to take – I couldn’t let him run me over.

Brenes: The final hand I had 7-8 he had K-7. There was nothing I could have done. We had played for two to three hours and the blinds were going up and up. I had to get it in with top-pair. I played very well though and enjoyed it but I don’t like to come second. In poker, you only feel good when you’ve won. It was the biggest cash of my career but the money is always second for me – it is all about winning.

Negreanu: It was testament to the work I had put in before when I didn’t have success and was proof that my strategy is the best strategy. Winning a World Series event, winning Championship Poker at the Plaza against one of the toughest fields I’ve ever faced – a 67 player field of top pros – and winning two WPT events. Also winning World Poker Tour Player of the Year, World Series Player of the Year and Card Player Player of the Year – every possible title I won that year. It’ll be very difficult for anyone to duplicate the success I had in 2004. It was definitely my best year but I am 10 times the player I was then.

I feel I’m a much better poker player now but  having said that, in 2004 I spent the entire year doing everything right. All my rules I have like no drinking before play, no socialising with people, taking events very seriously I did that for the entire year. My head was on right and my social life was good. I was newly with my wife and everything seemed to be going really good in my life. I was able to focus on what I needed to do. I had less distraction and I focused mainly on poker. It’s a little more difficult to do that now but recently I’ve refound that urge and that fire to play. If I don’t have the fire it’s going to be difficult to focus and play like I did back then.

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