Daniel Negreanu is a poker legend so why we spent time with him to find out what he can teach us: “Every player has a system in the way they think and do things. Once you figure out that code, you’ll have an edge”

Daniel Negreanu is not just a tournament legend – he’s also one of the world’s great cash-game players

Every time Daniel Negreanu thinks he’s got the game figured out, poker has always found a way to humble him.

The 34-year-old Canadian is one of the highest tournament earners of all time, and the high-stakes cash games just wouldn’t seem right without his presence. But as he relaxes in his hotel room in Monte Carlo – a few hours before he’s due to play in the PokerStars.com EPT Grand Final – he admits his route to the top has been anything but smooth. His Big Game debut five years ago is a case in point. ‘My confidence was at an all-time high,’ he says. ‘I’d been killing the $400/$800 game. Then the limits started to go up a little. $600/$1,200 was a little jump and then I started playing $800/$1,600 pretty regularly, which quickly became $1k/$2k. From there it’s just a hop, step and jump to $1,500/$3,000 and $2k/$4k. I’d been winning at every stage.’

The only thing left was to pull up a chair alongside the most successful cash-game proponents in history – players like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and Chip Reese.

‘It was Tunica Mississippi, January 2003. They were playing no-limit hold’em and deuce-to-seven triple draw at $4k/$8k limits. I remember sitting down and I bought in for 250k and I was only going to lose that. That’s not a lot of money to go through when you’re playing $4k/$8k. One capped pot was $100k. Lose two of those and it’s $200k. That’s pretty common, especially when you have action players in the game. The very first day I had a beautiful win and won like $483k. This was my first time and I was like, “Shit this is easy.” I went to bed, slept for eight hours, came back and everyone was still playing.’

Negreanu jumped back in and proceeded to haemorrhage money – over $400k in fact. ‘I was still up $60k but I just quit because I didn’t want to give it all back right away. I could beat the game, but we were playing stuff like pot-limit Omaha and no-limit hold’em so the swings were huge.’ He swallowed his pride and stepped down to less stomach-churning levels.

It would take a huge tournament year in 2004 for Negreanu finally to have the bankroll to play $4/$8k comfortably, but stepping back up to that level was never in doubt. But setbacks have always dogged Negreanu’s cash-game career.

At 17 he was smashing the mixed games in his native Toronto, and at 21 he thought that Vegas would roll over in the same way. It took him eight months to adjust and beat the games. Five years later, aged 26, he lost himself to drink and partying and by the end of 2000 he was broke.

He ended up going back to the grindstone, dropping from $100/$200 limit to $30/$60, playing ten hours a day. In fact he’s been broke more times than he can remember, but takes solace in the fact that it’s an epidemic in the circles he moves in.

‘There’s nobody in the Big Game – no one – who hasn’t been broke several times on their way up. The only way to get to that game is to play limits that are a little bit out of your comfort zone and do it consistently.’


His latest challenge is beating the online game, an area where he admits he started off slowly – ‘Originally the online kids saw me as a big fish…’ – but now he believes he is close to cracking it.

‘I might not be winning any money, but I’m break-even and that’s a good sign.’ It may seem surprising to hear Negreanu talk about treading water in games where the limits are much lower than he’s used to playing live, but much of his success is due to his ability to acknowledge a limitation and work at it.

‘Every player has a code,’ he says, almost in a whisper. ‘Every player has a system in the way they think and do things. Once you figure out that code, you’ll have an edge.’ As I listen to the tale of how he first started to break those codes I hear a story of a ferocious and fearless hunt for that money-making edge. It’s a tale of huge upswings and massive lows, and within it are the secrets to being a true cash-game great.

It’s a story every poker player should know…

Lesson 1 – Aggression

Negreanu is renowed for being one of the most aggressive players in the game, but it’s not a trait that has always been entirely successful. He explains how he had a to temper his natural tendencies in order to beat the game…

You’ve referred to yourself as a ‘young bull’ who used to ‘push, push, push, push’ in your earlier cash-game days. What did you mean exactly?

When I was in Toronto I would just raise whenever I was in late position because I was going to steal, all the time, with almost any hand. It didn’t matter that I got no respect from the table because they didn’t know how to deal with it anyway. By the time I got to 21 I was becoming one of the more accomplished players in Toronto and thought I’d hit Vegas.

How successful was this loose- aggressive strategy when you got to Vegas?

My regular game was $10/$20, but I jumped to $20/$40 limit hold’em pretty quickly because that’s where everyone was playing. It didn’t go well. It was a real struggle for eight months to a year, back and forth and just not being able to beat the game. There was a major adjustment I had to make, because these guys pushed back at me. They would play back at me. Then I had a kind of epiphany about table image and from there I was doing pretty well in the $20/$40 games and jumped up much quicker to the $40/$80, $75/$150 and $100/$200 games.

So how exactly did you alter your play in order to beat the Vegas regulars?

In Vegas they noticed how many hands I was playing and how often I was raising, so they’d start re-raising me with really weak hands, making it hard to play. If I raised, they’d re-raise me with A-8 and push back at me. I learned that I can actually do better if I’m a little bit more selective with how aggressive I am. Instead of being a bull who goes raise, raise, raise, bet, bet, bet, I learned to add some texture and some feel to the game.

Lesson 2 – Self-analysis

When Negreanu talks through hands he’s played, he displays a masterful grasp of poker’s higher thought processes. Here he reveals how he honed his hand-analysis skills…

Is your ability to deconstruct a hand a talent you learned or always had?

The best thing I did was keep very detailed notes. When I first started playing, I was very analytical after every session. I wish I could show it to you, because it’s pretty intense. At one point when I first started going to Vegas, I actually made notes on how my mindset was. I kept track of how I did in the day versus the night; of how I did on Mondays versus Thursdays; of whether sessions were over six hours or under six hours. Regardless of whether I won or lost, I would grade myself with notes.

So it would say something like: ‘August 5th, 1997. Started off a little steamed, not very comfortable in the game, smoker on my left really annoying me. Moved seats to the other side, felt more comfortable. Started to play a little bit better.’ Then I’d give myself a grade from A-F.

Did you ever give yourself an ‘A’ when you were rating your play?

Yeah – when I lost! I’d lose a session but I got an A because of how well I handled it. The real trick, about cash-game poker especially, is that you can’t look at the result and let it have any effect on whether you think you did well or not. You have to look at how well you played completely independently of the result.

But that’s the same for tournaments, isn’t it? You shouldn’t be too results-oriented.

Yeah for sure, but I think even more so with cash games. People will be like: ‘Oh that guy won three days in a row.’ So? Big deal, what does that tell you? He might lose it all on day four.

So would you recommend all players to take such detailed notes?

Not necessarily. None of this has much value outside of the fact that when you’re doing these kinds of things, focusing on trying to get better and thinking about the game, it’s just going to help you take it more seriously. That’s the main thing.

Lesson 3 – Creativity

Negreanu has a reputation for making plays with complete trash, because he knows he can outplay most people on the flop. Here he discusses his creative streak and its application to both live and online play…

Is it good to be thought of as a ‘creative’ player?

Of all the pros I play the most boring brand of poker. I make less moves, less three-barrel bluffs, I do less fancy check- raising. I play my hands carefully, passively and play smaller pots. The only thing I do better than the others, maybe, is bluff- catching. Check-call three times – that’s about as exciting as I get!

Is it better to be more creative online?

Not really because online play focuses on playing fundamentally well. Every time you veer from a fundamentally correct play you give up something, unless there’s a benefit to it that’s significant – like using this play to exploit the person later. And I probably do more of that than the average person. The online kids think that’s so bad, but that would only be true if you did it every time. If you play like a robot, then a guy like Phil Ivey can kill you because he knows what you’re doing.

So are you saying that you should sometimes make an incorrect play?

You have to make plays that are sub-optimal some of the time. I said this once and people trashed me for it: the idea is that people have to believe you’re capable of making really bad plays. The reason this makes sense is that when I play against a guy like David Sklansky or Howard Lederer, there are certain plays that I know they’d never make because it’s such a bad play.

But if you know someone is capable of making a really nuts play, like Phil Ivey or Gus Hansen, it’s way more difficult to play against them. Even though sometimes their play is negative EV, their unpredictability makes them way more successful in the long run.

Lesson 4 – Adaptability

With a game perfectly honed for the live arena, it was never going to be easy for Negreanu to make the transition to internet poker. Here he divulges the steps he’s had to take to adapt

You’ve been quite open about your online limitations in the past. Have you been able to make any headway in that regard?

I’ve actually made it a personal goal over the year, because I never really took it seriously. I was like ‘Whatever, I’ll play $100/$200,’ but I wasn’t really into it – I’d watch TV and chat. Then there was all this smack talk from the online kids about how great they are and how bad the live players are – how I would suck online.

I was like, ‘Who do these punks think they are?’ I went in there thinking they were going to be great but I quickly found out that’s not the case. There are some great players but many of them are so robotic. And once I’d figured out their betting patterns, it was really easy to exploit them because they all think the same way. Any time you play in a way that’s predictable, it’s not optimal. The thing I was happy about was that I was playing against some of the best and I wasn’t outclassed. I’m playing $100/$200 pot-limit Omaha, $100/$200 no-limit hold’em and heads-up sit&gos and I’m holding my own. But strategy-wise I definitely made some major adjustments.

What changes have you made to help you beat the online pros?

When you play live you can rely on other things when you have to guess. The turn is the street in hold’em where you have to guess the most. But online when you have to guess on the turn, you can’t look at the guy and get a feel. So this forces me to play hands carefully. Like when I play live I’ll just call to see what happens, whereas online I’ll raise to find out where I’m at. I’ll re-raise to try and define his hand.

On the flop if I have top pair, I’ll raise him to see how he reacts. Live, I can often just smooth-call before the flop; if he bets the flop, I can just call, then on the turn, based on how he reacts, I’ll figure out if I’m beaten or not. So I basically play a lot more aggressively before the flop and on the flop when I play online.

Lesson 5 – Fearlessness

Negreanu has always weathered the highs and lows of professional poker with the stoicism that any player who wants to make a lengthy career of it needs. He explains how the fear of losing it all never bothers him…

How important is having no fear of going broke when it comes to being a good cash-game player?

If you’re afraid of losing, you’ll just get swallowed up by the top players. As soon as you bleed a little bit, they’ll just gut you to death.

Is that an innate quality or can it be learned?

I guess innate is a word you can use. It’s something that some people are just very comfortable with. It has a lot to do with the way you were raised. It has to do with your view of the world, it has to do with your confidence with yourself. If someone is paranoid about going broke, if they grew up in a household where money was always scarce, or if they’re not sure whether they can do it all over again, people like that simply don’t take those chances because they’re not good for them.

I feel like if you dropped me off, threw me onto some island and I had to make my way, I’ll do it. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to come back from nothing. Just find me the nearest $1/$5 stud game.

How many times would you say you’ve gone broke?

Everyone has a different definition of what broke really is. If I lose all the cash I have right now, am I broke? I’m cash broke for sure, but it’s not like I’m living with any problems. I’ve got other money coming in, assets, investments, things like that.

Poker players, especially in the Big Game, go broke all the time in terms of cash-broke, because nobody keeps that much on them. It would be foolish to keep a proper bankroll for $4k/$8k in your box. Are you going to keep $5m in there and just let it sit in a box?

Lesson 6 – Reading skills

With an uncanny ability to narrow a player’s range just from observing their physical tics, Negreanu’s reading skills are among the best in the business. Here he gives an example of how he recently used his observation skills to surprising effect…

What advantages do live players have over online players and vice versa?

Online players are often great at the fundamentals, but they didn’t learn the game the way I did or the way Doyle Brunson or Allen Cunningham or Phil Ivey or John Juanda did. They make plays based on the maths and the betting patterns and we make plays based on how someone put in their chips.

It’s something that young kids don’t do now, and that’s an edge I’ll always have. Of course, online players have an edge in that they play so many more hands, but I think in the live environment the ability to look at somebody and get a feel for what they have based on their body movements is extremely valuable.

So without those physical tells, what is the best way for a live pro to figure out an online opponent?

It’s about understanding the mindset of the successful players. There’s one guy in particular. He’s considered one of the best and I’ve played a lot with him heads- up. In the beginning we were about even, but I’ve figured him out completely now.

Was there a particular ‘eureka’ moment against this online pro?

I actually met him at a tournament and had the chance to talk to him and see how he dressed, how he thought, where he came from, what I was dealing with. I didn’t know if this guy was a 30-year-old man or a 21-year-old kid, but having the chance to talk to him about things unrelated to poker is how I’ve owned him now. Internet kids will laugh at that and think it’s hilarious, but it’s true. He’s a quiet, timid kid, obviously really smart, but when I watched him play some live hands I found that he was priding himself on laydowns. Every time I recognise situations in which he would do that online, that’s when I’ve got him.

How far are you from reaching your optimum online play?

I think the key for me is time. It’s hard to get in a groove and do well unless you’re playing regularly. And since I’ve been so busy, I haven’t really had a chance to jump into it. I think I’m really close. I’m very comfortable now. I think there was a lot of hype around these guys – they’re the next gods of poker and stuff. I think I bought into it, but once I realised it’s all a facade, that they’re not unbeatable, I was a lot more comfortable.

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