Daniel Negreanu talks exclusively to PokerPlayer about his views on the WSOP Main Event and much more: “The biggest problem is that it’s too easy for amateurs to play against a table full of amateurs all day and then do the same thing the next day”

We drop in on one of the game’s superstars, Daniel Negreanu, for his opinion on the current state of play

Daniel Negreanu emerges from his home office where he’s just finished playing a tournament on PokerStars.

A couple of small dogs nip at his heels as he heads into the kitchen and grabs a bottle of water. We’re meeting to discuss his take on the state of poker, and he’s settling in for a long chat. Curling up on his sofa and putting his mobile phone on vibrate, Negreanu, one of the game’s most thoughtful practitioners, begins by telling me that he’s got lots of ideas on what needs to be done to take poker to the next level.

Considering that Negreanu is the one who conceived and shepherded the WSOP’s $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament, he’s got plenty of credibility. I switch on my tape recorder and listen up…

POKERPLAYER: In general terms, where do you think poker is at right now?

DANIEL NEGREANU: It’s an exciting time for the game, but also a nervous time. I see positive steps being taken toward legalising online poker in the US. People in Washington are starting to listen and the World Trade Organisation lawsuit is a good sign for us. But the scary thing, to me, is problems related to protecting the prestige of the game. There are tournaments that claim to crown, to some degree, the best player, but they don’t necessarily do that.

PP: You mean that there are a lot of flukey winners in important tournaments?

DN: Until recently, there were maybe two flukes in 20 years, but aside from those, every World Series champion became an established player. You never had a guy playing his first tournament and winning the thing.

PP: How do you fix that?

DN: For starters, the Main Event needs to be changed completely. The biggest problem is that it’s too easy for amateurs to play against a table full of amateurs all day and then do the same thing the next day. Then they get eight million in chips without ever having to go up against a pro. The solution is to play the tournament in a shootout format – but not a quick shootout. On the first day, you have 10 people sitting at each table and playing until one is left. That eliminates 90 percent of the field, and you keep doing it until you get to the final table.

PP: Explain what that accomplishes.

DN: It restricts the number of chips that one of these quote-unquote donkeys can win off other donkeys. It creates an even playing field at every level, because everyone always starts with the same number of chips. Think of the odds of a guy fluking that tournament. They could fluke the first day, but on day two they’d go up against nine guys who won their tables.

Some of them have to be somewhat knowledgeable. The winner might be a relative unknown, but it won’t be a guy who’s playing in his first live tournament. No way. Things like that have to be considered to protect the prestige and integrity of the game.

PP: Sounds like a great idea. Why would the World Series people not want to do it?

DN: It’s different and they already have something that works so well. But the randomness of recent final tables just does not represent a high-prestige event.

PP: Do you think the game has been strongly affected by the showbiz aspect that seems to permeate poker these days?

DN: That has been mostly positive. It’s brought poker into the mainstream. There are more events and poker shows that are ‘pro-centric’. It gets the game out there and gives people opportunities to make more money. I played in a game with [showbiz executive] Jeffrey Katzenberg and Tobey Maguire, but I felt uncomfortable with what I won.

The blinds got kicked up to $200/$400 and I won half a million dollars in seven hours. I killed it, but those guys were so good about it. They didn’t care. Those guys have so much money that a game like that is just recreation.

PP: Do you think that opportunities outside of playing poker have taken players’ minds off the game?

DN: I think a lot of people have lost their minds. They think they’re something special and walk around with their noses in the air. Fame makes them crazy. Phil Gordon is a perfect example. He used to be a normal guy. Now he’s a complete and utter nutcase who is obsessed with fame and trying to be cool.

Humberto Brenes is a friend of mine, and he’s lost it a little. He never used to do that stuff with the shark (his novelty card protector). It’s strange for me to see people who’ve been poker players all their lives and are now considering changing who they are. They wonder if they should be players or brands.

PP: I guess poker players view the current situation as an opportunity to make lots of money without having to risk any of their own capital.

DN: But that’s not really the case. What people don’t understand is that the idea of all this endorsement money being around is not true for 99.9 percent of the players. Only a handful of people have anything to add to a company in terms of endorsements.

PP: Plus, there is a stigma related to poker.

DN: I think [poker pros] underestimate that. Would you feel comfortable having a poker pro representing your mortgage company? Yeah, trust us – we go all-in with your money! Or would Phil Hellmuth be a good guy for a classy product? I recently had a conversation with Mike Matusow, and he told me he’s the most marketable guy in poker. He gets a lot of airtime, but he curses and talks about being in jail. How does he monetise that? Through Slim Jim (a US meat snack) or professional wrestling?

PP: Still, over the past few years the game has grown tremendously, and people still seem to have a bottomless hunger for poker. That said, do you fear that the public will eventually overload on bluffs and suckouts? Is there too much poker on television?

DN: Sort of. The biggest problem with poker on television at the moment is that it’s too chaotic to follow. There’s all kinds of randomness and no cohesion.

PP: So what’s the best way to fix it?

DN: The easiest solution would be to follow a PGA model (similar to what Chip Reese tried to do with his ill-fated Professional Poker League). You wouldn’t need a lot of poker players to agree to that, just the important ones. Then everyone else would follow suit. It all trickles down from the top.

PP: Are there too many tournaments?

DN: The problem is that there’s not enough separation between prestigious events and regular tournaments. There’s the EPT, the WPT, the WSOP circuit and Europe, random events at Wynn and Caesars and everywhere else. But what do they mean? When I play tournaments, I like them to have meaning. Right now there is too much confusion.

PP: How can that be resolved?

DN: Again, I’m looking at the PGA as a model. The PGA has weekly tournaments all the time, but then there are the big-deal major tournaments. Poker should be the same way.

There should be as many tournaments as people want to play in, but, each year, there could be four tournaments, in four different spots, that everyone [that is, every well-known pro] would play in. They’d be big buy-ins, feature widespread TV coverage, the tours would all support them, and those tournaments would all have meaning. People would remember who won.

PP: Do you envisage there being a barrier to entry?

DN: The barrier would be as simple as this: raise the money and buy-in. Obviously, these tournaments would be lengthy. I would make them shootouts with heats. Then at the end of the year there would be a points system [to determine an overall winner]. As for the buy-ins, I can see two $25,000 events, a $50k, and a $100k. But the amount of the buy-in isn’t so important, the number of players is.

PP: I can’t see more than 50 people buying into a $100,000 tournament.

DN: That would be perfect. But I see 90 to 105 people buying into a $100,000 tournament. For the $50,000, there’d be 250 people. Those are great numbers and representative of what poker tournaments used to be. You would not see Cinderellas representing 98 percent of the tournament field.

PP: So you want to price out the amateurs?

DN: No. It’s not about getting rid of the amateurs. It’s about changing poker from a bingo game to a more sophisticated game. When you have seven pros and one amateur at the table, the whole flow of the game is different. With eight amateurs everyone is calling to the river. It’s dumbed down.

With more pros, you’ll see the kinds of moves that make High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark so great to watch. The amateurs’ mistakes will be glaring and most of them will get crushed. But when you have so many amateurs playing against each other, it’s just not poker.

PP: Is the WSOP Europe good for the game?

DN: I’m not sure yet. If it’s the beginning of a tour, that’s one thing. But is it a one-time deal? If it is, you have it watered down by pros not showing up, and it waters down the value of winning a bracelet.

PP: That’s another issue, isn’t it?

DN: Yeah. What is the significance of these different bracelets? Who was the $1,500 nolimit Hold’em winner last year? I don’t know, because there were six of them. Is Annette Obrestad the youngest world champion of all time? Is she the youngest Main Event winner? It’s confusing.

Then you have these big $5,000 events that differ from the $1,000s and the $1,500s. Winning a $1,000 event should not have the same value as winning a $5,000 event. The weighting is not done properly and there are two tiers of tournaments every day.

PP: Winning a World Series event used to have a lot more prestige.

DN: Every single bracelet was special, because if you won you were the champion for a specific tournament with a specific buy-in. Maybe it’s time to add another level of bracelet. That way there would be the Main Event bracelet and the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. bracelet. So there would be designated championship events with different bracelets from those that are awarded for winning the $1,000 and $1,500 buy-ins. That way there’d be championship bracelets and tournament bracelets.

PP: You’ve recently aligned yourself with PokerStars and it’s resulted in you doing a fair amount of travelling to overseas tournaments. What’s your impression of the international scene?

DN: It’s fresh and new. The WSOP Europe reminded me of the way the WSOP used to be. It was small, a little bit cramped, laid back, and not so crazy. It had European flair and felt homely – not so corporate. And as far as the fan perspective goes, it’s more nuts in Europe. The coverage is bigger than it is in the US. Poker is more mainstream in Europe.

PP: Ironically, considering that poker is such an American game, it seems to have fewer hurdles in other countries.

DN: Especially when you talk about the English. They’re used to sports that seem obscure to us. Snooker and darts are incredibly popular in the UK. Poker might be a better fit [in Britain]. It seems more mainstream and more accepted.

PP: And the European players have developed their own styles and strategies…

DN: Europeans are changing the way poker is played. They’re really good and have a tough, tough approach to the game. On top of that, poker seems to have an added level of sex appeal in Europe. People root for the guy from their country – even if they don’t know the player’s name. That generates a kind of Olympic spirit. I see it as a good thing. It brings poker to the world stage.

PP: And now, with the rise of 19-year-old Annette Obrestad, they have a terrific, young player to rally around. What is your take on her?

DN: Obviously, she’s really good. I talked to her a bit and helped her with what she doesn’t yet know about the poker world – that what she says to reporters will end up getting published.

PP: I met Annette at a tournament in Dublin and she seemed a little reserved. Was she very forthcoming during the World Series in London?

DN: She made a couple of comments that I’m sure she believes. But coming from an 18-year-old, they could have come across quite badly.

PP: What did she say?

DN: She made comments about Ted Forrest being the weakest player at her table. She is not wrong necessarily – when it comes to no-limit at least. He plays really well on the turn and the river, but his fundamental game is choppy. She said that he’s the one she looked to abuse on the flop and before the flop. People may agree with her, but it sounds bad coming from her.

PP: How do you play against the Annettes of the world – these newly-minted superstars who are hyper-aggressive?

DN: The opposite of the way I played when I was young. Up against somebody like Annette, I play Dewey Tomko style. Dewey lulls you to sleep, to the point where you feel like you can push him around, then he comes out with a bluff that you didn’t think he was capable of, and he wins a giant pot.

PP: What do you view as the current challenges that poker needs to overcome?

DN: The biggest cloud over the game is the online gambling bill. And it doesn’t just affect America – it stunts poker worldwide. A lot of things, such as major online sponsorships and stuff, can’t be done until the law changes.

PP: What about right now, in terms of things that we have more control over?

DN: From my perspective, the biggest recent issue is companies trying to monopolise certain aspects of the game. Harrah’s gave exclusive rights [to a media outlet] for chip counts [at the 2007 World Series], and now the World Poker Tour is doing the same thing. To me that is shooting yourself in the foot.

Why would a site or a publication go to a tournament if they can’t cover it properly? And then the site that does cover it – which pays for the privilege – has no competition and no incentive to do a good job. On the other hand, in Barcelona, there was a room full of reporters from all over the world – all waiting to interview players and all competing for the good stories. That was great, and it created a lot of international publicity.

PP: Do you ever long for the old days, when being a poker player was a lot simpler and all you had to worry about was playing the game?

DN: Yeah, and I’ve actually made some decisions that will help me return to that. I’m cutting back on writing about poker and I’m thinking about dropping my syndicated column as well. It’s just too much work and feels like a job. I’m happy where I’m at right now.

I play $100/$200 no-limit Hold’em online, I golf all day, I work on Poker VT – which is a huge virtual training project that I am involved with [and is due for launch some time in Spring 2008] – and just enjoy my life. I have dinner with my buddies, we come back to the house to play pool or video games, get drunk until six in the morning, and do it all over again the next day.

I don’t have to play poker to make money. I have things in place, my bills are paid, and I don’t have a billion dollar goal. Right now I’m into hanging out, enjoying life, and being a kid.

Daniel was chatting with PokerPlayer magazine which you can read on your iPhone just by clicking HERE

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