Daniel Negreanu’s career highlights in his own words: I didn’t make the move to Las Vegas until I had an epiphany and said, ‘You know what? I can finally beat this game’

Daniel Negreanu tells us about the pinnacle of his illustrious career and his lowest poker moment

Sometimes with great success comes great failure – or at least the fear of keeping that success up. I remember when I started coming out to Vegas in the late 1990s I was really grinding hard in tournaments. I was travelling to Foxwoods and to tournaments all over the US from month to month.

I was doing pretty well and by the end of 1999 I had money. And of course, the goal of the grind was to have money. But the move from Toronto to Vegas was very very difficult for me – I’d gone back and forth several times and would build a bankroll in Toronto – go to Vegas – go broke. The same thing over and over. But they say that’s what builds character. 

I didn’t make the move to Las Vegas until I had an epiphany and said, ‘You know what? I can finally beat this game.’ At this time I was playing $20/$40 limit hold’em. I guess once I made that decision the transition took a good eight months. When I first went to Vegas it was, for the most part, me going it alone. After I had some success I met people like Jennifer Harman and Mike Matusow and became friendly with them.

The year 2000 was kind of a blur for the most part. I just looked at it as a fun year. I didn’t cash in anything important. I didn’t even take it seriously. The only poker I played was after dinner, after a few drinks. And by the end of 2000 it had all begun to add up, I was spending money but not making any money. So the whole year was disappointing – it was a setback.

I had worked so hard to get to a certain point and I’d blown it all in a year. Before that there were always stepping stones for me. Whether it was going from $10/$20 to $20/$40 or whether it was the move from Toronto to Las Vegas.

Taking It Seriously

Moneywise it wasn’t a rock bottom like normal people’s rock bottom because I was already a successful player and I had players that had faith in me. So if I needed to get money I could. But that is a blessing and a curse – depending on your discipline level. If you’re a loosey-goosey guy and can get credit and you don’t think it’s that big a deal then you can find yourself digging a big hole.

And for some people the stress involved with that can be tremendous and they won’t get themselves out. I felt comfortable because I knew that if I owed people money or was playing with someone else’s money I was really going to take it seriously. With other people’s money there’s an extra level of responsibility.

And after 2000 it really was simply the case of making the decision to say, ‘I should be more successful than I am and the reason I’m not is that I’m not taking it seriously enough.’ I made the decision to say, ‘I’ve got to destroy these games.’ I knew I was better than the games – I’m talking mostly cash games as tournaments were an aside at the time.

I was playing anywhere from $1,000/$2,000 limit and the tournaments were $300 buy in, $500 buy in – so those were just fun – they weren’t big bankroll builders. In 2000 I wasn’t really playing, I was drinking. Drinking and playing is not playing – it’s donating.

Making A Change

But once I decided to take it seriously in 2001 I built up a bankroll – I started out in the $200/$400 games, $3/$6, $4/$8, $8/$16, $1k/$2k all the way up to $4,000. It was a grind and it basically came down to not drinking and playing and taking your job seriously. I was playing mixed games with basically the best in Vegas and I was winning.

It’s impossible for people to say that you completely separate your emotions from poker and real life. If you’re destroying yourself at the poker table and you’re not doing the best that you can at your job it’s going to have an effect on everything. And that’s why it was so important for me to really put everything together, in terms of my social life and everything I was doing and the decisions I was making for poker as a career.

I think it was just an early case of burn out. I was in my twenties. I had worked so hard up to 1999, travelling to every tournament, that in 2000 I just said ‘I’m taking the year off.’ But I forgot that in order to maintain the bankroll – especially in those days – you have to play and have to take it seriously. I didn’t do that.

The change in 2001 was really about me wanting to be a better man and realising, ‘why should I be a screw up?’ I shouldn’t be a screw up because I am capable of having the discipline to do the right things. My poker game was definitely a winning game in the games I was playing – that was never a question in my mind.

The Best Of Times

I got quite an interesting introduction to the WSOP, when I started playing at it in 1998. I won a bracelet. I knew players that had played at the WSOP for ten or fifteen years and didn’t have a bracelet and I already had one on the board. So I thought it was going to be easy. Then 1999 goes by: no bracelet, 2000: nothing, 2001: nothing and it was starting to be a bit of a monkey on my back. I was wondering ‘am I ever going to win another one?’ 

So in 2003, I was extremely proud of winning the $2,000 S.H.O.E. event, which was essentially H.O.R.S.E. without the razz. I ended up winning that after quite a long bracelet hiatus from 1998 to 2003. It was a hugely important bracelet for me because it was such a relief and helped me rebuild confidence that might have been a little bit shattered.

I remember defeating Jim Pechac heads-up. One of the interesting things about mixed games is that you try to decipher the guy’s weak game and his strong game. And what I do in the tournaments is if I feel that he has a strong game I’m going to be really careful and play a low variance type of game.

My biggest fear was the hold’em, which despite being one of my best, is a high fluctuation game. Anyway, I killed him in the hold’em and it worked out exactly backwards. And I really cruised to victory once we got heads-up.

Different Class

I had won many tournaments between 1998 and 2003 so it wasn’t a question of knowing whether I could do it – it just hadn’t happened on the biggest stage, which is the WSOP. I really wanted to have five or six bracelets by that time, so I felt that I was way behind. I’d see my friends winning and I’m thinking, ‘I should be winning.’ So getting bracelet number two put me in a different class – a lot of people have one bracelet but having two is like, ‘Okay he’s a multi-bracelet winner.’

Experience is such an underrated thing and just getting that win under my belt after so many years gave me a lot of confidence. And I knew that next time I was in that same kind of situation I could pull it off. That win in 2003 really set the stage for an amazing 2004 where I put together an incredible year, winning the World Series Poker Player of the Year, WPT Player of the Year, and CardPlayer of the Year.

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