Ross Jarvis travels back in time with Daniel Negreanu to compare the poker world of Kid Poker’s youth to the radically different one he rules today…
In a poker world filled with outlandish nicknames like ‘Fossilman’ and ‘El Matador’ it is Daniel Negreanu’s moniker of ‘Kid Poker’ that seems most out of place. It was fitting back in 2004 when the 29-year-old Negreanu exploded into the public consciousness by winning back-to-back WPT titles, his youthful exuberance a magnet for the TV cameras.
In 2013, it’s a very different Daniel that sits before me. He still has the same passion for poker and childlike curiosity he has always had, but now 38, he exhibits an air of authority that never used to exist. ‘I definitely feel a responsibility to treat poker well and act like an ambassador. I’m not afraid to speak out and when I do people should listen. When I say something is bad for poker – like UltimateBet or Epic Poker – I have been right. I’m like Jack Bauer in 24, eventually you have to give this guy the benefit of the doubt!’
Today, Negreanu’s ire is centred squarely on one Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan, who is holding up the filming of a PokerStars vs Full Tilt Poker online grudge match by being four hours late to the Victoria casino in London. Negreanu thinks that because Dwan ‘plays such high stakes and the media is not his passion he neglects it,’ before following with the telling barb. ‘If you’re a sponsored player and you get paid then you better do those things or you are disrespecting your organisation and the game. If you aren’t prepared to do that then don’t wear the patch.’ It’s certainly not the last time Tom Dwan’s name pops up when talking to Negreanu – and his views are well worth the wait.
Up until just recently, Negreanu had been in the news far more for what he had said than what he had done at the poker table. One of the downsides of being such an outspoken, engaging character is that it is easy to forget he is also damn good at poker. In early April he won the WSOP Asia-Pacific main event for $1.1 million, his biggest score since 2004 and first major win since 2008. Then a month later he finished fourth in the EPT Grand Final – ensuring that for the time being he will be in the headlines for the reasons he most wants.
These scores have propelled him to third place on the all-time tournament winnings list and he is just the latest of the poker old guard – after Esfandiari, Hellmuth and Matusow – to have had major results recently. But what does it really mean to Negreanu to win that amount of money now? He’s already got a fat contract as the marquee name on Team PokerStars Pro, has been a winner in high-stakes cash games for years and is one of the most famous pros in the world.
Surely the game was more exciting for Kid Poker when he was just another in a long line of wannabes? ‘I don’t miss being on the road for four months at a time playing small tournaments, but I did love the grind of needing to win. There was something fun and sexy about it’, says Negreanu. ‘A $1,000 buy-in was considered a major tournament. There was only one $10k per year – the WSOP Main Event. I was playing anything from $100-$500 just to make a living. I’d go for a month in January to Foxwoods in LA, then to Atlantic City in February, Vegas in March and back to LA.’ While the vast majority of his apprenticeship was spent in casinos Daniel sees some clear parallels between himself and the online generation. ‘All I did was play poker. What you see now with these kids that play online and never leave the house, for me it was just being in a casino in a poker tournament every single day.’
It was hard work, but live poker suited Negreanu’s skill for table chat and hand reading. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. ‘Oh my God, I feel so lucky I wasn’t an online player! I almost feel as though I am a bridge between the two [live and online].’
Before the Ship It Holla Ballas, durrrr or Prahlad ‘Spirit Rock’ Friedman had even picked up a mouse Negreanu was the original poker phenom. In 1998 he became the youngest WSOP bracelet winner in history, winning the $2k pot-limit hold’em event for $170k. He was gaining respect and a name for himself in the poker community but was still unknown to the masses, for whom poker was still obscure, and WSOP bracelets held little value.
After Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 Main Event win poker exploded into the mainstream. But, contrary to popular belief, Negreanu didn’t play any part in the initial boom. ‘The first part of the poker boom was the first two seasons of the World Poker Tour and I didn’t cash once. I was very frustrated by that.’ It wasn’t the money – ‘I was doing so well in cash games as high as $2k/$4k mixed games that I had already made millions from poker’ – but that Negreanu thought he’d missed out on a golden opportunity to get in at the ground level as one of the original poker stars (if you excuse the pun). ‘I felt that I could do a lot for poker and be a good ambassador for the game. People in the poker world already knew who I was because I had had some success but I wasn’t getting much exposure yet. Then in 2004 it was a bit of a whirlwind.’
Ahh, 2004. Even in the context of today’s poker scene Negreanu’s year was special with back-to-back WPT wins, another WSOP bracelet and a number of final tables all adding up to a staggering $4.5m in cashes. Although, Negreanu says the success wasn’t entirely unexpected, ‘I just felt like I was getting it right in terms of how I was approaching events. I stopped drinking caffeine, was getting good sleep and also, at the time, I knew stuff about tournament poker that nobody else did.’
Negreanu is, of course, referring to his fabled strategy of ‘small-ball’ poker, a playing style that involved ‘raising smaller than everyone else, and not bluffing very much because I was playing a lot of hands that play well postflop and avoiding coinflips like the plague.’ It may sound simplistic in 2013 but this was truly revolutionary at the time and many aspects – such as min-raising preflop and defending three-bets in position with suited hands – are key facets of the modern game.
Online poker was undoubtedly good for the game’s development but it stunted Negreanu’s huge edge in tournaments. ‘I probably would have stayed a good way ahead of the game if it wasn’t for online poker. In 2008 or 2009 the younger kids adapted small-ball and took it to a new level. Before that there was a good three year period where what I was doing was very simple, but cutting edge at the same time, because nobody else understood it.’
After 2004 his face was everywhere –and he’s never left since. ‘It came natural to me. When I was very young I wanted to be an actor. Being on camera and doing interviews has always been very easy.’ As Negreanu deadpans for the photographer, donning a suit and looking like a Mafia don, poker couldn’t have lucked out more to have him as a face of the game.
Having brought up the negative impact online poker had on his own success it felt natural to go back and push him further on Tom Dwan, the undoubted leader of the online generation.
‘I don’t think Tom is one of the best [in the world] – I don’t know if he ever was. He got elevated after his appearances on High Stakes Poker because he ran well and played well, but realistically he doesn’t put in the time or practise playing now [to be one of the best in the world].’ Furthermore, Negreanu thinks the other top players ‘all lick their lips when they think about playing Dwan heads-up’.
It’s difficult in online poker to tell who really is the best player and who is just the best at putting themselves in good situations, as Negreanu explains. ‘A lot of the guys like Dwan, Phil Galfond and the Dang brothers didn’t grind their way to the very top – they just had enough money for the perfect storm when [Cirque Du Soleil owner] Guy Laliberté lost $17m and they all got a piece of that. Any grinders who were able to play in those games would have won that money.’
Best of the best
So if Dwan isn’t in the conversation then who are the best players around today? ‘The only people that can know the answer to those questions are the players that have played the others. Based on my experience, I think Ben ‘Sauce123’ Sulsky is incredible and Viktor Blom is very tough too. And then there’s Ivey.’ It’s interesting Negreanu never mentions himself in the same breath as all of these players. He may be accused of having a big ego in some respects but you could never level that charge at him when it comes to his poker abilities. ‘It’s not surprising my name isn’t associated with that. They put in the highest volume playing the biggest stakes, and I do other things to promote the game.’
There was a time when it was Negreanu who was the young buck with million dollar swings on a regular basis. Results like his WSOP APAC win prove he still has the ability to compete at the top level, so I wondered if he harboured any desire to get back playing in the highest stakes cash games. ‘There was a time in my life when I was willing to play stakes like that, but my goal was to work really hard in my twenties so that when I was in my thirties I just didn’t have to.
Negreanu also doesn’t kid himself that he would have a huge edge against the best heads-up pros. Recounting a series of online battles with Sauce123 a couple of years ago, he admitted, ‘I had no idea what he was doing. He put me in bad spots where I wasn’t sure what to do. I still don’t know if I was outplayed or if he had it all the time.’
Negreanu holds Blom in the same high esteem, even comparing him to Phil Ivey in terms of natural talent. ‘Viktor has a HUD in his head! He’s like a robot that feels things and plays on feel – he’s very similar to Ivey in that regard. They don’t need the maths, they play based on what they are seeing.’
It’s rare for a player from the poker establishment to speak so glowingly of online pros and admit to being outmatched at the table. Another example of Negreanu’s maturity shines through when he baulks at the huge financial risks these guys are putting themselves through. ‘Boys will be boys’, he says, ‘These guys can take $2m, run it up to $10m, blow it all and do it again. I’m sure they will have regrets in the future but when you are young there is nothing anyone can tell you, you have to see it for yourself.’
Negreanu says what he wants when he wants. One of the truly refreshing things about him is that, while his level fame continues to rise, he seems to be consciously ignorant of political correctness. For a journalist it’s a glorious change from the repetitive rent-a-quote merchants that typically permeate the heights of sport. He’s skirted on the edge of trouble – one previous interview with PokerPlayer where he made some particularly derogatory comments towards Annie Duke springs to mind – but Negreanu says it’s all part of the package. ‘When PokerStars signed me they understood they were also going to take my opinionated-ness too. Sure, there have been times when I have crossed the line but my intentions are always in the right place for what is best for the game.’
As he gets older, he seems to be revelling in the role of agony aunt for a number of up-and-coming pros willing to learn. ‘Liv Boeree came to me when she was debating whether or not to sign with PokerStars. I told her that if she did, it would elevate her brand – I see these things.’
He bounces from subject to subject. First, it’s how young players need to treat fish with more respect in Vegas, before he’s on about how guys like Lex Veldhuis and Jason Somerville set excellent examples for anyone looking to play televised poker. There’s an interesting opinion on every subject. If this was a self-publicist like Phil Hellmuth talking it would be easy to suspect there was an ulterior motive at play – but with Negreanu each comment appears to come from a desire to see the game he loves continue to grow. And he’s speaking from experience – after all, he was once a Kid too.
There’s not much left to accomplish in the poker world for Negreanu. He already has an unlimited bankroll, five WSOP bracelets, a great contract as the face of PokerStars and has even made inroads into mainstream media with appearances on shows like Millionaire Matchmaker and a cameo in the blockbuster film X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fittingly, he is already speculating on what his legacy in the game will be. ‘I want to have been on the right side of every poker scandal, always putting player’s best interests ahead of my own and to have always done whatever I could to help elevate the game.’ Negreanu pauses, as if he is ready to stop there. There’s a notable element missing – his accomplishments and goals at the poker table.
Suddenly, his eyes light up. ‘And I want to win the Main Event and be remembered as being competitive with the best players in the world throughout the decades,’ he adds, before leaving the room to be mobbed by adoring fans.
The ambitious, young Kid Poker that the world first fell in love with has changed a lot since we first met him. But one thing is clear – the Kid is still in the picture. And he’s better than ever.
It’s good to talk
One of Daniel Negreanu’s major skills is table talk. Sometimes it works – and sometimes it backfires
Good to Talk
Daniel Negreanu scares the living bejesus out of an amateur player in the WSOP Main Event by reading his hand out loud, and subsequently losing the minimum with his top pair.
WATCH IT! www.tinyurl.com/NegAces
Keep it Shut!
Be careful who you talk to at the table. Negreanu takes the chat one step too far versus Antonio Esfandiari in this classic hand from High Stakes Poker.
WATCH IT! www.tinyurl.com/NegTalk
High Stakes Poker
Daniel Negreanu has been an ever-present on the TV cash game since its first season. But things haven’t always gone his way…
High Stakes Poker was so popular because it was a fly on the wall look at a high-stakes cash game. It was as much a reality show as a poker show. When I look back I think man, was I unlucky! I played really well in the first season, and then I just kept losing big pots in bad situations. It’s unfortunate – I have got a lot of flak from the poker community because my results on the show have been bad. Everyone says, ‘oh, he sucks,’ but they are not looking at the sample size. It might be 800 hands if you include every season. Guys like Isildur go through millions of hands in a few weeks. The show was great, but it’s a negative memory for me because of how unlucky I was. If online poker comes back in a big way in the USA then the show would definitely return.
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