Daniel Negreanu Interview
Kid Poker is one of the most admired figures in poker, but do big losses mean he’s biting off more than he can chew
Do recent losses show he’s biting off more than he can chew?
The plush new poker room in the Venetian reeks of exclusivity. Its spacious grandeur exudes an air of calm sophistication, and it’s no surprise the separate VIP room has started to attract the biggest players in town from across the street at the Bellagio. So it seems all the more out of place to notice the flurry of activity building up in the far-right enclave as I enter the room one Saturday afternoon.
Half a dozen people are standing around one small man wearing a beige jumper and black jacket – nothing too outrageous there. Even from here, it’s plain to see he’s laughing, joking and playing to the crowd, all the while furiously signing anything thrust in front of him. I manage to catch his eye, at which point he nods, excuses himself from the crowd and makes his way over to me greeting me with a warm, ‘Hey, Buddy.’
It’s obvious why Daniel Negreanu has become one of the most popular poker players of his generation. He’s possesses an easy-going charm and openness that’s full of jokes, smiles and friendly chat, and is instantly endearing. You certainly wouldn’t guess that his world is in chaos.
First up is the legislation in the US that’s seeking to ban online gambling, and second is that for the latter part of this year, Negreanu has endured some of the worst bad beats of his glittering career. He’s been stalked by an unprecedented number of coolers and haunted by some horrific suck-outs, losing more than $1 million along the way.
‘It’s bizarre how it keeps happening,’ he says. ‘I feel like I’m realistically objective about how poker works, but I don’t think people are being cold-decked as often as I am.’ Yet despite his insistence that the cards have just not fallen his way, there’s evidence to suggest there’s a deeper malaise: something is decidedly not right in his world.v It had been going so well in 2006. In January, he won the $10,000 WSOP Circuit Event in Tunica, taking his career tournament winnings over the $7 million mark and, more importantly, obliterating in one fell swoop the idea that he was past his best. He was running even better in cash games, notably the Big Game at the Bellagio where he was up more than $1m for the year. ‘Life is good,’ he said at the time.
So as he sat down for Season Two of High Stakes Poker a month later, there was no good reason for him to think that his winning streak would be curtailed. The enigmatic Canadian would be facing players he had played day-in, day-out in the Big Game for years; players such as Barry Greenstein, Jennifer Harman, Gus Hansen and Doyle Brunson. He was at the top of his game and brimming with confidence.
To bring those of you not familiar with the format of the show up to speed, it’s a televised no-limit cash game where the invited players stake their own money. Players can rebuy as many times as they like, and get up and leave whenever they want. It’s also the closest you’ll ever get to glimpsing the high-rolling action of the Big Game.
For a renowned post-flop specialist and veteran of the Big Game such as Negreanu, this was home turf and more than suited his ability to play any two cards. ‘Your big-money decisions aren’t made before the flop,’ he says, leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head. ‘If you have J ♥-3 ♥, whether you call 600 or don’t call 600, it’s not going to change much either way. But what you do after the flop, when it comes J-10-4 or J-10-3, that’s where the brunt of your money is going to be invested.’ His confidence was aptly demonstrated by his decision to bring a cool $1m along to the show. This was a particularly bold statement of intent given that everyone else had bought in for around the minimum $100,000. ‘I knew I was going to be there for several days and I was willing to invest,’ he says, leaning forward now, his fingers steepled. ‘I thought, “I’ll just put it all up now instead of $100k at a time.” I wanted to make sure I was never all-in, that I could always make a decision on my chips.’
It didn’t take long for things to go wrong, though. On one early hand, Sam Farha sucked out on him with a flush on the river when Negreanu had made trips on the flop, which cost him a $128,800 pot. That was just a harbinger of things to come. Negreanu didn’t know it yet, but he and Gus Hansen – who is also no stranger to massive cashgame swings – were about to be caught up in the biggest pot in the history of High Stakes Poker. And unfortunately for Negreanu, he was on the wrong end of it.
‘That hand was so ridiculously interesting it’s unbelievable,’ Negreanu says with the kind of wide-eyed optimism that seems ill-fitting considering the circumstances. ‘Gus and I were the two players with a lot of money at the table. First, Gus made it $2,100. I made a very bizarre play with two 6s that wouldn’t normally be made. I reraised to $5,000, hoping to represent a hand such as Aces or Kings. Then if I flopped a set of 6s and he hit two pair, I could drop him for everything. He called. The flop came 9-6-5, he checked, I bet, he check-raised me. At that point, he could have had me beat. He could have had a straight – Gus plays a lot of hands – but at the same time, there was no reason to get it all-in yet.
‘I was trying my best to sell an overpair – everyone at the table believed it. The turn card came the 5. Now Gus bet again and I was thinking and thinking, trying to pretend wholeheartedly that I had Aces or Kings. So I called. The river card came an 8, which put a straight there. Gus checked and I bet $65,000 looking to get paid off by a straight or something along those lines. Then he raised me $167,000 more.’
Gus Hansen was now all-in, the pot already more than $400,000 and Negreanu had the dilemma of calling with his sixes full of fives – not much of a dilemma, you’d think. ‘If I lose this pot, it’s a cooler: I can’t feel too bad,’ he said on the show. Hansen flipped over pocket 5s, revealing his monster quads and raking in the pot of $575,700, and even the usually icecool Dane took a few moments to process the enormity of the situation. To his left, an utterly shell-shocked Negreanu was staring into space and shaking his head incredulously. In hindsight, though, he admits it wasn’t really the size of the pot that was painful. It was more the way things played out. ‘I talked to [Gus] after and he basically said, “I did put you on Aces or Kings,”’ says Negreanu ruefully. ‘If he put me on Aces or Kings, what in the world was he doing check-raising me? But he thought – and he was wrong – that I was more likely to bet than I was to call a bet.’
‘I wouldn’t have bet Aces or Kings there had he checked to me. He was totally wrong. So it was really backwards thinking on his part and it ended up working out in his favour, but for the wrong reasons. I lost $160,000 because he made a stupid play in a weird way! It was that more than the money. It’s astonishing to think he could be check-raising me with quads.’
Negreanu could be forgiven for thinking that running into quads with his full house was the end of his bad streak, but to his horror, the cards continued to torture him. ‘You watch the show on television and it looks like it’s over a two-week period, but basically I took about seven beats in an hour and ten minutes.’
One of those beats was dealt by his best friend Erick Lindgren, aka E-Dog. Negreanu made his standard raise to $2,000 with 10♥-9♥ and Lindgren called with pocket 8s. The flop came Q♣-8♥- J ♦, giving Negreanu the nut straight and Lindgren a set. Negreanu bet out $4,000, hoping to lure Lindgren into a trap and he duly obliged. Astonishingly, the turn was an 8. Both players checked, so when E-Dog pushed all-in on the river, an exasperated Negreanu slammed his palms on the table, exclaiming: ‘This is getting so sick! How can I flop the nuts every single time and lose. What in the world is going on? Are you kidding me?’ After several minutes of deliberation, Negreanu couldn’t make the lay-down and made the call, gifting a pot worth almost a quarter of a million dollars to Lindgren.
‘It was much easier to lose that pot to Erick because I like him,’ says Negreanu with a pensive smile. However, even five months on, he’s still kicking himself for making the call: ‘I thought he might be trying to set up a bluff, or that just because I kept betting the river, maybe he would have figured that I was going to lay one down finally. But, yeah, in hindsight, I should definitely have laid down that hand. I was frustrated and flustered. It was such a stretch for him to be bluffing in that spot.’
In monetary terms, the total loss of those two hands was in excess of $800,000. However, he doesn’t seem remotely phased by the financial loss he sustained. ‘We become tainted with the value of the dollar and what it really means to us’, he says with a shrug. ‘I look back at the hands and I think, “Well, what could I have done differently?” Nothing. I was just supposed to lose that money.
‘A lot of young kids that come into the game don’t realise they can go on a nice run, build up a big bankroll and think they’re invincible, and then, all of a sudden, they lose two hands and they think, “What’s going on here?” And then their play falters. For me, I’ve been through it so many times – it’s just the way it’s going to go.’
However, perhaps Negreanu’s current bad run goes beyond standard deviation. It’s difficult, for instance, to name another player who has more on his plate. Negreanu is constantly posting on his website, attending charity events, playing golf, writing articles and producing television shows. Not surprisingly, he realises his extra-curricular activities are starting to have a detrimental effect.
‘There’s no question about it. I mean, if I spent no time on the internet, no time writing and doing other things I enjoy, and spent all my time playing poker, I’d most likely be doing a lot better. Having said that, I don’t necessarily want to play five days a week. Also, I feel like I’ve been put in a place in the poker world. If I don’t do anything for poker, who will? If I’m not one of the ambassadors of the game, who is going to be? I feel a role; I feel a responsibility,’ he explains. Ironically, shortly after saying this, some of his fans approach and he signs some autographs with a grin. It distracts him and he loses his train of thought.
And therein lies the root of the problem: Negreanu is caught between trying to please the poker world and trying to please himself. ‘I want to win every national event and every title you can possibly win – and I want to win it every year,’ he says, before adding. ‘I really genuinely care about poker and its wellbeing. Y’know, like fighting things such as the online gaming bill. When I pass on, I hope people remember me and say, “Daniel Negreanu helped poker get to where it is. He helped it to get to the next level of respectability.”’
Some would accuse Negreanu of caring too much. Take his ill-tempered spat with Greg Raymer and the other six major players over the lawsuit they brought against the WPT. The two posted increasingly hostile messages on poker forums as they argued, and it’s clear it still makes Negreanu’s blood boil.
‘It frustrated me that seven people decided to take it upon themselves to decide they would represent the poker world. I really believe that had they gone about things in the proper way, which was to come to the poker world first and then gone through with it, then fine. The fact that they didn’t shows a disdain and disrespect for other people in the poker world.’ It would seem that if you’re a poker player and you think you’re bigger than the game itself, Negreanu will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Take Phil Hellmuth, for example. The Poker Brat was one of the few top pros to opt out of a new poker venture called the PPL (Professional Poker League), reportedly after his demands weren’t met. Negreanu wasn’t impressed with Hellmuth’s behaviour. ‘It was an arrogant decision to think he was bigger than the poker world. Basically, his bluff was called.’ However, while most would agree that Hellmuth could learn some humility from Negreanu, you could argue that when it comes to prioritising poker, the situation should be reversed. In the six months prior to the World Series, Hellmuth was having one of the driest patches of his career. And it was only when he set aside all his other interests and forgot about solely generating money that he stormed to his tenth bracelet and could easily have won another two.
In stark contrast, Negreanu’s WSOP was a virtual wash-out. He found it ‘draining’ but that’s hardly surprising, given that he spent so much time chastising the organisers, and expended so much effort pushing the HORSE event and voluntarily drawing up a new tournament schedule for next year. His entire winnings for the World Series amounted to just under $150,000, which represents a serious underachievement for such a high calibre player.
And his actions at the $1,000 rebuy event – where he rebought 48 times, but failed to cash – caused some raised eyebrows. ‘I’m a rebuy junkie,’ he says. ‘Some people play craps, some people bet sports, I rebuy. It’s a little maniacal, but it’s also calculated. If there’s rebuys available, I’ll take advantage and gamble until I have a stack that’s going to be good enough to get to the next stage. People are going to think whatever they want, that I wanted attention, that I’m some idiot. I had no plans to rebuy that many times.’
Few people would call Negreranu an idiot, but even he would find it difficult not to admit that he craves attention. One of his biggest fears, he says is ‘throwing a party and nobody showing up. That would be devastating.’ At the table, he’s a figure of constant chatter, playing up to 90% of pots. He constantly updates his blog, not just with poker, but politics, his golf swing, anything that comes to mind. But is he spending too much time on being all things to all men? He shakes his head. ‘I realise I’m an integral part of poker’s future and how well we market it to the world. It goes back to making my mother proud. When I was a teenager, she was like, “What are you doing?” Her friends would be saying, “Oh, I’d hate for my son to be doing what your son does.” I was embarrassed for her. If there’s anything I can do to help my mother feel more comfortable or other mothers feel more comfortable, I’ll do it. I’m not a criminal, I’m not a degenerate. I’m actually a contributing member of society, and by putting poker in the mainstream and giving it a cleaner look, I accomplish that. I feel like I’m equipped for that. I feel like I have the tools necessary to do that. This game has been very good to me – seriously, it’s given me a lot.’
However, poker doesn’t owe him a living. And the question that Daniel Negreanu has to ask himself is does he really want to be the best player in the world or does he want to be the most influential? He exudes the charisma and geniality that his peers can only dream of having, but being the best poker player in the world isn’t a part-time pursuit: it’s a full-time job that requires constant improvement and consistent honing.
He may feel as though he has a duty to give back to the poker world what it’s given him, but doesn’t he also have a duty to himself to fulfil the potential of his god-given poker talents? Let’s hope one of poker’s genuine nice guys can still find time to finish first.