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Playtime's Over

One of the most recognisable faces on the world poker circuit, Daniel Negreanu is also perhaps the most affable pro you’re ever likely to meet. However, beneath his genial exterior lies a thirst for success and will to win on par with that of any dedicated sportsman. This month, Duncan Wilkie found out why Kid Poker is getting serious in 2010

I hope I’m not making too much of a sweeping assumption when I suggest that for the majority of people who read Gambling, earning over $1.2 million in a year would constitute a pretty decent annual turnover. However, for poker pro Daniel Negreanu, the benchmark for each year is typically set somewhat higher.

“Ha!” laughs the approachable Canadian when I venture that his previous 12 months in poker might reasonably be considered something of a success story. “I would consider 2009 to be another workmanlike year. I didn’t hit anything like the highs of 2004, but I think I’ve proven again that I can be very consistent year-on-year”.

It’s just before 11.00am Las Vegas time and I’m talking to Kid Poker over the land-line of his Nevada-based home. While most poker pros you’d encounter on the circuit wouldn’t surface to face the world for at least another three hours, Negreanu sounds like he’s been up since dawn swilling cups of coffee and jogging on the spot.

Indeed, before I even have the chance to retort to his appraisal of the previous year, the receiver crackles back into life with another energetic burst of conversation from the other side of the Atlantic. “For me, a good year is all about the bracelets,” he explains without me asking. “And at the WSOPE, I came real close to winning one”.

“I thought I played an excellent final table to get heads-up after arriving as the short-stack and I got Barry [Shulman] all-in with aces. He held ace-five and managed to spike a flush and after that I had to do it all over again,” laughs Negreanu without a hint of regret in his voice. “We grinded and grinded and eventually I got it in with a pair of jacks against his pocket aces. When I got lucky by hitting another jack on the turn, I thought to myself ‘Ok, it’s all over now – he can only catch an ace for the win’”.

Suffice to say, that’s exactly what happened next – and with Shulman hitting one of his remaining two outs on the river, Negreanu was left crippled and soon hit the rail in second place for just under half-a-million pounds. While such a chastening experience would leave a lesser-player haunted for some time, Negreanu has been in the game long enough to know to be more pragmatic about his near miss. “I talked to the producers after the show and they told me the way the cards were distributed, even God couldn’t have beaten him that night,” he chuckles to himself.

However, far from driving the four-time bracelet winner back into his shell, Negreanu’s disappointment at the result only served to motivate him further – and true to form, the Canadian’s return to the felt was as swift as it was inevitable. In the weeks that followed, Negreanu was back in the studio recording the sixth series of the popular TV show High Stakes Poker alongside fellow card-playing luminaries Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius and Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan – and it was his ongoing battle with the latter of that formidable trio that proved perhaps the series’ biggest eye-opener.

“I felt I learnt a lot from playing the season that hasn’t aired yet,” explains Negreanu, revealing a level of humility somewhat at odds with his vast reputation in the game. “I got to play a bunch of hands with Tom and that gave me the chance to zone in on what he’s doing and how he does it – to find method in his madness if you will. By the time the show had wrapped, I felt like I’d really picked up on his style and my game has definitely improved since then as a result of the experience”.

It is certainly refreshing to hear that in spite of boasting a career that has already stretched over 13 years and $12.4 million in live tournament cashes – a figure that currently ranks him as the game’s all-time leading money-winner – Negreanu still believes that he can improve his game and learn from those around him. When I put it to him that it is perhaps this constant search for poker perfection that has seen him record such consistent results over the years, Negreanu’s response is emphatic.

“There’s no question that the game is constantly evolving,” he confirms. “There are more good players playing a more sophisticated brand of poker, and the reason I think I continue to do well is that I never rest on my laurels. I’m very aware that these young guys have done their homework and that they understand how to play effectively, so I watch them, learn from them and try to adapt to them as best I can”.

Certainly, having only just returned to his Vegas home after a two-week stint in the Bahamas at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure – a tournament long-established as a proving ground for the game’s latest crop of up-and-coming stars – Negreanu has had plenty of opportunity to learn from the kids of late. However, when I enquire about how the event went for him and what the standard of play that he encountered there was like, I’m a little bit taken aback by his stark assessment of the competition.

“You know what I find?” he ventures without really waiting for an answer. “More than ever I find that the reason people are getting better at tournaments is that they’re playing more like me! To be frank, most of these online tournament players absolutely suck at this type of event because they’re just not used to playing deep-stack poker. It’s only the ones that play the same small-ball system that I employ who get anywhere because it’s unquestionably the most optimal approach to take.”

Unfortunately for Negreanu, his proficiency at tournament poker was once again undermined by a spate of bad luck on Paradise Island as he crashed out of the $10,000 buy-in main event just ten places from making the money – but in spite of his misfortune, the 36-year-old tells me that he was perfectly happy with the way he played and has nothing but good things to say about the tournament as a whole.

“It’s a great event and it’s really starting to run the WSOP close,” opines Negreanu. “There were over 1,500 runners this year and for that you have to credit PokerStars. They really are the world leaders when it comes to creating tours and live events in localised markets and they’ve proved that with the success of the European Poker Tour and Asia Pacific Poker Tour. Central to that is their amazing satellite system, which gets players into these events for next to nothing – and that really is by far the best way to ensure big numbers”.

While it’s clear that Negreanu could happily go on shooting the breeze about his trip to the Caribbean for quite some time, having already eaten into a large chunk of Kid Poker’s morning I feel it’s time move on to his interests away from the felt. Fortunately for me, Negreanu is a sports-betting nut with strong opinions on many different games, and it doesn’t take long to get him chatting away about his most impassioned subject – the decline of his native hockey team, the Maple Leafs.

“Having grown up in Toronto I’ve always been a fan, but the moves they’ve made over the last decade just disgust me so much,” says Negreanu, his normally bright and breezy demeanour slipping for the first time. “I’m not interested in mediocrity in sport and if teams want to succeed, they have to build through the draft system and create a dynasty by adding players over a number of seasons. The Leafs have continually failed to do that and have slowly but surely given away their future.”

“Take Tukka Rask for instance,” he continues with audible frustration. “He was a bright young goaltender and they gave him away to get in some over-the-hill players with the short-term goal of making the play-offs – and they’re now failing to do even that. It’s very frustrating because I get excited by teams committed to a youth movement – sure they suck for a few seasons, but then they add all these high picks and all of a sudden ‘Boom!’ What do you know? They’re the Chicago Blackhawks.”

However, despite Negreanu’s obvious disenchantment with his hometown team, the Canadian remains an avid follower of the National Hockey League and is only too happy to impart his wisdom when I ask him if he has any betting tips for the season. “I think in hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, the key factor you need to be watching is fatigue. When I was betting heavily for four years, if a team was looking tired in the third period and they had a game the next day, I wouldn’t go near them.”

“In terms of who I fancy for the season, I’d have to say San Jose,” muses Negreanu, the old sports-betting gears in his brain almost audibly clicking into life. “I don’t think their lack of play-off success is a mental thing and their squad is very deep. They’re solid in defence and in goal and have a very strong attack, so I think they’ll make the finals again this year – Potentially meeting Pittsburgh and actually winning this time.”

While few would question Negreanu’s almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the NHL, I remind him that a bet he made against Liverpool FC goalkeeper Pepe Reina had justifiably come under closer scrutiny on these shores. Several months ago, rumours that Negreanu was to take on the Reds’ number one in a penalty shoot-out surfaced, causing all manner of debate on the poker forums – namely from Brits expressing their consternation that a Canadian would have any clue about playing ‘soccerball’.

Having put this to Negreanu, he merely laughs off the bet as being little more than drunken bravado. “You know, I’m sorry to disappoint but that was mostly drunk talk between me and Pepe. I found it interesting at the time and there was a lot of talk on the forums as to whether I was favourite or not. I was reading all this ‘what does he know about soccer?’ kind of stuff, but people don’t realise that when I was a lot younger I played left wing for nearly nine years!”

“I never really had a big shot,” he continues, warming to the subject, “but I think given the right amount of shots I’d have a chance. If we were taking just five, I probably wouldn’t back me, but when you up it to ten I think I have a decent chance of at least fluking one. We never really discussed the terms of the wager, but if Pepe is ever in Vegas, I’d still be up for doing it and donating the proceeds to charity”.

With my time with Negreanu beginning to run short and the Canadian’s mind no doubt starting to drift to what he’ll be having for breakfast this morning, I decide now is the time to shift the conversation from goalkeepers to goals and ask him about his aspirations for 2010. Having read his list of targets for the year in a recent blog entry – a selection that includes winning two bracelets and a tour title alongside the customary million dollars that has become a hallmark of the pro’s career – I ask Negreanu if he believes such lofty ambitions are genuinely obtainable this year.

“I think that every goal I’ve set is absolutely obtainable,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. “I outlined eight goals and I said to myself if I can hit five of those, I’ll consider it a successful year. Of course the most difficult one will be securing a multi-bracelet year, but I feel that my numbers for that are down on what they should be. I’ve not finished second in my career very often, but at the World Series I’ve now had four runner-up spots and if luck had been a little bit more on my side, I could easily have been on six or seven bracelets by now, no question about it.”

Clearly, the pursuit of World Series bracelets is a subject very close to Negreanu’s heart, and when I ask him whether surpassing Phil Hellmuth’s record as the leading WSOP bracelet-winner enters his mind when thinking about the legacy he’ll leave behind in poker, he responds like a true champion. “Without a shadow of a doubt – if there’s any sort of list out there, I’m going to want to be number one on it for sure!”

“In my opinion, my toughest opponent in terms of winning the most bracelets will be Phil Ivey. He’s three ahead of me at the moment and if he continues to play he’ll certainly win more because he’s so proficient in all the games – that’s why a multi-bracelet year in 2010 is an absolute must. As for Phil Hellmuth, I honestly think it’s only a matter of time before I surpass him – all of Phil’s bracelets have come in Hold’em and I really think that’s going to be what stunts his numbers in the long run”.

“No-Limit Hold’em is a game where there are so many more great players now and with the fields being so much bigger, it’s so much harder to win these days. I think Phil’s problem is that he can’t accept that a lot of these young players are a lot better than him now and he refuses to adjust his game to compensate. In fact, I honestly believe he’s getting worse. I’ve watched him play on TV recently and I think that his game is deteriorating to the point where he doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore – yet he’ll still tell you he’s the greatest hold’em player in the world! It’s laughable”.

The contrast between the two pros outlook on poker is certainly immeasurable, and while Hellmuth continues to wallow in his own hype as the game evolves around him, Negreanu’s constant quest for self-improvement and the acquisition of new knowledge is sure to see him stand poker’s test of time. As I bid the Canadian goodbye, for the most fleeting of moments I think to wish him good luck for 2010 before realising doing so would be utter folly – come next January, we’ll almost certainly be talking again about another year, another million.


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