The Search For The Real Daniel Negreanu

If you’re a poker fan, player, or have just caught a few hands of poker on television in passing, then you know Daniel Negreanu. His name, his face, his voice, and his likeness have graced every form of media.

On the small screen you’ll catch him playing tons of poker, promoting brands in commercials for the likes of PokerStars, Pepsi, and an upcoming spot for Nintendo Wii, and making a cameo in a Katy Perry music video. You’ve probably seen him on the big screen with cameos in Lucky You, The Grand, and the just-released X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The article you’re reading is just one of many print features written on him in magazines around the world, plus he has his own newspaper column and has published three poker strategy books. Finally, you will regularly find him online, where his blog is picked up by a variety of different poker sites and now his Twitter page is quickly becoming the most popular among the poker community. With Negreanu constantly putting himself out there in the public eye, how can we delve deeper to find the real Daniel Negreanu? That’s the mission, and with his schedule so hectic, it was a challenge just to find some time with the Team PokerStars Pro legend, let alone find the ticking secret within.

I thought my best shot would have been in Monte Carlo, during the PokerStars EPT Grand Final, but again, his schedule is too demanding and we decide instead for me to join him for a round of golf when we’re both back in Vegas. “Did you want to play, or just watch?” Negreanu asks, and while I’m inwardly dying to play, I opt to check instead of going all in, the smart play, and tell him I’ll just watch. First off, in order to find the real Negreanu, I’ll need to focus and really bring my A+ “journalist” game, and secondly, I haven’t picked up my clubs in two months and would probably embarrass myself with a score that was closer to an overtime NBA playoff game than something on the links.

A few days after arriving back in the states, I get an email from Negreanu’s long-time assistant Patty who lets me know I’m all set and should meet Negreanu at his house at 1pm. As I drive my way across town to his neck of the woods, I notice one thing in particular about the exit my iPhone has me getting off at; it lists three separate golf courses, something that the golf-crazed Negreanu surely took into consideration when he moved to his current house two years back.

As soon as you walk in, you feel the vibe of his house – it’s definitely a bachelor pad, with a pool table as the center piece, a beautiful poker table with chips and cards ready to go, arcade video games, a chipping and putting green out back, and a massive fl at screen TV with every video game console hooked up below. The walls are covered with framed photographs; I see Bob Marley, Marilyn Monroe, and, in one of the most prominent photos in the house, Negreanu with President Barack Obama. On one of the counters there are a myriad of hats, most of them PokerStars, and a framed letter from Negreanu’s middle school, dated 1984, a present from his mother that reads:

Pineway Public School September 11, 1984

Dear Mrs. Negreanu,

I am writing as a follow up to my telephone conversation with you on Tuesday, September 11, 1984. I want it clearly understood that I will not tolerate Daniel’s poor manners or behavior. In light of your own position to always support and excuse Daniel, I will have no option but to remove him from school should he continue to ignore the school rules.

Sincerely,

J.K. McNaughton, Principal.

The letter surely causes a chuckle from all those that have seen the success he has made of himself, and although Negreanu’s school life never seemed to be a priority – in fact he dropped out before finishing high school – he always saw greatness in himself. “From the age of four, I thought I’d be rich. I told my mom I’d build a house out of Popsicle sticks, and move to California.” And while the results may be slightly off from his initial premonitions of becoming a famous actor, the outcome of being wealthy and living very comfortably on the west coast seem to have given credence to his lax behavior in the classroom and his early visions of the future.

It’s an unusually hot day for May in Vegas, as Negreanu chunks his first three chips of the day on the driving range. We wait for his golf guru Christian, whose primary job is to help Negreanu on the course; he picks the club, ensures a good setup, lines up the putts, and generally takes a lot of the guesswork out of the game. I find it all a tad odd, until David Benyamine shows up geared up for another round after he apparently already played eighteen holes with a golf guru of his own. I guess having a caddy-slash-assistant makes the game slightly less exhausting.

I’m suddenly struck with my first official question for Negreanu: What did the 21-year-old Canadian think the first time he touched down in Vegas? “I remember everything about my first trip to Vegas, it was like I entered a fantasy land.” While Negreanu may not have gotten his high school degree, he was a well-educated gambler, hustling pool and playing poker in backrooms for years leading up to his 21st birthday, when he finally made the trip out West.

“I can still see all the sights, sounds, and smells of the Mirage,” says Negreanu. He played a lot of his early poker in Vegas, grinding it out with a bankroll that would make most money management nits cringe. In fact, Negreanu was living a relative roller coaster, frequently making trips back to Toronto to rebuild his bankroll after losing it all in Vegas. He recalls one day in particular that became a turning point, a session that shaped who he is today, and was maybe one of his happiest days as a gambler: “I was playing $20/$40 over at the Mirage, with a bankroll of maybe 600 or 700 bucks,” he laughs. “I’ve got 82 bucks left and I decide I was not going broke at that table, so I quit and took the 82 bucks over to a $1/$5 Stud game and grinded out 100 bucks. I then took the cash to a $6/$12 Limit Hold’em game and won another 100 bucks there. So I’m now back up to about $286. From there it was 300 bucks won at a $10/$20 Limit Hold’em and then back to the $20/$40 game where I won about $5,000.” That was a lot of money for the young Negreanu at the time, but just a small taste of what he’d soon be gambling at the poker table and elsewhere – like today on the golf course.

Our seven-person entourage rolls up in four golf carts to the first tee. There are five golfers in total: Negreanu, David Benyamine, Christian, Sam, a long time friend of Negreanu’s and a poker player as well, and Zvi, a middle aged Russian and a friend of Negreanu’s who seems to have a good ol’ fashion gamble in him, more so than most. Negreanu, Sam, and Zvi agree to play World Series of Golf style in preparation for the event the following week. David and Negreanu agree on their own separate match after a good bit of negotiating, figuring out the right handicaps and odds, and finally agreeing on a match with half-point adjustments after each hole. I’m completely lost, but this is all second nature to this group. Negreanu tells me, “David has no idea how good he is, and his handicap is much lower than what he actually says it is.” I’m silently relieved that I decided not to play, as Benyamine crushes a drive straight down the fairway and the rest of the group follows suit. I guess it may be time for me to suck it up and hire a golf guy.

Zvi decides to bet 500 of his 10,000 chips in their WSOG prep match and Negreanu quickly folds, letting me know he’ll most likely play small ball early, folding the first three holes. It’s funny seeing this, as his poker strategy tends to gravitate towards small ball as well, a far cry from some of his more aggressive peers like Phil Ivey, Allen Cunningham, and John Juanda, all of whom he met traveling the circuit before poker boomed. “I met Allen at the Commerce. We were the only two kids playing the $80/$160 game, a huge game at the time, and we were both curious how the other had enough money to play in the game. That conversation sparked it and we became good friends.” Negreanu met Juanda at one of the circuit stops when both were vying for the “Best Overall Performance” award of that particular stop, and they frequently bumped into each other while checking out the leader board. “Meeting Ivey was funny though,” Negreanu laughs, while telling me, “I had heard of him through Allen, and I ended up sitting in a game with him in Atlantic City. We played a hand and he gave me that Phil Ivey stare, which was obviously new to me at the time, and pretty intimidating and weird, so I asked him what the heck he was staring at!” Little did Negreanu know he would soon be stared at a lot as one of the most recognizable figures in the game of poker today.

As we head to the second hole, Negreanu is negotiating additional action with David – they’re trying to come up a birdie bet, giving them additional cash for sinking the under-par shot. Although David birdies significantly more than Negreanu, Negreanu is a persistent, and I think they agree on 4.5 to 1 for every birdie Negreanu sinks. Negreanu starts typing on his phone, and I wonder if he is Twittering. One of Negreanu’s biggest assets during his career has been his openness to the world about his life, through his blog and now through Twitter. “There was never a conscious decision to be as open as I am to the media and to the fans with my blog, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, and I really enjoy it. For guys like Ivey, who are more private, that’s his thing, and that’s the right thing to do for him.”

Being so forthcoming in his blogs certainly comes with a price, with rumors on forums and websites popping up frequently, primarily on topics such as Negreanu’s religion, sexuality, and financial situation, all of which Negreanu quickly laughs off. “I think the rumors are funny, actually, it gives me a reason to go into the forums to talk a little trash, which is fun, and gets my juices going. It doesn’t bother me at all”.

On the par 5 third, Negreanu smokes a drive dead center on the fairway, which is followed by three equally good shots by Zvi, Sam, and David. Negreanu bets 500 and is called by both Zvi and Sam before hitting a pretty 3-wood on the fairway again, giving him a superior approach over his opponents. He bets again, getting called in both spots. Negreanu must be in the zone on this hole because he is on the green with his third shot, while Zvi ends up in the sand and Sam in the rough, provoking them both to fold and winning Negreanu the biggest of the match so far.

“I intended on folding a lot early, but when I saw my chance, I had to put some pressure on them. I just got excited how well I hit the ball on that hole,” Negreanu tells me before delving into how excited he is for the World Series of Poker this year. “Before I ever came to Vegas, I had all the old WSOP tapes that I used to watch, and I just thought it was natural that one day I’d win it.” His first shot at WSOP glory came in a super-satellite at Binion’s Horseshoe, which paid thirteen seats. With fifteen players left, Negreanu recounts, “I picked up two aces, and back then I was a real fast player, so not wanting to go broke in that spot, I just shoved it in. I got called in two spots; one player had pocket jacks, and the other A-K. The door card was a jack, and that was the end of the dream for that year.”

Since then Negreanu has won four bracelets and cashed 34 times, amassing over $2 million in WSOP earnings, not bad for a kid who dropped out of high school. Even though he won a bracelet just last year and final tabled the WSOP Europe Main Event, Negreanu feels as if he’s got something to prove again this year. “I feel as if I should win one bracelet every other year, and since I’m a bit off that pace with four in ten years, this year I need to win two – although my goal is to win three bracelets this year,” he says with a devious smile, not letting me know whether he is serious or not. My read: Definitely serious.

Just off the green on the fourth, Negreanu is prepping a chip that’s about thirty yards from the pin and he fails to get under it, flipping the ball about ten to twelve yards and leaving a very long putt for par. Negreanu winces and this leads us to a discussion on the pain threshold. Negreanu has gotten particularly unlucky in the past with big losing sessions, notably on High Stakes Poker. If losing two buy-ins at $2/$5 No Limit makes me sick, I wonder how he handles that type of financial swing. “My threshold for pain is pretty high, and really depends on how much my bankroll is at the time. On High Stakes Poker, especially this past season, it was more an annoyance than anything. It wasn’t the money lost that bothered me, it’s just that every time I walk into that room, it feels like that spooky stuff just happens.”

The next hole is a par 3 and everyone busts out their irons except for Negreanu who opts for a 3-wood. He ends up hitting a rock that propels him right onto the green, a lucky bounce for sure that results in both his opponents folding. At this point, Negreanu contemplates out loud the future of poker and his involvement. “We’re at a crossroads right now with the government, but it’s easy to see that poker is becoming much more international. I’ve spoken to a number of big-name players who all agree that we need some sort of Grand Slam tour, a series of four high buy-in events that will attract the best of the best and give us something real compelling to play for.”

Negreanu seems as if he couldn’t be happier. “The best part of being me is the freedom I’m allowed. I can live and do as I please, and I love it. Sure, it’s not all fun and games – it’s dealing with a busy schedule and meeting all my obligations. But it’s all part of it, and without one, I couldn’t have the other.”

And as for finding the real Negreanu, well, that’s the interesting thing I learned; he was there all along, and always has been. Unlike so many of the players we watch on TV and read about who put together gimmicks or project characters for the cameras, Negreanu is just Negreanu. What you see is what you get, and that’s exactly what has made him the star he is today. As I reach this revelation, Negreanu nails an iron straight down the middle, hops in his cart, and starts typing away on his phone. Knowing Negreanu, he’s probably sharing the excitement of that shot with the world.

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June 2009