This is the second of a four-part series about the life of professional poker player Daniel Negreanu.
In the first part, which you can read by clicking this link, Negreanu spoke with much love and fond memories of his childhood in Toronto. Negreanu’s parents, immigrants from Romania, were very liberal and did not hold him back from finding his own way path to success.
Negreanu tried acting and became quite good at the game of pool before ultimately making his way up the ranks in Toronto’s private poker games. The man known as ‘kid poker’ was fascinated by the game and more focused and dedicated than any other player he faced. Quickly he developed himself as one of the best in Toronto, but that was certainly not a guarantee for making it in Las Vegas.
Frank Sinatra once sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” about New York City and for poker players the same thing goes for Las Vegas. Making it in Las Vegas was a challenge; a dream before it ultimately became a reality. Reality set in after Negreanu won a bracelet at the 1998 World Series of Poker, becoming the youngest ever.
In the second part of this interview Negreanu talks about his climb to the top, going broke numerous times, figuring out how to beat the biggest games in the world and becoming best friends with Phil Ivey, Allen Cunningham and John Juanda in the early 2000s.
The Dangers and Joys of Toronto’s Private Games
Nobody is perfect, nobody’s poker strategy is perfect and nobody worked as hard on achieving the aforementioned as Negreanu in the late nineties.
“Part of the way to prove to my parents that I knew what I was doing, and that I was doing okay, was with keeping track of everything. I would track even the smallest details, like a bookkeeper. I was very anal about these sort of things and I took becoming a better player very seriously,” Negreanu said.
“For instance, I knew my average result on a Thursday afternoon compared to a Friday night. This was before spreadsheets existed, so I had a little book in which I wrote down everything, and even my expenses down to the penny. If I spent $8.41 I would write that down in my little book. On top of that, especially when I would play in Vegas during the early years, I would write notes on my session like this: ‘There’s a smoker on my left, it’s driving me nuts’ and then a little later I wrote, ‘Moved to a new seat, less smoke, feeling much better’. After every session I would give myself a grade between A-B-C-D and E and I noticed, especially after that one session when I was sitting next to a smoker, that I was playing really bad because I was tilted. Then I moved away and noticed that I was more relaxed and playing better.”
“I was also always very big on not letting my results dictate my play in terms of the grade I was giving myself. Often I would have a big win and I would give myself a C, or give myself an A while I had a big loss. At a very young age I realized how important it was to be responsible for your results and not be a victim to luck,” Negreanu strongly stated.
“The kids nowadays, that come into the poker world through online, have all these resources. I figured a lot of this stuff out by trail and error. I read some books back then, one by Sklansky for instance, and realized that in order for me to have the bankroll to play the game properly, it would take approximately 350 years to get there following his bankroll advice. So I was not going to listen to Mr. Sklansky,” Negreanu joked.
At that time Negreanu played mostly in private games in Toronto where Limit Hold’em was the game of choice. Those private games were his bread and butter for quite some time, even though they weren’t always the safest and cleanest places to play in.
“There was a private club we used to play at called Check&Raise, it was nice, clean and comfortable. The games were okay and a guy named Moshe was one of the big suckers. At some point Moshe decided to open up his place, which was a complete dump. The ceilings were low, smoke invested and in a bad part of town, especially compared to Check&Raise. But guess what, the games at Check&Raise died because Moshe and his sucker friends were all playing at the other place. I just remember thinking back then, poker players don’t give a crap about all the niceties, all they care about are good games. I think that holds true even today when you talk about what you want to offer players with regards to a venue, or even when you’re talking about an online site. People just want good games above everything else. Yes, of course they want to be treated nicely, but poker players would endure being treated like crap if that meant their hourly rate would increase. That was definitely the case back then as a teenager,” Negreanu said about the games he used to play in.
“I wasn’t too worried about the guys in that club [Moshe’s place], but I have been a part of a robbery twice. That was the biggest fear and danger, getting robbed. People knew that there was lots of money at these locations, so there’s always that risk of getting robbed. One time I was at this place called ‘The Bridge Club’ and some guys came in wearing masks. At ‘The Bridge Club’ I was a regular player, so I played on credit. I didn’t bring any money so I had about $600 in chips on the table, but those had no value to robbers. They came barging in with shotguns and told everyone to get down on the floor. All of us got down on the floor and they yelled, ‘Put all your money and jewelry on the floor,’ but I had neither on me.”
“So this guy Nick, who was sitting next to me, an older good-looking guy who had been playing professionally for many years, took money out of his pocket, and even out of his shoe, and put it in front of him. He noticed that I didn’t have any so he took some of the money from his pile and put it in front of me. This prevented them giving me a hard time, which I thought was such a beautiful gesture. He cared enough for me not to get roughed up by these robbers,” Negreanu said about some of the darker times of being a poker player, but it however did not slow him down one bit.
“To give you an idea of how much this affected me, I went back there two days later to play. It was part of the deal back then, you knew these sorts of things could happen. I’ve been robbed once before in an elevator by some guys, so I know the deal. I guess it was sort of an accepted risk.”
A Tough Lesson in Las Vegas
While some people think Las Vegas is the place of sketchy dark rooms and dim lit poker games, the contrary is true. In Vegas the action takes place in casinos and Negreanu, after having made himself some nice money in Toronto, tried his luck in the desert to make it as a professional. During his first couple of trips however, he found out it was going to take a bit more than the tricks he had picked up in Canada to succeed in Las Vegas.
“Being at the Horseshoe during my first couple of trips gave me chills. It was an awesome experience, as I’d watched it on TV before when Hellmuth won in ’89 or when others like Hamid Dastmalchi took it down. There was so much history and nostalgia there, so walking into a place where all those legends had played, and actually sitting with them was an exhilarating feeling. It was almost a feeling like, ‘I’ve made it!’”
“I didn’t understand bankroll management all that well, but I had a system in Toronto that worked. I was a big fish in a small pond playing $10/$20 Limit Hold’em, which was a good game for me, but in Vegas everything was so different. It was required of me to have a learning curve and I took my lumps. I think what separated me from other people is that I took those lumps and didn’t worry too much about it.”
“Even when I went broke, I woke up the next day ready to kick ass. There was no quit in me and I was determined to learn how to play better after getting beat. When I was getting beat I paid attention to why I was getting beat and I was trying to learn from every situation. Of course there was bad luck, but even at that age I didn’t believe that my losses were just due to being unlucky. It was more the sense of, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
Things were a lot different in the late nineties, and Negreanu had to wait two more years before he finally played his first WSOP event.
“Back then; just to play in a World Series event, was a privilege. In 1996 and 1997 I went to the World Series to play satellites and I didn’t manage to get into an event. It wasn’t cheap like it is now, and if you factor in inflation, a $2,000 event in 1996 was so much bigger than the low level $1,000 events they have now. I liked that you couldn’t just play in an event and that it was a select group who competed for those bracelets. There was also something about the Horseshoe and the history in its walls. It was dungy, dirty but it felt like poker,” Negreanu said.
Becoming The Youngest WSOP Bracelet Winner
Two years after his first trip to Las Vegas, in 1998, he made his dream come true. Big swings were a part of his daily life and if it wasn’t for Todd Brunson, Negreanu might’ve waited another year before he played in a tournament at the Horseshoe. Things however went his way and he went on to become the youngest WSOP bracelet winner in the history of the game, a record he held until the 2005 WSOP.
Daniel Negreanu after winning the 1998 Pot Limit Hold’em event at the WSOP
“The truth is, I have always had a lot of confidence in myself, so I knew I could make it work. If I went dead broke tomorrow, I know that I can do it again. I know that I can put in the work and play 70-hour weeks to get it done. It’s just that I don’t want to. The whole point of working really hard in my early 20s, was so that I don’t have to work as hard now. Luckily enough, I’ve been able to do that,” Negreanu said.
“In 1998 during the World Series of Poker I’d already tasted having money. I won ‘Best All Round Player’ at Foxwoods in December, and I had a $70,000 bankroll, but by the time the WSOP came around, that money was pretty much gone. I had staked some greasy guys from LA, borrowed out some money, got screwed over a couple of times and learned some hard lessons. Add that to playing a bit too high, and at the Series I only had a couple of thousand dollars to my name. So I played in a $200 buy in satellite for the $2,000 Pot Limit Hold’em event. It got down to three handed with myself, Todd Brunson and Mike Matusow. Todd suggested that we’d all save one $500 chip and play for the rest, and we all agreed.”
“Saving that chip was huge for me, and then I got heads up with Todd. I got lucky and beat him and I was about to just keep the money and not play the event because I really needed the money. Todd however told me, “What if I give you my chip and I’ll take a piece of you in the tournament?”. I was so surprised and thought, ‘Wow, Todd Brunson thinks I’m good enough to play in the World Series of Poker and he’s willing to take a piece?’ so I took him up on it and had a big portion of my money at stake in that first event. It was the first WSOP event I’d ever played, because in the two years before that I came out for it but I never ended up having enough money to play in the events.”
“Playing a WSOP event was big back in the day, it was for real men! It’s not like nowadays with all those pansy 1ks. The minimum buy in was $2,000 and most of them were $3,000 or $5,000. If you wanted to play small you’d play satellites, while nowadays there’s even $20 events going on everywhere, so I think it has lost a lot of its luster in terms of having that financial barrier. If you think to the nineties, the smallest buy in was bigger than it is now, which is kind of backwards if you ask me,” Negreanu said.
At his first table during his first ever WSOP event, Negreanu squared off against Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, Dewey Tomko, Johnny Chan, Men The Master and Humberto Brenes. He spoke about whether or not we know them as famous players now, or if they were already a big deal back then.
“If someone sat down at your table and you didn’t know them there was no chance they were any good. It was just impossible, because if they were good, they would’ve been in Vegas playing before that. The biggest change with today is, if you sit down at a table there’s some 20-year old kid I don’t recognize and people tell me that he’s won $4,000,000 online that year. That’s the huge difference, now the unknowns are much stronger while back then those were probably just businessmen who came to enjoy themselves,” Negreanu said about the playing field back then.
“Those guys I played with on my very first table during a WSOP event were definitely the real deal, I was very nervous and thought they could all read me and see through my soul. I remember feeling better after a hand in which it came down jack-eight-nine against Johnny Chan. I had called a raise with six-seven suited in the blinds, and I don’t even know why I remember this, but we both checked. The turn was another nine and I checked, he bet and I check-raised. He folded and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, so he can’t read me like a book’ which was very empowering,” Negreanu said, about playing against the former two-time Main Event champion for the first time.
“There was another hand where I caught Erik Seidel bluffing. He tried to rob me with ace-jack, and it’s crazy how I remember those hands so much more vividly than hands from a week ago. I think it’s because those hands were so much more impactful and emotional for me. The most important thing about that tournament was the feeling that I knew I could play with these guys,” Negreanu said, as the tournament turned out to be much more than just ‘competing with the best’.
Negreanu wasn’t afraid to play, nor was he inexperienced. Before the 1998 WSOP, he had won three tournaments in different casinos across the United States, and now it was time for him to shine in Las Vegas.
“The buy ins were a lot lower of those first events I’d won, and this might be hard to believe for some people, as I played that tournament even though my bankroll was only at $2,000. The event was $170,000 for first, but I never even thought about the money while I was at the final table,” Negreanu said about that Pot Limit Hold’em tournament in 1998.
“I was just happy to be there and I wanted to win. With five or six players left, I made a big play with ace-six off suit where I could’ve gone broke, and I would’ve never have done that if I was scared about the money. That was old school poker though, a real stop and go. Forgive me for how bad this sounds, but a guy raised from middle position and I called in the big blind with ace-six. The flop came down eight-four-four and I just moved all in,” Negreanu laughed, “He showed ace-king and folded.”
Negreanu added joking that he should bring this play back into the current day style of poker, “I’ll do it with aces and they’ll never fold!”
Negreanu ultimately won the event by beating a final table with the likes of Chris Ferguson, Lee Markholt and Dan Heimiller for $169,460.
“That money I won went straight to my bankroll. I didn’t really care for having things at the time. I was just getting into Vegas a little and I used every dollar to play poker with. Don’t worry because I eventually lost all of it. Of course I had to pay Todd, so it wasn’t as much as I thought, but it did allow me to buy into the Main Event. Despite my bankroll being $120,000, there was no chance in hell I was going to miss the Main Event! At that point, even before I won the bracelet, I had played in some $100/$200 Limit Hold’em and $200/$400 Mixed games so this was an opportunity to dive into that big action even more.”
Taking Shots and Going Broke
“From 1997 until 1999 I grinded a lot, I went on trips where I would be in Foxwoods for a month in November, Atlantic City in December, Rio in January and LAPC in February. You’re talking four straight months on the road, with poker tournaments every day. Those series would all have $300 and $500 tournaments and I would play them all.
“The US Poker Championship in Atlantic City was the first tournament I won that was televised. There were really no TV tournaments back then and it was the first time I was on television. I beat Bonetti on a big stage and I was wearing Nike gear at the time and some people on the rail were talking that I might be able to get a deal with them. Some guy, who was biting off more than he could chew, told me he was going to talk to them for me, but that never happened. At the time though I was wearing these Nike tracksuits just like Andre Agassi, and I thought there might be some hook down the road. Even back then, in the late nineties, I had an idea that poker would one day be more popular and mainstream.”
Daniel Negreanu and John Bonetti heads up for the 1999 US Poker Championship
“They called me Danny during that tournament for no reason and I really hated that! I don’t like that name at all! I never said it was okay to do that, but they just decided that I was Danny Negreanu,” Daniel said as he made sounds of disgust.
“The rest of those years I would also continue playing more events and I think after 1999 when I won a good amount of money I think I reached a burnout; I did not have the passion for poker anymore. Also, one of the issues I faced was as follows: When you have nothing, no foundation or faith that holds you together, and you just play poker to win a bunch of money and you end up doing that, then what? A lot of people don’t know what to do next and they self-sabotage. They blow all the money so that they have a purpose again. I’m not going to name names, but I saw this happen first hand with some really great poker players who would build up their bankroll to a million before almost literally giving it away. This so they could go back to the grind, because it was all they knew.”
“At that age I wasn’t scared of going broke. It seemed almost romantic and fun to be broke and start over. I thought it was cool and it was very common back then. Without naming names there were guys I would see play in the $2,000/$4,000 limit games and just a week later, at The Mirage, I would see them in the $15/$30 game. Two weeks later they would move up a little and by the end of the month they would be back in the $1,000/$2,000 game. Those were the stories and people would take stupid big risks and do things like that. I think, as you get older, it becomes more difficult to go through that. Being broke never scared me, being broke just motivated me because I knew I just had to work harder and play,” Negreanu said as even he went through some tough times, but not to that extreme.
“I was so disciplined as a young kid, and let me start by saying that I’ve never done any drugs, not even pot. So I wasn’t bothered by the temptations of Vegas. I told myself not to gamble on anything but poker. I also told myself never to play poker while I was drinking, and except for a few slip-ups, I stuck to that.”
“In 2000 however, after winning a bunch of money in 1999 and not really knowing what to do with it, I would loan out money to lots of people and go out have dinner, drink wine and play poker while I continued to drink wine. That year I would easily lose $20,000 to $30,000 a few nights a week, and by the end of the year my box was completely empty. I was shocked. That was stupid but a good learning lesson, it was something I really needed to have happen for me to realize I wasn’t going to be that guy who constantly went broke. “
After 2000 Negreanu never went broke again.
“Even after that moment I was not afraid to go broke because I always had a lot of faith in my ability. I was an honorable guy, so if I borrowed $5,000 from someone I would spend 10 hours a day playing $30/$60 Limit Hold’em until I had the money to pay him or her back.”
“There was one time, even after I had already played some $200/$400, where I went broke and borrowed $2,300. I made a bet with two people, not for money but just for me to prove I could do it after being a big shot playing $200/$400 that I could play 140 hours in two weeks of $30/$60 Limit Hold’em and win at least $60 an hour. I ended up playing the 140 hours in two weeks, I won $23,000 and I paid back the money I owed. That was also a very powerful learning experience to me, being able to commit to something like that.”
Meeting Phil Ivey, John Juanda and Allen Cunningham
“One of the most valuable ways to learn about poker was talking to people that I trusted, about the hands I played. That’s very similar to what you would see on a forum today, but back when I really started to take off in poker it was myself, Allen Cunningham, John Juanda and this guy named Phil Ivey. We’d play a tournament and all go to dinner together and we would talk about hands. That would all go a little bit like this, Phil would talk about a hand he played, I’d mostly agreed with how he played it, John would ask ‘Well did you lose the hand?’ and if he said ‘yes’ he would say, ‘Well then you played it wrong.’ Before Allen would give us the right answer, because he knew it. He always knew the right answer and in the end we all learned from each other. Even back then, we saw and noticed that we all had very different approaches to the game. Ivey and myself were much more similar than the other two, but it was great to have that sounding board of really strong poker minds to learn from.”
John Juanda and Daniel Negreanu during the 2005 WSOP, photo credit: CardPlayer.com
Out of Negreanu’s early poker friends Ivey is without a doubt the most accomplished player, as he’s still widely regarded as the best in the world. The Ivey that Negreanu met in the early 2000s however is not the same guy we know today.
“I remember meeting John Juanda in LA at the Commerce Casino when I was going up to the board to look at the ‘Best All Round Player’ race, because I was in the hunt for that. There was another player looking at it too, and he kept looking at me and I figured out he was the guy right in front of me on that leader board. That player was John and that’s how I met him. I met Allen during an $80/$160 game, while I was way too young to be playing that game, according to what Allen thought. I looked at Allen and thought, ‘How does this kid get money to play in the game?’ while Allen was thinking the exact same thing about me. We became friends through that. Phil Ivey I met in Atlantic City through Allen. Phil was 22 at the time and Allen told me he was ‘pretty good’,” Negreanu laughed.
“Ivey has changed though. He’s always been friendly, charismatic and really good with people. People are drawn to him and he’s also a lot of fun to party with. What the media sees with him, and I wouldn’t say it’s disdain because that’s not the right word, is a lack of interest in doing that sort of stuff. He doesn’t want to be bothered and he doesn’t know these people and he doesn’t want all of his business out. When he decides to trust people, and hang out with them, he’ll share with them. He doesn’t see a reason to open up his whole life to the entire world because he was a poker hustler. Since then, and he’s also very sensitive and people don’t realize that, when his name gets dragged through the mud he gets annoyed by that, and he becomes resistant about sharing more about himself and what he thinks.”
“At that point there weren’t that many young players in the game, so we were basically the four guys getting out there against all these older gentleman. We were all good guys, friendly and we enjoyed each other’s company. We all liked the history and nostalgia of poker and loved the World Series of Poker and we wanted it not just for the financial reasons but also because we loved to compete,” Negreanu said.
Ivey won his first bracelet in 2000; Cunningham won his in 2001 and Juanda in 2002. All four friends rank in the Top 13 on the all-time money as of today, as Cunningham has $11.5 million in tournament earnings, Juanda has $16 million and both Ivey and Negreanu have $21.2 in total earnings.
In Part 3 Negreanu speaks about the poker boom after Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event, the effect it had on his life and his amazing year of 2004, which still holds up as the best year any poker player ever had in live tournaments.
In the final part Negreanu talks in-depth about his amazing 2004, playing in the big game at the Bellagio, his website FullContactPoker and how he saw a multimillion dollar deal evaporate because of the passing of the UIGEA. On top of this, Negreanu talks about playing with the late Chip Reese and his experiences on the High Stakes Poker set.