Born and raised in Toronto, Canada to Romanian immigrants, Daniel Negreanu is the biggest star in the game of poker.
When Chris Moneymaker made his run during the 2003 World Series of Poker, Negreanu was already a regular in the $4,000/$8,000 mixed games. The current WSOP Main Event champion, Ryan Riess, was still in third grade when the Canadian turned Las Vegas resident won his first bracelet.
While non-WSOP Main Event victories are easily forgotten, Negreanu has an entire year to look back on, which is a lot more impressive than winning a one-off event. Negreanu still holds the record for most successful year of any tournament poker player when he, in 2004, won $4.4 million in live tournaments including two seven-figure World Poker Tour victories, his third WSOP bracelet, two more WPT final tables and four more at the WSOP.
In 2004, Negreanu won both the WSOP Player of the Year and Cardplayer Player of the Year titles, only to achieve the former again in 2013. Up until a few weeks ago, Negreanu spent 19 weeks in the No. 1 spot on the most respected current-day ranking, the Global Poker Index, as another confirmation of the extraordinary level of his play and the longevity of his career.
In 2014 -- the year Negreanu turns 40 -- he will be eligible for the Poker Hall of Fame and should, without question, be a first-ballot inductee.
Among the many things he has done, Negreanu was the first to sit down in a televised cash game with $1,000,000, he started his own poker client with FullContactPoker; and he’s been with the biggest poker site in the world, PokerStars, since 2007. He’s the most vocal, involved and committed poker professional of the last 20 years, and in the next two weeks he will tell his story.
Negreanu granted iGaming.org a lot of his time to discuss a wide range of topics varying from his family, growing up in Toronto, hustling pool, playing poker in private clubs, getting robbed at gunpoint, going broke in Las Vegas and making his way to the multi-million-dollar star he is today.
Things have been deceivingly quiet surrounding last year’s WSOP Player of the Year and six-time bracelet winner in 2014. Quiet is not a word often associated with Negreanu and even right now it doesn’t fit. At the beginning of the year, he cashed the $25,000 High Roller at he PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and made the final table of both the $100,000 and $250,000 Challenge at the Aussie Millions. For the fourth straight year, Negreanu has over seven-figures in live tournament cashes, his eighth total, and the WSOP hasn’t even started.
“I’m expanding my horizons a little bit this year. Poker is always something I will be doing, but I’m going to play a little bit less. My goal this year, and I played 66 events last year, is to play 52. I’m looking more at making some investments for the first time in my life, as I’ve never really cared about money before. The fact is, though, that I’ve got money burning, that shouldn’t be just sitting there. I’m learning how to invest and how to be safe with that.
“The WSOP is still something I want to work hard at for the rest of my life. Traveling to Europe and Australia for one-off tournaments is something that doesn’t appeal to me very much anymore,” Negreanu said, indicating we will see him a little less away from his hometown in the Nevada desert.
In his usual jolly manner Negreanu added, “I’ve been golfing every day, though. Life is great!”
Growing Up in Toronto
Golfing and working on investments weren’t things Negreanu had on his mind growing up in Toronto. Negreanu has come a long way, but he’ll never forget the road traveled to the point in life where he is now.
“I was raised in a European household. My mother used to ask and tell me things in half Romanian and half English,” Negreanu said as he reenacted his mother’s characteristic accent in a way only he can.
“The household was very old school, as my father was the worker. He was an electrician, and my mom stayed home to take care of the kids, did the laundry and cooked the food. It was a very typical European-style family.”
“It’s not a knock on North America at all, but things are different in a European household. One of the main differences was, that as soon as you walked through the door in my house my mom would ask you if you’re hungry. If you said no, well, she didn’t hear that word very well. She would make food, put it in front of you anyway, and you would always notice that guests would start eating it.”
The Negreanu family: brother Mike, mom Annie, Daniel and his father Constantin
“My father was in charge of the drinks; he would always ask you what you wanted and top you up even if you were good. So the hospitality, being a great host, being friendly and the generous atmosphere, was something that was different compared to when I would visit the families of my friends. When you visit a European household you get the ‘old Jewish mother’ type of vibe where they always try to feed you, kind of like the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ where he says ‘I’m not hungry’ but she makes him food anyway. That’s a very big cultural difference,” Negreanu said, noticeably reminiscing on his youth.
It took very little questions for Negreanu to open up about what his family life was like and he fondly remembers the approach his parents chose when raising their two sons.
“I was brought up in a very liberal family where there was cursing, things like sex were openly talked about and even when we were underage we could have a glass of wine or a beer at dinner. It wasn’t a conservative or uptight place at all, so my friends loved coming over. My house was the central place, even if I wasn’t around. It even happened a few times that I got up on a weekend morning around 11 a.m. and I found my buddy Sheldon having a glass of wine with my dad in the backyard by the pool. I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he was just hanging out with my dad. My parents were very big on family and community, so I was raised with that mentality.”
Negreanu’s six-year-older brother does not play poker, nor does he seek out the limelight.
“My brother and I are about as different as you can make two human beings. In sixth grade, he was already six feet tall and I was the shortest in the entire school. He was the big strong worker type; he can build a house from scratch and doesn’t gamble at all. Me? I can’t build anything! We were just always very different and I was always into the intellectual-type pursuits like playing games. My brother did the following, and he really enjoyed that -- he went to school, went to college, got a job and got married. That’s what you’re supposed to do and he did that very traditional thing versus what I did.”
“My brother and I were so different, we didn’t even have the same interests. He loved cars and I didn’t care for them. He watches things like the channel where they build houses and stuff like that bores me to death. It’s not like we weren’t close, and we are for sure closer now, but we just mainly had very different interests.”
From Romania to Canada
The traditional path his brother took was hard to disagree with for parents looking to see their kids grow up to have a stable life. Things were a little different for Daniel who had no clear idea of what he wanted, but in the end his approach proved to be very successful.
Back when Daniel Negreanu was still a little baby, safely in the arms of his mother
“My dad, when he was four years old, was living on the street. He didn’t have his parents and he hustled to make a living. He carried water up and down a hill for $1 or $2 per day, and by the time he was about eight-years old he was on the black market buying and selling things. He taught himself how to speak 13 languages and at the age of 13 he wore a suit and worked from his own shop. He fixed up radios and was basically a self-taught electrician. He never went to school so he didn’t come from that ilk. So my dad, I think, always had the faith that I would figure it out and that I would be just fine. My mom would say,” as Negreanu went back to his mom’s accent, “Daniel, forget about the poker! You go to school.”
“They knew what they knew, and my dad was a little more like me. My mom was the one who was more scared of [poker]. She wanted me to do the proper thing -- buy a house, and pay it off and those sorts of things. Deep down my dad though knew I was going to be just fine.”
During Negreanu’s life as a professional poker player, his mom would become a common feature during ESPN broadcasts, while his dad has not been mentioned before until now. Negreanu’s much like his father as he recalls his outgoing personality.
“My dad was the life at the party, he was always the jokester and I take a lot from him. I also look a lot like my father, not just with the way we act but also the way we look. He was not the quiet guy at all but he unfortunately passed away in 1996. It was before he had a chance to see my successes in poker. He passed at the very, very beginning of it,” Negreanu said as he slowed down his usual high-paced flow of words.
“I’m very much like him, while my brother takes more from my mom. It’s so long ago since he passed away in 1996, so the memories aren’t that fresh compared to my mom who passed away in 2009. She was in Las Vegas, she was on TV and she was making food for everyone. She resonated much more with everyone,” Negreanu said.
After a brief pause, he continued.
“Had my dad been around, I promise you we would be talking about him right now. If my dad came to Vegas, and he unfortunately never got the chance, he would’ve loved it. He loved to just sit out in the sun and have a glass of wine during the day. He would’ve loved the lifestyle of Las Vegas, the action and everything surrounding it. His English was broken but he would’ve been great in interviews, as he was a very charismatic man. I think that’s where I got it from. My mom was the kind of mom that everyone wishes they had when they didn’t have to good of a relationship with their family. Over the years, my mom took in some of my friends like they were her own family,” Negreanu thankfully added.
The star poker player we know today sets an example for aspiring professionals. His attitude, demeanor at the table and interactions with everyone that wants to talk, shake hands and take pictures is unprecedented. However, it wasn’t always like that as Negreanu was quite the character during his high school years. It reached a point where his mom, just days into the new school year, received the following letter:
“My mom always came to my defense and she even framed a letter the principle sent to our house one time. The letter was dated September 11th 1984, so I was 10-years old, and the school year had only been underway for just a few days. Essentially the principle said, ‘I will not tolerate Daniel’s poor manners and behavior, and in light of your own position to always support and condone what he does I may have no choice but to remove him from school’” Negreanu recalled laughing uncontrollably.
“I’m a mommy’s boy. My mom loved me so much that nothing was ever my fault. If I got into a fight it was always the other kid’s fault. She was always very supportive that way,” Negreanu added, reminiscing past times.
“My brother also helped me out quite a few times when I was young. He was a big tall guy, so when I was in the first grade and some third graders were picking on me, I could call him over. Of course, I was also able to have a big mouth because I could always count on my brother. He picked up a few kids by the collar and banged them against the wall a few times, that was always more than enough for them to leave me alone. That was a nice setup for me to be a big mouth,” Negreanu joked.
High School and Acting
It became clear at an early age that school wasn’t for Negreanu, who quickly found his joys elsewhere. While most kids, back then, now and in the future, only dream of not having to finish school for a career in the spotlights, the brash young man who attended AY Jackson Secondary School in Toronto did everything he could not to attend school.
“The first sort of career choice I thought I was destined for was acting. I wanted to be an actor and I did a lot of extras work when I was a kid. Back in the day NBC came to Toronto to do a talent hunt and they had about 3,000 kids show up. I made it to the final 20 and we had some sort of interview thing on TV where they asked me if I thought I was going to make it, and I confidently said that I was going to be a star.”
“The role was for the lead in ‘The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking’ and I was cast to be Tommy, who was one of the lead roles, but the movie never ended up happening. After that, I kind of got out of acting, but before poker and pool I was sure that I was going to be a successful actor,” Negreanu clearly recalls.
“My parents valued hard work but I’m not quite sure if they valued my mind, intellect, silliness and humor. That’s not something they grew up with, so it wasn’t something they nurtured or helped to flourish. Those things ended up blossoming in spite of my upbringing, I wasn’t pushed in that direction very much. Wanting to be an actor and wanting to be successful was something I pursued because I really wanted it myself.”
Movies didn’t work out, but not too long after figuring that out, he turned his focus to pool. Coming from someone with the drive and enthusiasm to make it as a poker professional, it will come to no surprise that he also succeeded at his second big passion; pool.
Playing Pool and Meeting Evelyn Ng
“By the time I was in high school, I was so much more involved in pool than actually going to school. The school day would start at 9 o'clock; we would show up at 9:30 or 10, and by 11, 11:30 my Israeli buddies would be like, ‘You wanna go shoot some pool?’ So we always left to shoot pool and by the 10th grade, while I still had really good grades in the ninth, I did not put any effort into school and I was just playing pool, gambling and sports betting. From that point on, I didn’t take education seriously anymore, scholastically,” Negreanu said.
“At that time I did not have things figured out, I made some money playing pool but it wasn’t much. Nobody was making a lot of money because the table charge was $7 and we were only playing $5 per game. It also wasn’t really about that as much in the beginning, I just really loved to play. We went from tournament to tournament, I loved the lifestyle and I was living at home so I didn’t have any expenses. I wasn’t worried about the future at all; it wasn’t even something I thought about because I always knew I could go back to school in case I needed to.”
The competitive nature needed to be successful at anything surfaced for Negreanu by wanting to beat his friends at pool. This attitude ultimately became the base for his success as a poker player.
“There was a pool hall around the corner and friends introduced me to it. I always liked playing and I was very competitive. I wanted to get better and better. I’m competitive and I like to win, that’s always been true about me. When I grew up I played soccer, and hockey out in front of the house in the winter. We also played basketball and volleyball, so I was basically involved in pretty much everything. The thing I loved about pool too was the fact that it was a mental game. Pool isn’t a game that’s just about physical talent, because what if you choke when all the money is on the line? I loved that pressure at the age of 13 and I still do. Put my back against the wall and I’ll be at my best,” Negreanu said, as he also referred to the current pressure he’s under while playing in some of the biggest poker tournaments in the world.
It’s known across the poker community that Negreanu grew up with one of the female stars of the game during its peak, Evelyn Ng. Ng played in the first ever WPT Ladies Night in September of 2003, just a few months after Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event, and she became an instant celebrity. Up until that point Ng had played mostly cash games, but her background, just like Daniel, was in the Toronto pool halls. Ng, who dropped out of high school herself at 16, had a knack for all games and the two turned into rivals, friends and a couple during their teenage years.
“My Israeli buddy Oren was trying pick Evelyn up when we were playing at a different pool hall than usual. I remember that clearly, and quickly she figured out that I was a lot cuter than him,” Negreanu laughed, “So she ditched the idea of being with him.”
“She would hate for me to say but I was always better at pool than she was. She was good, and that was one of the problems in our relationship as teenagers, and very competitive so she hated losing. We would play pool, I’d win, we would play monopoly, I’d win and we would play poker and I’d also win. One time during a game of monopoly, when I was about to win, she grabbed the board and just chucked it,” Negreanu said, as he burst out in an even louder laughter.
“The funny thing with her is, we met during a game of pool and dated during high school for a bit, and then I didn’t see her for a while after I broke up with her in a very mean way. I was so mean; I got to tell you this mean story.”
“There was about three feet of snow outside and she walked from the mall to my school and delivered me a McDonalds big mac, fries and a coke, back when I still ate everything. She handed it to me and the first thing I said was, ‘What am I going to do with this? It’s cold.’ I didn’t even think about how nice of a gesture it was that she walked all that way in the cold to bring me lunch, instead I was like, ‘Really? How am I supposed to eat this crap?’”
Evelyn Ng and Daniel Negreanu during the early seasons of the WPT
“That wasn’t one of my best moments, and a while later we met again during a poker game, I had another one of my juicy teenage moments. We were playing $10/$20 limit hold’em in a private game. I was up $2,000, which was a huge win, and she was stuck about $2,000 and getting buried. Then there was a valuable lesson I learned, as we spoke about just playing hard against each other even though we knew each other. I bet the river in a pot and she folded, after which I showed a bluff,” Negreanu laughed in the most evil way possible, “So she left to go to the bathroom and we could all hear her breaking things in there, and when I saw her again later she kicked me in the shins. So that was a valuable lesson in poker, that when you’re dating someone and you bluff them, don’t rub it in their face,” Negreanu said.
Negreanu did not only learn lessons in love from Evelyn, but he also learned some lessons in gambling from playing pool during his teenage years.
A Lesson in Gambling
“Toronto is really a gambling hotbed and not many people realize that. Growing up gambling was everywhere, sports, betting lines, everything. It was a hub for gambling, not only for the guys I went to AY Jackson Secondary School with, but there was a whole group of guys from the Limit Hold’em game I grew up playing with, that have moved to Las Vegas and are playing to this day.”
“There’s one specific story from back then during my high school days, which turned into a learning lesson in gambling for me. I was playing this guy for $2 a game, and to make a long story short, we were playing double or nothing and at the end of the day we were playing for $4,096. I beat him every single game up until that and I said, ‘I don’t think you have $4,000’ so I quit.”
“Of course he didn’t have the money and my Jamaican friend Randall, who’s 6 ft. 4 and 350 pounds, was informed that this guy owed me $4,000. He was obviously much more intimidated by Randall than me, but not like he went there to break his bones or anything, but I managed to get $800 of the money he owed me. Randall got $300 for helping out and that was the first time I used some muscle to get my money,” Negreanu laughed thinking back of his early time making money hustling pool.
When you’re 16, having $800 at your disposal is quite a lot of money, but not as much for Negreanu who took care of his friends and worked on the side to keep him afloat.
“I think I lived the life of a rich man for a week or two, because $800 when you’re 16 is quite a lot. Back then I also had a job as a salad bar manager and I made a couple hundred per week doing that, so I always had some money. I loaned out money, played pool with it and bought beers for my friends and I. That was just something I liked to do, which related to my liberal European style upbringing where the idea that you need to be 21-years of age to drink alcohol but you can get killed in a war in Afghanistan before that is just crazy. We didn’t grow up with that, my parents felt like I could have drinks when I was mature enough for them. So most of the money, back when I was 16 and 17, went to buying beers and having parties.”
As the years went by, school became less and less interesting for Negreanu who started making good money at the poker tables. High school wasn't working out and when even an alternative independent study program failed to get him a degree he focused fully on poker. Dropping out of school, which for most people would be a huge deal, almost seemed like the perfect answer for Negreanu's ambitions.
“It wasn’t a big deal to me. At that point, I was actually making decent money playing limit hold’em, about $44 an hour, so I remember this arrogant little kid inside of my thinking, ‘This teacher is trying to teach me math stuff and I make more money than he does. And I know how to do this math stuff better than him. Hell no, I’m not going to that class anymore.’ So that’s kind of how I got out of school and into gambling full time,” Negreanu said.
In the second part, Negreanu talks about his early days as a poker player grinding limit hold’em in Toronto. Shortly after turning 21, Negreanu tried his luck in Las Vegas, but he quickly learned some important lessons. While he was crushing the games back in Canada, nobody in Las Vegas was intimidated by the young kid.
After two years of going to the WSOP and not having the bankroll to play in any of the events, he played a satellite in 1998 for the $2,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em. He qualified for the event, played his first-ever WSOP tournament and became the youngest bracelet winner ever, a record that would not be broken until 2005.
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.