This is the fourth and final part of a series documenting Daniel Negreanu’s life.
Daniel Negreanu is outspoken but never without reason. He’s said controversial things, he challenged rule makers and called out anyone who’s done wrong. All of this would’ve never been taking seriously by anyone if he hadn’t had the results to show for it. And Negreanu definitely does.
Today Negreanu speaks at length about his magical 2004, the grind from borrowing money to being a $4,000/$8,000 regular, the start of his own poker website FullContactPoker, missing out on an enormous deal due to the passing of the UIGEA, playing with Chip Reese and his experiences during the 10 seasons of High Stakes Poker he was a part of.
In total Negreanu has $21,2 million in career tournament earnings, $4.4 million of which he accumulated in 2004. The year after Chris Moneymaker took down the WSOP Main Event was the first of many in which the true effect of that result was noticeable. Negreanu solidified his status as one of the greats with four WPT final tables; two victories and five WSOP final tables of which he managed to win one.
All of this however would’ve never been possible if he hadn’t put in the countless hours to get back to the top after going broke back in 2000.
From Borrowing To the Big Game
“After 2000, when I basically had no money, I borrowed some to get back in the game. From that point until 2003 I built up a huge bankroll playing cash games. I started out playing $200/$400 on borrowed money and by the time I was done, I’d become a regular in the $4,000/$8,000 game. Before my huge tournament year in 2004, I was already very established in those big games,” Negreanu said, as it’s easy to assume things went the other way around.
“In the beginning, when I wanted to play higher stakes, I would sell pieces. Sometimes I would even get staked for a big game and that would help me build up my bankroll. After a few very good sessions at $4,000/$8,000, I cut out the people that staked me or bought percentages. From that point on, after leaving them a nice profit, I was completely on my own. In 2000 I had to borrow money to get back into the game, but ever since that moment it was like lightning in a bottle. That’s how serious I was about it. I was playing six days a week, six hour sessions against the guys that just won all the Andy-Beal money, and I felt like a good favorite against most of them. It was one of the best times I’ve had playing poker; going to play mixed games every day,” Negreanu said.
“The cash games were filled with swings though. Eventually I wanted to have a stable life, put money away and not have it on the table all the time. After a session in which I lost $1.3 million playing Pot Limit Omaha, I realized that I couldn’t keep doing this. That was the worst single day loss of my career and it was against Sammy Farha and some others. I had won $600,000 the night before, so the total loss wasn’t that bad, but it did made me decide having a lifestyle like this wouldn’t be doable forever,” Negreanu said.
The players that played for ‘The Corporation’ against Andy Beal included some of the best in the world. According to the famous book ‘The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King’ the group included Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman, Minh Ly, Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Howard Lederer, David Grey, Chip Reese, Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, Lyle Berman and other anonymous professionals.
Back in March 2004 that group, after losing more than $5,000,000 initially, was rumored to have won $16.6 million in two days. Beal vowed to never play poker again but two years later in 2006 he came back, and lost another couple of million. Chip Reese was one of the players involved with ‘The Corporation’ from the start, as he and Ted Forrest played against Beal before the group was even formed to challenge him at highest stakes. The first player Beal faced when the ‘The Corporation’ was formed was Reese, and this could not have been a coincidence. Reese was a charming man, one of the best players that ever played the game and on top of that he would also set up the games. Negreanu fondly remembers playing with Chip, and the type of guy he was.
The Legend Chip Reese
“Chip just won every day he played,” Negreanu stated as if it was a normal thing, “He didn’t play a flashy game at all, he didn’t make any super crazy moves. He was just a very solid player. Every time he was in a hand, when analyzing his play, it always made sense. You’d never go ‘Huh? What was he thinking?’ like I do when I see some of the young kids play today.”
“He [Chip] had a big drive to win, he was extremely competitive, but never really showed it that much. I definitely think he thrived when he was competing. His intelligence and discipline, which was one of his biggest strengths, made him into the player he was. Even during very long sessions at the highest stakes Chip managed to play great; his F-game was pretty damn good.
“Chip Reese was someone I never really managed to figure out. He always seemed to have it. We never called each other, I would always fold when he bet the river and vice versa. I clearly remember one time, in Single Draw, it went bet-call and he had a Number 1 and I had a Number 2. We were like, ‘See, that’s why we don’t call each other,’” Negreanu said with a smile.
“Chip and Doyle always ran the games in Vegas,” Negreanu continued, “Chip was so good at making sure that the right guys for the game loved him. They would call him, he would call them, and they would always make a good game happen. He would also stay in touch with the other pros. When someone would be in town to play on Friday at 7pm Chip would be the one making sure the game would go, that made him a great host of the big games. He made sure the games kept going, he was aware of what was important and that the stakes wouldn’t get too big,” Negreanu said.
In the post-Moneymaker years many new concepts and ideas were talked about and tried out, but none as big as the $50,000 Players Championship. This game was certainly not too big, but more so big enough to draw out the biggest players. Reese was never a tournament player, but for this tournament back in 2006, he showed up.
“I was so excited he [Chip Reese] won the $50k, and so happy for him because it was proof that he was the best in the world. This was an opportunity for pros to thrive because winning the Main Event, at that point, had already become impossible to set as a goal because of the huge fields. Chip’s win was poetic, it was like a storybook. You couldn’t have written it any better. It was the first ever event that touts overall skill and he was the best overall player in the world. The final table was spectacular with Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius and Andy Bloch. Chip winning it was the start of something; it could’ve been the start of something that rivalled the Main Event to a certain extent. It was a new creation of a new type of Main Event,” Negreanu reminisced.
Chip Reese passed away on December 4th 2007.
The Birth of the $50k
“It [The $50k H.O.R.S.E.] was also important for me, because I always wanted to make sure that poker wasn’t becoming a straight up No Limit Hold’em game. It was an all-round win for poker, that event, and then Annie Duke, Jeffrey Pollack and Howard Lederer stepped in and ruined the event. They were too stupid and short sighted to even understand what would happen with losing the television aspect.
Negreanu was one of the creators of this tournament that is now regarded as one of the most important ones of the year. All the best players come together to play an eight-game mix, but it wasn’t meant to be like that as Negreanu explains.
“The Players Championship was an idea I came up with and the way things were handled when it comes to that tournament still hurts me. The concept was very simple, it was going to be a H.O.R.S.E tournament with a No Limit Hold’em final table. I came up with this concept because the poker fans watching ESPN coverage wanted to see some of the same faces, and with a straight up No Limit Hold’em tournament that would be a difficult thing to do. So, by making it H.O.R.S.E. with a No Limit Hold’em final table, fans still got to see a Hold’em final table while only the best players would show up for this event,” Negreanu said.
“After the conception of the event Jeffrey Pollack, Annie Duke and Howard Lederer stepped in. They thought it should be a Mixed Game the whole way through, but that was never the way it was supposed to play out,” Negreanu annoyingly said, “The problem with that was that ESPN only wanted to show the tournament on TV if there would be a No Limit Hold’em final table. Pollack thought it was better to keep it ‘pure’ and have them not film it and I’ve always thought that was a massive mistake. The numbers were going to suffer, and they did, as they lost about 30% of the field in the second year.”
“Ever since, the event has lost some of its prestige because it wasn’t covered on television. A key factor for an event being prestigious is it being televised and that’s never going to happen with a mixed game final table. The purists might not like it, but if you want to make this into a much bigger thing it has to be on TV, and therefor No Limit Hold’em at the final table. I feel like, because of that decision years ago, that event has been destroyed,” Negreanu said.
High Stakes Poker
Another project Negreanu was involved with from the start was High Stakes Poker. This televised cash game changed the way people watched poker, and it quickly became a fan favorite. As much as the fans loved watching bricks of cash flying around the table, the pros might’ve enjoyed it even more.
Daniel Negreanu on High Stakes Poker
“From the moment we heard about the concept and the set up, we were all very excited about it. It was an opportunity at a time in poker where we started to see televised final tables with less and less familiar faces. The benefit of that was new players getting an opportunity, but the problem was that people liked to see the same faces. High Stakes Poker was an opportunity for fans to be a fly on the wall in one of these games with big cash on the table, while the big games we usually played in did not have any cash on the table. The producers wanted that, they said that everyone should have cash on the table because that would be appealing to the viewer.”
“That worked great and the make up of the line ups was always a cross between old school gamblers, poker professionals and rich amateurs. It was also a show that did an amazing job at story telling, as they always teased what would happen in the next episode. Despite there not being a lot of side stuff like during the early WSOP episodes, it was still a very nice story. The good personalities and the natural setting with entertaining poker action made it very appealing to poker fans. It was probably the favorite show of even the most casual fans.”
Back in January 2006, at the time of the first airing of High Stakes Poker, Negreanu was already a famous poker player, but the million dollars he bought in for definitely added to his mystique.
The first ever High Stakes Poker episode
“Whenever I played No Limit Hold’em I wanted to have everyone covered. I felt like, by buying in for a million, I was going to do that and it would free me up to go play fast and loose. I remember in the first session of Season 1 I was up about $80,000 because I was just dropping those bombs,” Negreanu laughed as he referred to his big bricks of cash flying into the pots.
“One of the cool things about the first couple of seasons of High Stakes Poker was that people were really gambling. There was lots of straddling, limping and big betting going on, which was much different than what they were used to in their regular cash games. They were creating action, but the games started getting tougher and tougher. By the fourth season there weren’t as many rich amateur players, but mostly seasoned pros and online whiz kids. Sammy Farha wanted to gamble but there was nobody to gamble with. Because of this he stopped gambling in the game and I did the same thing. You can’t keep firing it in if nobody else is willing to do that. Because of the make up of the game, and how that changed, High Stakes Poker became a different game.”
“Replacing someone like Sammy Farha or Viffer with two of the younger online players made a huge difference in terms of game flow. The last couple of seasons there weren’t really people that thought, ‘I’m getting paid to be on this show so I’m going to gamble it up to make it entertaining to watch’. People cared less about that and more about nitting it up,” Negreanu said as the later seasons of High Stakes Poker were a lot different compared to the earlier ones. If the show would ever come back Negreanu has a line up in mind that would be a lot of fun to watch.
The first season of High Stakes Poker
“Doyle’s always great to have there, Sammy Farha of course, myself, Mike Matusow, Freddy Deeb, Eli Elezra, Phil Ivey and some more of the guys from the first seasons, but I would also include Tom Dwan,” Negreanu said.
Ted Forrest, who was also on the early High Stakes Poker seasons, was one of Negreanu’s big rivals and they even decided to make a fun off the felt prop bet that’s ongoing till today.
“The only real crazy prop bet I made in my life was with Ted Forrest. We were playing $300/$600 and I bet him that I would never weigh 170 pounds in my life. At the time I was about 135. I laid 20 to 1 odds and he tossed me a $1,000 chip, so if I ever get to 170 pounds I would have to give him that $1,000 back plus another $20,000. The next day was when I became a vegetarian and later a vegan. It’s not like the bet made me go vegetarian, because I was already thinking about it because I wanted to be health conscious. Ted’s belief was that the only way I would get up to 170 if I would decide to build muscle. He’s actually got a shot now, because I did put on a lot of muscle and I’m up to 163 lbs. I’m not going to allow the bet to dictate my training, but I also don’t think I’m going to get past 166,” Negreanu said.
2004 Player of the Year
Becoming the 2004 Player of the Year and WSOP Player of the Year was something that nobody could’ve expected, but Negreanu definitely knew that his strategy going in was way ahead of its time. Almost nobody however knew that if it wasn’t for his WPT win in December the POY title would’ve gone to David Pham. Pham was in the lead and Negreanu needed to make the final table in order to become the best player of the year.
“It was the perfect scenario for me; bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Back then they didn’t track cashes for the ‘Player of the Year’ points so I had to make the final table. There were 367 players,” Negreanu recites quickly off the top of his head, “And in order to win POY I had to finish in the Top 9. Not only did I make it to the final table; I did so with the biggest chip lead in World Poker Tour history. That tournament was so important to me that on every break I would find a quiet spot to gather my thoughts and make sure I was focused,” Negreanu said, as he ultimately ended up beating Humberto Brenes and Jennifer Harman at the final table for a 1.7 million dollar score.
“I’m just going to go out and say it, and people talk about who had the best year ever all the time; I can’t imagine someone ever having a year like I had nowadays. I won a $15k, a $10k, a bracelet and another $10k. I won four major events and made five final tables at the WSOP. I was in a groove back then and I created a small ball system that was way before its time. People didn’t know how to react to it and the tournament game became very easy to me.”
“I was playing a strategy where I raised lots of hands and always folded when someone would three-bet, because they always had it. I’d play six-four suited for any price because if it came four-four-ten they would go broke every time with an over pair. I didn’t have to bluff at all, I think I bluffed twice all year!” Negreanu laughed as he explained there was no reason to do that at all.
“In terms of the year that I had, it was revolutionary. People used to laugh at me when I would min raise, or close to it. Those people are not laughing anymore. When you look at what poker looks like 10 years later, everybody’s doing it. Everyone is doing the same type of things I was doing back then. Obviously nowadays people threebet a lot and the game has gotten more aggressive, but in terms of bet sizing and raise sizing they are doing things the way I started doing it in 2003.”
Daniel Negreanu after winning the $2,000 Limit Hold'em in 2004 (Photo courtesy of PokerPages.com)
Talking During a Hand and Flawed Rules
During the WSOP broadcasts Negreanu became famous for calling out player’s cards. He made many good folds, but people still remember him calling out the hand correctly while still putting in the chips. Negreanu explains that it’s not as black and white as it seemed.
“People that see me call someone after correctly calling out their hand while I’m beat and think that it’s terrible, don’t understand poker. If I think the guy has king-nine and pot’s laying me 5 to 1, I have to be 80% sure he has king-nine. Maybe I’m 60% sure, but in the end it would be a pot-odds call. One of the reasons I would call out people’s hands was because they would just freeze up when I pinged their exact cards. It’s psychological warfare and it might not help me that same hand, but in the future they’ll think twice about making a move. For my personal thought process, it’s also good because I like to think things over and on top of that it was good for TV. People loved that sort of thing,” Negreanu said.
The rules with regards to talking at the table has changed however, and we all know Negreanu is not happy about that. Just like wanting to revert the way poker is being shown on TV, he also advocates changing the rules with regards to talking.
“When you have too many things policed in a game that doesn’t need policing, it creates problems for the level of fun. You’re penalizing people for something that has no negative associating with the game what so ever. The original thought, with regards to talking rules, came up during Jamie Gold’s run in 2006 when he was telling people he had ‘top top’. The rules were implemented against collusion, but because of what that one guy did, and him crossing the line a little bit, a rule was put in place that really put a hamper on the fun of the game.”
“There are also other things that I don’t understand. When you’re playing poker in its purest form you should 100% be able to show your cards when you’re facing an all in in a heads-up pot. Why the hell not? Why are we protecting you? You don’t have to look at my cards? You don’t have to do anything, why would that be illegal? I challenge everyone to make one remotely good argument against me showing my cards when I’m faced with an all in. How does that make any sense at all?”
“The problem was that a lot of people that were making the decisions, and I know they were making those with the best interest for the game, were not using these things in their game and therefore they decided to make it illegal. These rule changes hurt a lot of players at the time that did use these things as an advantage, like talking and trying to throw people off their game. Instead of just penalizing Jamie Gold they put a sweeping rule together, with regards to talking, that they don’t even know how to enforce. If I would take five guys that created that rule and I let them take a quiz with five scenarios they will not be aligned on all five of them, I’ll bet $100,000 cash, today, on that,” Negreanu said.
“The good news is, the WSOP listens to the players. I’m not talking just about me, but all the players as a whole. They do what’s best for the game, for instance with the first card of the deck rule. They also made an amendment to the talking rule, and the rule is ‘if you close the action you can say whatever the hell you want to say’. This is fine, because in a three-way pot you shouldn’t be able to talk and I totally support that. With the TDA at this point I don’t think a lot can be done. It’s gotten personal with them and I feel like they are basically set in stone. I like the people, it’s not personal for me, but I think they are making big mistakes in terms of what they are trying to implement.”
“They take criticism personal but at this point I don’t even think it’s about ‘what’s good for poker’ but about being ‘right’. If they would budge on the talking rule, I feel like they would feel that as letting me win, but that’s not how I look at it. I know that they do. I’ve seen e-mails and heard words from them specifically, and I think at this point they are trying to find reasons for even existing. There is really no reason to have the TDA because all the rules for tournaments are in place. All they do is amend rules, that don’t need to be changed,” Negreanu said to once again emphasize his opinion on the TDA.
“I’ve always been the guy sticking my neck out. Some people shy away from controversy and that’s not me. On a website called rec.gambling.poker, way before I actually became someone in the poker industry, I was already voicing my opinions strongly. I remember there was a thread about Limit Hold’em where a hand was discussed where the player was holding two fours, without the four of hearts, on a jack-nine-six flop with two hearts. Sklansky, Malmuth and Steve Badger were arguing that if it goes bet-call-call-call you should take one off with the bettor being the preflop raiser behind you. I was very outspoken against it and I was one of the better Limit Hold’em players in the world at that time, and the idea of calling behind there was just terrible. They said it was right to make the call and it turned into this very heated argument and I wasn’t backing down.”
“From there on out I had some, not so nice, words for Annie Duke, I was vocal about Russ Hamilton way back when he held a fake even in Aruba and I told the truth about it and I wouldn’t go there. I was already becoming someone people knew was going to speak his mind, even if that meant standing alone.”
Daniel Negreanu in the 2006 WPT Championship (Photo courtesy of PokerNews.com)
Besides not compromising on his opinions Negreanu also never compromised with all the money on the line in big tournaments. It’s known that Negreanu doesn’t make deals and that stems from one tournament back in 1997 when he missed out on a mere $5,000.
“I’ve only made one deal in my life and that was in 1997 when I was three-handed in a tournament with TJ Cloutier and John Hennigan. I ended up winning and I felt stupid because I gave up something like $5,000. I’ve never made a deal ever again. At a final table, no matter what the chip stacks were, I would never made a deal again.”
“There was actually an interesting situation surrounding deal making in the very first Tournament of Champions the WSOP organized. It was a one-table sit and go with $1,000,000 for the winner and they made you sign a contract that you were not able to make a deal. I wouldn’t have made a deal anyway, but when we were down to six handed I heard some rumblings from the other players about me not wanting to make a deal. If you lied about it you could get sued for $5,000,000 and when they got three-handed Annie Duke, Howard Lederer and Phil Hellmuth did make a deal. Annie, later on television, said she did not make a deal but she was lying and I told people. That goes back to me not being afraid of controversies, because I wasn’t going to say nothing about that,” Negreanu said.
People like Annie Duke, Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson and Russ Hamilton have been a great disservice to poker over the year, but Negreanu doesn’t think the negative stories will have a long-term effect on the game.
“I don’t think there’s a correlation between the bad things that happen in poker and the fun of the game. For a little while there might’ve been that, but I feel like we’ve passed that point. I don’t think that the fun of the game has anything to do with that sort of thing. I do think that overall, there are a higher percentage of professionals nowadays, which is just something that happens over time. We haven’t had a big new influx of amateur players and part of that reason is that they’re not being drawn in by the broadcasts,” Negreanu said.
The $170,000,000 Deal That Never Happened
Besides playing in some of the biggest cash games in the world, it was the poker boom that really gave Negreanu opportunities he never thought were possible. The big influx of new players created such a big market for online poker that Negreanu decided to set up his own poker website called FullContactPoker in 2004.
“The beginning stages of endorsements in the poker industry were very exciting. Originally there were sites like Paradise and Planet Poker and they sort of stunted in terms of their growth. After that PokerStars and Full Tilt came to the forefront, but in the beginning there were just a lot of sites popping up out of nowhere. I saw this as a great opportunity to invest some money and create something; my own poker site. FullContactPoker created on my dime and my agent Brian [Balsbaugh, Poker Royalty] hired good people. Together we quickly built up the site, as I did all the marketing. For six months I worked very hard on promoting the site all by myself.”
“We didn’t have any sponsored pros or crazy commercials, all we did was ask favors of TV and radio stations to promote the site. The only promotion we really did was the ‘Protege contest’, which was fairly cheap and cost us $50,000. Over time I had built a lot of good relationships with people that I could reach out to for some extra exposure. It reached a point where I would do up to 50 radio interviews in one day all across the United States and Canada.
“After six months we got a very big offer to sell to a big company. The offer was so big we called it ‘game over money’. We were all very excited about it and about a week later this little thing called the UIGEA came into play. ‘What the fuck is this thing?’ was the first thing we thought and then we heard PartyPoker was pulling out of the US, and so was the deal we had on the table. We scrambled and tried some other things but eventually it made more sense to move over to the world’s largest site, PokerStars, because the majority of FCP players were U.S. based. Without those US players we didn’t really have enough critical mass,” Negreanu said.
After a short hesitation Negreanu said the deal they were offered was ‘in the neighborhood of $170,000,000’.
While Negreanu built himself quite a nice poker site, the fact remained that most of his members were based in the United States. The passing of the UIGEA made things a lot more complicated and in June of 2007 Negreanu signed with PokerStars. In a separate deal, FullContactPoker’s players were moved over to PokerStars and the last hand on Negreanu’s network was dealt on June 14, 2007.
“Signing with PokerStars was as simple as this, there were several sites interested in having my services including UltimateBet, Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker. For me it came down to integrity and which site I trusted the most, had the best software and the best vision for the future. It wasn’t about the highest bidder for me; it was about who’s the biggest, who’s the best, and who’s going to be the biggest in the future.”
“I believed in PokerStars from the start, as the company was built by a group of IBM professionals. They weren’t some random poker-playing dudes who wanted to be businessmen. Full Tilt was off the mark; I wasn’t going to sign with them, because I didn’t trust the infrastructure even back then. If I was going to attach my name to something, game security, integrity, and longevity were most important,” Negreanu said.
Negreanu has been the face of PokerStars ever since, and it’s almost unthinkable to ever see him leave the company. His other business venture, PokerVT, has been put on hold for now due to Black Friday, but Negreanu thinks the interest for his poker coaching site will undoubtably increase as online poker returns to the United States.
“PokerVT was thriving before Black Friday and there were big plans to see it grow and make connections with different organizations to put it on the map. When Black Friday hit, the interest for sites like PokerVT diminished, so right now we’re in a holding pattern to see how online poker develops in the US. The content’s still there, but I’m not heavily promoting it at this point. It’s still a valuable site, really user friendly, and it already has a lot of content,” Negreanu said.
“I think the initial gold rush years after the poker boom are over. In terms of the future and what’s possible, I think there’s a lot that can still happen. The philosophy of television broadcasting is one of the main things that has to change, and it’s something that sticks out to me like a sore thumb. Back in 2004, stars were created. They weren’t stars before that, they were created. That can be done again with this current crop of people, and I get that they are younger, and I get that they are not as varied in their personalities, but with good story telling you can turn really boring people like Allen Cunningham to exciting.”
The future of online poker on a federal level in the United States is still very uncertain, even though progress has been made since that disastrous day back in 2011. Having online poker in all 50 states is something that might never happen, but step by step a climate can be created in which poker can flourish once again. Poker is already legal and available for play in Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada.
The game constantly evolves in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and even parts of Africa, and all a new big poker boom needs is for everyone to be able to compete against each other once again.
While new stars are guaranteed to be created over time, Daniel Negreanu will always be one of the best and most recognizable faces in the game.