Interview with Daniel Negreanu
By Steve Marzolf
Was there a point where you decided that you'd make a run at going pro?
"I started young as a teenager, probably 17 years old, and just played a lot of poker. I didn't have a job that I left. I never made a conscious decision that, 'Okay. I'm gonna go pro.' I woke up one morning - I was probably 22 years old - and I went, 'Well, I guess this is what I do for a living.' For me, it just sort of happened. I was already a pro before I'd even known it."
So, you were doing this since your teens and never had to flip burgers or anything?
"I worked as a telemarketer for one day - didn't like that very much. But, I also worked at Subway for a month, making subs. I could have been a professional sub-maker. I cut the bread real good. It's a shame I picked poker."
You used to play pool, too. How successful were you at that?
"I was ok. I was getting pretty good, but I was never good enough to be great. But, through pool, I got into sports and all different forms of gambling, and that's how I found poker."
So, are you hustler or just a big fan of green felt?
"I think I was a hustler at heart. I'm a very competitive person, and I've always loved games. I loved sports, too, but I knew I wasn't going to make it into the NHL being 5'-9'' and 140 lbs. I had to find other ways to satisfy my competition. Poker was just natural for me."
Did you realize pretty quickly that you had a serious knack for the game?
"No. It took a while. The first couple months, I was losing, and I couldn't figure out why. But, I knew I enjoyed it, so I just played more and more. And, after about two months, I realized, 'You know, I am pretty good at this game.' I look back now, and I was a complete sucker. But, the light bulb was starting to turn on."
Have there been a few moments over the years that you see as turning points in your game?
"A few? Probably 60 or 80. Throughout my career, every six months I look back. Say I was 19, I'd look at my game six months before and say, 'I was such a bad player back then.' I'm 30 now, and I think when I was 28 I played like an idiot. As far as moments? The year 2000, I didn't really focus hard enough, and I just kind of screwed around - just drinking and partying and having a fun year. That year was a wake-up call for me, to realize, 'You know what? If I want to do this and be great at it, I have to take it seriously.'"
Any stories from that year spring to mind?
"This was sort of the one where it dawned on me that I had to take this more seriously. I was playing poker - I think it was my birthday - and we were drinking at the bar. Then after that we went and played some poker, still drinking all night. So, I was playing poker and doing shots and stuff. I guess I had about $80,000 to my name, and I woke up the next morning and just hoped there was something left in my box. I had no idea if I'd lost all my money. So, walking there the next day, my heart was beating and I was nervous, like, 'Just $10,000. Let there be $10,000 in that box at least. So, I walked in, and there was like $18,000. I was like, 'Phew. I only lost $70,000.'"
How many hours a week do you spend at a table now?
"Not very many, at all because I'm doing a lot more poker-related things, not necessarily playing poker. Non-tournaments, I'm playing maybe once a week. But, when I'm in a tournament... I'll probably play for nine days this whole month."
How often does it feel like work when you sit down?
"I don't let it feel like work. If it feels like work to me, I won't play any more. That's why I don't play as much, probably. I play the big events because they excite me. They get my competitive juices flowing. I'll play the big cash games because it does the same. But if I were to just go in and play some regular game, I'd rather play pinochle or crazy eights or scrabble or something because if it doesn't challenge me, it's boring to me."
Poker has changed a lot since you started, do you miss the good old days?
"A little bit. Back then, the World Series of Poker was an event with 200 people maybe, but you knew everybody. It was always going to be pros there, where today the final event just basically becomes a lottery. We're gonna have 5,000 people next year, and every year you're going to see a random guy be considered the World Champion of Poker. That's great for anyone who wins the money, but to call him the best poker player in the world for that year... that's kind of silly."
Do you think the World Series of Poker should increase the buy-in or change its format?
"No. I don't think that there's anything wrong with the fact that there's 5,000 people in it, I just think what should change is the perception of, 'This is the guy who's going to represent the World Champion of Poker.' I think whoever wins the points race or the player of the year is somebody who deserves that. Anybody can win one tournament, really. But, over a series of 30 or 40 events, you're going to look at that list of players who made it to the top, and they're all going to be well-known players. There are no flukes."
You have a reputation as poker's nice guy. Do you play up that image as an ambush tactic?
"It's funny because Phil Hellmuth said that to me. He was saying he has the bad-boy image and I have the nice-guy image. And I said, 'Phil, that's not an image. That's me. I'm just being myself.' I'm enjoying the game, and I know you don't have to be all serious and poker-faced and boring to play this game. I know that I get benefits from being a nice guy: If people like you, they're less likely to try and break you. I can count a million times where people were playing against me, and if I were a guy they didn't like, they would have re-raised me all my money. But, I can joke with them and say, 'Come on, you don't need this pot too much, buddy.' And he'll just throw his hand away and be like, 'Alright.' But I just like to live my life as a nice guy. Why be a jerk?"
Does drawing people closer help you read them?
"Yeah. If I know where a guy's from, his poker background, how long he's been playing, who he voted for - I'll know a lot about how he plays poker. I'll know his mentality. Is he racist is he not? Is he a lawyer? If he's a lawyer you got to be careful. You can just sort of categorize people, the more information you have on people, just like profiling them."
Is that what the game's all about for you?
"Yeah. In a nutshell. You can learn the math. That's easy - just get a book. You can sort of learn the rules of the game and have the discipline to play properly. You can have poker theory down and have robot systems and simulations that work and say 'I can't lose at poker.' But, if you don't know people, you don't know poker. With the top 10 players in the world, it's 95 percent about the ability to read people and the psychological warfare."
How does that carry over to internet poker?
"It doesn't carry over that well, but what you can get from the internet is you can polish up on all your fundamentals. You can get a great understanding of the game and be prepared to play live. But, there's going to be a whole new set of variables when you actually go into the casino and play poker against people who stare back at you."
What's your biggest splurge after a win?
"I just won $1.8 million at the Bellagio in December, and I bought six Xbox games and three DVDs. The rest of the money just sat in a box. But, I did splurge for a big party, and I tipped the dealers and stuff. I had a party in my room, and it cost $20,000."
Do you think you're starting to outgrow your nickname?
"You mean is it time to go to 'Dan the Man?' Well, I look at Kid Rock. He's like 40-something and they still call him Kid Rock. I really feel like age is a state of mind. I still feel like a young kid, and I think even when I'm 60, I'll be able to relate to the young kids."
What advice would you give to the kids who are watching you on TV and playing online, hoping to go pro?
"Well, I would tell them to seriously keep their priorities in order and tell them the honest truth: Even if I knew I would have gotten here doing what I did, if I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen another path. I know that's a sad truth, but this life is not easy. Don't give up your whole youth for poker. I don't live with regrets because I'm happy about who I am, but that would be one glaring thing in my life. I never went to college; I was hanging around with 40-year-old guys. And those are years you can't get back. So, I would say, 'Don't live your whole life for poker. It's just not worth it.'"
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