I almost filed this entry under "Celebrity Crush."
I'll admit - my first exposure to the joys of Texas Hold 'Em poker was Celebrity Poker Challenge on Bravo. However, then I started watching the real thing, and right away my favorite player was Daniel Negreanu. Danny! He's so witty and wry and sarcastic; he always seems to be having fun and getting into the other players' heads.
Plus, he's really good. And he blogs.
Last Sunday the New York Times Magazine ran an excellent story about Danny, written by Pat Jordan. I didn't think I could like the guy more, but ... yeah.
(Oh, and in my next life, I want to be named "Jesus Ferguson.")
By PAT JORDAN
Daniel Negreanu is a vegetarian, without much interest in food. ''I ate two days ago'' is the kind of thing he says. His disdain for food is a reaction to his mother, who is obsessed with food. Mommy, as he calls her, likes to serve people food, then sit down and smile at them as they eat. When Negreanu was growing up in Toronto, Mommy sent him to school with his lunch packed in a brown bag. When he went to McDonald's with friends, she gave him a brown-bag lunch. When he got his first job as a telemarketer (''I lasted a day,'' he says), Mommy packed him a brown-bag lunch. When he got his next job at Subway (''I was a good sandwich maker''), Mommy packed him a brown-bag lunch. These days, when Negreanu goes to work at night at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, Mommy packs him a brown-bag lunch.
Daniel Negreanu (pronounced neh-GRAH-noo) is a small, slightly built man of 30. His job in Las Vegas, where he has bought a house for Mommy, is playing poker for eight hours a night or more, for pots as high as a million dollars, with older men named Eskimo Clark, Jesus Ferguson and Texas Dolly Brunson. Negreanu looks small, boyish, defenseless, with his bottle of water and Mommy's brown-bag lunch at his feet. Often during his poker games, Mommy calls from home. If he's winning, she says: ''Good. That's enough. Come here, I made some cabbage rolls.'' If he's losing, she says: ''Today is not your day. Come home, I'll make you some mamaliga.'' If he's breaking even, she says: ''Nothing is happening. Come home, I made some fresh vinete.''
Poker is no longer the sole preserve of unshaved, cigar-smoking older men in cheap motel rooms. It has become a game of the young, most of whom have made their poker bones playing online poker. Negreanu says they learn as much about poker in a year as he did in seven years playing cash games. ''I see Internet kids with a $250,000 bankroll,'' he told me. ''I had to hustle up games to get a bankroll, which is why I consider myself a bridge between the old-timers and the kids. I have a hustler's skills, but I'm up on what's happening now too. Some old-timers don't keep up with the kids and get passed by. They don't respect their intellect.''
Many of these young players, like Negreanu, David Williams, Phil Ivey and John Juanda, have become instant celebrities because of their TV exposure at the World Series of Poker and on the World Poker Tour. ''We're the new rock stars,'' says Negreanu, who had a first-episode cameo in the ESPN poker series ''Tilt.'' Hollywood stars like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and James Woods treat such players as if they are the real celebrities. ''Poker is hot because it's everyone's sport,'' Negreanu says. ''Most guys can't play football or hockey. They're fat and out of shape, but they can play poker at home. Poker is the purest form of reality TV. Nothing's scripted. There's drama. Real people with real money on the line.''
This week, someone will win a grand prize of more than $5 million in No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, the main event at the World Series of Poker, which begins on June 2 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It's a prize Daniel Negreanu has never won, even if he is already one of the best poker players ever. ''He's on an amazing roll,'' Brunson says. ''The only thing that can bring him down is if he forgets who he is.''
Since Negreanu moved to Las Vegas in 2000, he has won more tournaments, 30-plus, and more tournament money, about $6 million, than any other player. He has also won millions of dollars in private cash games at the Bellagio. ''If I had to play $100 games, I'd shoot myself,'' he says. ''I like million-dollar cash games.'' Cash games are dangerous. A player gambles with his own money. Often Negreanu brings hundreds of thousands of dollars to those games. If he loses, he has to go deeper into his own pocket. He once lost $156,000 on a single pot in a cash game.
Tournaments are less dangerous. Each player puts up an entry fee of, say, $10,000; that is the most he can lose. But if he survives late into a tournament he can win hundreds of thousands, even millions, on his $10,000 investment. Last year at the W.S.O.P., an attorney from Connecticut, Greg (Fossilman) Raymer, won $5 million, and David Williams, a 23-year-old college student, finished second, winning $3.5 million. Negreanu himself won $1.8 million at a Bellagio tournament last year and another $1.1 million at a tournament in Atlantic City. When Negreanu first started playing tournaments in the late 90's, a sponsor occasionally covered his entry fee, and he had to split his winnings 50-50 with the backer. But since 2000, Negreanu has used his own money for cash games and tournaments.
Negreanu claims not to have much interest in money, except as a means of keeping score. After he won that $1.8 million at the Bellagio, he bought six videos and put the rest of the money in poker chips in a lockbox at the casino as if it were a bus-station locker. The chips are still there. The $1.1 million Negreanu won in Atlantic City was converted into $300,000 in cash and an $800,000 check. Back home in Las Vegas, he discovered that he left the check in his hotel room; the maid threw it out, and Negreanu had to fly back for another check. ''I don't believe much in banks,'' he says. ''Although I do have one bank account with not much in it, just a couple hundred thousand.'' He also doesn't believe in credit cards, or buying anything he can't afford to pay cash for, which is why he always travels with a wad of $100 bills held together with an elastic band.
Negreanu has two basic rules for playing poker. First, maximize your best hand and minimize a mediocre hand. Too many novices play too many mediocre hands when not bluffing, which increases their chances of losing. Great players only play hands when they have ''the nuts,'' or unbeatable cards; otherwise they fold hand after hand. Second, play hours, not results. Negreanu sets a time limit for his play and sticks to it, whether he's winning or losing. If he goes beyond his time limit, he risks playing ''tired hands'' when he is not sharp. (Before a tournament, Negreanu gives up alcohol and caffeine. ''I do nothing, to numb my brain,'' he says, ''except watch poker film -- just like an N.F.L. team before the Super Bowl.'')
Negreanu says that most great players are geniuses, then lists the kinds of genius they must have: 1) a thorough knowledge of poker; 2) a mathematical understanding of the probabilities of a card being dealt, given the cards visible; 3) a psychological understanding of an opponent; 4) an understanding of an opponent's betting patterns -- that is, how he bets with the nuts and how he bets when bluffing; and 5) the ability to read ''tells,'' or a player's physical reactions to the cards he is dealt. Negreanu is a master at reading tells, although he claims it is an overrated gift, since only mediocre players have obvious tells. The best players, of course, have poker faces.
Negreanu says he can break down opponents' hands into a range of 20 possibilities after two cards are dealt. After the next three cards are dealt, he says, he can narrow the possible hands to five, and after the last two cards are dealt, to two. ''It's not an exact science,'' he admits, ''but I can reduce the possibilities based on the cards showing, his betting pattern, tells, his personality and my pure instinct.''
Shulman, Card Player's co-publisher, connects Negreanu's success to his personality: ''Daniel controls a table by getting everyone to talk and forget they're playing for millions,'' he told me. ''He makes every game seem like a home game -- you know, guys drinking beer and eating chips. They forget what's happening. Plus, Daniel is the best at reading an opponent's hands, as if their cards were transparent. He gets guys to play against him when he has a winning hand and gets them to fold when he has nothing. He's the King of Bluffing. You know some guys can beat bad players and not good players, and some vice versa. Daniel does both.''
Beyond Negreanu's knowledge and considerable intelligence, what makes him truly great is his aggressiveness in a game -- his ruthlessness, some might say. He once bluffed his own girlfriend, also a professional poker player, out of a large pot at a tournament. ''I bet with nothing,'' he says, ''and she folded. To rub it in, I showed her my hand. She was furious. She stormed into the bathroom, and we could hear her kicking the door, screaming, smashing stuff. When she came out she kicked me in the shin and said, 'Take your own cab home.''' She is no longer his girlfriend.
Negreanu began preparing for his poker career when he was a 5-year-old with ''grandiose dreams'' in Toronto. He was a change-of-life baby (his mother had nine previous miscarriages) raised in an Old World Romanian household. Before they moved to Toronto in 1967, his mother, Annie, and his father, Constantin, were so poor in their native country that, according to their son, they seldom had enough to eat. As a boy, Negreanu says: ''I was big on numbers and reading people. Mommy would take me to a mall, and I'd see a couple, the woman rolling her eyes, and I knew she was sick of him but he loved her.'' As a young teenager, Negreanu was short, so, he says, he never got the No. 1 girl -- ''Only maybe No. 3'' -- but he was personable and adaptable enough to fit in with all the school cliques, the ''blacks, nerds, cool kids.''
By 16, Negreanu was skipping school to play pool. He showed up only for tests, usually ''acing them,'' he says, especially his math tests. ''My math teacher was a moron,'' he told me. ''I'd go up to the blackboard and show him a better way to do it.'' It was at the pool hall that Negreanu learned poker, becoming a regular at the house games there. He then taught his classmates to play and ran a daily game in the cafeteria. One day a kid wrote him a $300 check to cover his losses, and the next day Negreanu was in the principal's office. ''The principal told me the kid stole the money from his mother. I said, 'What's that got to do with me?' He expelled me. I said: 'Why me? He stole!' ''
By the time he was 17, Negreanu was playing for as much as $1,500 a night: ''I played noon to 8 p.m. every day and won $45 an hour.'' At 21, he made enough money to finance a trip to Las Vegas. But he lost the money quickly and returned home humbled, beginning a vicious cycle that lasted more than a year. Negreanu would hustle up a bankroll in Toronto, go to Las Vegas and lose it, return to Toronto for another stake and so on. Eventually he had an epiphany: he had to stop being so aggressive. ''I realized I can't always be the bull,'' he says. ''I gotta rein it in and play some defense.''
A few months later in Las Vegas Negreanu had his first big success. At 23, he became the youngest player to win one of the smaller World Series of Poker competitions. Shortly after that, he began to win regularly in Las Vegas in both cash games and tournaments, and soon he had settled there. Negreanu was on a roll that lasted until he was 26, when he fell in love with a woman he refers to as Delilah.
''I got careless,'' he says. ''I thought I had plugged all my leaks at 19.'' Leaks can be alcohol, drugs, gambling, women. In Negreanu's case, he was winning so much money so quickly that he couldn't spend it fast enough. He began to splurge on expensive dinners, order bottles of Champagne, then try to play high-stakes poker. ''I began to lose $30,000 a night,'' he says. And Delilah was distracting him from poker; she never understood that it was his job and not a game. She called him during his games, pleading with him to come home because she was lonely. Negreanu was getting calls from two women while he played poker, his girlfriend and Mommy. Even worse, they were jealous of each other. ''If Mommy made me breakfast, Delilah's feelings would be hurt,'' Negreanu says. ''So she'd make me breakfast. Same with lunch and dinner. Jeez, I was eating two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners every day.'' Shortly after he broke up with Delilah, Negreanu went on a winning streak and formulated another poker rule: ''Avoid the poker table when there's a crisis in your life.''
Today Negreanu has no crises in his life. He is rich, famous in his field and happily in love with a woman named Lori Weber. He says she's easygoing, self-assured and jealous of neither Negreanu's poker nor his mother. (His father died when Negreanu was 22.) ''I laugh at how much his mother adores him,'' Weber says. ''Let her do it. It makes her happy.''
One afternoon in early January, Negreanu and a lifelong friend from Toronto, Jason Morofke, were navigating their way through a crowd of poker players and fans in the lobby of the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas. They were there for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament. The Atlantis is a sunny adult theme park. Rock waterfall pools. An underwater re-creation of Atlantis. A comedy club. A disco. All forms of gambling. The Atlantis is where people who don't know how to entertain themselves go. Negreanu, wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and a jacket with its collar pulled up around his neck, could walk only a few feet before being recognized and asked to pose for photographs. Morofke said, ''He's a celebrity now, but he's still the same guy he was at 17.''
Negreanu plays his celebrity role graciously, which is why Steve Wynn, the Vegas casino impresario, hired him to be the poker ambassador at his new casino, Wynn Las Vegas, which opened in April. But in private, Negreanu is skeptical about poker players being viewed as celebrities. ''I hate idolatry,'' he told me. ''They're just nerds trying to be great men.''
Negreanu entered a conference room crowded with men and a few women seated at the 30 or so poker tables. He circulated among them, glad-handing the players; he seemed to know everybody. Whenever he enters such a crowded poker room, he told me, he can look around and see all the players he has lent money to. ''In any given room,'' he said, ''I can see a million dollars of my money out there. Some guys I back in games, some I give personal loans, one guy I put in drug rehab. I guess you could say this is my leak. I was really soft in my 20's. I used to go to L.A. with $30,000, win $20,000 and leave with $20,000.'' He shrugged.
Shulman told me that Negreanu is loved like no other poker player. ''College kids love him because they think he's one of them,'' he said. ''Mothers love him. He does things no pro athlete does. He answers all his e-mails. He has no ego. I haven't seen this in any other sport.''
Texas Dolly Brunson told me: ''I didn't like Daniel at first. He was too brash, loud, always partying. . . . But he turned his train around. Now he's one of my favorite people. You know, poker transcends age. There's just this bond when you put your feet under the table and your hand in the pot.''
Negreanu found his table, No. 14, and sat down beside Morofke. He acknowledged the eight other players around him. Only one was a seasoned pro, Yosh Nakano, from Los Angeles. The others were ordinary-looking young men who would like to become Daniel Negreanu someday. They tried not to stare at him, but every so often they sneaked a glance. Even the dealer couldn't help smiling at Negreanu. Before the game began, a woman stopped by to say hello to Negreanu. She was Evelyn Ng, the former girlfriend Negreanu bluffed out of a pot. I asked if the story was really true.
''Yes, it's true,'' she said, then faked a kick at his shins. She told me the problem with their relationship was that both of them were poker players with big egos. ''I had trouble taking his advice,'' she said. ''He wanted me to play like him, aggressive, but I was more conservative, so we broke up.'' They later tried dating again but decided they were better as friends. ''Daniel's a great friend,'' Ng said.
Over the next four hours, Negreanu played poker. He was nervous at first, but as the games assumed a rhythm of their own, he relaxed. There was not much talk between games, since the players didn't know each other. There were a few grins, however, when Nakano nodded off during a hand. ''He's been playing for four days straight in L.A., without sleep,'' Negreanu whispered to me.
The game continued in silence, players folding hand after hand before the final cards were dealt. It was boring. Poker is no sprint; it's an endurance race. But then Negreanu became hot and won six out of seven pots. He put $10,000 into the eighth pot and smiled at one of his opponents, a beefy man. ''I'm trying to get you all in,'' he said, '''cause I got you beat.'' But the man wouldn't bite. He flicked his cards toward the dealer. Negreanu said, ''I had two aces,'' but he didn't show his cards. He showed his cards a few hands later after he bluffed a player out of a pot with a pair of threes. He hugged his chips and said, ''My bluff of the day, gentlemen.''
A few hands later, Negreanu bet $3,000 -- '''cause I got the best hand.'' He tossed a head fake at Morofke. ''You only got ace-king.'' Morofke folded. By the time the first session was halted for a dinner break at 8 p.m., Negreanu had built his $10,000 entry fee into $42,000. (He would end up with $11,000, finishing 75th.) Negreanu went up to his hotel suite with Morofke to relax for an hour before the second session at 9 p.m. He took off his sneakers and lay down on the sofa.
''The guys at the table weren't very good,'' Negreanu said. Then, glancing at Morofke, who is a landscaper and plays poker only occasionally, he added: ''I don't mean you. You played O.K., but you played too many hands. A good player wants to avoid confrontation unless he has the nuts. A few times I wanted them to think I was bluffing by taking a long time to place a bet, but even then I had the nuts. I'm walking through these guys 'cause they're letting me be aggressive. They're laying down like lambs at the slaughter.'' He grinned. ''My job -- taking money from chumps.''