Daniel Negreanu is worried. He’s not worried about himself, his hairline or his diet. He’s not even worried about a hand he just played. No, Negreanu is worried about poker. According to the world’s most famous poker pro, the game he loves is in trouble. Big trouble.
Kid Poker cut his teeth in a very different poker world, a world of limit hold’em grinding, convivial high-stakes pros and big personalities. It was an environment very much at odds with the online-driven, youth dominated poker scene of 2012. And the game he lives, eats, sleeps and breathes has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years.
It’s a new poker world and one he’s not all that comfortable in. That’s not to say Negreanu hasn’t tried to fit in. Of all of the players from his era, with the possible exception of the 2011 hide-and-seek champion Phil Ivey, Negreanu has moved with the times and embraced the modern game.
Following his sponsorship deal with PokerStars, Negreanu threw himself into the online game with serious fervour. He took on all comers at the high-stakes cash games on PokerStars, and boy was it ugly. When he sat down the waiting lists would run to 20 players long, with the online pros eager to feast on the old-school sucker.
He was getting beaten up and learning lessons for five figures at a time. But he stuck at it, he kept asking questions and he gradually improved. In fact he improved to the extent that at the recent WCOOP series on PokerStars Negreanu was third on the overall leaderboard. Not bad for an online fish.
Keeping up with the kids
‘In 2010 I sucked at online poker and I wanted to get better at it,’ said Negreanu when we spoke to him at the end of 2011. ‘I thought, that’s an area of weakness and I will fix it. I think what surprised friends of mine is things that took them years to learn I got in a week or two, and within a month I was going from playing $100/$200 with a waiting list a mile long to people going, “Okay, he’s got it”.’
It’s a typically immodest response from the diminutive poker legend, but as usual he has the facts to back him up. He’s no longer regarded as a high-stakes fish, and he’s proved himself a force to be reckoned with in online MTTs. Live events meanwhile proved a profitable if frustrating hunting ground for Daniel in 2011. Negreanu has racked up over $1.5 million in winnings, but as he admits this is mostly due to running good in high-roller tournaments.
Nonetheless, with an extra $1.5 million in the bank and the turnaround of his online fortunes you’d expect Negreanu to be at peace with the world as 2011 draws to a close. Right? Wrong. ‘Poker is in trouble,’ the man tells PokerPlayer as we sit down for a chat on one of his frequent visits to London. He loves it here, and was in relaxed and loquacious mood, cracking jokes and being the Negreanu we all know and love, but there was something darker lurking deep down.
Few players understand as fully where poker has come from, where it’s at and where it’s going as Negreanu. Very few have been as deeply involved with poker at every stage, and if he says something’s going wrong then you know what? Maybe it is. So sit back, settle down and listen to the man. What he has to say might just surprise you a little.
How has your life changed since Black Friday?
I went out to Toronto and set up my base there, but since then I’ve been on the road. The centre of the poker universe has shifted to Europe, so that’s where I am. My home is still in Vegas, but I plan on travelling a ton. My base is in Canada now though, so I can play poker anywhere in the world.
Are you paying taxes in Canada?
I don’t know. I think so. I have an accountant who figures that out. I just do what I’m told.
You finished third in this year’s WCOOP leaderboard. That’s pretty impressive for someone dismissed by many as an online fish. How did you improve so quickly?
The problem with online tournaments is I didn’t really take them seriously and I couldn’t read my opponents, so I had to play ABC poker. This WCOOP I started out with tracking software, which helps a ton, and then I heard about a site where you can find out stats on players, from average buy-in to ROI and so on. So I’d put all that information in and colourcode them. Before, I’d look at the screen and see a cat, a hat, a dog, a weirdlooking chick. Now I make much more detailed decisions based on the player.
Did you find it hard to make that adjustment?
No, I really enjoyed it. I’m a stats geek anyway, so being able to see all those types of things is heaven for me. It really helped me a ton. I started using it when I was playing $100/$200 no-limit. I would spend three hours playing and then three hours analysing all the information and data I had on my opponents.
When you started playing a lot online you dived straight into the biggest games around. Why did you not start smaller?
It wasn’t that big. I play bigger than that anyway and losing $100,000 wasn’t that big a deal. I could handle it. A lot of people said I should have started at $5/$10, and if money was an issue then yeah I should have. But I wanted to learn from the best. Generally what you’re going to see at $5/$10 is a bunch of ABC grinders playing a similar style.
Did you think you already had your fundamentals down?
No. Nowhere near. My fundamentals are not very good, and that’s always been a problem. In 2004 you didn’t need good fundamentals because everyone played so poorly. I could cut corners, especially in tournaments. I could raise 6-4 out of position, but today I can’t do that because I am going to get exploited. When you are playing online you have to focus way more on improving your fundamentals.
What helped the most in improving the basics?
Honestly, it was the software. I’d compare my numbers to those of my opponents, and if I didn’t have a really good reason why they were different I would make a change. I was basically mimicking the good players. I would also talk strategy with Lex Veldhuis and Richard Lyndaker and Tom Marchese and Bill Reynolds. They clued me in on a lot of stuff that when they clued me in I would go, ‘Okay, that’s easy’.
Did people want you to get better?
I think they feel they are good enough that even if I do improve my fundamentals they will still beat me. I’m totally cool with that, but there are a lot of fundamental things that I can either figure out for myself or learn from other people who have figured it out already.
Would you have done this if you hadn’t signed with PokerStars?
If I hadn’t signed with PokerStars I would be a much better player today. I would be infinitely better. It sounds really bad, and I really enjoy working for PokerStars, but look at the paths me and Ivey took. We were on a similar level and he just played poker non-stop and I started doing a lot more media work. It’s no coincidence that he became the best player in the world and I fell off the map a little. I still think I am one of the best, but I need to work a lot harder on my game.
But you’ve already got money and fame, why not just take it easy and collect the pay cheques?
I don’t ever want to be the guy who used to be good ten years ago. I love the fact that everyone got better. For me it’s like a videogame, and if you beat level three you hope there is a level four. In 2004 nobody played better than I did. Nobody came close to having tournaments as figured out as I did back then, and now everybody is playing that style of smallball poker today. I used to raise 2.5 times the big blind back then and people would mock me.
Do you think poker tournaments have changed for the better?
I think we’re heading in the wrong direction. The WSOP was much more serious and boring this year. It was much more fun with guys in chicken suits being jerks. That’s what the public wants to see. They don’t want to hear, ‘Well, he’s raising UTG+1 and polarising his range with a 31BB effective stack.’ The diehards love that, but they watch anyway. To bring in average people you need to dumb it down a bit more and make it more fun.
Why do you think poker is not as interesting to the general public any more?
When poker became popular you had people like Devilfish, Sammy Farha, Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey. Today the story is: ‘I dropped out of college and I grinded 20 tables to build my bankroll.’ The story isn’t sexy. People won’t care about them, because they are not interesting. You can count on your hand the number of people who could make mainstream people care about them. We had all these stories that were fresh and interesting, but what are the new stories? If you are a TV producer you are faced with the same story ad nauseum and it’s hard to sell that. I think we’re in trouble.
How do we fix the problem of boredom and waning interest in poker?
Televised poker needs to address it. If you want to create the best show you need to create poker personalities. Audiences like Phil Laak and Antonio? Then okay you invite them. Daniel Cates? Okay you’re a great player, but nobody gives a shit. You may be a better player, but who cares? TV ratings is what drives the industry to some degree and you can pick and choose who appears on there.
Do you think there is no room on TV for the online generation?
I’m not saying young players can’t be on the TV, but they need to realise they have to stand out in some way. A lot of these young kids think if they win three WPTs they will get all these sponsorship deals. Not if you’re boring. Nobody cares about you. If nobody loves you or cares about you why would a site give you money just because you won?
Who would you like to see more of from the younger generation?
I think Luke Schwartz and Sam Trickett are good for poker. I think that just the fact Trickett is a good-looking guy makes him interesting. If you are good looking or you have a cool name or you’re funny or an asshole it’s good. The majority though are just the same person and they are not interesting to regular people.
Surely the game has moved beyond poker ‘characters’ like Mike Matusow though. Are they really good for poker?
Yes, because they are names people remember. It’s stupid and it’s crazy, but it’s memorable. Some people just don’t have anything interesting about them. Tony G is memorable because he’s a jerk. Phil Laak is memorable. And people will say, ‘Oh they are only memorable because they have had so much TV time’. No. Take Justin Bonomo. He was on our show, and he played well but he said nothing and I doubt anyone is going to remember him. A lot of these young guys don’t realise you need to make an impression if you want to get invited back.
In what ways do players behave differently these days?
You would see the old pros make the players feel comfortable. Online there is none of that, it’s cutthroat. They don’t learn the social skills. You don’t instantly sit out when a big fish leaves. At the Bellagio we would start a game with just four of us. Okay it’s maybe not a good spot, but if you don’t open the door you won’t get any customers. Even stalling in tournaments has been frowned upon like crazy, but when they do it online they just say it’s better for my overall ROI. They are being dicks, but it’s more acceptable online. A lot of the old-school etiquette is lost on these young kids who grew up in an antisocial online world.
Do you feel part of the old school or part of the new generation?
I remember watching Mansour Matloubi complaining about young guys raising too much and just being completely outplayed. I never wanted that to be me. I never wanted to be the old guy at the table who doesn’t know what he’s doing any more. When I hear Matusow complaining about all the kids four and five-betting I think, what are you doing? Are you stupid? Just stop. They are playing good poker. You need to learn something.
Is it important to you that you’re liked?
It’s important for me to be honest and real and true, and if people don’t like me, f♣♦♠ them. Sure I’m opinionated, but it doesn’t mean I hate you. A friend to everyone is a friend to no one. There will always be people who don’t like what I have to say, but I genuinely question their intellect.
NEGREANU ON FULL TILT
What do you make of the Full Tilt disaster?
They were running the company like buffoons. Poker players think they can do anything. They can’t. How about you hire someone who knows what they are doing to run your billion-dollar company?
Have you spoken to your friends like Phil Ivey since Full Tilt went under?
I’ve spoken to all of them. They are embarrassed and have disdain for their leaders. They trusted Howard [Lederer]. I didn’t. I don’t trust that family. It’s a family of scoundrels. They don’t do the right thing. They put their faith in the guy and it’s blown up in their face.
What’s your impression of Lederer?
I don’t think he’s evil, but he’s arrogant. He talks to people like they are stupid. I don’t think he set out to defraud people, it’s just negligence, arrogance and incompetence. A lot of it was they were trying to compete with PokerStars in marketing, but PokerStars were much bigger. If they had been happy with what they had they could have been profitable for a very long time.
How much effect will the failure of Full Tilt have on the poker world?
In the short term it’s brought a lot of negativity on the game, but in the long run we will get past it. I think Lederer is finished. I would be surprised if he ever showed up in a poker room again. Him and Russ Hamilton should go and play poker on an island somewhere.
You’ve been fairly quiet on the subject.
I could say I told you so, but it’s just rubbing salt in the wound. I empathise with people who have money stuck there.