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Interview with Poker Superstar- Daniel Negreanu

When Daniel Negreanu’s parents came to Toronto from Romania, they brought dreams for their unborn child. Little did they know, they were providing the free reign for their son to become one of the best poker players in the world.

This high school dropout was born on July 26, 1974 in Toronto, Canada. Once he turned 21 he moved to the mecca of gambling, Las Vegas, where he lives now.

Negreanu won the U.S. Poker title in 1999 and a list of other titles since he turned pro in 1997.  At the age of 23, he won the first World Series of Poker event that he had ever entered, Pot Limit Hold `em. Between 1997 and 1999, his 12 major tournament victories were more than any other player.

In the 2004 World Series of Poker, Negreanu won one bracelet and placed in money positions in five other events, claiming ESPN’s Toyota Player of the Year award.

At only 29 years old, Negreanu has six World Series of Poker bracelets, and is the all-time leading money winner on the World Poker Tour Circuit. Negreanu took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me in an interview in mid May, 2005.
Cameron Parkinson (CP): How did you start playing poker?

Daniel Negreanu (DN): Well, I started as a teenager. I was a pool player, I liked sports, and all the other games. Some of the guys invited me to a poker game in their basement and that basically planted the seed and I thought wow this game is kinda fun, then a couple moths later I realized that there was actually some skill to it and I started playing on a regular basis.

(CP): Describe your playing style.

(DN): I would call it somewhat interchangeable, or adaptable, chameleon like. Everyone assumes that I am just aggressive, but what I like to do is play off my opponents depending on what they are giving. I guess the football analogy would be if the defense is playing the run then I’ll pass, if they are playing the pass then I’ll run; basically take what the defense will give you.

(CP): It sounds like the way you play depends a lot on who you are playing against. Who is the toughest player that you have faced, either at a final table or a head to head match?

(DN): I enjoy playing the best; they bring the best out in me, so I would say guys like Phil Ivey, John Henegan, and Ted Forrest, they play a very aggressive game, sort of in your face. They are really relentless; they don’t give you a lot of breathing room, so in order to beat them you have to raise your game as well.

(CP): When your sitting at a poker table and someone has made big raise and your staring them down, what are you looking for, what are you thinking about in terms of deciding your next move?

(DN): The first thing that I’m going to do is go through the hand, the betting action as far as what happened up until that point. Then I’m going to go over data and over hands that I have played with the person in the past. Once I have done that and sort of gotten a view in my mind of the whole picture, with more clues, I’m gonna look at the person and basically try to get a sense of how nervous they are. More often than not if the player looks extremely nervous or is doing something out of character, chances are more likely that they are bluffing. Then I will just throw all the clues together and make a decision based on that.

(CP): Poker players often try to mask their emotions in poker with headphones and sunglasses, what does that do for you in terms of an advantage?

(DN): Headphones don’t mask anything tell wise. The headphones are there when you’re playing long events, just to keep you interested. I like to listen to the ocean or massage music just to relax me and keep me calm throughout the event, but I wouldn’t say that the headphones are an advantage at all.

But I find that the players that wear sunglasses often have more tells than other people. The way that they throw their chips in with their hands, their throats, their body language. I think that sometimes people think that they are wearing sunglasses and they are hiding behind this big wall, when in fact there is more to tells than just your eyes.

 (CP): You were the overall player points winner at this years World Series of Poker tournament, but most of the focus is on the main event. With the increase in the entries for the main event it has become harder to win, do you think as much focus should be put on the main event?

(DN): Well it is the World Championships so it’s always going to be a prestigious event, although for me when I saw the number of players escalate so much in the last couple years I have changed my focus. I mean, I still want to win the event but I’m realistic.

When I was 16, 17 I was like, “wow, one day I’m going to win that thing.” But now it’s out of my control, with the amount of players being over 5,000 I could play great and still never win it, and most likely never will.

So yea, I definitely switched my focus to something I feel I have more control over, which is the player of the year race. If you look at the players at the top of that list its all recognizable names, top pros. It is not something that you can fluke, get lucky and win, whereas the main event is more conducive towards just getting lucky.

(CP): How has the new youth movement changed the sport of poker?

(DN): Well, it’s made it a lot tougher in some ways because a lot of these young guys are playing online and they are getting good so fast. So these days, if you sit at a table with eight other players that you have never seen before, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s going to be an easy game.

There are a lot of great players all over the world; it’s harder to play because if you don’t know the guy then you’re not sure what they are capable of, where in the past if you see players that you never saw before, your like, “this player is not very good.”

(CP): Is it frustrating because there are so many more players playing poker?

(DN): Oh, I don’t find it frustrating at all, I think it’s fantastic. The one thing that pro’s don’t realize is that, sure it’s harder to get there but wow, when you do the reward is so much sweeter. Were looking at $10 million for first place, that’s pretty sweet.

As for it being different for a professional poker player to make it, I mean if you take in a sheer numbers game, yea then we are out numbered with about 200 pros and 5,000 non-pros. But they are still the favorites.

If you take those 200 pros, you could pick 200 other people and I’ll bet my 200 against yours. So the pros are clearly the favorites but based on sheer numbers your going to see few of them making it all the way.

(CP): One of the main differences in poker now is the amount of online poker, what has that done to change the sport?

(DN): I think it’s made it tougher, and larger fields. We are seeing so many more people playing in these events that in the past couldn’t afford it. I mean your looking at $10,000 buy ins where around 40 years ago there was one event that was a $10,000 buy in and now there’s over 20. But with the satellite systems and the online play, people are winning seats for as little as 20 or 40 dollars.

It makes it tougher to get there since there are more people playing, but also the prize pools are so much bigger. And again, it makes it so much more difficult because you just don’t know what you are dealing with as much as you did in the past.

(CP): Do you like playing poker live or online better?

(DN): I definitely like playing live, it suits my strengths a lot better live, be able to look at people, engage with them based on their body language and what they look like. Online you are forced to study the fundamentals; it’s less of a poker game and more of a math game.

(CP): Do you find it harder to read someone who you have never played against before, especially if they are an online player?

(DN): It’s definitely harder to read someone that I have never played with before because you have no information other than the clothes they are wearing or the things they might say. You basically have to pay close attention to the first 15-20 minutes of playing with them. But yea, without question it’s much more difficult than playing with players that you have played with for a while.

(CP): Poker is getting so popular that children as young as 12 and 13 are playing in weekly poker games with their friends; do you see anything wrong with these kids playing poker at such a young age?

(DN): I see absolutely nothing wrong with it at all, and I think people that do are missing the bigger picture. Poker is a game. If you allow you kids to play chess, basketball, or baseball, those are all potential gateways into gambling and if they have addictive personalities then that is a possibility.

Poker is no different than any other game for kids, but one of the great things about it is it really, for a lot of the kids who socially don’t really interact well with other kids, it’s a great way for them to be a part of something and it also teaches them great cognitive and people skills.

I don’t buy into poker being bad for kids at all; if you want to go down that road then you should just avoid any competition for your kids whatsoever, because that could lead towards gambling.

(CP): With the large increase in television ratings for poker, what is it like as a poker player reaching a celebrity status now?

(DN): For me it’s strange because I always felt that this would happen. I didn’t know if it would be poker or something but I always felt like I would do something cool.

I see a lot of other people struggle with it, your dealing with people that have instant fame and success, which can be difficult for people for the ego, they start to buy into their own hype
(CP): With all of the television exposures glorifying the profession of poker, making it seem that it is an easy job; do you find it a fun and enjoyable job?

(DN): It’s definitely a fun and enjoyable job, although it is also very difficult. The media spin of it being easy and glamorous and everyone who is a top pro is living in mansions and driving fancy cars is totally not true, no where near true.

The majority of the players you see on TV that are considered “superstars,” a lot of them have no money what so ever and live very difficult lives. It is anything but an easy way to make a living.

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