Mind Games

Saturday Night, December 2004

Daniel Negreanu would never tell you he’s one of the top poker players around. Even if he did, you probably wouldn’t believe him. With his elfin grin, earring and bleached-blond hair, he certainly doesn’t look like a hardened gambler. But with a record-setting year behind him and Card Player magazine’s 2004 Player of the Year award in the bag, there’s no disputing that the 30-year-old Toronto native is at the pinnacle of the poker world.

Negreanu is lucky, too, having turned professional as the game experiences phenomenal growth; online gaming sites and televised tournaments have proliferated in recentyears. Television has solved the problem of how to let viewers see cards that the other players cannot, and tournaments have become high-profile events with huge prizes. In September, Negreanu won an unprecedented $1.1 million (U.S.) at the Borgata tournament in Atlantic City. Just a year ago, the pot would have been less than half that. He estimates that he’s won $10 million (U.S.) playing poker, some $3 million of it this year. And though his parents immigrated to Toronto from Romania hoping he’d become a doctor or lawyer, it’s tough to argue with success. With a house in Las Vegas, a Lexus convertible, a comfortable nest egg and regular travel to tournaments all over the world, Negreanu is living a life his parents could scarcely have imagined when they were raising him and his older brother on an electrician’s pay.

Not bad for a kid who was an art credit short of graduating from high school after being kicked out of Toronto’s A.Y. Jackson Collegiate for organizing a gambling ring. “I’d show up at around 11 a.m. with no books, just a deck of cards and poker chips,” he remembers. He was expelled after he cashed a $300 gambling-debt cheque a classmate had stolen from his mother. (Negreanu still feels outraged: “You want to expel me? He’s the one who stole the cheque from his mother!”) But school was never Negreanu’s forte. “I knew really young that I would never necessarily need school to make money.”

By 18, he was playing poker full-time, frequenting Toronto’s charity casinos and seedy gambling halls, often facing — and besting — opponents two and three times his age. At 21, he recalls, “I was beating the game in Toronto, and there was nothing left to challenge me.” So, like an aspiring actor chasing his dreams in Hollywood, he packed his bags and headed for Las Vegas.

Mastering poker in Nevada took time; Negreanu worked hard at the big-game variations, including Omaha and seven-card stud. But the real money, the game of choice at most tournaments, is Texas Hold ’Em. It’s a deceptively simple affair in which each player makes a five-card hand using the two cards he receives face down and three of five community cards dealt face up. There are four rounds of betting — after the two down cards; after the first three common cards (the flop); after the fourth common card (the turn); and after the fifth (the river).

Negreanu spent the better part of a year alternately building a bankroll in Toronto and then losing it in Las Vegas. Finally, it all clicked. “I understood how to beat the Vegas game, as well.” By then he’d logged hundreds of hours at the tables, learning to correct the small weaknesses he’d got away with in Toronto. Two years later, at 23, he became the youngest player to win a World Series of Poker event.

By his mid-20s, Negreanu was enjoying great success but feeling increasingly detached from the world. “I felt like I couldn’t hold a conversation if it didn’t involve check-raise, re-raise, gut-shot, flush draw.” Lately he’s achieved better balance, following politics and the news and making time for a social life. He credits much of this change to his fiancée, Lori Weber, a Korean-born woman he met on a poker cruise (she was a nanny for a couple playing in the on-board tournament).

Next year, Weber will move from her home in Michigan to Las Vegas to be with Negreanu, who has lived there since 1995 thanks to a P-1 immigration exemption. He was the first poker player to receive the exemption, which is usually granted to athletes and performers who have demonstrated extraordinary ability in their field; a handful of other gamblers have received it since.

Where did his expertise come from? As a kid, Negreanu had a love of numbers and probability, filling endless notebooks with statistics from video games. And though he repeated Grade 10 math four times, he was excellent at it and remembers it as one of his favourite subjects (attendance, not ability, was his downfall). Early on he also developed a knack for reading people. “I used to go to the mall, and I’d try to figure out people’s life stories. I’d see this woman with this guy and try to figure out their relationship. I’d notice a glance, and know she didn’t like him very much — he’s in love with her, she’s cheating on him. I had a sense of people based on the way they walked, what clothes they wore, the way they looked.”

Negreanu’s easygoing demeanour conceals his shrewdness; he’s remarkably perceptive and never stops assessing his opponents. He preys on weakness, he
says, and he detects it with acuity. Whereas most players never show their cards, loath to reveal strategy, Negreanu often flips his over after the hand. “I’m planting seeds in my opponent’s mind. I like the psychological warfare. I’m not afraid of what I show people, because I know what I show them and I know how to use it against them.”

In one televised hand, Negreanu called a large raise before the flop, based on his down cards. After the flop, when the first three common cards failed to improve his hand, he folded and revealed his own cards: a two and a five, one of the worst hands possible. The message to his opponents: “I’m going to mess with you all day, and you’ll never know where I’m at. I might have deuce-five, I might have kings, I might have aces. I want to get into your head and play mind games.”

Negreanu is generally confident that his playfulness at the table won’t reveal much. He admits, though, that there are a handful of players who have a “definite read” on him. “It’s so much easier to manipulate a novice or an intermediate player,” he says. “I can do some talking and I’m not worried about what I’m giving away. But if I start talking to [legendary players] Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese or Phil Ivey, someone like that, the more I talk, they’ll be like, ‘OK, now I know what you’ve got.’ A really good player, I’m not going to give him any free information.”

Nor does Negreanu rely on tells, the twitch or nervous laugh that can give amateur players’ hands away. Such signs, he says, are overrated, and rarely exist at the professional level. Rather, “I look for a person’s character. Is he weak? Can I bully him or not? Will he challenge me? Is he an honest person or a scoundrel? I go back to our betting history and I play past hands in my head. I also — this is very important — figure out what his impression of me is. What does he think I have?” His ability to answer these questions helps explain his success at betting — often heart-stopping sums — that he can deduce your down cards better than you can deduce his.

Often, he says, it all comes down not to statistics or probability but to instinct, a gut feeling that leads him one way or the other. “I’ll get to a situation where, I don’t know why, I just think this guy’s bluffing. I can’t explain it; all the clues don’t seem to add up to a bluff. But my subconscious is telling me: ‘You’ve seen this movie a thousand times before. Go with it.’ ”

Fifteen minutes into our interview, before a deck of cards has appeared, Negreanu has me pegged: “Your approach would be very conservative. You’d try to make the right mathematical decisions. You’re the type of guy I’d probably try to push around, to be honest.” Later, as we play Texas Hold ’Em, his words stay with me. The first hand, he bets as if bluffing, responding to my weak bets with large raises. I fight back, calling even though my down cards are weak. I’m certain he’s trying to push me around. Sure enough, he beats me, laying down the low straight I thought he was only pretending to have.

“I figured,” he says, “because of what I told you earlier, that you might think I was pushing you around.” Throughout our mini-tournament he stays a step ahead of me; I don’t win a single hand. As he rakes in one of the bigger pots, he explains, “This is what I do. I planted that seed to get you to fold. Earlier, I planted a seed to get you to call.” No-Limit Hold’Em is a game of mathematics and money management, but even more it’s a game of nerve, deception and manipulation.

Negreanu’s ability to remain unperturbed at the most nerve-racking times is a skill not far from one of his earliest aspirations: acting. In fact, his success in poker has allowed him to appear in some television pilots and other shows. Though he enjoys the TV work, he’s convinced that he’s better suited to poker. So, he jokes, is his friend Tobey Maguire (with whom he plays in friendly games along with other Hollywood types such as Jack Black and Leonardo DiCaprio). “I think Tobey wants to be a poker player,” Negreanu jokes. “Give up the whole acting thing.” As for Ben Affleck, another regular opponent, “He still owes me 2,500 bucks. I’m sure I’ll get it sometime.”

Satellite tournaments on the Internet have given birth to a new breed of player, one unaccustomed to the pressures of TV cameras and sage opponents. “The biggest thing for most players, switching from online to live, is insecurity. It’s scary. They’re paranoid that everybody can see right through them. In the privacy of their own home, playing on the computer, it’s very relaxed, very comfortable. They can yell at the screen, play in their underwear, dance, whatever. When I’m staring them down, that adds a lot more stress.”

Negreanu finds himself increasingly recognized in Las Vegas, and he’s irked by the media’s depiction of poker players as “modern-day rock stars.” As in any big-money profession, most of those striving to reach the top are deeply devoted but destined to fail. “The truth is,” he says, “the majority of professional players are depressed. They’re broke. They don’t have money — they’ve got backers.”

What’s next? He and Weber plan to marry and start a family in the near future. They’re determined to raise their children in a Christian environment, Weber having reintroduced Negreanu to the faith. Meanwhile, he says, he’ll continue to seek out new challenges. “It’s like playing a video game. You beat the easy level, you go on to the medium level. You beat the medium, you go to the advanced. If I ever feel as though there’s nothing left to prove, that could be a problem, because you need that action, that drive.” As he grows older, and becomes a husband and father, will he be able to keep his edge? “I won’t play as often, but I’ll still play the major tournaments. I’ll play till I’m dead.”