Is Daniel Negreanu’s Legacy on the Line in Round 3 Vs. Phil Hellmuth? (Op-Ed)

6 min read

Daniel Negreanu just might have more at stake than the $400,000 prize pool when he meets Phil Hellmuth in Round 3 of PokerGO’s High Stakes Duel II. His legacy, in the eyes of some, is also on the line, given his inability to win titles in recent years?

hellmuth vs negreanu poker
Daniel Negreanu has a lot at stake when he faces Phil Hellmuth in Round 3. (Image: PokerGo/High Stakes Duel)

I won’t bury the lead here, but the answer is absolutely, undeniably, no. Or, at least it shouldn’t be, for the exact reason Doug Polk, who beat Negreanu out of $1.2 million in an online poker heads-up match, told me.

“Naw, it’s a sit-n-go,” Polk told CardsChat News when asked if a Round 3 loss could harm Negreanu’s legacy. “And you can quote me on that.”

Done. In theory, Polk should be right. Negreanu has more than $42 million in live tournament cashes, is one of the most popular poker players ever, reached the Poker Hall of Fame in 2014, and has six WSOP bracelets. There shouldn’t be anything left for a poker player to achieve beyond those accomplishments to forever be considered a legend of the game. Even if he never cashed in another poker tournament and lost 20 straight matches to Hellmuth, and then another 20 to Jerry Yang, he’d be an all-time great in my books, and he should be in yours.

But in the sports and poker world, fans tend to have a “what have you done for me lately” mentality. And small sample-size wins and losses are overvalued. Take the Major League Baseball playoffs for example, and more specifically the performance of Clayton Kershaw, the future first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kershaw is unquestionably the greatest regular-season pitcher of the current generation. With a career 2.44 ERA, three Cy Young awards, and 2,572 strikeouts, he’s accomplished more in 14 seasons than all but a few pitchers in history have achieved. But to many baseball fans, and some in the media, his legacy is tarnished by numerous poor outings in the playoffs.

Personally, I think it’s unfair to judge any baseball player only by playoff performance because the postseason is merely a small sample size compared to the 162-game regular season. Last year, Kershaw silenced some doubters when the Dodgers finally won a World Series title, and he was impressive throughout the playoffs. But many still trash his legacy because of his career 4.19 ERA in the playoffs. He’ll probably never live that down with some fans.

Judged unfairly

Negreanu is facing a similar battle with his poker legacy. He’s down 2-0 on High Stakes Duel against Hellmuth. As Polk pointed out, it’s just a sit-n-go. But the GGPoker ambassador hasn’t won titles in recent years, and it isn’t just his 0-2 start against Hellmuth.

The Poker Hall of Famer hasn’t won a WSOP bracelet since 2013 despite playing as many, or more, bracelet events as anyone in the world each year. He had a good look at one in 2019, but lost a grueling marathon match to John Hennigan in a $10,000 stud event, and then again finished just one spot shy of a bracelet in the $100,000 No-Limit Hold’em High Roller later in the series (Keith Tilston won it for $2.8 million).

Negreanu’s last recorded tournament title came in 2015, a $966,000 score in season 2 of Shark Cage. Since then, he’s posted seven runner-up finishes, an 0-2 record on High Stakes Duel” and a $1.2 million loss to Polk in a 25,000-hand heads-up challenge.

The sports media — namely personalities such as Fox Sports’s Skip Bayless and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith — tends to focus on titles and very little else. And that’s carried over to many sports fans who are convinced that nothing matters other than winning titles. It’s no different in poker. The casual fans, not necessarily the GTO-minded grinders, often judge players by titles (WSOP bracelets, WPT wins, high-roller victories, heads-up challenge wins, etc.).

Can’t afford another defeat

Given Negreanu’s lack of titles for quite some time, it’s not unreasonable to think a third straight loss to Hellmuth could shatter much of his legacy, even though I believe that’s unfair. The truth is, despite failing to get over the hump and win tournaments, Negreanu has cashed for nearly $23 million since his last WSOP bracelet in 2013. If he hadn’t cashed in any poker tournament prior to the start of 2014, he’d still rank 23rd on the all-time money list.

So, he’s still performed at a high level, even without the titles. But many sports and poker fans are fixated on wins and nothing else. Even Brandon Cantu, a long-time poker pro who understands the variance involved in this game, recently attacked Negreanu’s legacy following the Round 2 loss to Hellmuth. The Twitter trolls were all over Negreanu over that defeat.

“Hard for Dan to accept defeat AGAIN from the GOAT. Clearly Phil is better than Dan and he is struggling with it,” @troyhandy wrote.

“Phil’s just better , no hate it’s just that simple. Plus I never thought I would say this but he’s got more class then u too. Your really coming across bad but hey what u care , I am just a no body,” @BurnerWileys tweeted.

“you talk all this mess right up until the match, calling phil all types of names saying he’s horrible…. then lose for a second time and u come with this…. shutup dude lol,” @sleazySkeets responded to Negreanu’s post-match comments.

And the list goes on. The above comments — and many others — were, predictably, made based on the outcome of a small-sample-size match; about 200 hands are dealt on High Stakes Duel. Still, this is the typical irrational overreaction from fans, much like Clayton Kershaw deals with every time he gives up a postseason home run.

“If I were PokerGO, I might promote it as that,” Norman Chad told CardsChat News when asked his opinion on if Negreanu’s legacy is on the line in Round 3. “But it’s a stretch. He’s already cemented as one of the best players of his generation. Another defeat here magnifies his recent woes, but it just puts a small dent on his overall ‘legacy.’”

Chad, the long-time ESPN poker announcer knows all about the sports fan’s overreactive mentality. He’s a former sports columnist for the Washington Post and has worked for ESPN for years.

“Yes, I understand the mentality,” Chad said. “I try to ignore it, and fight it.”

If Negreanu loses Round 3 against Hellmuth he might not be able to fight off the haters who attack his accomplishments and legacy. And that’s unfair.

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