Daniel Negreanu – ‘Kid Poker’: The Original Poker Star

  • Avatar for Howard Swainsby  Howard Swains
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Daniel Negreanu
Source – flickr.com

The question of who is the world’s best poker player will never accurately be answered. It depends on the era; if you’re talking about live or online; tournament or cash; hold’em or other variants.

But in the modern game, there has only ever been one answer to the question of who is the most popular poker player. No one gets anywhere close to Daniel Negreanu, the endlessly friendly Canadian, who has done more for raising the mainstream profile of poker than anybody else.

Which table draws the most attention at any poker tournament? Negreanu’s table. Who is the go-to personality for reporters and photographers looking for a story? Negreanu again. Who gets stopped for selfies by most fans during tournament breaks (and obliges every time)? Daniel Negreanu.

It’s no surprise that Negreanu is also the No 1 pick for sponsors looking for a face to publicize their online cardrooms. He realized quicker than anyone else that being a success in modern poker is about more than what you can do at the tables.

That’s not to say Negreanu can’t play poker. Far from it. Negreanu has enjoyed significant wins at the World Series of Poker (WSOP), has won World Poker Tour (WPT) titles and amassed tournament earnings of more than $42 million. Negreanu continues to play prolifically, across all stakes, variants and tours. He has spent many months of his career at the top of the all-time tournament money list – and the totals don’t even count money earned from cash games, where Negreanu cut his teeth, nor endorsements, where he is in a league of his own.

King of the Backroom Poker Games

It all seems a long way from his humble beginnings in Toronto, Canada, where he was born in July 1974 to working-class immigrants from communist Romania. Although Negreanu was given far more opportunities than many children of the era in the country his parents fled, the young Daniel was hardly a stellar student. By his own admission he spent more time honing social skills than he did on his studies, and dropped out of high school before graduation—”one art credit short”, according to his official biography.

However, Negreanu used his young years to develop plenty of other attributes that would come to stand him in good stead, including gambling and pool hustling, as well as an instinctive knack for numbers and probability. They all came together in the game of poker, which he learned and then played enthusiastically around the gaming venues of his hometown as a teenager.

Gambling became legal in Canada in the 1970s, and more casinos began to open through Negreanu’s early days as a poker player in the 90s. But there were also plenty of backroom poker games to be found in the city, attracting the sharpest players alongside those with the deepest pockets. Negreanu quickly became the standout talent.

“The hand that changed my life”

Despite prospering in this environment, he packed up for Las Vegas as soon as he was old enough to play in Nevada’s casinos. But success didn’t come immediately in poker’s undisputed capital. The life of a poker player was quite different in the pre-internet era to what it is for a generation able to rebuild a bankroll online.

Negreanu went broke in Vegas, returned to Toronto, and built up the roll, then tried again. And again. He freely admits to putting far too much of his bankroll on the line in every game, leaving himself vulnerable to the whims of the deck. But it offered a steep learning curve and crucial experience—and a breakthrough was just around the corner.

After a couple of previous attempts at the World Series only got as far as unsuccessful Main Event satellites, the 23-year-old Negreanu played a $2,000 buy-in pot-limit hold’em event at the WSOP in April 1998. From a field of 229, he emerged as the champion, the youngest ever bracelet winner at that time. His victory on his WSOP debut was worth $170,000, and immediately led to even greater things.

Negreanu won the U.S. Poker Championship at the Taj Majal, in Atlantic City, in 1999 and considers this tournament the moment his career really ignited. In a 2022 interview, Negreanu described the hand in which a rivered flush gave him a monster chip lead heads up against the then respected pro John Bonetti as “the hand that changed my life”.

But it wasn’t just the $210,000 first prize that affected Negreanu. It was also his first appearance on TV, where he said he felt immediately comfortable, and he picked up a regular poker magazine writing gig on the back of the win, which raised his profile.

Now known commonly as ‘Kid Poker’, Negreanu’s star was quickly rising.

Negreanu’s WSOP Bracelets

DateBuy-InEvent TitleWinnings
1998$2,000Pot Limit Hold’em$169,460
2004$2,000Limit Hold’em$169,100
2008$2,000Limit Hold’em$204,874
2013$10,000No Limit Hold’em Main Event (WSOP Asia-Pacific)A$1,038,825
2013€25,600High Roller No Limit Hold’em (WSOP Europe)€725,000

2004 – Negreanu’s Breakthrough Year

Negreanu narrowly missed the final table of the WSOP Main Event in 2001, and made two further final tables in bracelet events the following year. He won his second bracelet in a S.H.O.E. event in 2003, but everything that went before proved to be a mere appetizer ahead of Negreanu’s spectacular 2004.

These days, supposedly improbable poker streaks seem common, but they tend to occur in exclusive, high-stakes, small-field events, where they are actually a statistical likelihood. However, Negreanu went on a streak in 2004, in major, large-field tournaments, that cemented his place as the tournament game’s premier talent.

Negreanu won back-to-back World Poker Tour (WPT) titles, each worth more than $1 million, made five WSOP final tables, including another bracelet win, and finished in the top three of major tournaments sponsored by PokerStars and Party Poker, earning another $850K. He was also World Series Player of the Year, the first time the accolade was awarded.

His timing could not have been more perfect. Poker was just embarking upon its incredible boom years, boosted by Chris Moneymaker’s WSOP Main Event win of 2003. The online game was growing at exponential rates, while poker was also a fixture on the TV schedules, where producers were eager to promote poker personalities.

Some of Negreanu’s contemporaries – the likes of Phil Hellmuth or Mike Matusow – played up to a bad boy image, stropping around the studios. But Negreanu, every bit as skilful a player, did his best work without ever losing the smile, the chuckle and the devil-may-care attitude that made him the darling of a fawning poker audience.

He was young, confident, outspoken and articulate – perfect for the marketers who were plotting their designs on transforming the game. He was booked for every poker TV show there was – High Stakes Poker, The Big Game, Poker After Dark, etc., – and was the reliable star. He was unafraid of playing huge pots against any opponent, while also demonstrating his sensational reading abilities, happy to talk through his thought processes as he accurately assessed his opponents’ holdings. All the while, Negreanu was also keen to encourage newcomers to the game, writing strategy books and a blog; interacting with fans at casinos or online.

As PokerStars expanded its stable of sponsored pros, Negreanu was the obvious fit as the face of the world’s largest online cardroom. He signed with PokerStars in 2007 and played a central role in all the cardroom’s promotions for 12 years, including its deals with mainstream sports stars Rafael Nadal and Neymar Jr., as well as comedy icon Kevin Hart.

He also cropped up in small roles in a handful of mainstream movies and pop videos, including X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Katy Perry’s ‘Waking Up in Vegas’.

Negreanu’s Five Biggest Tournament Scores:

WinningsDatePlaceEvent Title
$8,228,00120142nd$1 million buy-in – The Big One for One Drop, Las Vegas
$3 million20182nd$300,000 – Super High Roller Bowl, Las Vegas
$1,770,21820041st$15,000 WPT Championship Five-Diamond World Poker Classic, Las Vegas
$1,725,83820192nd$100,000 WSOP No Limit Hold’em – High Roller
$1,119,61020144th$250,000 Challenge Aussie Millions Poker Championship, Melbourne

Ever Met A Vegan Shark?

Negreanu’s prominence also made him the obvious target when companies he represented made controversial business decisions – particularly if he continued to toe the party line rather than bowing to other players’ pressure. But Negreanu’s career has also been marked by a willingness to stand up for personal beliefs, regardless of what flak they may attract.

In the early days of his career, Negreanu said he ate and drank like almost all other players: wine, beer and vodka soaking up a diet heavy with red meat. Although he was playing well, he said he felt terrible, and realised sooner than most that elite poker required both a healthy mind and body. Despite scorn from his peers, he became a vegetarian and then a vegan, reaping the benefits of a lifestyle distinctly at odds with the norm.

“The guys in poker mocked me,” Negreanu wrote in an article for Vice’s ‘Munchies’ magazine. “There was this idea that ‘real men eat meat’ and they’d eat piles of crap around the table, like mounds of dead animals every hour.”

Veganism has become one of Negreanu’s passions ever since, and his willingness to argue his position has assisted in improving food options for players at almost all major poker locations. In marked contrast to the situation in the early days of the poker boom, catering at many festivals now regularly includes healthy options for various dietary requirements.

Negreanu has also been a vocal advocate for animal rights and liberal politics; again finding himself frequently at odds with the Republican-leaning, hunting and fishing obsessed stereotypical poker player of North America.

Negreanu the Super High Roller

Even as tournament fields continued to swell through the late 2000s, into the 2010s and beyond, Negreanu remained competitive at the very highest levels. He won his fourth WSOP bracelet in 2008 and then, as the World Series expanded to both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, he won a bracelet in each of the new locations in 2013.

He became the first player to win a WSOP title in three continents, and was named WSOP Player of the Year again, the only person to win it twice. His stellar years in 2004 and 2013 not only pointed to Negreanu’s exceptional longevity, but also happened to bookend a decade in which the Global Poker Index (GPI) began tracking poker results and creating a ranking system. It meant that in 2014, Negreanu was named the GPI’s first Player of the Decade – ahead of Erik Seidel, Michael Mizrachi and Barry Greenstein, with Phil Ivey also in the top 10.

One year later, Negreanu took his seat at the $1 million Big One for One Drop in Las Vegas and finished second to Dan Colman, banking $8.3 million, the biggest single tournament score of his career. He also missed out by the narrowest margins on making the final table of the Main Event, finishing the tournament in 11th place and falling just short of the November Nine.

Despite the notable One Drop result and others like it boosting Negreanu’s net worth, he was initially downbeat about the proliferation of super high roller tournaments, particularly as the game’s elite players burrowed deep into the world of solver-assisted learning.

In a tweet of September 2017, Negreanu admitted: “I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t think I’m as good as these guys” and estimated his own status as somewhere only in the world’s top 100 players. “I don’t feel like I have the time and energy to do what it takes to be at the top level, and I’m OK with that,” he said in an interview, referencing the many hours the new breed of elite pros spent with the solvers. “I’m satisfied with my life and my career and I don’t really necessarily want to do that.”

Negreanu, however, had a change of heart and in recent years has continued to test himself against the game’s top pros on the super high roller circuit. He finished runner-up in a $300K buy-in Super High Roller Bowl event in 2018 and was again second in a $100K buy-in tournament at the WSOP in 2019. He returned to the winner’s circle in June 2021, when he won a $50K buy-in event at the PokerGO Cup in the Aria, Las Vegas.

Negreanu continues to live in Las Vegas, with his wife Amanda, a former presenter on the ‘Big Game’ TV show, where Negreanu was the star. There is every indication that he will continue to test his mettle against the world’s best, and he will continue to play a packed schedule at the WSOP and beyond, recording his adventures for his popular video blog, watched by hundreds of thousands every day.

It’s a truism as accurate as any in the game: Where there is Negreanu, there will always be a crowd.

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