The Card Player 2004 Player of the Year race came down to the wire again. Daniel Negreanu edged out David Pham and John Juanda, while everyone else finished a great distance behind. Points for the Player of the Year award are based on three criteria: (1) number of players in an event, (2) cost of the buy-in, and (3) place finished at the final table. Negreanu excelled in the large buy-in events, made 11 final tables, had seven cashes of more than $100,000, and made an even bigger name for himself. After a few weeks off from poker, Negreanu had a chance to sit down and discuss the Player of the Year race and what it really means to him.
Jeff Shulman: What does the Player of the Year award mean to you?
Daniel Negreanu: For me, a player of the year award is so much more of an accomplishment than just winning a major event, because it’s a testament to outdoing everybody else. It is like beating every other poker player in the world over a long period of time. We know how poker works, it’s a game of long-term results. With short-term results, people can dismiss it as luck. But you can’t say that a guy who performed better than anyone else for the entire year just got lucky.
Jeff: Would you put this up there with winning a World Series bracelet or a major championship as far as prestige is concerned?
Daniel: If I had to choose between winning a World Series of Poker bracelet or winning the Player of the Year award, I’d take the Player of the Year award every year for the rest of my life. That’d be cool.
Jeff: And you may get a bracelet in the meantime.
Daniel (smiling): You think?
Jeff: There was a very interesting scenario halfway through the year. You were running away with the award and it looked like someone would have to catch lightning in a bottle to even come close to catching you. What was the deal with John Juanda’s run at the end? We’ll talk about David Pham’s challenge later.
Daniel: I’ll lead into that with how I started the year. My mentality coming into the year was that I really thought I had no shot at the Player of the Year award because I was going to play big cash games exclusively and only the big tournaments. Well, the “big tournaments only” turned out being like one tournament a week. It seemed like there was a $10,000 buy-in event every time I blinked. After a few months, I noticed that I was way out in front, but still thought I wouldn’t win it. Then, I took a deeper look into the way the Card Player standings system worked, and realized that I did have a legitimate shot of winning because no longer did I have to play in every tournament. So, halfway through the year, I was on cruise control and winning events, and leading in the standings, when it dawned on me that maybe I should play some more tournaments to lock it up. As I said, at the beginning of the year, I wasn’t going to do that, and I decided to stick with my original plan and not play too many events. Then, I saw that John Juanda won a 48-player field stud event at Foxwoods. I thought, what in the world is he doing playing that? John got to the point that he was playing only in championships, and now he had played in an event with fewer than 50 players. Thereafter, he was at Bellagio, playing all the $1,500 and $2,000 buy-in events. Slowly but surely, boom! He was about 400 points behind me. I thought, all right, kid, we’ve got the Bellagio and two weeks to go. I knew what I would be doing for the next few weeks, and it was something that I did not want to do. Honestly, I’m trying to get away from the grind of playing every day of a three-week tournament, other than the World Series of Poker.
Jeff: Did you play in every single event at Bellagio?
Daniel: No. My plan was to play them all, but I skipped a couple. I just wasn’t that into it. Throughout the year, I’d played in only the big events. I’m not proud of this fact, but I don’t gear up for the smaller tournaments. I would consider myself more of a playoff performer than a guy who just plugs away. I perform the best when my back is against the wall, and I always have. So, I missed a couple of events, and there were only two judi poker mogeqq tournaments left when I saw that David Pham had passed me. I had to go back to what worked for me, and that was focusing on just the big events and not having the negative thought process of showing up when I didn’t even want to play. It’s hard to win like that, so in order to get myself out of a negative mindset, I took a few days off and focused on just saying, oh well, if I win, I win. Let’s see what happens.
Jeff: You didn’t actually say that. On your website, fullcontactpoker.com, you were like Babe Ruth. You called the home run beforehand by saying, “David passed me, but don’t worry. I will still win.”
Daniel: That was only because the situation was so perfect. It was a lot like the ninth inning, bases loaded, you’re down by three with two outs, and the count is three and two. I love that kind of stuff. I’ve been a sports fan all my life, and now I was in that position. I do perform better when there’s more pressure, and more prestige. I felt so good going into it. The night before, rather than play in the pot-limit Omaha tournament, I went and played $4,000-$8,000 with the big boys. I did that for a reason. Most people think, why would you do that if you’re in a rut? I did it because I needed to regain my focus, and in that game, I knew that I was gonna focus because I take it seriously. That game got my mind looking in the right direction. After playing in the big game, I went home and I thought to myself: You know what? I’m ready. My mind’s OK. I’m gonna be able to go in there and play my best game, and not just goof around like I’d been doing for two weeks wasting my time.
Jeff: Making a prediction in an event that has more than 350 players … you’re crazy. No matter how focused you are, everyone wants to say, I’m gonna win it. You did it. What happened in that event?
Daniel: I’ve done that twice in my life. I was talking to my friend Rob Gingras the night before my first win in the United States. I said, “You know, Rob, I think I’m gonna win. I think I’m gonna win tomorrow,” and I did. It was just surreal, because I’d never said that before. And it happened again. On the first day of the tournament, I was playing perfectly. It was my best, but not like Phil Hellmuth perfect, because nobody plays that well (laughing). I was playing the best I could play and was really going after every chip I could get. I wasn’t taking it easy at any point. I was in full throttle, and really focusing on making sure that I didn’t give anything away. I wanted to take every chip that I was supposed to take, and the first day went like that. I was second in chips when it ended that night.
Jeff: Were there any huge hands at the Bellagio event that you can look back upon and say they were the turning point?
Daniel: There was one key hand that could have sealed my fate. It was against Johnny Chan on day two. I had gone from $220,000 up to more than $320,000 and was cruising. Johnny had just gotten to my table. Otherwise, it was a pretty good table. He was two to my left and I made a mental note: “Don’t do anything stupid against Chan.” So, of course, I got involved in a hand with him and lost $250,000. I had only $80,000 left. At that point, $320,000 was great, and $80,000 just didn’t seem so good to me. Rather than give up, I looked to my right and saw David Pham with a ton of chips, and then looked at another table and saw John Juanda with a bunch of chips. I was not going out! Not then! I wouldn’t at that scene. There was a break, and I regrouped. I got back to $160,000 by the end of the day. So, that was a key hand, for sure.
Jeff: What happened in the hand? You said you didn’t want to do anything stupid, and then you lost all that money. Did you get caught bluffing, or did Chan just have a better hand than yours?
Daniel: Well, no. I played a big pot against Johnny when I didn’t need to. He had lots of chips, and so did I. I could’ve played my hand more carefully and cautiously, like I normally would, but I picked up something — and I guess I was wrong. He totally fooled me. He played the hand fantastically. My hat’s off to him. I was so happy when our table broke.
Jeff: You just mentioned playing big pots versus playing small pots. Would you say that a lot of your success has to do with playing small pots against people?
Daniel: Yeah, I did notice that this year, and I think it’s a testament to why I did well. A lot of the tournaments are now five-day events rather than the quick two- or three-day events, which I don’t do as well in. For quicker events, your strengths are preflop. They are all about preflop poker. Now, you have these really slow structures that last for five days. They really lend themselves to playing well after the flop. When you talk about post-flop play, it’s all about small-bet poker. It’s not about one raise followed by all in. It’s about let’s see a flop. Let’s have some more texture. The more cards there are out there, the more variables there are and the more difficult the decisions are that need to be made. I don’t think anyone necessarily plays better than I do after the flop. If I have any weakness, it’s preflop. I don’t have that Juanda skill. You know, “I’m all in” (doing his best Juanda impersonation). That’s his game, and I admire it. Every time I’ve tried doing it, tried emulating John, I’ve failed. Every time I do it, they have aces. So, I always think, this is stupid, John. How do you do it? But his sense is all preflop, and he is the best at it. I get a better read on people after the flop and the turn.
Jeff: Let’s segue to John Juanda. John put pressure on you in the last few months and forced you to play a lot at Bellagio. What is it about John Juanda that made you realize you had to play as hard as you did?
Daniel: I looked at the standings and saw that John was barely behind me, and then I realized there was a two-week stretch still to go at Bellagio. If John played every tournament there, in my mind he is so consistent that he would make two final tables, minimum. So, I thought to myself, if I go on vacation here, I am going to get passed. I would really regret that after 11 months of very hard work. Player of the Year was too important to me. If you look at Card Player’s standings over the last five years and count up the points, there’s John Juanda and then there’s the rest. He’s in the top five every year, even when he doesn’t try to play in many events. Every year he tells me in January, “You know I am not going to go for the Player of the Year,” and by March he’s leading it, so he is like, “Well, I guess I have to play more tournaments again.” He’s always in the race by default, and his consistency is intimidating in a sense. That’s why I had no chance if I didn’t perform at Bellagio.
Jeff: Did John do anything else to motivate you?
Daniel: Besides the trash talking? John is all about giving the needle and taking the needle in a fun-loving way. I have such a rapport with him that when we are at the table, he’ll call me a donkey, and I’ll say, “You’re playing like an idiot,” or, “You’re going all in; are you afraid to play with me after the flop?” The back-and-forth jabbing is similar to guys like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird. It’s a fun type of trash talking, the respectful jabbing that they do to each other.
During one tournament, a cocktail waitress came over to me and asked, “Are you Daniel Negreanu?” I smiled and said yes. She said, “Here’s a beer for you. It’s from that gentleman over there.” John had sent a beer over to try to distract me (laughing). I thought it was just so funny. It’s just part of his great sense of humor. I planned on pulling a practical joke on him that never came about. I was going to hire two agents to come in and, in the middle of a tournament when he had lots of chips, say, “Excuse me, sir, you’re going to have to come with us.” But, I never had a chance to do it (laughing). Maybe that could tilt John. Seriously, though, if I had to pick one guy to make the final table to save this world, I’d pick John. Otherwise, we’d be in trouble.
Jeff: Enough about John. What about David Pham, and his last-second heroics?
Daniel: John and I were obsessed with worrying about each other. The tournament was winding down to its final few events and we looked over our shoulders, and out of nowhere, there was David. In the $3,000 no-limit hold’em event, when there were 50 players left, I realized he had to win to pass me. Second place wouldn’t do it. No worries. Then, I kept calling to find out what was happening, and they were down to 20 players. How’s he doing? Still the chip leader. Doh! Then, 11 players were left. How’s he doing? Chip leader. Doh! They were threehanded. It was about even. Yes! Oh, he won? Nooo (laughing)! When I got the news, I was like, are you kidding me? He won? He couldn’t come in second or third? It was so disheartening. John and I just looked at each other like we were a couple of losers. We were worried about each other, and meanwhile, out of the blue came David. While John was on a rampage, so was David. He was making many World Poker Tour final tables, as well. David was such a class act. He won the tournament and didn’t even know that he’d taken over the Player of the Year lead.
Jeff: What did you do differently this year to prepare yourself?
Daniel: There were a couple of things. I didn’t tire myself out by playing the small events, and I made sure I was on time, well rested, and wasn’t out partying the day before an event. I played only the events that I really wanted to play, and made sure that I felt ready to play. I used to play as much as possible, whether I was ready to play or not. Besides that, the slower structures really benefit me. Lots of people tell me that I would like a fast structure. They just don’t get how I play — at all. I love the slow structures. I think they definitely play into my hands. I’ve done well in some of the slowest structures we’ve seen. I won at the Plaza, which was the slowest structure I’ve ever seen.
Jeff: What is the best analogy of this year’s Player of the Year race?
Daniel: There are so many analogies. I like the one when Michael Jordan played the Cleveland Cavs. It was game five, the final game of the series, with six seconds to go. The Bulls were up by one, and Mark Price drove the lane and scored. With three seconds left on the clock, the Bulls were down one. This was before Michael Jordan won tons of championships, so it was a big moment. He caught a pass at the free-throw line and jumped in the air. Craig Ehlo jumped, too, and Michael Jordan stayed up there for about 45 seconds, checked his watch, and finally drained a shot at the buzzer. He came back and won. He was disheartened when the Cavs took the lead, but then, boom! He was so much more ecstatic because of that shot. If that shot never happened, it wouldn’t have been as dramatic. Just the way it came down — the fact that not only did I pass David, but I ended up winning the tournament, too — was pretty cool.
Jeff: You’re making a ton of appearances this year and starting to learn more about the business of poker. What types of things are you doing these days?
Daniel: You know, it’s funny. I read Greg Dinkin’s book, The Poker MBA. I realized after reading the book that I knew so much more about business than I ever thought I did. As a poker player, the innate skills that you have lend themselves to the business world. As far as projects that I’m doing, my plan by World Series time this year is to have the book — the absolute best no-limit hold’em book ever written — and a DVD series. I think it’s going to be innovative, and it’s going to be the most useful tool for people who really want to improve their no-limit hold’em game. The book is going to have three parts to it: one section totally dedicated to beginners, a second dedicated to intermediate players, and a third section that’s psycho-insane advanced strategies and counterstrategies. I plan on going into great depth with the book and holding nothing back.
Jeff: You’ve always been looked at in poker as someone the beginner can approach and ask questions, and you’re not going to blow them off or “too cool” them like other people. Is it a Canadian thing? Why is it that all of these young players look at you as the fun-loving big brother?
Daniel: I think the truth has to do with the growth of poker. I did see it coming; I thought the allure was there. I believed people would find the sport sexy, and would to some degree look at us as heroes. I always found that to be really silly — the idea of idolizing people. I play poker — that’s it. It really bothers me wholeheartedly when I see some of the other poker players now. A couple of years ago, they were just poker players, and now they walk around with a godlike aura. I try to avoid at all costs coming across that way to fans. I’ve scolded fans for telling me that I am their idol. I tell them, how about the New York firefighters who were at ground zero working, teachers, and policemen? I play poker. We as a society have to re-prioritize what we deem as being heroic. I’m no hero. I hate the connotation.
Jeff: There are lots of young up-and-coming players in poker. ESPN really popularized “The Crew” this year. If I remember correctly, you had a little crew that no one really talks about anymore.
Daniel: I thought it was funny. I saw “The Crew” on TV saying that they were going to take over the poker world. And I said, you know what? Before you guys decide you want to take over the poker world, you better check with my crew. When I grew up in my 20s, it was me, John Juanda, Phil Ivey, and Allen Cunningham. I thought, before you all want to take over the poker world, you might want to check with us first.
Jeff: Tell me a little more about some of your projects.
Daniel: My website has been a fun project for me. One thing that’s really attracted people is that I write a blog, a daily blog. People who read my column get the gist of what I do at the poker table, and I give a little piece of myself. In my blog, I go into depth about what’s really going on in my life. I might dedicate an entire blog to my playing X-box, or something like that. I give people a glimpse into my life and what it’s like. I don’t think there are many people in my position who do that, so I think it’s unique and fun. I think it’s a pretty good read.
I’m working with a new Internet poker site: Poker Mountain. I’m really excited to be a part of Poker Mountain, because it is going to be a site that gives back to the player and puts customer satisfaction first. I waited a long time before joining any of the online poker companies because I really wanted it to be the right people and the right situation. I turned down lots of offers, but I really believe in the people behind Poker Mountain, and it’s a situation in which I’m going to play an important part in listening to customers, developing the product, and making the site as good as it can be over time. They’re also going to work with a product called Securus, which will make it incredibly easy to get money in and out of your account, and will give you real control over your money, which is such an important issue in this business.
And I also have a video game coming out.
Jeff: A video game? Come on, you’ve got to be kidding me!
Daniel: No, seriously. I hooked up with an awesome team and we are working on a really cool video game that will be available this year. So far from what I’ve seen, this game is going to be off the hook!
I’ve been approached with a wide variety of things to endorse. So, I have an agent, Brian Balsbaugh, who takes a major burden off my shoulders. Now, if somebody says they’d like me to endorse something, I tell them they need to talk to him, and I trust him wholeheartedly.
Jeff: What do you plan on doing with all of your recent successes? The money, that is.
Daniel: I’ve already spent a lot of it. I bought seven X-box games, and also bought three other DVDs, so I’ve already given back about $500 of it. The rest, I’m a little worried about, so I’m gonna sort of hold on to it, and gather some cobwebs and stuff. Other than that, I plan on maybe building a home here in Vegas or buying something existing. It might cost me the whole enchilada. I want to build a home that I’m going to live in the rest of my life.
Jeff: Without a mortgage?
Daniel: Nah, I’ll probably do a mortgage, too. As a poker player, your tools are your money.