ROGERS sportsnet Magazine

SHARP CARD

TORONTO’S DANIEL NEGREANU JUST TURNED 30. LAST YEAR HE WON US$4.4 MILLION PLAYING POKER.

Russell Felton March 7 2005
ROGERS sportsnet Magazine

SHARP CARD

TORONTO’S DANIEL NEGREANU JUST TURNED 30. LAST YEAR HE WON US$4.4 MILLION PLAYING POKER.

Russell Felton March 7 2005

SHARP CARD

ROGERS sportsnet Magazine

TORONTO’S DANIEL NEGREANU JUST TURNED 30. LAST YEAR HE WON US$4.4 MILLION PLAYING POKER.

Russell Felton

DANIEL NEGREANU SAYS THAT, IF WE SAT DOWN TO PLAY POKER, I'D PROBABLY WIN A HAND OR TWO OR EVEN MORE. POKER’S PARTLY A GAME OF CHANCE, AFTER ALL, AND THE CARDS COULD FALL MY WAY FOR A WHILE.

OVER TIME, THOUGH, WITH LUCK LESS OF A FACTOR, NEGREANU WOULD CLEAN ME OUT OF EVERY CHIP, PENNY OR MATCHSTICK WE’D BE PLAYING FOR. AND THERE’D BE TWO GOOD REASONS FOR THAT.

One is that my poker skills don’t include being able to remember, from one day to the next, whether a full house beats a flush (it does). The other is that the Toronto-born Negreanu is arguably - in fact, probably - the best poker player in the world.

Last year, Negreanu, 30, won both Car dp layer Magazine’s Tournament Player of the Year award and the World Series of Poker’s (WSOP) Player of the Year award, both highly prestigious and hotly contested titles. In a year-long series of tournaments that has started to resemble golf’s PGA Tour for its burgeoning schedule of high-stakes events, he won the Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City,

worth US$1.1 million, and the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas - his adopted hometown - walking away with a morethan-cool US$1.8 million.

In total, Negreanu took home an estimated US$4.4 million from tournament play in 2004. And although it’s early days yet, so far in 2005 he already leads all rankings. He is also the winningest poker player in history, with 13 major tournament titles. The World Series of Poker Web site (www.harrahs.com) calls him “unquestionably the hottest player in the world right now.”

These are no mean accom-

plishments. For one thing, poker tournaments are truly open. Anyone can get a seat at a table, provided you can ante up a registration fee that ranges from US$2,000 to US$ 10,000 or more. Last year’s World Series of Poker final, held at Harrah’s Rio Suites in Las Vegas, attracted more than 2,500 hopefuls.

What this entry fee buys, for the vast majority, is the chance to get sent packing in a hurry by one or another of the game’s big guns: Negreanu or living-legend Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson; an ice-cold assassin like Howard Lederer or Phil Hellmuth, or maybe one of the great women players, Jennifer Harmann or Annie Duke. The WSOP site lists several hundred top players, and they’re all likely a hell of a lot better than you or me.

For another thing - in case you’ve been sealed in a cave for the last few years and don’t already know - poker is hot. Fueled by the proliferation of high-stakes tournaments and the availability of online play, and sparked by innovative television coverage that lets audiences see the players’ hole cards (and edits out boring hands), poker has taken off like the pet-rock craze on amphetamines.

One result has been that the top poker players now are genuine celebrities, and none more so than Negreanu. Usually in his trademark NHL sweater - he

favours the Toronto Maple Leafs but has a collection that covers almost all the teams, including Team Canada - he’s a fixture at celebrity poker events, where the likes of actors Tobey Macguire, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Canadian-born comedian Norm MacDonald face off with one another over a baize table. “They’re serious players in their own right,” Negreanu says. But he admits that being regarded by them as a celebrity himself is “pretty darn cool.”

The starry heights of the Vegas/Hollywood interface must have seemed more than remote to the younger Negreanu. Born of Romanian immigrant parents in the Bloor-Spadina area of Toronto, he grew up around Leslie Street and Finch Avenue in the city’s northeastern reaches. He attended A.Y. Jackson Secondary School for a while, but poker was always his passion. When charity casinos were legalized in Ontario in the 1990s, he turned pro, playing almost every day for a full eight hours, honing his art and craft.

In 1996, at 21, he took the Las Vegas plunge. For almost two years, he divided his time, “coming back to Toronto and winning, then going back to Vegas and losing it all,” he recalls, laughing. Then in 1997 he became the youngest player ever to win a World Series of Poker event and was

named Best All-Round Player at the World Poker Finals.

Today, the fresh-faced, bleached-blond, earring-studded Negreanu is not only at the top of his profession as a competitor and winner, but also a thoughtful student of his chosen game, with more than 90 magazine articles to his credit.

He’s also a tireless promoter and champion of poker. “I’m a poker fan first and a player second,” he says. “I’d like to see poker’s popularity continue to grow.”

More than that, in a world of gimlet-eyed, hard-case gamblers, Negreanu comes across as a genuinely nice guy. He drinks sparingly - beer only, and never before or during a game - doesn’t smoke, is deeply religious, and is engaged to be married.

Does the pressure of continual high-stakes games ever get to him? Well, yes, he says.

“I’ll probably play 40 tournaments this year, and the schedule is quite erratic,” he says. “Poker tournaments tend to be all over the place. I also do as many charity exhibitions and promotional events as I can, and then there’s all the media and public attention. Frankly, it’s pretty exhausting.”

To help him manage his hectic schedule and affairs, Negreanu recently advertised for a personal assistant. On the day we spoke, he’d already received almost a hundred applications.

“In some ways,” he sighs, “it was easier when it was just about the poker.” ^

Russell Felton is a writer in Toronto.