Sunday, June 12, 2005

I'm contemplating an uberpost, even though I had decided to go for short, bite-sized posts after Vegas. Plenty of folks told me my posts were simply too damn long. Doh! I'm still struggling with that aspect of this silly blog.

And even though our two best travelogue writers, Otis & Pauly, are too busy with their jobs to give us The Best Trip ReportsTM, I'm still going to refrain from doing one myself. The only good trip report I ever wrote was about playing poker in Aruba during Hurricane Ivan.

Suffice to say = Vegas was bliss. Wish we had more time, damnit.

But stay tuned - I've got a bunch to blog about. And in the vein of being the world's leading alcoholic copy and paster, I give you this interesting article from the NY Times about Daniel Negreanu.

It's official: Negreanu may be best poker player in the world:



Card Stud

Daniel Negreanu is a vegetarian, without much interest in food. ''I ate two
days ago'' is the kind of thing he says. His disdain for food is a reaction
to his mother, who is obsessed with food. Mommy, as he calls her, likes to
serve people food, then sit down and smile at them as they eat. When
Negreanu was growing up in Toronto, Mommy sent him to school with his lunch
packed in a brown bag. When he went to McDonald's with friends, she gave him
a brown-bag lunch. When he got his first job as a telemarketer (''I lasted a
day,'' he says), Mommy packed him a brown-bag lunch. When he got his next
job at Subway (''I was a good sandwich maker''), Mommy packed him a
brown-bag lunch. These days, when Negreanu goes to work at night at the
Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, Mommy packs him a brown-bag lunch.

Daniel Negreanu (pronounced neh-GRAH-noo) is a small, slightly built man of
30. His job in Las Vegas, where he has bought a house for Mommy, is playing
poker for eight hours a night or more, for pots as high as a million
dollars, with older men named Eskimo Clark, Jesus Ferguson and Texas Dolly
Brunson. Negreanu looks small, boyish, defenseless, with his bottle of water
and Mommy's brown-bag lunch at his feet. Often during his poker games, Mommy
calls from home. If he's winning, she says: ''Good. That's enough. Come
here, I made some cabbage rolls.'' If he's losing, she says: ''Today is not
your day. Come home, I'll make you some mamaliga.'' If he's breaking even,
she says: ''Nothing is happening. Come home, I made some fresh vinete.''

Poker is no longer the sole preserve of unshaved, cigar-smoking older men in
cheap motel rooms. It has become a game of the young, most of whom have made
their poker bones playing online poker. Negreanu says they learn as much
about poker in a year as he did in seven years playing cash games. ''I see
Internet kids with a $250,000 bankroll,'' he told me. ''I had to hustle up
games to get a bankroll, which is why I consider myself a bridge between the
old-timers and the kids. I have a hustler's skills, but I'm up on what's
happening now too. Some old-timers don't keep up with the kids and get
passed by. They don't respect their intellect.''

Many of these young players, like Negreanu, David Williams, Phil Ivey and
John Juanda, have become instant celebrities because of their TV exposure at
the World Series of Poker and on the World Poker Tour. ''We're the new rock
stars,'' says Negreanu, who had a first-episode cameo in the ESPN poker
series ''Tilt.'' Hollywood stars like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and James
Woods treat such players as if they are the real celebrities. ''Poker is hot
because it's everyone's sport,'' Negreanu says. ''Most guys can't play
football or hockey. They're fat and out of shape, but they can play poker at
home. Poker is the purest form of reality TV. Nothing's scripted. There's
drama. Real people with real money on the line.''

Last year Card Player magazine named Negreanu the poker Player of Year. Jeff
Shulman, a publisher of the magazine, says, ''Daniel Negreanu wins so much
he's a freak of nature.'' Texas Dolly Brunson, who is 71 and has won nine
lesser World Series of Poker competitions and two grand-prize W.S.O.P.
championships, says: ''He may be one of the all-time greats. Maybe the
greatest ever.''

This week, someone will win a grand prize of more than $5 million in No
Limit Texas Hold 'Em, the main event at the World Series of Poker, which
begins on June 2 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It's a
prize Daniel Negreanu has never won, even if he is already one of the best
poker players ever. ''He's on an amazing roll,'' Brunson says. ''The only
thing that can bring him down is if he forgets who he is.''

Since Negreanu moved to Las Vegas in 2000, he has won more tournaments,
30-plus, and more tournament money, about $6 million, than any other player.
He has also won millions of dollars in private cash games at the Bellagio.
''If I had to play $100 games, I'd shoot myself,'' he says. ''I like
million-dollar cash games.'' Cash games are dangerous. A player gambles with
his own money. Often Negreanu brings hundreds of thousands of dollars to
those games. If he loses, he has to go deeper into his own pocket. He once
lost $156,000 on a single pot in a cash game.

Tournaments are less dangerous. Each player puts up an entry fee of, say,
$10,000; that is the most he can lose. But if he survives late into a
tournament he can win hundreds of thousands, even millions, on his $10,000
investment. Last year at the W.S.O.P., an attorney from Connecticut, Greg
(Fossilman) Raymer, won $5 million, and David Williams, a 23-year-old
college student, finished second, winning $3.5 million. Negreanu himself won
$1.8 million at a Bellagio tournament last year and another $1.1 million at
a tournament in Atlantic City. When Negreanu first started playing
tournaments in the late 90's, a sponsor occasionally covered his entry fee,
and he had to split his winnings 50-50 with the backer. But since 2000,
Negreanu has used his own money for cash games and tournaments.

Negreanu claims not to have much interest in money, except as a means of
keeping score. After he won that $1.8 million at the Bellagio, he bought six
videos and put the rest of the money in poker chips in a lockbox at the
casino as if it were a bus-station locker. The chips are still there. The
$1.1 million Negreanu won in Atlantic City was converted into $300,000 in
cash and an $800,000 check. Back home in Las Vegas, he discovered that he
left the check in his hotel room; the maid threw it out, and Negreanu had to
fly back for another check. ''I don't believe much in banks,'' he says.
''Although I do have one bank account with not much in it, just a couple
hundred thousand.'' He also doesn't believe in credit cards, or buying
anything he can't afford to pay cash for, which is why he always travels
with a wad of $100 bills held together with an elastic band.

Negreanu has two basic rules for playing poker. First, maximize your best
hand and minimize a mediocre hand. Too many novices play too many mediocre
hands when not bluffing, which increases their chances of losing. Great
players only play hands when they have ''the nuts,'' or unbeatable cards;
otherwise they fold hand after hand. Second, play hours, not results.
Negreanu sets a time limit for his play and sticks to it, whether he's
winning or losing. If he goes beyond his time limit, he risks playing
''tired hands'' when he is not sharp. (Before a tournament, Negreanu gives
up alcohol and caffeine. ''I do nothing, to numb my brain,'' he says,
''except watch poker film -- just like an N.F.L. team before the Super

Negreanu says that most great players are geniuses, then lists the kinds of
genius they must have: 1) a thorough knowledge of poker; 2) a mathematical
understanding of the probabilities of a card being dealt, given the cards
visible; 3) a psychological understanding of an opponent; 4) an
understanding of an opponent's betting patterns -- that is, how he bets with
the nuts and how he bets when bluffing; and 5) the ability to read
''tells,'' or a player's physical reactions to the cards he is dealt.
Negreanu is a master at reading tells, although he claims it is an overrated
gift, since only mediocre players have obvious tells. The best players, of
course, have poker faces.

Negreanu says he can break down opponents' hands into a range of 20
possibilities after two cards are dealt. After the next three cards are
dealt, he says, he can narrow the possible hands to five, and after the last
two cards are dealt, to two. ''It's not an exact science,'' he admits, ''but
I can reduce the possibilities based on the cards showing, his betting
pattern, tells, his personality and my pure instinct.''

Shulman, Card Player's co-publisher, connects Negreanu's success to his
personality: ''Daniel controls a table by getting everyone to talk and
forget they're playing for millions,'' he told me. ''He makes every game
seem like a home game -- you know, guys drinking beer and eating chips. They
forget what's happening. Plus, Daniel is the best at reading an opponent's
hands, as if their cards were transparent. He gets guys to play against him
when he has a winning hand and gets them to fold when he has nothing. He's
the King of Bluffing. You know some guys can beat bad players and not good
players, and some vice versa. Daniel does both.''

Beyond Negreanu's knowledge and considerable intelligence, what makes him
truly great is his aggressiveness in a game -- his ruthlessness, some might
say. He once bluffed his own girlfriend, also a professional poker player,
out of a large pot at a tournament. ''I bet with nothing,'' he says, ''and
she folded. To rub it in, I showed her my hand. She was furious. She stormed
into the bathroom, and we could hear her kicking the door, screaming,
smashing stuff. When she came out she kicked me in the shin and said, 'Take
your own cab home.''' She is no longer his girlfriend.

Negreanu began preparing for his poker career when he was a 5-year-old with
''grandiose dreams'' in Toronto. He was a change-of-life baby (his mother
had nine previous miscarriages) raised in an Old World Romanian household.
Before they moved to Toronto in 1967, his mother, Annie, and his father,
Constantin, were so poor in their native country that, according to their
son, they seldom had enough to eat. As a boy, Negreanu says: ''I was big on
numbers and reading people. Mommy would take me to a mall, and I'd see a
couple, the woman rolling her eyes, and I knew she was sick of him but he
loved her.'' As a young teenager, Negreanu was short, so, he says, he never
got the No. 1 girl -- ''Only maybe No. 3'' -- but he was personable and
adaptable enough to fit in with all the school cliques, the ''blacks, nerds,
cool kids.''

By 16, Negreanu was skipping school to play pool. He showed up only for
tests, usually ''acing them,'' he says, especially his math tests. ''My math
teacher was a moron,'' he told me. ''I'd go up to the blackboard and show
him a better way to do it.'' It was at the pool hall that Negreanu learned
poker, becoming a regular at the house games there. He then taught his
classmates to play and ran a daily game in the cafeteria. One day a kid
wrote him a $300 check to cover his losses, and the next day Negreanu was in
the principal's office. ''The principal told me the kid stole the money from
his mother. I said, 'What's that got to do with me?' He expelled me. I said:
'Why me? He stole!' ''

By the time he was 17, Negreanu was playing for as much as $1,500 a night:
''I played noon to 8 p.m. every day and won $45 an hour.'' At 21, he made
enough money to finance a trip to Las Vegas. But he lost the money quickly
and returned home humbled, beginning a vicious cycle that lasted more than a
year. Negreanu would hustle up a bankroll in Toronto, go to Las Vegas and
lose it, return to Toronto for another stake and so on. Eventually he had an
epiphany: he had to stop being so aggressive. ''I realized I can't always be
the bull,'' he says. ''I gotta rein it in and play some defense.''

A few months later in Las Vegas Negreanu had his first big success. At 23,
he became the youngest player to win one of the smaller World Series of
Poker competitions. Shortly after that, he began to win regularly in Las
Vegas in both cash games and tournaments, and soon he had settled there.
Negreanu was on a roll that lasted until he was 26, when he fell in love
with a woman he refers to as Delilah.

''I got careless,'' he says. ''I thought I had plugged all my leaks at 19.''
Leaks can be alcohol, drugs, gambling, women. In Negreanu's case, he was
winning so much money so quickly that he couldn't spend it fast enough. He
began to splurge on expensive dinners, order bottles of Champagne, then try
to play high-stakes poker. ''I began to lose $30,000 a night,'' he says. And
Delilah was distracting him from poker; she never understood that it was his
job and not a game. She called him during his games, pleading with him to
come home because she was lonely. Negreanu was getting calls from two women
while he played poker, his girlfriend and Mommy. Even worse, they were
jealous of each other. ''If Mommy made me breakfast, Delilah's feelings
would be hurt,'' Negreanu says. ''So she'd make me breakfast. Same with
lunch and dinner. Jeez, I was eating two breakfasts, two lunches, two
dinners every day.'' Shortly after he broke up with Delilah, Negreanu went
on a winning streak and formulated another poker rule: ''Avoid the poker
table when there's a crisis in your life.''

Today Negreanu has no crises in his life. He is rich, famous in his field
and happily in love with a woman named Lori Weber. He says she's easygoing,
self-assured and jealous of neither Negreanu's poker nor his mother. (His
father died when Negreanu was 22.) ''I laugh at how much his mother adores
him,'' Weber says. ''Let her do it. It makes her happy.''

One afternoon in early January, Negreanu and a lifelong friend from Toronto,
Jason Morofke, were navigating their way through a crowd of poker players
and fans in the lobby of the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas.
They were there for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament. The
Atlantis is a sunny adult theme park. Rock waterfall pools. An underwater
re-creation of Atlantis. A comedy club. A disco. All forms of gambling. The
Atlantis is where people who don't know how to entertain themselves go.
Negreanu, wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and a jacket with
its collar pulled up around his neck, could walk only a few feet before
being recognized and asked to pose for photographs. Morofke said, ''He's a
celebrity now, but he's still the same guy he was at 17.''

Negreanu plays his celebrity role graciously, which is why Steve Wynn, the
Vegas casino impresario, hired him to be the poker ambassador at his new
casino, Wynn Las Vegas, which opened in April. But in private, Negreanu is
skeptical about poker players being viewed as celebrities. ''I hate
idolatry,'' he told me. ''They're just nerds trying to be great men.''

Negreanu entered a conference room crowded with men and a few women seated
at the 30 or so poker tables. He circulated among them, glad-handing the
players; he seemed to know everybody. Whenever he enters such a crowded
poker room, he told me, he can look around and see all the players he has
lent money to. ''In any given room,'' he said, ''I can see a million dollars
of my money out there. Some guys I back in games, some I give personal
loans, one guy I put in drug rehab. I guess you could say this is my leak. I
was really soft in my 20's. I used to go to L.A. with $30,000, win $20,000
and leave with $20,000.'' He shrugged.

Shulman told me that Negreanu is loved like no other poker player. ''College
kids love him because they think he's one of them,'' he said. ''Mothers love
him. He does things no pro athlete does. He answers all his e-mails. He has
no ego. I haven't seen this in any other sport.''

Texas Dolly Brunson told me: ''I didn't like Daniel at first. He was too
brash, loud, always partying. . . . But he turned his train around. Now he's
one of my favorite people. You know, poker transcends age. There's just this
bond when you put your feet under the table and your hand in the pot.''

Negreanu found his table, No. 14, and sat down beside Morofke. He
acknowledged the eight other players around him. Only one was a seasoned
pro, Yosh Nakano, from Los Angeles. The others were ordinary-looking young
men who would like to become Daniel Negreanu someday. They tried not to
stare at him, but every so often they sneaked a glance. Even the dealer
couldn't help smiling at Negreanu. Before the game began, a woman stopped by
to say hello to Negreanu. She was Evelyn Ng, the former girlfriend Negreanu
bluffed out of a pot. I asked if the story was really true.

''Yes, it's true,'' she said, then faked a kick at his shins. She told me
the problem with their relationship was that both of them were poker players
with big egos. ''I had trouble taking his advice,'' she said. ''He wanted me
to play like him, aggressive, but I was more conservative, so we broke up.''
They later tried dating again but decided they were better as friends.
''Daniel's a great friend,'' Ng said.

Over the next four hours, Negreanu played poker. He was nervous at first,
but as the games assumed a rhythm of their own, he relaxed. There was not
much talk between games, since the players didn't know each other. There
were a few grins, however, when Nakano nodded off during a hand. ''He's been
playing for four days straight in L.A., without sleep,'' Negreanu whispered
to me.

The game continued in silence, players folding hand after hand before the
final cards were dealt. It was boring. Poker is no sprint; it's an endurance
race. But then Negreanu became hot and won six out of seven pots. He put
$10,000 into the eighth pot and smiled at one of his opponents, a beefy man.
''I'm trying to get you all in,'' he said, '''cause I got you beat.'' But
the man wouldn't bite. He flicked his cards toward the dealer. Negreanu
said, ''I had two aces,'' but he didn't show his cards. He showed his cards
a few hands later after he bluffed a player out of a pot with a pair of
threes. He hugged his chips and said, ''My bluff of the day, gentlemen.''

A few hands later, Negreanu bet $3,000 -- '''cause I got the best hand.'' He
tossed a head fake at Morofke. ''You only got ace-king.'' Morofke folded. By
the time the first session was halted for a dinner break at 8 p.m., Negreanu
had built his $10,000 entry fee into $42,000. (He would end up with $11,000,
finishing 75th.) Negreanu went up to his hotel suite with Morofke to relax
for an hour before the second session at 9 p.m. He took off his sneakers and
lay down on the sofa.

''The guys at the table weren't very good,'' Negreanu said. Then, glancing
at Morofke, who is a landscaper and plays poker only occasionally, he added:
''I don't mean you. You played O.K., but you played too many hands. A good
player wants to avoid confrontation unless he has the nuts. A few times I
wanted them to think I was bluffing by taking a long time to place a bet,
but even then I had the nuts. I'm walking through these guys 'cause they're
letting me be aggressive. They're laying down like lambs at the slaughter.''
He grinned. ''My job -- taking money from chumps.''

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