Lee Davy sits down with Daniel Negreanu to talk about learning, cryptocurrency, high rollers and a whole lot more.
When Daniel Negreanu walks into a poker room for the first few seconds, you are catapulted into the scene in American Werewolf in London when the doctor walks into The Slaughtered Lamb. Silence. A dart misses the board.
Only for a few seconds.
Today, things are different. For one, this God of poker doesn’t walk into the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) poker room; he rides in on a mobility scooter. For two, someone is about to win a Platinum Pass, and today, that’s more interesting than PokerStars’ figurehead.
It’s all very Doyle Brunson.
Is this a vision of the future?
Will Negreanu be scooting into poker rooms in his 80s?
“I expect to be playing in my 80s,” Negreanu confirms. “The one difference between Doyle and I is I expect to be running around in my 80s and not driving around on a scooter. I expect to stay in good shape, eat well, and keep my body running like a well-oiled machine.”
A torn ACL is the problem, but a man as blessed as Daniel Negreanu doesn’t spend time worrying about such things. For many of us, the search for meaning and purpose is an arduous one. Negreanu found his true calling very early in life.
“I feel blessed,” says Negreanu. “I was in and out of school as a teenager. I was good at it when I went, but I didn’t have a plan. It’s nice at an early age to have the rest of your life figured out in terms of where the money is coming from.”
What I find most remarkable about Negreanu’s life, given the success he has had, and the opportunities that have come his way is he continues to make poker his primary focus.
“I find interests that last a few years or wane, but I always find fun things to do,” says Negreanu. “I don’t play as much poker as these other guys. Poker is essentially one of those things for me. When I play it’s fun and engaging, but when I’m at home, I’m not playing poker – I’m going to a hockey game, going to the gym, completing fitness goals, reading. Poker ebbs and flows. I have noticed a change in the game in the last two years that has lit a fire under my butt to improve. I have put in a lot of work, and it’s been fun. I always find something fun to do.”
I think of another ‘F.’
“When I was a teenager I enjoyed playing video games, watching sports, betting on sports, doing my fantasy leagues. What a dream life.” Says Negreanu. “Imagine, I am 43 now, and I still do these things. People ask me if I get bored? Never. I have been in the same fantasy drafts since 1996; same guys, and I spend six hours a day listening to hockey podcasts and stuff. I love it.”
In the Autumn, Negreanu competed with the best in the world during the inaugural Poker Masters. It was a competition the Canadian took very seriously, placing numerous bets on himself to win the Purple Jacket. He never featured prominently in the event, and afterwards was humble enough to bow down to the superiority of the new elite, while also vowing to do what he could to get on an even keel.
Negreanu’s 2018 goals include 120 hours of learning, but what does that look like?
“I come into this learning thing with 20-years of experience,” says Negreanu. “It comes exclusively from an exploitative mindset. I’m not focused on game theory or what is the correct play against a robot. I realise when I play at the highest level they understand everything that I see exploitatively, and when you’re trying to exploit people, by definition, you become exploitable.
“I began working with two guys – one is a computer scientist who solved Limit Hold’em a few years ago. They have helped me to think about hands differently than I did before. Look at this hand and think, “What is the perfect hand against a robot?” Now, take that information and ask yourself, “How do I adjust to Lee Davy? Normally I should bluff 50% of the time here, but Lee thinks I bluff too much, and he over calls, so I will bluff 25% and exploit him.” What is the correct play, and what adjustment do I make to my opponent? I am playing a hybrid of GTO and Exploitative, and that’s what the best players do.
“It essentially enhances the skills that I already have. Now I have a mathematical basis to do this at game speed. They taught me short tricks to do the math. I’m playing shot clock events with 30-seconds to make my decisions. It’s been fascinating. I have to be honest; it was very intimidating at the beginning. The first 30-minutes of every session when we’re working on a new concept, I would think, “Wow, I might not be able to do this.” Then a half an hour in I was getting it. We are doing something called ‘drilling’. Where we start with a concept, that’s hard, and we keep doing it until I get it.”
I know I harp on about it, but I mention to Negreanu, Dominik Nitsche’s view that Libratus is the poker player we should all be learning from. Negreanu has a different view.
“He’s right, and he isn’t right. If you’re playing on a computer, Libratus is the right one to learn from in terms of gameplay, but there is still a human element to poker,” says Negreanu. “It may be lessened in the highest levels in terms of picking up reads on your opponents, but it’s there, and will always be there. Libratus says you should call this guy 20% of the time with 20% of my range, but now you notice something specific, and you think, “Forget that 20%, this is going up to 100%.” Those thoughts are what make the difference between high stakes online poker, and high stakes live poker.”
One aspect that the elite has used to strengthen their stranglehold on the competition is the merits of group learning. When I look at Negreanu, he cuts a lonely figure. Social, yes. But he doesn’t fit into a tribe. I wonder if this is something he plans on changing?
“When I grew up playing I had a study group with Allen Cunningham, Phil Ivey and John Juanda,” said Negreanu. “We would go to dinner, discuss hands, be honest with each other and be helpful. That helped us all get better, and that’s what you see with the young Germans and other study groups. I haven’t had this in the past few years because I wasn’t running in those circles. That’s why I have started working with these guys from Hybrid Poker. I also work with Eric Wasserson and Lex Veldhuis on occasion.
“I have put together a Personalised Strategic Plan (PSP) – Oct, Nov; Dec was three-month of study. I had a gameplan of completing 4-6 hours, 4-times a week working with them and drilling on my own to get up to speed. I am going to continue doing that going forward because I think it’s very important.
“Let’s take the Germans and say there are six of them in a tournament. They have a Whatsapp text line. They are sharing hands that other people are playing. They’ll play a hand, put it into the discussion group. They also have someone at home who takes the hand, punches it into a Solver and tells them what the right play is. These guys are studying while they are playing so they learn in real time.”
That behaviour seems to be pushing the ethical and moral boundaries to the limit.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” says Negreanu. “Collusion is a different story, but I have never seen any evidence of that, and we’re smart enough at that level to notice. I have no problem with people deciding to share information to get better as a group. It makes sense. It’s a smart business decision.”
I never believed the High Roller part of the ecosystem would have become such a crucial aspect of it. I assumed the money would die out and this stratum would shrivel up and die. Today, it’s stronger than ever.
“It’s gotten bigger,” confirms Negreanu. “Part of the reason, you can’t ignore crypto, so a lot of these guys have a lot more money. This is a year where people are going to put in $5m in buy-ins. It will be the biggest year ever for most of these guys. I’m like you; I was surprised to see it continued to thrive as it has. As long as you continue to have 2-3 non-professionals or weaker professionals, I think it will continue to happen.”
So the High Rollers are becoming crypto-traders.
That makes sense.
I ask Negreanu how he feels about crypto?
“Frustrated,” said Negreanu. “When Bitcoin was at $700. I told my guys to buy a couple of hundred thousand. We never got around to it, and finally, I realised it was $16,000. Part of me is thinking, “Is it too late to get into it now?” Then, I think about the barrier of entry and how difficult I found it to get in, and I see we’re very early because it’s not easy to use.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I know people who do, so I have invested some money with people who will buy and sell for me. There is a danger when people are putting in 80% of their bankroll into this stuff. I put enough in so if it grows it will be amazing, but if I lose it-it won’t change my life one bit. If people are trying to do crypto, then I suggest they invest money that represents less than 10% of their net worth.”
Does Negreanu see the big three online poker rooms moving to crypto?
“The only way they would ever do this is if it’s regulated,” says Negreanu. “They are not going to risk it. PokerStars is regulated in various markets, and until those governments regulate the use of it and it’s globally accepted, they won’t touch it.”
Barry Carter, Editor of PokerStrategy, tweeted something along the lines of the first room to go big on crypto will have a sizeable advantage in the PokerStars v partypoker dick swinging contest that is currently invigorating the poker world. I ask Negreanu to share his views on the growth of partypoker.
“First and foremost I want to say, “It’s about fucking time.” Said Negreanu. “Pre Black Friday, we had Full Tilt and other factions spending money on ads and promotions to compete. Since Black Friday, PokerStars has been the only company spending money on poker and bringing new players in. The other companies strategy has been – once they come in, we’ll try and steal them. Now we see a surge in competition it’s good for players and good for PokerStars.
“You can see the event we’re doing, the PSPC, anytime you’re alone in an industry with no competition there is a danger of maximising profit. This is a public company with a fiduciary responsibility to grow it. You do that by raising costs, cutting back on things – if you don’t do that it’s illegal and you can get fired.
“A lot of what people are harking to in the old days of Isai Scheinberg – when it was a private company – it’s not realistic in a space where you have stockholders and shareholders. The question is how far do you go before you piss off the players and lose the base and I say PokerStars flirted with that line. Going forward with the competition, they realise that’s not something you can push too far on. You have to be mindful of the brand damage it causes.”
And the players?
What do they want from PokerStars?
“The players want it to be 2004 again where a whole lot of people suck at poker, the pros are not that good, and any random guy can make a ton of money,” says Negreanu. “That doesn’t exist, and it will never come back. We have to accept that online poker is much tougher than what it was.
“A random guy in 2004 with $300. He could sit at $1/$2 and would last a month or two. Today, he wouldn’t last a week. He would get crushed. The good players are too good. The weaker players move to Spin & Go – games that are fun so they can lose their money slowly.
“The pros hate this because it takes money out of the ecosystem. But guess what else is bad for the ecosystem? You! There are three parts: the losing player, the rake, the winning player. It’s amazing how pros see rake as bad but not themselves, which is primarily down to selfish motivation.”
There is one man who believes he understands what the players want and can create an online poker room to serve.
“I am excited about this project for a number of reasons,” says Negreanu. “PokerStars is taking the position that these changes were necessary to sustain themselves and a lot of pros disagreed. If Galfond is successful, he will prove PokerStars wrong. If he is unable to do that it will reinforce their point. It’s not like PokerStars invented Spin & Gos, everyone understands the market has changed. There is so much competition in entertainment. We have video games, the Candy Crushes of this world – if we don’t create something that invigorates these people we lose them.
“Power Up is designed to have a crossover. PokerStars have always tried, in terms of innovation of the product and marketing, to understand that if all of this money is going out because of the rake and winning players, new money has to come in to replace it. If you stop this flow of money, the whole thing’s gone. If you have a game of eight pros, it’s not going to happen. You have to focus on how to keep this fun for people. Spin & Go brings people to the site, and maybe they might play some tournaments and enjoy themselves.”
And the role of the ambassador of poker?
Recently, Vanessa Selbst left her position at Stars, and her parting gift was a declaration that she couldn’t promote poker because it was too hard for people to win.
“First of all it’s not true,” says Negreanu. “I would add that you have to be completely honest and transparent. Like my goals from last year. I cashed for $2.8m and lost $80k. To do this takes hard work. It’s not easy. If you want to have some fun in poker that’s available to you. If you want to become a pro, telling people the truth of how difficult it is, and the reality of the situation is important. I don’t tell people to come to PokerStars and make millions, that’s disingenuous. I don’t have a problem in my role telling people to have some fun, enjoy yourself, improve and you could potentially become a winning player.”