Toronto’s poker king

Ahead of the World Series of Poker, Daniel Negreanu on the game, T.O.'s underground clubs and his hope for an NHL Vegas expansion team


When he was a teenager in the 80s, the back room of a Toronto billiards hall was a frequent destination for Daniel Negreanu. It was a regular stop to chalk up a cue and pocket some balls. But soon, the back room became more interesting than the pool table.

A regular poker tournament was held back there, and he wanted in on the action. Negreanu soon found that his skill with cards outmatched his cue stick skills. At the first poker tournament the young cardsharp ever played, he finished fifth  – the beginnings of a career that would earn him prestige, television appearances, and, of course, a ton of cash.

“I had a lot of drive and even more self confidence,” he says. “I was always learning something every time I sat down at a table and would study the best players in the game until I felt like I had figured out what makes them work.”

The tournament became a weekly ritual for Negreanu. Soon, he was playing cash games at other private clubs for a few years until the Ontario government opened up charity casinos offering poker games.

On May 27, players from around the world converge on Las Vegas for the biggest event in poker – the World Series of Poker. With more than 60 events, the series offers a chance at poker glory and the biggest prize in poker – a gold bracelet. Negreanu will be back at the tables, hoping to add to his collection of six bracelets and his all-time high of almost $30 million in tournament winnings.

Negreanu, 40, learned the ropes here in Toronto, including the ups and downs that come being a professional gambler. In the poker world, “going broke” is a rite of passage and became a learning opportunity for the young player as a teenager and in his early 20s.

“I wasn’t looking to settle for mediocrity so I dreamed big, took my shots aggressively, and when you do that, you are going to go broke sometimes,” he says. “I didn’t mind it too much. I had loads of confidence that I would succeed and if that meant having to borrow money occasionally, I figured it would only make me stronger.”

The affable Negreanu, who now lives in Las Vegas, has become one of the biggest names in poker and is known for his ability to read players and frequently name what cards they have in their hand.

“It requires work, study, and experience to master it,” he says of the game. “Just like any career. It’s not just trying to get lucky gambling, it requires immense dedication to get good at the game.”

Last year, Negreanu was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. He has been sponsored by online site PokerStars for years, and was also recently named a partner for the new Poker Central television network.

In recent months, Negreanu has gotten involved in another passion: hockey. Specifically, he hopes to help bring an NHL expansion team to Las Vegas. As a boy, he was such an avid Maple Leafs fan he would cry if they lost, and remembers playing street hockey until dark almost every day after school in front of his house. Now, in between posting his playoff wagers on Twitter, he’s trying to drum up interest in bringing an NHL team to Sin City.

“I really like the prospective owner Bill Foley and I’m confident that hockey will work in Vegas,” Negreanu says. “There are 2.2 million people in Las Vegas starving for a professional sports team. The base is there. Sure there is no hockey culture in Las Vegas at the moment, but wasn’t that true of thriving franchises like the San Jose Sharks?”

Foley is head of a mortgage and title company based in Jacksonville, Florida, and is heading up the NHL efforts with the Maloof brothers, owners of the Palms Casino. Negreanu is part of a founding group that helped to sell over 10,000 season tickets to help prove there is a desire for a team in the city. So far, the poker pro has only been part of the ticket sales drive, but may be interested in being part of an ownership group.

“That depends on what it looks like, but I am certainly interested in exploring it,” he says. “Going forward, once the franchise is awarded, I may be involved as a minority owner.”

“Kid Poker” might bring an infectious personality to the NHL, which could certainly help with marketing efforts in the Silver State should a franchise be awarded.

“People here will learn to love hockey, and this city has the added bonus of tourism,” he says. “People don’t go to Columbus to watch the Blue Jackets and make a vacation out of it. That will happen with the Vegas team. If Calgary is playing in Vegas, you can bet that people will use that as a great excuse to make a quick Vegas trip – good for the city, and good for filling the seats.”

In the meantime, Negreanu will be back at the poker table this week in the Rio Resort and Casino looking for another big score. Don’t bet against him.

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. Email him at seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net or follow him @PokerTraditions. His new book, Raising the Stakes: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering & Poker Faces is available on Amazon.com.

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