Today, Daniel Negreanu is known as one of the most popular players in poker, a de facto spokesperson for many in the game. Known as ‘Kid Poker’, Negreanu has appeared in movies, televised poker games, podcasts, radio shows and live streams and played at the top table for over 20 years. With hundreds of thousands of followers on his social media channels alone, Negreanu is perhaps the most popular mainstream player poker has seen.
Back in 1999, Negreanu was a comparative unknown. Identified as ‘Kid’ – “not ‘The Kid’, that was Stu Ungar’s moniker” – the Canadian was a young man who was starting to become successful. Despite this, he had never played poker on television, so when he sat down at the final of the U.S. Poker Championship in Atlantic City, it was his first time playing under the glare of television lighting.
Some hands give a poker player the confidence to walk that little bit taller. Heads up with John Bonetti, Daniel ‘Kid Poker’ Negreanu was about to play the hand that would change his life.
The Young Buck Rises Through the Herd
“I knew of John Bonetti; he was a big star at the time.”
Back in December 1999, while the world was petrified of Y2K and just a fortnight away from a new millennium, Negreanu was ploughing through the field in the U.S. Poker Championship. A year earlier, Negreanu had played events at Foxwoods, in Atlantic City and in Las Vegas leading up to the WSOP where he won his bracelet. Now was the big one – a first TV appearance at a final table.
“I was making a name for myself,” he describes. “In 1999, capping that off with a televised final, I went from the young rookie to the established threat, a real pro on the tour.”
There wasn’t the wall-to-wall poker coverage in 1999 that there is today. Other than Cardplayer Magazine and the odd ESPN appearance, players only had forums that were in their infancy with which to spread the word about their skills. It made the biggest tournaments all the more important. There were only two $10k buy-ins – the WSOP Main Event and the U.S. Poker Championship. Making it all the way to the final two, Negreanu was taking on someone he considered something of a mentor.
“I was 25 years old, a young buck on the scene,” says Negreanu. “I was travelling the poker circuit and knew of John Bonetti; he was a big star at the time. I took a liking to him. He had a mafia vibe, but he was a jokester, always having fun.”
It was Negreanu’s first time on television, and he looked the part. Introduced to the poker world on ESPN, he was wearing what he called his ‘Andre Agassi tracksuit’ and topped off the look with an earring and Nike hat. That was very much Negreanu’s self-styled image back in the 20th century.
“I always wore a tracksuit for tournaments, and I got a little fanny pack for all my money and stuff. I had my cash, wallet, room keys, poker notes, results – it was before cell phones were a thing! I was oddly really comfortable immediately on camera. When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be an actor. I didn’t feel nervous. I remember that being strange.”
The Protégé Takes on The Master
“I talked about taking big risks. This was an opportunity [where] I can win – I’m drawing live.”
Thanks to his first bracelet win in 1998, Negreanu had made his name among his poker peers already but winning a huge tournament on TV would mark a major breakthrough. The final table went well, Negreanu eliminating third-placed Jason Viriyayuthakorn to send play heads-up. Against Bonetti, however, things weren’t going to plan.
“We got heads up and I started to feel like the underdog against him. I felt like he was playing better than I was. Sometimes you can just tell; the guy was winning all the pots in the trenches, digging out these situation shots, I was getting outplayed. I made a strategy shift. I understood that if I wanted to win, I’d have to take some risks.”
Negreanu raised the button with his suited cards and Bonetti called with ace-ten.
“I bet the flop, he shoved and I relaxed that in that moment.”
Negreanu was a 45% shot to win the hand with two cards to come, so it was a huge decision for his stack. But of course, he didn’t know that. It was at that moment that Kid Poker had to have a conversation with himself about that change of strategy. Such alterations are easy in theory, but it always comes down to whether you can commit the chips to the decision.
“I talked about taking big risks,” Negreanu smiles. “This was an opportunity that no matter what he has I can win – I’m drawing live. I called. We were basically even in chips, he had three or four big blinds left [over].”
Suddenly, Negreanu went from near a coinflip to being a worse than 4:1 dog in the hand. It’s easy to presume that any emotions Negreanu felt at the time were heightened due to his age, but that’s not the case.
“I have them even more now!” he laughs. “The turn was the ace of hearts [made me] little anxious, like ‘Oh sh**, did I screw up? He turned aces and tens…. then I hit a spade.”
On seeing the fifth spade to complete his flush slide into the river position on the felt, Negreanu stood quickly, turning to his opponent, whose face fell. In that instant, it is as if the jovial, chatty nature of Bonetti is transferred like a baton between relay runners. The passing of the torch.
“I busted him on the very next hand,” says Negreanu. I still have the check (pictured below), it’s on my wall. After I got that money, I jumped right into an $800/$1,600 game. This is before wiring money. I won some more and on the way home, I’m carrying the check, while in my bag was a pile of laundry and under that, all the money. I’m going back to Vegas literally advertising what I’d won.”
Life Is Never the Same
“I didn’t care about money that much, back then, or now, or ever.”
That hand didn’t just change Negreanu’s life. It changed Negreanu. Unafraid of strolling through the airport with a bag full of dollars for a journey back home, life was never going to be the same again. His old life simply didn’t exist to return to.
“It put me front and center in the poker world,” he tells us. “When you win a big buy-in tournament with a $210,000 top prize… that was a lot of money back then. It brought me more into the mainstream. I started to write for Cardplayer as a result and became a voice in the game. I didn’t care about money that much, back then, or now, or ever. I just enjoyed winning. I’ve always felt, if anyone ever took the money, it would be fine. I’d just win more anyway.”
Negreanu says he has ‘never thought’ about what might have happened if Bonetti’s two-pair held and he came second, but the Canadian certainly had his fair share of moments that didn’t go right.
“The year Carlos Mortensen won the [WSOP] Main Event, I came 11th and was chipleader with 12 left, losing a key hand. If I’d won that hand, who knows? But everything seemed to work out pretty good.”
To say the least, that is an understatement. Daniel Negreanu, the most well-known poker face on the planet for the last two decades sits third on the all-time money list. On losing or painful moments, Negreanu is philosophical.
“Any time you have a breakdown in life, it’s an opportunity for a breakthrough. Going broke or having traumatic losses drives me to be better. Just in the last couple of years, I went through – from a luck perspective in all-ins – the worst period in my career. It’s been really difficult. My wife always says I’m resilient.”
Winning at Life
“I got the wife I always wanted, I have the life I always wanted.”
Negreanu is a major part of poker history but you get the impression that he hasn’t lived in the past for one day in his life. His passion for the game of poker is rooted in tournaments thanks to his formative years.
“Cash games are a job; you punch in, punch out, you win money, but there’s no leaderboard, no point to it,” he says. “Ever since I was a child, I created my own tournaments. I created leaderboards with my wrestlers. I’d create a bracket of 16 of them, roll a die and keep track. The guy who won the tournament got 50 points, second place got 40, I’d keep a record. My Mom would be like ‘What are all these papers?’.
Today, that love of playing with a leaderboard in mind is part of what brings Negreanu back to the table.
“I just played the U.S. Poker Open because there was a Player of the Series award,” he says. “What PokerGO is doing in the studio is really fun; they create a system so that by the last event, which is worth a lot more, a whole bunch of people are in the running. That’s what gets me to go. That’s why the World Series of Poker is the most fun for me.”
Negreanu admits that he has changed hugely in the last two decades, not just in how he behaves, but in his own perception of himself, and how much he cares.
“In your twenties, you definitely care what other people think. No doubt, it matters. In your thirties, you care but a little bit less. You realise not everyone is going to like you. In my forties, I give zero f***s. I got the wife I always wanted, I have the life I always wanted. I am the authentic version of myself. I always had a cinematic view of things and how to sell it, but as you get older you realise that what sells is authenticity.”
The life and soul of the table in 1999 was a man called John Bonetti, who sadly passed away in 2008. In the penultimate hand of the U.S. Poker Championship, Bonetti’s enthusiasm for the game was infectious and you can see how his flair rubbed off on the ‘Kid’ sitting opposite him at the felt.
You can watch the hand that changed Daniel Negreanu’s life right here: