Rafa vs The World: Behind the scenes

When you walk into a room in a hotel, you almost never know who was there just before you arrived. You would never know you almost saw two men who are so famous, they have a hard time walking down the street without being besieged by fans.

There is no one else in this hotel conference room except the man in glasses against the wall. He's studying a piece of paper in one hand and his phone in the other. Miami's Biscayne Bay, its blue-green water, and its luxury yachts are just on the other side of the window. A couple of floors below, archeologists are carefully digging in a 2,000-year-old Tequesta Indian village that construction crews recently found under the site of a major development. There is beauty and history no matter which way you turn, but the man in the glasses can't be bothered. He's preparing.


The view outside the conference room


Archeologists dig in the middle of downtown Miami

Miami is overrun with tennis players--hopefuls, up-and-comers, and world champions. The Sony Open is about to start, and the hotel on the edge of the bay is home to more than a few of the players. Among them is world No. 1, Rafa Nadal. Somewhere many floors above the conference room, Rafa is getting cleaned up after a workout. In a matter of minutes, he will be in the room, and there is no small amount of anxiety about what will happen next.

That man in the glasses is Daniel Negreanu, one of the world's most successful poker players, but a man who's live television experience as a presenter has been limited to one hour of Romanian football coverage (which, naturally, he did while speaking Romanian). When the TV cameras turn on, it will only be Negreanu and Rafa in front of the lens, and that's why Kid Poker is studying.

"Does Rafa have 13 or 14 Grand Slams?" Negreanu calls out to no one in particular. The answer is 13, and Negreanu makes a note. All around him, men are streaming in to fix the lights, check the sound, and make sure everything is right for Rafa's arrival.


Negreanu preps for Rafa's arrival

Rafa and Negreanu have met before. They played a star-studded charity poker event in Prague together in December. Rafa won, hoisted the trophy, and then went back to training for the 2014 tennis season.

"A lot of times you will have someone who is number one in the world, and they develop an ego," Negreanu says. "He's just very humble despite his success. In terms of him being successful in poker, that's not surprising to me, because guys like him that are so driven, they don't like to lose. He takes it pretty seriously."

Negreanu--for all his laid-back banter at the poker table--takes his job seriously, too. The devil-may-care style Negreanu uses to make big money tournaments feel like a home game is less an act than it is art. It comes with more preparation than he would ever let on when he has cards in front of him. By the time Rafa arrives, Negreanu will have been studying and practicing for two hours.


Negreanu checks in on the camera set-up

The event is the Rafa vs. The World webcast, an event put on to highlight Rafa's talents and the PokerStars Play Facebook app. Rafa will be taking on the rest of the world in a play money contest on the six-max Zoom poker tables. He'll get two points for every hand he wins. The World will get a point for every hand it wins after the flop. The whole contest will play out on a live webcast broadcast around the world.

And that's why there is some anxiety. What happens if the power goes out? What happens if Facebook crashes? What happens if am asteroid hits the satellite? There are contingencies in place for everything. There are spare cables. There are spare laptops. Bruce Willis and the Armageddon team are on standby in case of asteroids (no, not really, but I'm on the property and I occasionally pretend to be Bruce's cousin--close enough).


Team Pro manager John Caldwell sits in for Rafa in the dress rehearsal

With five minutes left before the webcast starts, Rafa walks in the room. He's wearing shorts and a comfortable shirt. His hair is wet. He looks as relaxed as anybody who has been in the room all day. But there is something intense about the living tennis legend. He's got his eyes focused on the laptop. He's ready to play. The webcast organizers waste no time. They get Rafa in his seat, pin a mic to his shirt, and put the mouse in his hand.


Negreanu greets Rafa


Showing Rafa the set-up


Just a little to the right


Rafa readies himself to win

Minutes later, there is a countdown, and the webcast is on. Negreanu looks as relaxed as he is in a $1,000 turbo. Rafa looks as intense as he does when he's down a set in a Grand Slam. Meanwhile, fans are shooting questions via Twitter to Rafa about everything from his most feared opponent to his favorite shampoo. You can see how it all plays out here, but suffice it to say, Rafa won. Because that's what Rafa does.


Negreanu asks Rafa about his favorite shampoo...because The People want to know!

Just as soon as it begins, it's over. Rafa is all smiles, exhaling and happy. There was no monetary prize for winning, but that doesn't matter. Rafa wanted to win, and he did. He's happy enough to take pictures with the crew, sign a few autographs, and kick his feet up for a bit before retiring to his room.


Rafa on the autograph line

Meanwhile, Negreanu already has his luggage in hand. He's headed for Toronto to pick up his brother before heading out to a Cabo vacation. He'll be re-charging there before heading to the EPT Monaco Grand Final.

And then the room is empty. The crew loads out. It looks just like any hotel conference room. Anyone who pokes his head in would never know he was just minutes away from seeing two legends at the top of their games.


is the PokerStars Head of Blogging

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in Rafa Nadal