Say what you will about Daniel Negreanu. Go ahead. There’s nothing that hasn’t been said before. Talk about his eating habits. Talk about his ego. Talk about his intentions. You’re not going to say anything new.
Kid Poker is a polarizing figure in poker. There is no one in the game as successful as Negreanu who also lives his life so ear-shatteringly aloud. Negreanu is a man of opinions–some controversial–that he seems almost compelled to share with the world. For many people, this turns Negreanu into a figure one either loves or hates.
Know this: if you’re one of his haters, you’re in the minority. There are a lot more people who are on the love side of that coin, and you only have to watch Negreanu for a few minutes to see why.
By 2007, Daniel Negreanu had already established himself as one of poker’s best and most beloved players. That year, PokerStars made what was unquestionably its biggest-ever pick-up when it signed Kid Poker to its Team PokerStars Pro stable.
There are more than a few reasons why PokerStars put a red spade on Negreanu’s chest. He’s among the best in the game. He is a good spokesman. He works hard.
Even if none of those things were enough, he’d likely still be a Team Pro based on one thing alone: his fans love him, and those fans outnumber everybody else’s in a way that’s hard to accurately quantify.
There are a lot of reasons for this. There is probably a book to be written about just how he’s managed to turn himself from a pool hustler into one of the world’s most recognizable poker players. Nevertheless, for the many reasons he is successful, there should be no discounting of what might be his greatest talent:
He knows how to be nice to his fans.
Over the past decade in poker, there has been a never-ending chorus of people who have spent countless hours whining about how they can’t get a poker sponsorship. They’re good at the game. They’ve won lots of money. “Why?” they have often wondered aloud. “Why won’t a poker company sponsor me? How am I any different than Daniel Negreanu?”
To answer that question, you only have to go on Twitter and ask, “Have you ever had your picture taken with Daniel Negreanu?”
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Ten years ago, Lori Johnson started going to the World Series of Poker so her mother could see Daniel Negreanu. Each year, they would find him and spend as much time on his rail as they could.
On one of those trips, Johnson and her mother were watching Negreanu and Todd Brunson at the same table during the WSOP Main Event. That’s when Negreanu turned around and posed a question for Johnson’s 72-year-old mother.
“Have you ever smoked pot?”
“I told her to plead the fifth. ESPN was there and dozens of other fans,” Johnson said.
But Mama Johnson wasn’t going to miss her chance to talk to Kid Poker.
“One time,” she admitted for everybody to hear.
Negreanu and the rest of the table laughed. “I want to hear the story,” he said.
“So, while they are all playing in the $10,000 Main Event, everyone at the table listens to my mom’s story of how her and my dad somehow got a ‘marijuana cigarette’,” Johnson said.
“A joint?” Negrenau said.
“Yes. A joint,” Mama Johnson said. “We went into the bathroom and each took one puff, and then my daughter came home and said that it smelled like pot in the house.”
Negreanu looked and the younger Johnson woman and said, “You are so busted.”
Though it was at least seven years ago, Lori remembers it like it was yesterday.
“Now she is known as the pot lady on the rail,” Loris said. “Each and every time we have seen him since then he has made it a point to wave my mom and I over if he is way back behind the ropes, or he comes up to the ropes and makes sure to take a picture of her. In fact last year when we were there, he was way in the back and waved us back. So, we walked back and he gave her a hug and took a picture. She looked at all the guys he was playing with at the table and said she was sorry but that she wanted Daniel to take all of their chips. They all laughed.”
Last summer, Negreanu had promised the Johnson women they would have a seat in the Penn & Teller Theater if he made the November Nine. They were crushed when he missed it, but it did nothing to stop their love for him.
“All I know is just how great is treats my mom, and that’s all I need to know about him,” Johnson said. “He said she reminds him of his mother. Someone saying that–who truly loved their mom–really meant the world to me.”
It is no fluke. This is how Negreanu lives his life. Though he is a guarded man who values his privacy and his time alone, he routinely goes out of his way to accommodate the people he puts above himself: his fans.
There will be people–even smart, good people–who write off the above as hyperbole or will say it’s all tainted by Negreanu’s self-interest. They are free to believe that, but it will make no difference to Negreanu’s fans. Even people who don’t like his opinions end up liking him.
Take Kyle Bernard, for instance.
He loves Negreanu’s game, and he hates his politics. Last summer, Bernard happened to see Negreanu talking politics on Twitter.
“I decided to tweet at him because of our difference in views. I instantly got a response and was pretty pumped that my favorite player took the time to respond to me,” Bernard said.
It didn’t end there. The conversation continued through the 2015 American political season.
“It wasn’t just tweets of politics,” Bernard said. “There were others, like him playing soccer, being a beast pumping iron, something vegan, and some like his goal settings and other inspirational tweets. Most of the time he’s debating someone because obviously not everyone agrees with everything he posts–he could say the sky’s blue and he’d get debated.”
Last November, Bernard ran into him at Jennifer Harman’s NSPCA charity event.
“He was trying to get situated and find a table to be seated. so I walked up to him and said ‘Hey, I’m Kyle’ as I shook his hand,” Bernard said. “He replied quickly with, ‘Hey, I know who you are’ with a slight chuckle. The first thing he says is, ‘This is the guy that talks trash to me on twitter all the time!’ We go back and forth talking politics as usual, and I finally asked him for a picture, which is where that picture comes from with the look of ‘It’s this guy’ on his face.”
The stories go on and on. There are the fans on the rail. There are the amateurs at the table. And then, there is the star-struck Seniors player who waited for Negreanu to finish eating at the Empire Casino before asking for a photo.
“I liked him because of how much of an icon he is,” Karl Parrish said. “Even now I have the photo framed and hanging on office wall.”
“He’s someone I look up to not only as a player but as someone who is an ambassador for something he loves and has a great passion for,” said Jose Miguel Meneses after meeting Negreanu at the debut of the documentary Kid Poker.
Now in his 40s, Negreanu has been around long enough to see something not many pros do: his fans have become his opponents.
Years ago, now EPT-champ Rupert Elder was a still a kid with a dream.
“Back then the pool of top pros I recognised off TV was a lot less diluted than it is now,” Elder said. “In the UK I watched WPT and WSOP coverage, and Daniel was very prominent in all of them. So I was without a doubt a fan boy. I’m still a fan, even though I disagree with him on many issues he has been vocal about. But I also see him more as a fellow professional now – poker player as well as superstar.”
What’s more, Elder still has the picture he took with Negreanu after running into him at 5am in the Coral Lobby of the Atlantis resort.
For most of his fans, the idea of earning $250,000 a year is a dream that might never realize. Nevertheless, they flock to his rail, scrunch in for selfies, and proudly keep those photos on their phone to show off wherever they can.
Before the end of the day, Daniel Negreanu will likely say something or post a Tweet that frustrates or angers a legion of people around the world. He’ll probably pick a position and fight for it until there’s nothing but scorched earth below his feet. He’ll find some new and clever way to get under someone’s skin. He will do all of this, seemingly, for the sport of it.
And when he’s done, no matter how many people are flaming him on the internet or mumbling curses under their breath, Negreanu fans will outnumber his detractors by a factor so big, it’s not even worth calculating.
It’s simple, really.
Because he’s Daniel Negreanu. Love him or hate him, beyond being one of the best poker players in the world, he is hands down the best ambassador the game has ever had.
Want to see more photos of Negreanu & fans through the years? We’ve posted a gallery below
Other stories from this series:
Meet PokerStars’ longest-serving player of all time
The ghosts of WCOOP
The Moneymaker Boom that almost wasn’t
Alexander Stevic and the start of a new era in poker
The PokerStars Sunday Million Two-Timer Club
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.