Daniel Negreanu‘s first tournament score was over 20 years ago. Since then he’s become poker’s all-time leading money earner with $35,269,814 in winnings and become one of the most widely recognized poker players in the world, if not the most. And yet the 42-year-old recently realized he needed to go back to school if he wanted to continue to consider himself elite.
After posting just one cash – an eighth-place finish for $102,000 – in five PokerMasters events, Negreanu looked around the table and recognized that the high roller tournaments were being dominated by one group of players, and if he was going to continue to play in them, he needed to change some things about his approach.
“I’ve been playing poker 20 years, so I know the difference between running bad and playing bad or being outclassed. I know I had been running bad in those things, there’s no question, but there’s no real value in focusing on that stuff because it’s out of your control,” said Negreanu. “What I can focus on, what about the little spots? I’m getting outplayed in those. And that was happening more than I’d like.”
The Poker Masters events allowed Negreanu to get a better-than-front-row view as to what the German players were doing and how they were dominating the high rollers.
“It became pretty obvious to me that as a team, not in any collusive way, the Germans have worked together to become really, really good at this specific format and they’re sharing information with each other,” said Negreanu. “So I knew that in order for me to be able to compete that I needed to find some people that I could do that with today, that’s more up to date on what’s available in terms of learning tools.”
While trying to figure out what his approach should be or who he should start working with, Negreanu’s agent, Brian Balsbaugh, mentioned that he knew of two players who were interested in taking on more coaching projects and might be right up his alley. Negreanu was skeptical at first, but agreed to meet with them and hear their pitch.
“I really liked what they had to share. They showed me some data, and they showed me some flaws in other peoples systems and I said, ‘Let’s make this thing work’,” said Negreanu. “I went into partnership with them to work hard for two to three months, three to four times a week at the house for five or six hours a day. It’s been a combination of a lot of different things we’re studying and I’d say we’re probably 25-30% of the way down. There’s a lot more to go.”
As Negreanu sat down with “Matt and MJ” for their first coaching session, Negreanu found himself intimidated by what they were coaching and wondered if he’d ever be able to pick it up and change his game.
“Then a couple of hours in, I was like ‘Wait – I get it!’ I was starting to get it. For 20 years in poker, I’ve been thinking 100% exploitatively, just do things based on what your opponents perceive of you. So learning how to come from a more game theory baseline was totally alien to me. I didn’t grow up with that. It was a little hard in the beginning, but it’s really helped a lot of balance and aggression to my game,” said Negreanu.
German players such as Fedor Holz, Steffen Sontheimer and Stefan Schillhabel have turned the high roller poker world on its head over the past few years by emphasizing the game theory optimal approach to the game. While that’s a big part of what Negreanu is learning now, it’s not everything he’s working on.
“I love the way they teach things because they’re essentially a hybrid. They’re not teaching me how to play GTO, because GTO is not the best way to play, it’s just not. Theoretically, exploitative play is better. The problem with exploitative play is you become exploitable,” said Negreanu. “What I think about now is what would be the GTO line if I was playing a robot? Then I deviate by saying, well this guy’s not a robot, he folds way too often, so I’m going to up my bluffing frequency an extra 20-30% or this guy never folds so I’m going to go down. So I’m deviating from what would be considered the correct play against a robot.”
After taking time off and focusing on re-tooling his game, Negreanu jumped back into action last week at the Bellagio for a $100,000 Super High Roller event, eventually finishing runner-up behind Dan Smith and earning $936,000 in the process. While he ultimately didn’t win the event, Negreanu’s quite happy with the outcome not only because it came with a huge cash score, but proved to him he’s on the right path.
“I like the results. The results are good. I essentially feel like I won that tournament. I got it in with 82% for all the chips and I did everything I could to win that tournament. I felt really, really good about a wide variety of things,” said Negreanu.