For years, Daniel Negreanu has been obsessed with the Rocky movie franchise and as the Doug Polk vs. Daniel Negreanu Challenge became official, the six-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner immediately painted himself in the same light as Rocky Balboa: the plucky underdog with nothing to lose taking on the champ.
That iconography might work for Negreanu, but this challenge isn’t Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed. Polk can’t be Creed. Creed was the reigning and defending heavyweight champ when his originally scheduled challenger, Mac Lee Green, had to pull out of a championship fight after breaking his hand. That fight was born out of necessity and convenience for Creed, not some long standing feud between two pugilists coming to a head in dramatic fashion.
Rocky director John G. Arvidsen won an Academy Award in 1976 for his work on that film. Eight years later he directed another box office hit that, while it didn’t win him any more Oscars, might be a better cinematic fit and provide a stronger analogy for personifying the role of Polk in what we’re going to see play out over the next few months.
The Karate Kid.
For the seven of you who haven’t seen it: the film centers around two characters who develop a dislike for each which, through a series of smaller confrontations, turns into a deep-seated hatred. They decide to settle their differences one-on-one (kind of) at the All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship. Narrative-wise, one of them is a bully, angry at the world and looking for somebody to take out his aggression on, while the other is an innocent combatant, forced to stand up for himself and his ideals after growing tired of the other’s act.
But which one is Polk? The answer isn’t as clear as it might seem.
Thesis: Doug Polk is Johnny Lawrence
Anybody who grew up in the 80s and saw The Karate Kid in theaters or rented the VHS tape from their local video store will tell you that Johnny Lawrence, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, two-time defending All Valley Under 18 Karate champion, is nothing but a bully with a chip on his shoulder.
Polk, once considered the best Heads Up No Limit Hold’em cash game player in the world, a three-time WSOP bracelet winner, and one of the best content creators in poker (some of which is centered around Negreanu), carries a similar chip. He’s told anybody and everybody that this is his arena, he’s not looking to make friends or build a legacy, he’s only looking to “back up the fucking truck” and show absolutely no mercy.
Lawrence first encounters the story’s hero, Daniel LaRusso, at the beach. Recently dumped by Ali Mills, Lawrence confronts his ex-girlfriend in an ill-fated attempt to win her back. Things get heated and after her ghetto blaster is destroyed by Lawrence in a fit of rage, LaRusso appears ready to intervene only to have Lawrence beat him up and leave him laying face down in the sand as Lawrence and his friends from the Cobra Kai karate dojo ride off on their awesome dirt bikes.
Polk’s vendetta against Negreanu dates back to October 2016 when Negreanu gave an interview to Rikard Aberg where he claimed that higher rake leads to softer games. From that interview, the “More Rake is Better” meme was born and Polk continued to push it via his YouTube channel and social media.
The taunting from Polk – and his team – reached a peak in June 2018 when Polk entered the Super High Roller Bowl and ended up seated next to Negreanu on the feature table. Polk removed his button-up shirt to reveal a black t-shirt with an image of “More Rake is Better” on a billboard. Polk busted the tournament in short order, but got the opportunity to humiliate Negreanu in front of a large audience. Two days later, the actual billboard appeared outside the Rio Hotel & Casino where the 2018 WSOP was underway.
Following the initial confrontation, Lawrence and his Cobra Kai friends spend the next few weeks tormenting and attacking LaRusso which ultimately lead to LaRusso’s handyman/friend/sensei Mr. Miyagi walking into the Cobra Kai dojo to lay down a challenge on behalf of LaRusso. Lawrence’s sensei, John Kreese, is ready to have the throwdown then and there.
Kreese: You get your boy on the mat or you and I will have a major problem.
Miyagi: Too much advantage … your dojo.
Kreese: Name a place.
Kreese: You’ve got real nerve old man, real nerve, but I think we can accommodate you.
After a quick negotiation, the pair agree to fight at the upcoming All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship.
Like Lawrence, Polk seemingly never turned down an opportunity to troll Negreanu. This summer, Polk picked up his anti-Negreanu cause in earnest. Negreanu, playing WSOP bracelet events on WSOP.com, exhibited some less-than-perfect behavior and threatened a livestream viewer while offering him free dental work along with a rectal exam. That got his Twitch account suspended and gave Polk all the ammunition he needed to go back on the attack. After some back and forth, Polk challenged Negreanu to battle.
I officially challenge Dnegs to a HUNL battle. I am hoping to leave with both his money, and my teeth still in my mouth. https://t.co/yE4ibc8Ydl
— Doug “Truck Driver” Polk (@DougPolkVids) July 28, 2020
The Cobra Kai Dojo philosophy is built around the motto, “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” And over the last four years, Polk has continued to strike at Negreanu and shown absolutely no mercy in his attacks.
Thesis: Doug Polk is Daniel LaRusso
The movie opens with Daniel LaRusso and his mom moving cross-country from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda, California to chase down an opportunity at a better life. Polk is originally from Pasadena, California and while the drive to Las Vegas, where Polk now resides, isn’t a long one, he did have a short stint in Wilmington, North Carolina while in college. That’s where he discovered a real love for poker and eventually dropped out to pursue the game full time.
LaRusso arrives in Reseda knowing nobody and gets invited to a beach party by another kid in the apartment complex he just moved into. At that party he sees another kid – Lawrence – angrily confronting another partygoer and destroying her property. In an effort to keep the peace and hold the bully accountable, LaRusso steps up and intervenes to stop Lawrence from ruining the party for everybody.
In 2016, in the wake of PokerStars’ decision to suddenly take away benefits from SuperNova Elite players, Negreanu, a Team PokerStars Pro at the time, appeared on a podcast hosted by Rikard Aberg to make the case that business decisions made by PokerStars which appear to be unfriendly towards players are actually good for them. This is where Polk first stepped up on behalf of the poker community and called Negreanu out in a video on his YouTube channel.
LaRusso found another opportunity to antagonize Lawrence after he showed up at the school Halloween dance. That’s where he spots Lawrence and his Cobra Kai cronies dressed as skeletons and when he realizes Lawrence is in a toilet stall he decides to take a shot at embarrassing him in front of the entire student body. LaRusso hooks up a hose above the stall and turns the water on, drenching Lawrence in the process. LaRusso, dressed as a shower, flees knowing they’ll be looking for him. The Cobra Kai eventually catch up to LaRusso and the five of them kick the everloving crap out of LaRusso before Mr. Miyagi appears and saves the day. The kid from New Jersey was going for laughs, but ultimately ended up battered and bruised after learning an expensive lesson.
The Super High Roller Bowl is one of the marquee events on the poker calendar. In 2018, Polk showed to the $300,000 buy-in event hoping for a chance to make another point in his ongoing battle against Negreanu. That moment came when the pair wound up seated next to each other on the feature table. Polk took off his button-up shirt to show the world the “More Rake is Better” shirt hoping to get under Negreanu’s skin and get a few laughs along the way. Negreanu ended up winning a huge pot off Polk that day and Polk was eliminated not long after. Negreanu finished second in the tournament for $3,000,000. Polk got some laughs in the moment, but after losing the $300,000 buy-in and paying whatever the billboard outside of the Rio cost him, it was really just a costly piece of his entire campaign.
As the karate tournament progresses, LaRusso makes his way through a number of competitors, including members of Cobra Kai who had been part of the 5-on-1 assault on him. Serendipitously he ends up in the final against Lawrence with far more than a title on the line.
Polk’s path to the battle with Negreanu included no other required battles, but to make sure he was ready, Polk spent the past six weeks taking on all comers on WSOP.com and America’s Cardroom to make sure he was free of any ring rust before sitting down with Negreanu.
The Cobra Kai Narrative
Both of those thesis are based on the original interpretation of the movie where LaRusso is the good guy and Lawrence is the bad guy. Starting in 2013, when How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson first floated the idea, there has been plenty of discussion that maybe, just maybe Lawrence was in fact the hero of The Karate Kid. That narrative shift is a big reason why YouTube created the Cobra Kai show, which is now on Netflix, exploring where Lawrence and LaRusso wound up after the tournament.
There is definitely a segment of poker fans who consider Polk to be the hero of the story thanks largely to his anti-hero, anti-establishment ideals that Lawrence carries with him in Cobra Kai. There’s also a group of fans who see Polk the same way that Cobra Kai paints a modern-day LaRusso: the successful and arrogant man who refuses to grow up.