Canadian-born Daniel Negreanu is celebrating his first Thanksgiving as an American citizen this year. The 2016 Presidential Election results notwithstanding, as arguably the games most successful player, greatest ambassador and an outspoken liberal, it would seem there's still a lot he can be thankful for.
Negreanu has made the most of the opportunities poker has provided him. He rode the wave of poker's boom to fame and fortune the size of which not even the fortune teller who told him he'd one day find it could have predicted. But it didn't always feel that way.
Negreanu had chosen poker as a profession long before Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and the popularity of the World Poker Tour exploded on TV screens across America. In fact, when the perfect storm came together and the poker boom was initially ignited, Negreanu thought he'd missed the moment.
"After the World Poker Tour's first season I remember being so disappointed in myself because I didn't cash and I didn't make any final tables," he told PokerNews. "That's when poker started to boom and celebrities were being created. I always felt like I could be a good ambassador for this game, but obviously, if you're not winning and you're not getting on television, you don't get that chance. I had won already, I had a couple of bracelets, but I felt like I was missing the mark, like I needed to be on that main stage and I wasn't."
That feeling started Negreanu on a path toward change, and ultimately, the success he desired.
"It was very disappointing, but it also helped me in another way, because I took the game more seriously after that," he said. "The first year on the WPT I was doing what everybody else did. I'd be up until six in the morning drinking and go play at noon. Then I realized if I'm going to do this, I'm going to have to take this seriously."
At the end of 2003, he started adjusting his pre-tournament strategies.
"I made a bunch of rules for myself, including that I was never going to drink the night before a tournament," Negreanu said. "I was going to get the right amount of sleep, stop socializing so much and take it all very seriously. I went on to have an amazing 2004, which is still arguably the best year I've had in poker."
If Negreanu caught a glimpse of the start of the poker boom in 2003, he had a front row seat to its continued and even bigger explosion a year later. Negreanu collected a massive $4,465,907 in tournament earnings in 2004. He won Card Player Player of the Yearand WSOP Player of the Year honors.
After finding the success on the WPT that had eluded him a year earlier, winning both the $10,000 Borgata Poker Open and$15,000 Five Diamond World Poker Classic, he was also named the WPT Player of the Year. Poker was taking off big time and Negreanu's career went straight up with it.
"I remember seeing it grow so fast," he said. "It all happened really quickly. I had always had some people who were like 'Hey, can I get an autograph or picture?' But then it became people when I was just walking down the street, not just in casinos or poker rooms, but everywhere. People were starting to pick it up and watch it on TV."
In 2004, Negreanu became the industry poster child.
"At that time in 2004, nobody was winning more than I was, so I sort of became the face of it all," Negreanu said. "I had a video game made for me called Stacked. MTV produced it and there were all kinds of shows and crazy things I was suddenly doing and I really enjoyed it."
Negreanu enjoyed the attention that he was receiving after a rougher start.
"I wanted to do it, so it was kind of nice after starting out with disappointment and feeling like I missed the boat a little because I didn't do anything on the World Poker Tour," he said. "Obviously it made sense: The World Poker Tour was focusing on people that made the final tables and I wasn't one of them. In 2004, I made my own path and I was able to break through that."
If poker was a wave, I was on a surfboard on top of it and somehow hanging on. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and no wipeout yet.
Twelve years later, with poker rising to levels of popularity few could have predicted, and with Negreanu's own career tournament earnings of $32,619,168 leading the all-time money list, he looks back on a moment at the end of 2004 when he realized he was suddenly a part of something special.
"The moment that I felt it the most was at the end of 2004 at the WPT event at Bellagio," he said. "I needed to make the final table to win Player of the Year on Card Player. David Pham had passed me three days before. Not only did I make the final table, I did so with the biggest chip lead in history. I won the event for $1.8 million, just after winning a WPT at Borgata a month earlier, and I threw a party."
He remembers it like it was yesterday.
"Everyone was there," Negreanu said. "I was celebrating and stuff and I remember thinking money was no longer going to be an issue. I had done real well all year and I remember thinking that no one could ever take that away from me, that year that I had. At that moment I felt like I was at the pinnacle. There was no one more dominant in the game than I was, and as a result, nobody more on top of this big huge boom. If poker was a wave, I was on a surfboard on top of it and somehow hanging on. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and no wipeout yet."
A feature-length documentary film entitled KidPoker detailing Negreanu's life and career was released on Netflix this year and highlights some of the struggles he endured starting a career as a poker player before the boom. It certainly wasn't a socially acceptable choice, nor one anyone would have predicted as a path to fame and fortune.
"I grew up in Toronto and it was a gambling hotbed," he said. "I was betting sports, doing all kinds of different things and never really had a vision for my life at the time. It wasn't until I was like 22 or 23 that I realized this is what I do for a living, so I might as well make a go of it. I had done some extra work and got into acting a little bit, but once I really fell in love with the game, that's all I did."
Negreanu later ditched his thoughts of going to LA to become an actor.
"There was no thoughts of doing anything but getting to the next biggest game," he said. "If I was playing $20/$40, I got to get in that $40/$80. If I was playing $40/$80, I got to get in that $75/$150, and I was able to do that before the boom. I was playing $4,000/$8,000 limits and had a multi-million bankroll already. I was very proud of that. A lot of people think I was born with a silver spoon and handed all my winnings through a PokerStars sponsorship. No, I grinded my ass off when I needed to."
Negreanu had reached the top of the poker world before the boom and the boom simply raised the ceiling. Although he knew the game's potential, Negreanu admits there were very few people who really saw what was coming.
"I always felt like I'd be important at whatever I did," he said. "My mom took me to a fortune teller when I was 11 years old where they did the coffee cup reading thing. She looked at the cup, no lie, and said he's going to be very rich, very important and very famous.
"But not a lot of people had a vision for this, outside of maybe Mike Sexton, who really saw all this before it even happened. He created a thing called the Tournament of Champions which was an event where you had to win another tournament during the year to qualify, like a WSOP bracelet or something. Then you would play a mix of Omaha 8, Stud and Limit Hold'em until the final table where it was No Limit Hold'em. They filmed it and it was great. It was really the entry into this new realm of what was possible with poker. I always thought that poker could find some mainstream popularity, but didn't see the vision quite as clearly as Mike, because he had been in the game a lot longer."
A decade after the year that made him a star and the game itself reached new heights, in 2014, Negreanu became a first ballot inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame. It was definitely something much easier to see coming.
"When the Hall of Fame came knocking at my door, it wasn't a shock to me," he said. "When they said I was inducted, it wasn't like 'Oh, really?' I'm not an idiot. I looked at my career and said 'OK, if this doesn't get me in, what the hell does?'"
But induction into the Poker Hall of Fame wasn't the end of something. For Negreanu, the past couple of years have seen new beginnings. He booked the biggest score of his career that same year, banking $8,288,001 for his runner-up finish in the $1 million buy in Big One for One Drop.
In 2015, he won the second season of PokerStars' new made-for-TV version of the game called Shark Cage. This year, after a couple of successful turns as an analyst on ESPN's WSOP Main Event final table coverage, he has jumped into the media ring full force with a new podcast.
The Full Contact Poker Podcast has Negreanu talking to some of the most powerful and influential people in the game. Just six episodes in, it has become one of the most listened to shows in poker.
People say the game has changed, and the industry with it.
They say there will never be another boom like the one Negreanu had a front row seat for, but as the devout Vegan enjoys a bit of Tofurkey on his first Thanksgiving as a U.S. Citizen, for anyone really paying attention, his future looks as bright as poker's past.