Listen closely and you can hear what it sounds like when an entire industry holds its breath at once. Daniel Negreanu, the most marketed and marketable player in poker, is within spitting distance of making the final table of the 2015 WSOP Main Event. With 27 players left, he’s sitting in ninth place with just one day of play left before everything stops for four months when the November Nine return to the Rio to play to a winner.
Having a superstar of Negreanu’s status make the final table would be a huge boost to the popularity of game at a time when it needs it most. Those who watched poker in record numbers during the poker boom days will have a familiar face to follow. He’s not some anonymous online pro with great results, he’s the face of the industry. Negreanu knows he’s seen as an ambassador and spokesperson, but even with just 18 eliminations between himself and the final table, he’s not focused on anything other than the game itself.
“I haven’t really wrapped my head around all of that. I haven’t been thinking of that as much. Obviously I get it. I’m just focusing on playing. I haven’t been thinking about all of the ancillary things that happen when I make the final table,” Negreanu said after play wrapped early Tuesday morning.
When. Not if.
“I’ve spent the last ten breaks with Daniel in his trailer and I don’t think he feels any pressure at all. He’s having fun. And he’s got a great perspective on where he is in the tournament,” said his agent, Brian Balsbaugh from the audience on the ESPN main stage. It’s not the first time Negreanu has gotten deep in the Main Event and Balsbaugh remembers the last time quite well.
“A couple of years ago he made a run, I don’t know if it was Day 5 or 6, but he had probably 100 big blinds and I was watching him play and he was just playing every hand. Every hand,” recalled Balsbaugh. “And I was scared to death. It was a roller coaster.”
That was 2012 when Negreanu busted out in 160th. Yeah, he got plenty of ESPN time, but more importantly he learned something about the Main Event that might be coming into play this year.
“He made a comment to me that, in the early stages of this tournament, you can play every hand. At some point though, when the talent gets higher and the competition gets tougher, you have to shift gears. At that point he hadn’t shifted gears. He has now and he has a great 30,000 foot view of where he is in the tournament and the overall game plan of how to end up with all of the chips.”
All of the chips.
“The (November) Nine has no relevance to me. The One does. So I’m focusing on the One. Maybe some people are focusing on the Nine, but I’m focusing on doing everything I need to do to get to the one spot,” said Negreanu. “And it’s obviously what I play for. The Main Event is the coolest event in the world, so it’s the one I want to win.”
Many of the player still left in the field are eyeing that $7.6 million first place prize and dreaming of the life that comes with that much money. Negreanu, through his poker success and business ventures that have done well, has that life already. What he doesn’t have is a Main Event championship and Balsbaugh knows that’s what’s motivating his client at this point.
“I can tell you right now that I’ve never met anybody who cares less about money than Daniel Negreanu. He cares about the title, the bracelet and his legacy,” said Balsbaugh. “In 2004, the cover of CardPlayer magazine had ‘Will he win the big one?’ and Daniel on the cover for the first week of the WSOP. And he’s wanted this for a very long time and it’s every poker player’s dream to win the Main Event of the World Series of Poker.”
We’ve been here before though. In 2009 Phil Ivey made the November Nine and fans, other players and media were excited to see the world’s best poker player on its biggest stage. In the four months between reaching the November Nine and the resumption of play live on ESPN Ivey, largely under the guidance of the disaster of a PR team that Full Tilt Poker had at the time, was almost invisible. He granted ESPN the Magazine and E:60 some access to follow him as he gambled his way around the world.
Outside of that though, he was basically a ghost and existed only in press releases that Full Tilt Poker was crafting for him. Things were no different when he busted out of the tournament in 7th place. Ivey disappeared down one of the back hallways of the Rio, granting a short interview to a select few who chased him down while the media who had gathered – some specifically to follow Ivey – were left wanting.
That won’t be Negreanu.
“I’ve got a busy month ahead anyways, doing a lot of stuff; trying to get online poker regulated in California, doing a party in Toronto, doing some TV shows. So it’s already a full schedule and obviously whatever else gets thrown to me and my plate I’ll do,” said Negreanu.
Negreanu is part of a caravan of Team PokerStars Pros who are scheduled to make their way through some of the bigger California poker rooms in August to promote the regulation of the online game. When PokerStars announced the initiative, Negreanu was already the star attraction. Putting a “November Niner” status on him for that tour will only heighten the exposure, particularly within mainstream media outlets – something Negreanu is very well versed in.
“Daniel is great with the media because he’s authentic. As long as I’ve known Daniel – 12 or 13 years now – what you read in his blog and what you see on television is exactly what you see in real life,” said Balsbaugh. “There’s no difference between the public Daniel and the personal Daniel. And I think that’s why it’s so easy for him because he simply is himself.”
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