For almost 20 years, Daniel Negreanu has been one of the smiling faces of poker.
Fans flock to the World Series of Poker each year at the Rio, and Negreanu interacts with them and takes photos. His presence on TV poker broadcasts is generally jovial and upbeat. He is perhaps the most famous poker player in the world.
But he does not enjoy universal praise. In fact, he has become something of a lightning rod for criticism in the past few years, for his actions while serving as a spokesman for the online poker site PokerStars and for his behavior on livestreams this summer during the WSOP Online.
Those attacks have often been spearheaded by Doug Polk, and now Negreanu said he is giving the poker world what it wants by agreeing to a high-stakes poker heads-up match. The two will play 25,000 hands of No-limit Hold’em starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday on PokerGO.com.
Negreanu said criticism comes with living life in the public eye, but that Polk’s attacks have been relentless.
“Almost like a political campaign, he did everything he could to try to smear me in every way possible and paint me in the worst light by taking things out of context,” said Negreanu, a 46-year-old who lives in Las Vegas.
Polk, who recently led the failed effort to recall Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, said everything he has criticized Negreanu for has been fact-based and fair.
“I don’t hate Daniel. I do think deep down he’s a good person,” said Polk, a 31-year-old who lives in Henderson. “I just think he has a lot of other issues at play. I think there’s a bunch of public issues that he’s been very much in the wrong in.”
‘More rake is better’
Talking to Negreanu on Thursday and Polk on Friday was akin to hearing the defense’s case followed by the prosecutor’s rebuttal.
One of Polk’s most consistent attacks has centered on Negreanu’s use of the phrase “more rake is better” while defending PokerStars’ increase of the rake (house cut) in 2016.
Polk used a short clip of Negreanu saying “more rake is better” over and over. He later wore a T-shirt with the phrase while randomly seated alongside Negreanu in a poker tournament, then paid to put the phrase on a billboard outside the Rio during the WSOP in 2018.
To Negreanu, “more rake is better” does not fairly represent what he said.
“When I said four words — ‘more rake is better’ — in the context of a 30-minute conversation, you don’t even stop to think what’s the rest of the sentence,” Negreanu said. “More rake is better than what? More rake is better for who? He doesn’t do any of that. He just has a tagline.”
Polk said any justification is “(expletive) hilarious.”
“He can’t just man up and say: You know what, I work for a site, we’re increasing our prices, deal with it. That’s all he had to say,” Polk said. “Instead, he had to be the good guy, so he basically had to convince everyone: Hey, we’re going to make you pay us more money, but it’s a good thing for you!”
Negreanu has also been criticized by not standing up more strongly to PokerStars when it took away benefits for certain high-volume professionals. Negreanu left PokerStars in 2019 and is now an ambassador for GGPoker.
Blackface, Twitch threats
Polk has also repeatedly surfaced a clip of Negreanu wearing blackface in a comedy skit from some time in the 2000s.
“Obviously, it’s not something I would do today,” Negreanu said. “But it never came from any malicious intent … and I’ve addressed it several times, saying, yeah, I never meant any harm. Most of my friends growing up were Jamaican, and I grew up in that culture, so I did a skit. Obviously it’s inappropriate, and I wouldn’t do something like that today.”
Polk said all of Negreanu’s statements about the incident read more as a justification than an apology.
The most recent criticism of Negreanu came from two outbursts during livestreams while playing in the WSOP Online. In one, he seemed about to break his computer when he was disconnected from the internet, and in another he went on a vulgar rant after someone in the chat made a comment about his wife. Negreanu was temporarily banned from Twitch over the comment.
Negreanu said he wishes he could keep his cool at all times, but he does not apologize for those outbursts.
“Listen, I’m not going to apologize for being upset about my internet going out. I have a temper when it comes to stuff like that,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize when somebody attacks my wife and says really horrible things about her. I’m going to defend her, and I always will.
“… I’ve gotten to the point in my life where it doesn’t faze me because I have my dream life. I have my dream woman, and there’s really nothing I need to be concerned with in terms of public opinion. If people like me, great, and if you don’t like me, that’s great, too. I probably wouldn’t have liked you, either.”
Polk heavily favored
As for the match, Polk is a -556 favorite to win on pokershares.com (Negreanu +410).
Casual poker fans might wonder how Negreanu, a six-time WSOP bracelet winner with $42 million in live tournament earnings, is such a prohibitive underdog, but it all comes down to the format of the match.
Polk is a three-time WSOP bracelet winner with more than $9 million in tournament earnings, but he made his name in poker by beating the best players in the world in heads-up No-limit Hold’em online, while Negreanu is known primarily as a live multitable tournament player.
The first 200 hands Wednesday will be played live at the PokerGO studio by the Aria, but the rest of the match will be played two tables at a time online at $200-$400 blinds (a $40,000 initial buy-in on each table).
Pokershares set the betting total on Polk’s winnings at $500,000.
“It really comes down to (Negreanu) because I’m going to be really good,” Polk said. “I’m going to have a really good strategy. I’m going to play well. I’m going to do my best. It kind of comes down to how well can he play?”
Negreanu compared the match to a free-throw shooting contest between Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Kerr. O’Neal is the better basketball player, but not the better shooter.
“So really I have nothing to lose going into this — I’m a very ‘Rocky’-like underdog — outside of money,” he said. “So if I lose this match, but I did my best and I put in a good effort and I made it competitive to some degree, I’ll feel great about it.”
Both players said they could see being civil to each other going forward after the match, but that a friendship was unlikely.
High Stakes Feud
Who: Daniel Negreanu vs. Doug Polk
Game: Heads-up No-limit Hold’em
Format: $200-$400 blind online cash game, playing two tables at once, for 25,000 total hands. The winner keeps however much money he is ahead. The player who is losing after 12,500 hands has the option to quit at that point.
When: Starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The match is expected to last one to two months, with sessions played four to five times per week.
How to watch: The first 200 hands will be played live at the PokerGO studio by the Aria and will be available for free on PokerGO.com. The players will have individual livestreams set up for future sessions.