One Drop 2014: Daniel Colman vs. Daniel Negreanu Heads-up

Big One for One Drop, July 1st, ESPN Stage, Rio, Las Vegas, Nevada

By Damon Shulenberger

From the forthcoming e-book “A One Drop Companion: Inside Poker’s $1 Million Tournament and the Players Who Risk It All.” See previous excerpt “Anatomy of a $1 Million Bust Out.”

The acrobats have left the ESPN stage, the platitudes about bringing water to the needy are but a distant echo, and friends, family members, and the poker elite sit on the edge of their seats, wondering just who will flinch first. 2013 Player of the Year Daniel Negreanu is up against Internet whiz kid Dan Colman and neither is giving an inch. With blinds at 600,000 and 1.2 million, Colman starts heads up play sitting on 68 million in chips and Negreanu with 57 million. Play is guarded at first, with both players sounding each other out through feeler bets, getting in and out of hands before major river decisions arrive.

Cirque du Soleil acrobats fête the One Drop final table participants.

Serious money is as stake here, though neither player has reportedly ponied up the full $1 million buy-in himself. Having announced that he was selling pieces of himself on Twitter, Daniel Negreanu reportedly holds a 44 percent stake in whatever he wins (accounts vary, his agent says 87 percent), while Dan Colman is rumored to be somewhere in the 15 percent range. This may seem small beans, but it represents a cool $150,000 investment and is not far from what “the Magician” Antonio Esfandiari held of himself during his historic win in 2012. The amount is also similar to what many of the other pros in the tournament hold of themselves—with the exception of big dog Phil Ivey, who apparently ponied up the full $1 million. (A week after the One Drop, Colman posts on 2+2 “A lot of people have been saying that I had a super tiny %, but this wasn’t the case. The amount I took of myself was probably a bit reckless after talking to some people whose opinions I respect.”—Former mentor and backer Olivier “LivB” Busquet subsequently says that Colman had 20 percent of himself.)

Naturally, the real targets of this spectacle-cum-charity-tournament—the businessman “whales” most likely to lose their stacks early—have bought in for the full amount. They represent the dead money in the tournament, given the caliber of the players gathered, with charity being a convenient excuse for indulging in one of the most decadent undertakings imaginable. Poker in Vegas—for a million dollars—all together now, Dr. Evil style….

Back at the ESPN stage, two accomplished opponents face off, both at the top of their respective games—Negreanu an MTT live tournament specialist and Colman known for his dominating online heads-up play. Both have trained themselves not to think about the money, under any circumstances. When the cards are dealt, that is all that matters—that and lizard brain calculations about how they can get their opponent to bend to their will—call, fold, commit more chips than they logically should on marginal holdings. There is no thought about prize amounts or pay jumps, even on the most intense of stages, where every blind and ante represents life-altering sums of money.

Taking a move from his opponent’s “out-aggress the aggressor” playbook, Negreanu draws first blood in a pot he min-raises preflop to 2.5 million. When J-A-A, two diamonds, flops, Negreanu bets out 3 million and Colman calls. The 9 turn is checked down, while a Q on the river brings a pot-sized Colman lead out of 7 million. Colman could have nearly anything in this situation, including a busted flush draw, and this over-aggressive river bet is what Negreanu has been waiting for, as he re-raises to 17 million. Colman considers for a moment, before giving up his holding with a shrug. Just like that, Negreanu has catapulted to the lead with 73.5 million chips—an indication of just how volatile play can be when you have two masterful levelers locking horns.

Negreanu is his usual animated self under the cool blue television lights—intense calculation hiding out under a friendly, incessantly bantering demeanor. Only now the time has come for steady, collected play, a weighing of odds on every street of every hand. With each player approximately 50 big blinds deep, one mistimed bluff, one call with a slightly inferior holding, could potentially cost $7 million dollars. Okay, forget what I said about leaving all money considerations behind—that is the ideal, not the reality. The key is tuning out those dollar signs when the time for critical decision making is at hand.

Negreanu takes another 8 million chips from Colman on a hand that his opponent raises 3 million pre-flop. A two-spade flop 10-K-6 is checked around, as is a spade on the turn. When a fourth spade falls on the river, Colman bets out 5 million and Negreanu makes a bluff-catcher call with his king of diamonds. Surprisingly, he is ahead of his tricky opponent, who does not have the spade he repped, and pulls into a significant lead, 84 million vs. 41.7 million.

Daniel Negreanu is no stranger to the bright lights. Now 38, “KidPoker” has followed a steady career arc to a payday that will far eclipse them all. The money is so big that either first or second place will vault him into first place on the all-time money leaders list, surpassing Antonio Esfandiari, who earned $18 million with his One Drop victory two years ago. The event is definitely a far cry from the cutthroat Toronto charity casino (and underground gambling) scene of the 1990s, where Negreanu cut his poker teeth. Playing crowded games that would sometimes see 10,12, players jammed around a single table, Negreanu says he considered A-K under-the-gun worthy of a fold. He gradually carved out a little space at the table and gained a reputation for fearless play in the hijack position—what he and partner-in-crime Evelyn Ng referred to as “the Office.”

Negreanu — Looking to become all time tournament earnings leader.

The opponent Negreanu is up against is relative unknown Dan Colman, who at age 24 has earned a name for himself on Pokerstars as “mrgr33n13.” The Boston suburbs native employs a brash approach that includes goading online opponents into increasingly high stakes grudge matches that he takes full advantage of through cool, calculated play. The first online hyper-turbo player to break the $1 million earnings barrier, Colman’s cascading live achievements have largely occurred within the past two years. Two months before the WSOP, he was crowned winner of the European Poker Tour’s €100,000 buy-in high roller Grand Final, which netted him a cool $2.1 million.*

Colman — a brash online persona and composed live demeanor.

I have spoken with Colman a couple times at the WSOP and was one a handful of reporters to provide blow-by-blow coverage of his near win in the WSOP $10,000 heads-up event two weeks earlier (Negreanu placed 10th). Despite this “trash talking” reputation, Colman is civil and likable at the table, and adept at making convincingly large bluffs without risking his entire stack.

Colman discusses strategy with Sorel Mitzi, Haralobos Voulgaris, Olivier Busquet.

Heads up is naturally a time for crafty play and Colman’s wild moves make sense only in context. I later have a respected player clue me in that Colman, weaned on fast-moving online tournaments, often puts in a major bluff or two in the early going, simply to establish a crazy image and define his opponent’s call, fold, and shove ranges. He is not afraid to lose half his stack early on, as he is confident that his loose image will get him paid off in major pots with made hands in later stages. Naturally, luck comes into play in this equation quite often—in hyper turbos either you win one or two huge all-in confrontations, or you go home tail between legs. Knowing how to pick your spots is where the art comes in, but it is still a hugely hit-or-miss science on an individual tournament level.

Perennially young (yet old guard) Negreanu has taken an early lead through calculated bets, raising his stack to more than double Colman’s. However, the cards begin to turn Colman’s way and he claws back about 15 million through river card draw-outs in his favor. In one hand, Colman withstands serious early betting action by Negreanu and hits a checked down runner-runner six-high flush to regain a good number of chips.

In another hand, Negreanu’s hesitancy to fire out on the river costs him a major pot. With Colman raising to 2.5 million preflop, Negreanu three bets to 7.5 million and Colman calls with A-J. When 2–3–2 flops, Negreanu puts in a continuation bet of 9 million. Colman’s “blocker call” causes KidPoker to shut down and action is checked down the remainder of the streets. The hand ends with Colman taking a momentum-changing 19 million from Negreanu on a 2–3–2–8–10 board, with nothing but ace high and a decent kicker. It is hard to put Negreanu on anything at all in this hand, except A-9 or one of the suited connectors such as 5–6 or 6–7 that his small ball style of play favors (curious to see what the ESPN broadcast reveals).

Certainly, given Colman’s actual holding, it would have been profitable for Negreanu to put in a river bet of say 10 million, but he was likely spooked by Colman’s call for a significant portion of his stack on the flop and figured that his opponent could well have hidden trips, second pair, or even a small pair that the unpredictable Colman might call with. Here, Colman’s reputation for fearlessness wins him a major pot, He certainly didn’t have any reason to stick around, except an intuition that Negreanu caught even less of the flop than he did.

KidPoker does take back the lead briefly, with a 10 million bet on an 8–2–3 board, two hearts. When a nonsuited Q peels, he shoves all in for 30 million and gets Colman to fold. Negreanu has clearly learned a lesson from his passive play the hand before and decided to go for broke, upping the aggressiveness quotient to match his younger counterpart. This is one of Negreanu’s strengths in tournament poker—he has an uncanny ability to get a read on what opponents are doing and adjust his style accordingly. Like Davide Suriano before him in the $10,000 WSOP heads up tournament vs. Colman, Negreanu decides that power poker will work best with this particular opponent.

Negreanu has climbed back to 74 million when he hits a run of bad luck like a freight train. First, he min raises to 2.5 million with A-Q and gets called by Colman’s A-8. When J-9-J flops, Negreanu continues for 2.5 million and Colman calls. Negreanu fires out 4 million when another jack hits and, completely dominated, Colman finds the hero call within him. (This is not such a bad call, as ace high will often be good in this situation, heads up). When an 8 peels off on the river, both players check and Colman takes down the pot. Negreanu is unusually irritated, showing his superior-until-the-river A-Q before mucking.

Negreanu — put to hard decisions.

While Negreanu only loses 10 million in this particular pot, he later identifies the hand as the one that set up his collapse and ultimate elimination. The most critical hands are often not the biggest, but those which set up dynamics in which a player subsequently gets involved in a huge pot with less-than-optimal holdings. Negreanu is too much the consummate professional to go fully on tilt, but this certainly puts him on edge going forward, even with a slight chip lead. Negreanu admits as much speaking to ESPN after the tournament, “I was really cruising at that point and had a chance to take a bigger lead.” Bottom line: when you lose a pot that you feel should have been won, even retaining a significant stack is cold consolation.

Luck hits Negreanu the wrong way, like a freight train.

Luck is no kinder to Negreanu two hands later, when he calls Colman’s raise to 2.5 million preflop. The 4–8-J board, two spades, just barely grazes Colman’s A-4 hand. This being heads up, where third pair on the flop is worthy of a continuation bet, Colman leads out for 2.5 million. When an ace of spades comes on the turn, giving Colman two pair, Negreanu calls a 7 million bet. While we do not know his holding here (presumably the ESPN broadcast will reveal all), two pair or an ace with a high kicker seems likely (a slow-played flush is the less likely alternative). In either case, a four on the river gives Colman a nearly unbeatable full house and he fires out 18 million, significantly over-betting the pot.

Negreanu — entertaining, at least.

This huge bet accomplishes two things—first, it looks bluffy, given Colman’s uber-aggressive image. The amount is the same as Colman would bet with air, trying to get Negreanu off a medium-strength hand. In addition, with an ace (and possible flush) on the board, the chances are high that whatever Negreanu called with on the turn is still strong enough to merit a large-sized call. (Some would argue that Colman should aim a little lower in his bet sizing, for a virtually guaranteed call). As it turns out, Colman has made the correct bet—Negreanu tanks for five entertaining minutes, clearly weighing the impact of losing 18 million chips vs. scooping a 60 million pot. He does a Ray Charles thing, rhythmically tapping the table, head bobbing and weaving, and generating audience laughs before finally throwing in a call. Colman flips over his A-4 boat and just like that Negreanu is on the ropes, a 2–1 dog in the match.

Negreanu and Colman converse while awaiting the final flop, A-4 vs. K-Q.

Given the specific cards involved in this momentum shifting hand, it is ironic that Negreanu risks his last 21 million chips a few minutes later holding the A-4 that played out so well for Colman. KidPoker’s hand is a huge favorite against Colman’s K-Q when J-A-4 flops. Unfortunately, the poker gods have decided that A-4 will be good for only one player tonight and a 10 on the turn gives Colman a straight. The river fails to fill out and Negreanu is left with a “disappointing” second place finish, for nearly $8.3 million.

Colman neatly avoids the cameras and is congratulated by Olivier Busquet.

Speaking to ESPN after the match, a clearly disappointed (but nonetheless chipper) Negreanu says that he is satisfied with how he played against Colman, with luck playing a major role. He adds diplomatically, “In heads-up, he’s one of the best in the world. He’s going to win a lot more of these.” Negreanu cannot be completely dissatisfied with his performance. Not only has he surpassed Antonio Esfandiari by $3 million for highest lifetime tournament winnings, but he has taken home much more actual money than Colman. The reason is simple: at the apex of his career, Negreanu can afford to put a significant percentage of his own money into the buy-in and correspondingly has to pay out fewer backers when he does cash big.

Negreanu — consoled by friends under the hot television lights.

Negreanu has no qualms about releasing his actual winnings after the World Series of Poker wraps up. His tweet says it all:

WSOP Final Total:

Events 32

Cashes 9

Hours 292

Buyins $1,233,000

Payouts $8,545,408

Profit $7,055,001

Time for golf this week

Colman — happy, non-communicative.

Meanwhile Daniel Colman refuses to speak to the press or say anything beyond the most generic words about Guy Laliberté’s charity. This opens a whole ‘nother can of worms regarding the responsibilities of the modern tournament winner vis-a-vis the poker community at large. A topic to be explored in length in the book, to be released within the month.

The way the media has portrayed it, you’d think Negreanu vs. Colman was Popeye vs. Bluto (RIP Robin Williams)

*As with Esfandiari’s $18 million One Drop payday, which boosted him to “all time tournament winnings leader” status, Colman’s $2.127 million win in the EPT €100,000 High Roller at the Monte Carlo Grand Finale deserves an asterisk. When they got down to three players, the prize pool was essentially split between Colman’s nearest competitors Dan “Jungleman” Cates and Igor Kurganov (with the winner receiving the healthy extra slice of money left on the table). It is worthy noting that none of the top finishers took home all of the advertised prize money himself. In the case of the High Roller, at least 40–50% went to backers, who (as revealed in an inadvertently recorded conversation during the chop deal negotiations) all three of them shared.

Colman confers with Olivier Busquet, who mentored and staked him as a young online player.

More than likely, the common backing denominator was Haralobos Voulgaris—a high-stakes NBA bettor, poker pro, and modern day version of Jimmy “The Greek” who picks his high-stakes horses with finesse. Given the pieces he had in nine One Drop players and his outspoken comments to the poker media, Voulgaris will become a recurring undercurrent in this book—despite electing not to play the actual event. As for the 2014 One Drop—with Negreanu and Colman up against each other heads up, there is not even a hint of an ICM deal on the table. Negreanu is on record as saying he simply doesn’t believe in chops—even if they make sense from a risk mitigation perspective, given the huge pay jumps in play. Negreanu claims (with some justification, given his track record) that not chopping allows him to exert maximum psychological pressure on opponents when crunch time hits.

Canada fans — inconsolable.

All Text & Photos (except Popeye) Copyright Damon Shulenberger.

From Northern California, Shulenberger is an author currently engaged in projects such as the mystery-thriller Arisugawa Park and a series on admired musicians such as Jimi Hendrix. He also writes on burning topics such as krill oil. His nonfiction work is A One Drop Companion: Inside Poker’s $1 Million Tournament and the Players Who Risk It All.