I have seen crowd favorites. I have seen them all over the world. I have seen hometown heroes, superstars, and Cinderella stories. I have seen crowds rally around a person for no reason other than it felt like the right thing to do at the time. I thought I had seen it all.
I have never see any person receive the kind of support Daniel Negreanu got here tonight.
At any given point, there were more than 200 poker fans in the Amazon Room and thousands watching online. There were 11 men playing as the clock struck midnight, and Negreanu had nearly the whole of the crowd behind him. They counted as he did push-ups on the stage. The cheered when he picked up the blinds and antes. They roared when he won a pot of any size. No matter whether you love or hate the guy called Kid Poker, this man had everybody begging for him to make the November Nine.
That dream and the crowds it brought with it ended tonight when Negreanu flopped a pair of aces with ace-four. Short-stacked, he needed a double-up if he had any hope of doing well at the final table. Joe McKeehen had J♦3♦. He’d flopped two diamonds and a gutshot broadway draw. All-in, Negreanu needed to dodge a queen or a diamond. The turn brought a three, giving McKeehen more outs. The river was a queen, and Negreanu was gone in 11th place for $526,778. It ties his highest ever Main Event finish.
The disappointment in the room was palpable. Not only is Negreanu a crowd favorite, he is one of the most famous poker players in the world. There was no way to overstate the impact a final table appearance would’ve meant for the WSOP. The man had filled the Amazon Room bleachers by himself, and when he left, a lot of the joy and excitement followed him out.
“Watch this place clear out,” said one man as he left the Amazon Room. “Nobody gives a shit anymore.”
This is to take nothing away from the ten men who remain tonight. They have worked hard to make it this far, too, and Negreanu’s departure should in no way taint their accomplishment. One of the ten remaining players will be the WSOP champion in November and become poker’s ambassador to the rest of the world. All of them have earned the right to be here.
That doesn’t, however, make the burn of watching Negreanu walk away any easier. Thing is, he is already one of poker’s greatest ambassadors, and he’s become so without ever being a Main Event champion. Legions of fans didn’t just want this for themselves or for poker. They wanted it for Daniel, too.
“This the one feather in my cap I don’t have yet,” he said earlier today. “This is a great opportunity. You don’t get a lot of them.”
Afterward, before any of the fans, media, or WSOP staff had come to grips what what had happened, Negreanu’s signature laugh echoed through the Rio hallways. He stood before cameras and microphones and spoke from his heart. There was disappointment, and it was clear, but there was something else there, too, when he was asked if–as many people here believed–poker needed him at the final table. His voice lowered for a moment.
“(The November Nine) is the most special final table of the year. I believed I could help by being there,” he said. “I love to promote the game. I love this game. I owe it a lot. I live my dream life day to day, and without poker I wouldn’t be here.”
But now, at least this part of it–this insane dream where poker’s biggest superstar takes poker’s biggest stage to compete for its biggest championship–ends. Negreanu will leave the Rio tonight and the WSOP for another year. Who knows when–if ever–we will see a crowd of people so resolutely behind one player in a poker tournament. For many people, the disappointment will last for a while, but for Negreanu, it’s not going to change who he is.
“I don’t attach my results to my self worth, so whether I win at poker or lose at poker, I know who I am,” he said.
Thanks for the show, Daniel. Thanks for the show.