Twenty-five thousand hands are in the books, and Doug Polk might still be counting all the money he won against Daniel Negreanu. After all, takes a long time to get to $1.2 million, to say nothing of the dough he won in crossbooks and side bets.
But while Polk was a clear winner in the match, there may been a less clear winner: Negreanu himself.
How could a guy who just lost seven figures, to his rival nonetheless, be a winner? Well, it requires zooming out a bit. But first, it’s instructive to look back at the early portion of the match.
Early in the match, things looked grim for Negreanu. Perhaps not so much in terms of results — after all, he got off to a pretty hot start — but in terms of the strategies he was using simply not being up to snuff in many spots.
Negreanu was missing value with some big hands by not using some big enough bet sizes. He was missing bluffs, checking some hands that didn’t have any showdown value in spots where Polk didn’t necessarily have a huge hand. He wasn’t using the overbets that Polk was so effectively leveraging to put pressure on the opposing player.
It was something both players touched on in post-match interviews.
“He just wasn’t bluffing enough.”
“I had two bet sizes,” Negreanu admitted in an appearance on the PokerNews Podcast. “That’s it — either 20% of pot or 75% of pot. That’s limiting. It’s not good.”
Polk, for his part, said in his post-match breakdown of Negreanu’s game that he was “too conservative with being willing to put in all of the money.”
“He just wasn’t bluffing enough,” he said. “He wasn’t being aggressive enough across the board.”
Soaking it in
However, Negreanu didn’t become a six-time bracelet winner, the one-time tournament money leader, and a mainstay in poker across multiple decades by accident.
He’s a sharp player who has made leaps in the past by, as he said in his PokerNews Podcast appearance, acknowledging what he doesn’t know. He’s not too proud to look at what stronger players are doing and learn from it.
Of course, what the modern stars are doing to improve their games is often based on solver outputs. Solvers are notorious for finding bluffs that most human players miss, for one thing. And they make use of overbets that Polk often used to hammer away at Negreanu.
Maybe Negreanu never ran his own sims with a solver. After all, he told PokerNews’ Sarah Herring that he owns one but doesn’t know how to use it. But perhaps his coaches used them to help show him concepts, or perhaps he simply observed Polk’s moves and incorporated some of that strategy into his own.
“I soak in this stuff really quickly,” he said.
He’d cleaned up a lot of his leaks by the end. He played far more aggressively and put Polk in some tougher spots. If he wasn’t exactly ready to tackle the best in the world, he at least put forth a damn good impression of a high-stakes heads-up regular.
Polk also acknowledged his opponent had “come a long way” and allowed that a second match between the two would likely be far closer. He opined that Negreanu would easily defeat anyone who wasn’t playing high-stakes poker for a living.
A Worthwhile Journey
Ultimately, 25,000 hands against an elite heads-up opponent should shape someone’s game for the better, and that’s exactly what happened. Call it a $1.2 million, months-long poker lesson, but between the beating he endured and the studying he did to get in fighting shape, Negreanu’s game may at this point be the sharpest it’s ever been.
“In one retrospect, the journey was worth it because I definitely got a lot better at heads up and poker in general,” he said.
Considering his massive success over the years, that’s a prospect that should worry his future opponents.
But, what sorts of opponents will those players be?
Obviously, the skills he learned are going to be most applicable in future heads-up matches. But that’s generally a format that figures to be few and far between in terms of Negreanu’s play. He’s most known for his tournament skills, meaning he’ll spend the vast majority of his time at tables with several other players and at stack depths much lower than those he had against Polk.
“The journey was worth it because I definitely got a lot better at heads up and poker in general.”
Luckily for Negreanu, he gets at least one ready-made foe for which his new skills will port right over as he’s scheduled to play fellow legend Phil Hellmuth heads up on Season 2 of “High-Stakes Duel” on PokerGO.
Even beyond that, though, the fact of the matter is most pots wind up heads up by the river, and Negreanu will be well-armed when it comes to these spots, playing a stronger strategy than he’s ever brought to bear.
But before he tackles the high-roller regs with whom he’s butted heads so many times, he said he’s looking get back to a different strategy game. One with less ROI but that he’s been enjoying immensely of late: chess.
Negreanu has already played in one tournament, and he’s got another coming up pitting him against other big names in the poker world.
“When the Doug match was over, that’s a chapter that was closed,” he said. “I’m devoting, similarly, the same sort of devotion to this chess tournament. It’s a lot of fun to step out of your element into a different world.”