How ‘Kid Poker’ Introduced Himself to the World

John Bonetti was a character right out of the movies. If Hollywood producers ever needed someone for the role of an old-time professional poker player, or a wily veteran gambler, they’d be searching high and low for someone like him. Intelligent, quick-witted and talkative. And with a prominent Brooklyn, New York accent to boot, Bonetti had the gift of gab. He stole the spotlight at any poker table in which he sat. He was the table captain, or ‘leading man’ if you will, and perfectly suited for the hit television series The Sopranos. Central casting would have absolutely loved him.

He could play, too. Bonetti was no slouch. In his lifetime, he won more than $4 million playing cards, captured three World Series of Poker bracelets, and has reached the WSOP main event final table three times. With an eighth-place finish in 1990, and thirds in both 1993 and 1996, he was agonizingly close to being crowned world champion.

The interesting thing about Bonetti, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 80, is that he didn’t take up the game until his mid-50’s, but it didn’t take long for him to leave his mark. Not only was he an idol for some of poker’s household names of today, he was a mentor as well. “My best friend,” is how Phil Hellmuth once described him.

John Bonetti

The USPC

Bonetti was at the top of his game during the 1999 United States Poker Championship, and was dominating the field at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A sprightly 71 then, and with three titles already to his name, he carried the chip lead into heads-up play in the championship’s main event and was odds-on favourite to capture his fourth. There was only one person standing in his way, a young upstart pro from Toronto.

USPC

“I’m having fun Danny, if you beat me, you beat me,” he said as the one-on-one battle commenced.

Danny? Bonetti’s opponent sitting across the table that day was none other than a wet-behind-the-ears 25-year old named Daniel Negreanu, who was making his first ever televised final table appearance. A debutante on the big stage, and the antagonist, the Canadian somehow seemed comfortable with his surroundings. Wearing a Nike track suit, a la Andre Agassi, and a matching Nike baseball cap, he looked the part. He didn’t seem phased by the packed rail of fans, most of whom were cheering for his elder statesman rival, the slew of TV cameras positioned around the table, or the fact it was being broadcast to the masses on ESPN. It’s what you might call foreshadowing at its grandest.

What’s in a Name?

Fans would eventually come to know and love him as ‘Kid Poker,’ but this was well before that moniker. In fact, Bonetti, other players and the commentators were all calling him ‘Danny,’ not Daniel. Something that he admitted bothered him years later in an igaming.org article.

“They called me Danny during that tournament for no reason, and I really hated that. I don’t like that name at all. I never said it was okay to do that, but they just decided that I was Danny Negreanu.”

Danny Negreanu

Danny let his chips do the talking that day, and nicely introduced himself to the poker world with controlled, confident and aggressive play. He began to accumulate a big stack. And  after first eliminating Don Zewin in 6th place and then Jason Viriyayuthakorn in third, he found himself staring down the far more experienced Bonetti for the title, bragging rights, and the $210,000 up top. He was the young gun, and he had his pistol drawn.

Buddies & Banter

“We’ll go for a nice meal after this,” Negreanu said sportingly, to which Bonetti joked, “Only you’re buying, I’m older than you.”

First blood went to the grizzled veteran. After re-raising Negreanu, causing him to fold, Bonetti quipped, “I had you Danny. If I say I had you, I had you.”

“I believe you,” Negreanu replied.

It was a friendly affair, with the pair casually conversing as they traded shots, back and forth. And it wasn’t long before the pivotal hand. On a 10-high flop containing two spades, Bonetti led out for 10,000 with a pair of tens. With two spades in his hand, Negreanu countered with a massive re-raise to 100,000, but was then forced to make a decision for all his chips when Bonetti moved all-in.

“Good luck Danny,” he said sincerely, as he pushed his chips into the middle, before offering a stern warning, “you could go broke if you call.”

With one over card to the board and a flush draw, he mulled over what would prove to be the biggest decision of his young life for several minutes before eventually calling.

“I’m going to hit a spade,” he whispered reassuringly under his breath.

Made in the Spade?

And, sure enough, he did. His gut feeling proved true when the eight of spades fell on the river, and he was crowned the USPC champion. The rest, they say, is history. Negreanu has gone on to achieve poker immortality. He’s won six WSOP gold bracelets, and is the only player to be named World Series of Poker ‘Player of the Year’ twice (2004, 2013). He currently sits third on the all-time money lost with a staggering $42,053,305 in lifetime earnings. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2014.

“I decided to play it aggressive, because he was outplaying me,” Negreanu admitted in the post-match interview on ESPN. “He’s such a good player. And I just didn’t think I could come back from a two-to-one chip deficit (if he folded). He was catering all the play. I decided this might be my best chance to win the tournament. Luckily a spade hit, and it’s all over now.”

When asked about his legendary rival, Negreanu offered nothing but praise.

John Bonetti is a good friend of mine, he’s like a mentor to me. I’ve always looked up to him. He’s taught me so much about poker and, more importantly, about life. He’s like a father figure to me. Losing or winning didn’t matter to me, at that point I didn’t hate him, I loved him. He truly is like a father figure to me.

Legendary Status

Today, Daniel Negreanu is still making headlines playing phenomenal poker. And he’s also expanded his brand across all forms of social media. With close to 500,000 followers on twitter @RealKidPoker, and a further 466,000 subscribers on his Youtube channel, he is a go-to source for poker content across all platforms. He’s a superstar of the game, and it all started 21 years ago when he beat John Bonetti. A friend, mentor and fellow great, for glory at the United States Poker Championship.

Daniel Negreanu Vlog

Danny no more, ‘Kid Poker’ was born.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio and has interviewed a number of the world's top poker players and gamblers. A former radio and television broadcaster, Derrick was brand manager for Poker Pro Canada magazine and has written for a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star & Windsor Life.

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