A conversation with poker star Daniel Negreanu about Hearthstone

February 5, 2016, 12:31 PM

— -- Whether you follow the goings-on in professional poker with serious dedication or just on a more casual level, you're almost certainly familiar with Daniel Negreanu. A two-time World Series of Poker Player of the Year, an inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame and the all-time money winner in The Hendon Mob's database -- at over $32 million -- his poker accolades could fill up this page.

But Negreanu is not just playing poker these days, having picked up another game-playing addiction in Hearthstone. Hearthstone fans saw this for themselves at this year's World Championship at BlizzCon, when Negreanu faced off against Bertrand "ElkY" Grosspellier in a show match. Despite being the veteran -- ElkY also is a professional poker player and a veteran of StarCraft and Warcraft III, in addition to Hearthstone -- it was Negreanu who came out ahead, three games to one.

Negreanu took some time recently to talk to ESPN esports about his experiences in Hearthstone.

Dan Szymborski: Daniel, naturally, since you're the world's most famous poker player, I'm going to ask you some questions about Hearthstone. Could you tell me a bit about how you started playing?

Daniel Negreanu: Well, I was in Monte Carlo and I heard some poker players talking about this game, Hearthstone. They were saying that this game had more strategic options in terms of variables than chess or poker. And I'm like, "Huh, interesting!" So literally that night, I downloaded it. I was supposed to go to a party at 9 p.m. and was all dressed up and started playing the game at about 8:30; and then I realized at about 4 a.m. that I was not going to make this party because I was still playing.

Szymborski: What do you think initially attracted you to the game? What part of it just grabbed your attention the most?

Negreanu: Obviously, as a professional poker player, I like strategy-based games. For me, I just love the depth of that strategy. There are so many intricate decisions that need to be made, much like poker. The software was just so good and they hook you with the different ways you can play the game and the characters you can choose from. It's one of those games that looks like I'll never stop enjoying it and learning new things about it.

Szymborski: One of the things you hear a lot about in Hearthstone from people is the number of random effects, which aren't generally found in a lot of esports. Do the random effects bother you or does your poker background give you a different perspective on this?

Negreanu: The random effects is one of the reasons why the game is so successful. Think about it. Chess is dying. If you're better than me at chess, you're just going to beat me every single time. I'd never win. That's not fun, is it? But with Hearthstone, even if I'm much better than you, you're still going to be able to win a significant percentage of the time because a little bit of the luck factor.

Coming from poker, that doesn't bother me. Any game that you create that you want a lot of people to play shouldn't be a game that has no luck, because a game with no luck essentially results in the better player winning almost every time.

Szymborski: You played in a Hearthstone show match at BlizzCon against ElkY in which the loser had to dress up as a Hearthstone card for a future poker event. How did that come about?

Negreanu: That happened because I had been talking with Hamilton Chu, one of the developers of Hearthstone. He reached out to us when he saw that I was playing. He friended me on Hearthstone -- I actually met him through ElkY -- and he said, "Why don't you come out to the event and we can create something fun around that?" I was super stoked, both nervous and excited. It was awesome.

Szymborski: Did ElkY ever wear the Sludge Belcher costume after your victory? I remember he was going to wear it at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, but I didn't see a picture pop up, so I was wondering if he ever wore the costume.

Negreanu: He's actually still having it made. It's quite an extensive costume, and he takes it seriously, so it just wasn't ready in time.

Szymborski: You should still dress up as the Annoy-o-Tron, just for fun!

Negreanu: (Laughs) Yeah, no. I won!

Szymborski: Are you still playing the Tempo Mage deck?

Negreanu: Nope, I love the Tempo Mage and it's my go-to favorite, but I unlocked the Golden Mage at 500 victories, and now I'm very close to becoming a Golden Shaman.

Szymborski: Shaman's the hardest class right now!

Negreanu: I prefer the Shaman that was more of a tempo/midrange Shaman, but that just can't win in the meta today. It's terrible. So I've been playing the aggressive, face-type Shaman. It works, but if you run into a deck in which someone's playing Reno Jackson, you're just dead.

Szymborski: I always feel a bit dirty when I win with an aggressive deck.

Negreanu: Yeah, it doesn't feel fun. Just now, before you called, I was playing with a Priest deck that I created on my free-to-play account, and it's just so much fun. It takes a while, and then the other guy thinks he has you, but you have so many options to play. One of my favorite decks to play -- and it's not a good deck -- is the Mill Rogue deck. It drives people crazy, I love it.

Szymborski: One thing that poker and Hearthstone have in common is that each is very simple on its face. But poker also has a deep psychological aspect. In Hearthstone, your interactions with your opponent are extremely limited. So do you take a different approach to Hearthstone when you don't have that level of interactivity?

Negreanu: In poker, I'm going to obviously be doing some bluffing because psychology matters, but in Hearthstone, you can't really do the same kind of bluffing. But you can bluff people with the cards you play early and create some uncertainty for the other player.

Szymborski: Have you ever played other card games in Hearthstone's category, like Magic: The Gathering?

Negreanu: No, I never played Magic, which is why a lot of the Magic players, after I told them I was playing Hearthstone, told me, "You're not going to like it; it'll be too confusing." The first time I was in Hearthstone, I was like "What the hell am I doing?" But I watched a little tutorial, and I learned from there.

Szymborski: OK, one starting hand in Hearthstone and one hand of poker. What would you prefer? 7-2 offsuit or a handful of Magma Ragers?

Negreanu: A handful of Magma Ragers? Geez, how can you win? Seven-deuce I can bluff with. Five Magma Ragers and I'm screwed. So give me the seven-deuce!

Szymborski: What would you say your absolutely favorite card is? Not necessarily the one that you think is the best or has won you the most games. Just the card that you enjoy the most. Like I love Kel'Thuzad, even though it's not the best card.

Negreanu: My favorite card changed as I got better. When I started playing, my favorites were Defender of Argus and Direwolf Alpha. But my favorite card now, by far -- and it's been my favorite for a long time -- is Sludge Belcher. It just stops the game for a little bit and gives you a little time. It's a hard thing to get around without a silence. It's just a good, chunky card that you put there to protect your other stuff.

Szymborski: Now, if you could create a card for Hearthstone, just what would you put together?

Negreanu: I already have one in mind! A 0/1 stealthed minion for Shaman that adds +1 attack to a friendly minion at the end of the every turn. A little like Blood Imp.

Szymborski: Since you've started playing, have fans been coming up to you asking questions about Hearthstone?

Negreanu: Yeah, actually a lot of fans think it's really cool; they go, "Oh my God, you're way cool! You play Hearthstone!" And tell them I'm totally addicted.

Szymborski: What would it take to get more poker players into Hearthstone?

Negreanu: If Hearthstone went to real-money gaming, poker players would be there in droves. Most professional poker players do it to make a living, after all, and getting good at Hearthstone means you have to dedicate a lot of time to it.

Szymborski: Have you ever considered playing Hearthstone in a big tournament? I imagine you'd get an invitation quite easily.

Negreanu: I'd love to. I'd absolutely love to. Just the experience of playing against ElkY on the main stage and winning was amazing. My goal was to not look stupid and get crushed. But to actually win! How did that happen?