Negreanu Plays 'Small Ball' to Earn Big Win on WPT - Monday 6th of February 2006

ROBINSONVILLE, Mississippi Lee Markholt, a poker pro from Washington state, had just been eliminated from the final table of the World Series of Poker circuit tournament at the Tunica Grand casino in Mississippi last Friday night.

Before he went off to collect his $183,160 prize for finishing fourth in a field of 241 entrants, Markholt was asked if anyone could beat Daniel Negreanu, the tournament's chip leader.

"No," Markholt said, "as long as he keeps playing 'small ball.' "

Markholt's prediction was on target. Negreanu continued to embrace that "small ball" strategy, outlasting his final two opponents to capture the tournament championship and its top prize of $755,525.

In the poker world, small ball, according to the 2005 book "Kill Phil" by Blair Rodman and Lee Nelson, is a subtle, intricate strategy that's difficult to master and therefore, usually best left to the experts in big time, no-limit Texas hold 'em tournaments.

It entails mixing it up in a lot of small pots, but having a feel for when to bail out and when to move in for the kill.

In baseball, where the term originated, think of the Chicago White Sox from 1959 or 2005, for that matter with their reliance on stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, good pitching and turning double plays.

The diametric strategy, "long ball" poker, is also known as "big pot" poker, according to Rodman and Nelson. More formulaic than small ball, it's marked by swinging for the fences by betting all of your chips at once or going "all-in."

Ain't nothing subtle about long ball.

Think baseball in the steroids era or, if you prefer, the Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1970s, when manager Earl Weaver boasted of building his offense around the three-run homer.

Although either strategy can bring home the money, it's generally acknowledged that playing small ball at an expert level requires more advanced poker skills.

Which is appropriate because Negreanu despite sustaining an off year in 2005 is considered one of the most talented poker players in the world.

After winning his first World Series of Poker circuit event title Friday, Negreanu offered an insightful dissertation on how to play small ball especially when you're sitting pretty with the chip lead.

"When you're in that position, all you've got to do is throw a lot of jabs," said Negreanu, a 31-year-old Las Vegas resident. "Jab, jab, jab, then duck.

"The key to winning for me was that I stayed out of any marginal hands. I didn't invest a lot of chips before the flop, and I relied on my post-flop abilities.

"I'm not the guy who's going to get it all in before the flop with 6-6 against ace-king (the pair would be a slight favorite) and hope to stay alive. I want to see what comes on the flop before I decide if I'm going to make my move."

Negreanu, who said his goal for 2006 is to win another Card Player magazine player of the year title after earning the honor in 2004, gave credit to runner-up Bryant King for displaying superb long-ball skills.

"BK makes very few mistakes before the flop," Negreanu said.

King of Spokane, Wash., collected $416,690 for his second-place finish.

One aspect of small ball involves setting traps to entice your opponent to lose all of his chips at once.

Negreanu did just that on the final hand at the Grand's events center, which had been given the signature World Series of Poker circuit makeover: black curtains with tiny white lights that created a planetarium effect as conducive to a Pink Floyd laser show as a poker tournament.

When the flop revealed a king, a queen and a four, Negreanu bet out. King raised, and Negreanu "came over the top," or reraised all-in. King called and showed king-three for top pair but Negreanu was holding king-nine for top pair with a better kicker.

By leading out with the first bet rather than checking his hand and trying for a raise later Negreanu had induced his opponent to commit his chips to the pot. It was a tricky, elegant move.

King later admitted he was bamboozled, figuring Negreanu would try for a check-raise if he was holding top pair heads-up.

"When he comes over the top, I put him on a queen with a redraw," King said.

"I thought I played terribly heads-up against Daniel, but until then, I thought I played great."

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