Sophie Jackson interviewed poker star Daniel Negreanu to find out more about his success in the world of poker and his passion for veganism.
Eighteen years ago, a 23-year-old Canadian made a name for himself in the world of poker by becoming the youngest ever person to win a World Series of Poker bracelet. Outspoken, charismatic, and a master of intimidation, Daniel Negreanu was dubbed ‘Kid Poker’ by the media – a nickname that would stick with him his entire career. Today, Negreanu has an incredible two WSOP championships to his name, along with an additional six WSOP bracelets under his belt.
He is the biggest live tournament winner in poker history, with over $35.5 million dollars in overall earnings. His reputation as the greatest poker player of the past decade has extended beyond the poker community and into pop culture with his appearance in the likes of X Men: Wolverine and Katy Perry’s ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ music video.
When he’s not at the card table, Negreanu likes to involve himself in politics and philanthropy, often taking to Twitter and stirring debate among his followers with controversial questions. Among the many causes and beliefs Negreanu advocates, veganism has to be one of those he feels most passionate about.
In 2000, Negreanu decided that a meat-based diet was doing him no good.
“I would eat barbecue meat and mashed potatoes on a night out but the next day, whenever I’d eaten something like that, I always felt heavy.”
It’s no secret that the average poker player’s diet usually involves an excessive degree of beer and burgers – as might be expected in a hyper-masculine environment. Negreanu soon realized, however, that the lethargic feeling he’d get from eating meat started to have an effect upon his poker play, where total concentration and the ability to stay mentally stimulated for hours on end is of utmost importance.
He admits that the choice to eliminate meat initially stemmed from health concerns and a desire to perform better at the card table. “It was kind of an experiment. I noticed really close to immediately that once I eliminated meat from my diet, I had more energy and I felt better.”
The transition was far from smooth, however. With a limited understanding of nutrition and total inexperience with vegetarian eating, Negreanu resorted to cheese pizza – and a lot of it! “You can get it really wrong. I think for a lot of people, starting out and knowing what to eat is the hard part.”
Nowadays, Negreanu is well-versed in vegan nutrition and, having made the switch to veganism in 2006, eats a rich and balanced diet. “When I think of a meal that will sustain me, I look at fruits, vegetables, some grains, some beans or legumes, maybe some nuts or seeds. A typical meal would be some sort of bean soup, with a salad and vegetables, or maybe some baked beans with brown rice and asparagus or broccoli on the side. Maybe some cashews and almonds in there. You’ll find yourself full just from a simple meal like that. As for fruit – it gets such a bad rap, it’s so bizarre to me. People are so concerned about the sugar in fruit, but it’s different sugar. It’s not the same as fructose from sugar canes, and it’s not bad for you!”
Soon after embarking upon his meat-free lifestyle, Negreanu came to appreciate the benefits of veganism in relation to animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
“As I learned more about veganism, and animal farms and the way animals were treated, it just disgusted me to the point where I could never imagine eating animals again. I watched documentaries like Cowspiracy, but even before that I had read books which really pointed to what we’re creating in this world and how it’s not sustainable in the long term, and how we have to make some adjustments relatively soon, otherwise we’re gonna have serious global problems.”
Negreanu explains that he doesn’t try to push his beliefs and values onto people in a rude or arrogant manner, but that there are times when he feels obliged to question the morals and practices of his friends and family – asking whether they are truly comfortable with the choices they are making.
“Typically in America, if you ask someone if they would eat a dog, they’re disgusted with that. But in many Asian cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable to eat dogs. So when I ask that question, I’m specifically asking why would you eat a cow or pig, but not a dog? Because they’re cuter? More intelligent? Pigs are just as smart. I think people are born into this mentality, which is enforced by their family and society, about what is OK and what isn’t, but it’s not actually based on any rational logic.”
The poker pro is clearly frustrated with what he considers a senseless injustice.“Why do we hate the thought of torturing cats or dogs, but we’re completely OK with debeaking chickens, hanging cows upside down, treating them horribly? I just try to put it into perspective for people, so that they’re at least aware of their decisions.”
Equally frustrating for Negreanu is the false myths surrounding the vegan lifestyle and the physical condition of those who choose to embrace it. “The big issue for a lot of people, which stops them from going vegan, is this big myth – “where do you get your protein?”. I’m actually involved in a documentary with a bunch of vegan athletes. The strongest man in the world, the Strongman Champion – he’s vegan. He gained 40kg on a vegan diet. The idea that you can’t get enough protein without meat is an absolute myth. I’ve met arm wrestling champions, UFC fighters, plenty of boxers and NFL players who are vegan. Really, there needs to be some educating of the public on what is possible. People are so hooked up on this idea that you gotta eat meat to get muscle. I’m the strongest that I’ve ever been by far, and I’m on a full vegan diet – with no steroids!”
We discuss how Negreanu envisions the future of veganism, to which he reveals both optimism and some concern, referring to both the environmental damage caused by the meat industry and to the average health of meat-eaters around the world.
“I think scientists have actually made it quite clear that if by 2050 we don’t limit our animal consumption then we won’t be able to sustain ourselves, so I definitely think we’re already heading toward a vegan movement. The rate in which meat-eaters get heart disease is vastly greater than in those who are vegetarian or vegan. That’s really not debatable. I don’t think there’s any science that can disprove that fact.”
Turning to food, Negreanu describes his favourite vegan restaurants in Las Vegas, including several in The Wynn Encore Resort. “Every single restaurant in The Wynn has a vegan menu. It’s really great, you can go with people who aren’t vegan and they don’t feel weirded out. In terms of purely vegan, there’s a place called VegeNation in downtown Vegas which is really good.”
Before finishing the interview, I ask him for some final advice. What resources would he recommend to someone thinking of becoming vegan, but who might need a little help in that beginner’s stage? Negreanu doesn’t take long to think about my question – he instantly mentions what he considers to be one of the most helpful books on the subject: 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart by Neal D. Barnard. “It’s a great basic guide to help people with the transition. It focuses on meal plans for beginners. Neal D. Barnard also introduces some of the fake-meat type products that exist. I don’t really eat them, but it’s still a great book for people in that initial transition phase.”
For almost twenty years, ‘Kid Poker’ has dominated the poker circuit – but how much of his success can be accredited to veganism? According to Negreanu – a lot. Considering his seemingly unshakable career and vibrant, upbeat mannerism, I’m inclined to believe that veganism has indeed changed the poker player’s life for the better.
Interview conducted by Sophie Jackson on behalf of PokerListings.com