Are All These Heads-Up Grudge Matches Turning Poker Into a Pantomime?

  • Without live tourneys, poker has been leaning into heads-up grudge matches as a way to entertain
  • Poker has seen many genuinely engrossing encounters like Andy Beal versus The Corporation
  • Doug Polk versus Daniel Negreanu was magic in a bottle
  • The hype for the upcoming Hellmuth versus Negreanu match has turned into pantomime
Phil Hellmuth heads-up in a WPT event
The heads-up matches of the past year are feeling more and more contrived as poker fans yearn for entertainment. [Image: Flickr.com]

Poker world is hungry for entertainment

The Duel. The Challenge. The Grudge Match. No doubt, heads-up poker is back in vogue, reignited by Phil Galfond and Veni Vidi, set ablaze by Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu. 

poker media has had to innovate and production companies have had to get creative

In 2021, the poker world is starved for news (believe me, I cover it) and poker fans are starved for premium content. With little to no live poker, the poker media has had to innovate and production companies have had to get creative. While some poker content creators have embraced the avant-garde, others have spotted an opportunity to lean into an old formula, a once loved format, a formerly popular trope. 

Pick two titans of the game. Engage the public in a “who’s better” discussion. Get both of the players to call out the other guy, preferably in WWE style on camera. Engage the public in a “who’s the baby face, who’s the heel” discussion. Get the players to agree terms publicly. Sprinkle in some more insults and attitude. Set the date. Create a betting market. “Person, woman, man, camera, TV.” I mean “Lights, camera, action…”

Andy Beal versus The Corporation

In 2001, billionaire banker Andy Beal played the then-highest-stakes poker match of all time versus a collective of the best players of the day. Forever etched into the annals of poker history, immortalized in Michael Craig’s 2005 book The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, “The Corporation” pooled their money together to take on Beal in Limit Hold’em at stakes that got as high as $100,000/$200,000.

At one point in the contest, Beal was up over $13m, forcing Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, Howard Lederer, Todd Brunson, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harmon, Gus Hanson, David Grey, Lyle Berman, Minh Ly, and the rest of the group to dig deeper into their pockets to stay in action. In the end, the pros turned it around, getting back into the black and eventually taking Beal for $16m before he quit.

The Durrrr Challenge

Cut to 2010 and the eyes of the poker world were affixed on “The durrrr Challenge” match between Dan “Jungleman” Cates and the eponymous hero Tom “durrrr” Dwan. The Full Tilt Poker pro had offered an open challenge to the poker world (with the exception of his friend Phil Galfond) to play 50,000 hands at $200/$400 stakes, laying 3:1 (his $1.5m to his opponent’s $500,000) in side action on top of any money won or lost during the challenge itself. 

Patrick Antonius took up the challenge in 2009 but cried uncle after Dwan took a $2m lead around the 40,000-hand mark. Jungleman tested his skill in August 2010. The pair played approximately 20,000 hands and Cates was up a solid but not unassailable $1.2m when Dwan stepped away, citing other commitments. Over a decade later, the match is still on hiatus. 

Cates stayed quiet on Dwan’s backing out early for a long time, but in 2017 he broke his silence, explaining that Dwan had paid regular penalties over the years amounting to $800,000. That’s a decent chunk of change, but Cates insisted that he would still like to finish off the match.

Galfond Challenge and “High Stakes Duel

In late 2019, poker legend Phil Galfond issued an open challenge to anybody that wished to battle him in heads-up, high-stakes Pot-Limit Omaha. Similar to the “durrrr Challenge”, Galfond offered some side action to his opponent. The price he would lay, however, would be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. 

the greatest contest of its kind the poker world has ever witnessed

Since then, Galfond has defeated all-comers. Playing stakes of €100/€200 ($119/$238), he came back from a €900,000 ($1.1m) deficit to implausibly defeat online beast Veni Vidi in the greatest contest of its kind the poker world has ever witnessed. He turned around a €350,000 ($417,000) deficit to beat Chance Cornuth for €725,000 ($864,000). Galfond is also leading in his ongoing matches with Bill Perkins and online crusher Action Freak, with matches against Brandon Adams and Daniel Cates scheduled for the future. 

In July, September, and October 2020, Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari, two of the biggest names in poker, clashed in a series of heads-up matches for “High Stakes Duel”, an original series on the PokerGO streaming service. Hellmuth triumphed in all three games to pocket a total of $400,000 for an initial outlay of just $50,000 in Game 1. 

Doug Polk versus Daniel Negreanu 

In a match that nobody saw coming, poker’s two biggest rivals, Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu, clashed in an epic 25,000-hand heads-up match. Viewers were glued to the action as multiple Twitch and YouTube streams covered the one-sided contest. In the end, Polk cleaned house, ending $1.2m in the black against “Kid Poker”.

The Grudge Match had all the ingredients: the history, the hype, the drama, the wild action, the unhinged post-match interviews. It was a perfectly cooked soufflé. It was magic in a bottle. 

Hellmuth/Negreanu: the next big game

Thanks to Galfond, Hellmuth, Polk, and Negreanu, the poker world has grown an appetite for heads-up contests, but nothing has sated us since. Holz versus Malinowski was a damp squib. “Berri Sweet” and “LLinusLLove” are battling in the nosebleeds every day, but not many outside those in the upper echelons are taking much notice. The promised Tice versus Perkins contest is unlikely to scratch the itch. 

On March 31, Negreanu and Hellmuth – undeniably two of the biggest names in the game – are scheduled to play “The Duel II” on PokerGO. The match should pique our collective interest, but so far the buildup has been lackluster. There have been fairly transparent attempts by both parties to infuse animosity where none exists.

Over the past fortnight, interviews on No Gamble, No Future have hyped the contest, with Negreanu saying that Hellmuth talks “word salad nonsense”. The Poker Brat hit back, calling Negreanu a politician. 

More shots were fired a week ago, this time by Hellmuth, who suggested rather preposterously that Daniel’s genuine development as a player was tantamount to being fickle:

White magic and live reads for the win. 

Since then, Negreanu has called into question Hellmuth’s credentials versus the game’s elite, betting him $400,000 that he couldn’t win over a sample size of 50 $25,000 buy-in high-roller tournaments. Negreanu might well have the best of that bet but it’s all getting a little bit silly, both in this confrontation and across the board, as people try to recapture the purity of the Polk/Dnegs clash. 

Both the long and short, online and live forms of these “mano y mano” contests are here to stay, at least until live poker resumes in earnest. With Andy Beal unlikely to come out of poker retirement any time soon and the resumption of the Dwan/Cates match a long shot, we will have to make do with a certain amount of poker pantomime for now. Until another genuine grudge comes along, it’s all going to be a bit phony, a bit hammy, and ultimately a bit hard to swallow.