A match 13 years in the making
“Pick your stakes heads up, pick your stakes heads up,” said an impish Tom Dwan to an irate Phil Hellmuth in 2008, moments after he spiked a two-outer to crack The Poker Brat’s aces and dispatch him from the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship.
There was no love lost between the pair as they sparred verbally, a wounded Hellmuth telling Dwan:
We’ll see if you’re even around in five years’ time.”
On Wednesday night at the PokerGO studios in Las Vegas, the two finally picked their stakes as Phil Hellmuth squared off against easily his toughest opponent to date on High Stakes Duel. If Antonio Esfandiari was the amuse-bouche and Daniel Negreanu was the appetizer, then Nick Wright was a palate-cleansing sorbet in preparation for a ‘durrrr’-sized main course (I shouldn’t have written this before I had my breakfast).
In what was billed as Round 2 of High Stakes Duel III, each player put up $100,000. Dwan arrived with a fresh stake while Hellmuth carried forward his spoils of victory from Round 1. Hellmuth took an early lead, but once Dwan got in front, he kept the advantage for most of the five-and-a-half-hour clash. Dwan was ultimately victorious, ending Hellmuth’s one-year reign as champion of High Stakes Duel.
Dwan as the creator of epic poker TV moments
Down the years, Tom Dwan has treated us to his fair share of great poker moments. On High Stakes Poker, he and Barry Greenstein clashed in a memorable hand. Greenstein, who never runs it twice, offered Dwan the option to pull back $200,000 and play for a smaller pot. Dwan refused, and 15 seconds later, he pulled in a $920,000 pot, ending a sequence of events he would later explain to Nick Schulman in an interview for Poker King:
On another episode of High Stakes Poker, he put in $260,000 on the river versus Phil Ivey with 9 high like a… no, I refuse to go there! This hand was famously broken down by Doug Polk:
Then, on Premier League Poker, needing to hit one of just four outs, Dwan knew to walk off the set. This was a canny understanding of how poker’s dark arts work.
Last night, Dwan added the toppling of his old nemesis Phil Hellmuth to that list.
Hellmuth dominant in the heads-up SNG format
Regardless of this defeat, Hellmuth has a stupendous, almost impossibly good record in live heads-up SNGs. The format forces players to play all the stack sizes, but as such it has more variance than a deeper cash game format.
Despite his impressive resumé, Hellmuth went into the confrontation versus ‘durrrr’ as the underdog. According to PokerShares, Dwan was a -128 favorite while Hellmuth’s odds were a generous +110.
15 WSOP bracelets and over $24m in live tournament winnings
Hellmuth has consistently complained that the poker community does not respect his record. With 15 WSOP bracelets and over $24m in live tournament winnings, the counter-punching self-styled Poker Brat is one of the most successful players in history.
And yet, he is forced to prove himself again and again.
Good-natured banter off the felt, all business at the table
Ahead of the match, both Dwan and Hellmuth were in a relaxed mood, giving a joint interview to PokerNews:
Dwan joked about the prospect of a Hellmuth tirade in a pre-match interview with Jon Sofen:
However, once it went lights, camera, action, they were all business as they battled for the $200,000 prize. Hellmuth was calm and composed throughout the match by Hellmuth standards. But a few hours in, after missing his flush draw and losing a chunky pot to ace-high, the audience were treated to a trademark Hellmuth soliloquy:
Hellmuth was resilient, his ultra-small ball approach forcing Dwan into a five-and-a-half-hour war of attrition.
On the final hand, history would repeat itself as Hellmuth limped in with pocket aces and Dwan checked back his nine-three. The flop brought a three, good enough for Dwan to commit the chips once Hellmuth shoved. A nine on the turn, a brick river, and that was all she wrote for Hellmuth, who must now decide whether he wants to pony up $200,000 for a re-match.
Given the format, Hellmuth would have to string three consecutive wins together to be allowed to cash out. That means that in a hypothetical final match, he would have to risk $800,000. It is likely, therefore, that he will bow out now, making way for a new challenger.