We are in unprecedented times in the world of poker, with many large events having to gear down or make a transition into the online sphere. As a result, players are trying to find ways to drum up big action in some sort of attention-grabbing setting. And poker fans are craving to see it as well.
That could be the reason for the recent mini-boom in staged head-to-head showdowns. With the World Series of Poker’s online edition now in the rear view, many big names are seeking the kind of exposure that they usually get from big tournaments. And these one-on-one battles seem to be filling in the gap.
In recent weeks, Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari battled in a pair of showdowns for big stakes. So far, Hellmuth has come out on top, with the most recent victory coming in a $200,000 battle this past week. This is an open-ended series which could probably go on as long as the competitors wish to keep propping it up.
Also, this week, Daniel Negreanu agreed to a head-to-head battle with his rival Doug Polk. This challenge first cropped over the summer, and it took this long for the combatants to agree on the details. It appears, barring any more flare-ups, that the two will go at it starting on November 1st of this year.
Then there’s the case of Phil Galfond, by far the most ambitious of the head-to-head battlers. His so-called “Galfond challenge” is basically a gauntlet thrown down to any other poker pro who wants to pick it up. Galfond has done a lot of this battling in the real money online poker sphere, and he’s been coming out on top with regularity.
So, where do all these battles stand at the moment? Well, let’s start with the Hellmuth-Esfandiari matchup. These two are the probably among the most recognizable players to those who fell in love with poker during the Texas Hold’em boom of the early 2000s.
When they first clashed back in those heady days, there seemed to be a genuine animosity between the two of them. Hellmuth found “The Magician’s” tactics infuriating. It made for some intense matchups over the years.
In any case, he has had the better of it so far, so there isn’t too much he needs to complain about. Hellmuth took the first round in July. He followed it up by busting Esfandiari out this past week in a match streamed by PokerGo, using a bluff-happy strategy that had The Magician on the defensive the whole time.
What’s next? Well, Esfandiari has the right to call for a rematch for $400,000, which could immediately reverse the $300,000 that he already lost to Hellmuth. Is there any doubt this is going to happen?
Pro Poker Feud
In the case of Daniel Negreanu and Doug Polk, there was a lot of doubt that their much-hyped head-to-head battle would come to fruition. This battle figures to be the direct opposite of what is going down between Hellmuth and Esfandiari. Quite simply, it really appears that these two men hate each other.
It has been a feud boiling for about six years now. At one point, it included Polk buying billboard space to mock Negreanu. In the past year, Negreanu has been in the spotlight for far more than his play, which once again drew needling from Polk. All of a sudden, the challenge that had been tossed about for years was finally accepted.
Of course, considering the many fits and starts in this story, there was no guarantee that this would actually happen. But the details seem to have finally worked out this past week. The tentative start date is November 1st.
Needless to say, the two argued back and forth on social media about this, upping their animosity. All of the details are a bit intricate, but the bottom line is 25,000 head-to-head hands, unless someone decides to pack it in halfway through because they’re too far behind. The stakes might also be raised at that halfway point as well.
Alas, the spectacle of it might not be as entertaining as it otherwise could be because Negreanu only agreed on the condition that his hole cards would not be shown during play. His logic is that the format is more to Polk’s strengths anyway (even though the latter has ramped down his poker activity the past few years). Daniel Negreanu feels that Doug Polk being able to study his style of play would hamper his chances even more.
It isn’t yet set in stone that this will happen. But it does seem closer to being realized than ever before.
He has been sporadically taking on Bill Perkins since April and is well ahead in that duel, although it isn’t yet complete. And this past week, Galfond has been going toe-to-toe with Chance Kornuth. The Galfond-Kornuth battles has been a wild affair, with Galfond building a big lead but Kornuth resiliently cutting into that lead at press time.
As if all this weren’t enough, Galfond still has two more of these matches on the docket, albeit with no set start date. If he could somehow manage to sweep all six of these confrontations, it would no doubt go down as one of the most impressive head-to-head poker feats ever.
The head-to-head matchup in poker certainly carries a kind of nostalgic resonance. After all, when you picture the Old West and saloons and dusty cowboys, there is always that card game between two players across a rickety table at the heart of it. This recent rash of head-to-head matchups, with all the strategy they entail, certainly evokes that nostalgia.
It remains to be seen when the poker world will return to the way it was before all the craziness of 2020 went down. Let’s just hope that there’s still a place for these high-stakes head-to-head showdowns even when normalcy returns. They’re just way too much fun to lose.