“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” claimed The Grateful Dead once upon a time. It’s doubtful that they had in mind the rivalry, on and off the online poker table, between Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu.
But that line seemed apropos as the two titans of the poker world finally closed out their months-long Grudge Match of the Century on Wednesday.
We’ve been following the match in this column, as most of the poker world has, since the cards were finally dealt late in 2020 after years of build-up.
On Wednesday, perhaps both finally getting a bit tired of it all, Polk and Negreanu grinded their way through over 1,700 real money poker hands to finally reach the 25,000-hand limit set at the beginning of the challenge. The final tally: Polk won over $1.2 million from Negreanu.
In many ways, the final few days of action was anticlimactic. Because the matchup was set up at the beginning to be 25,000 hands, there was always a ticking clock of sorts on the whole affair. And when the week began, that clock was essentially tolling for Negreanu’s doom
Clearly, the two decided, going into Wednesday, that they would try to settle things once and for all. Negreanu showed some life early by pulling in front in the session by over $100,000. But it was short-lived, as Polk tore out winnings in chunks before ending the session by adding another $255,000 to his total.
The final margin ended up being the widest that had existed between the two for the entirety of the match. If you look at only that, you might say that Negreanu definitely got the worst of it. But in many ways, both of these guys turned out to be winners when all was said and done.
The Beginnings of the Grudge Match
Interestingly enough, the rivalry between Polk and Negreanu really didn’t rev up because of poker table play. In fact, they rarely crossed paths in tournaments. This was, in true 21st-century fashion, a social media fight more than anything else.
These two guys have very different poker styles that seemed to rub each other the wrong way. From Negreanu’s perspective, he likely saw Polk’s sniping on social media (and he was very effective at it) as a lack of respect, considering that Negreanu certainly belonged to the first generation of poker stars that came from the game’s television boom times during the 2000s.
And Polk seemed to see Negreanu as an establishment figure who needed to be taken down a peg.
The specific issues that flared up between them seem to pale now in comparison to this simple fact that they seemed to get under each other’s skin. Then there was the protracted run-up to the actual match, which featured a lot of insults and haggling over the rules. It seemed like the bad blood would overwhelm any poker being played.
Yet once they finally did settle down to make it happen, the two remained cordial, with the exception of some late-match snags (which we’ll get to in a second).
They played the very first session, which was won by Negreanu, in the same room before switching to an online format. That format was largely the reason that, in many ways, the Grudge Match was always going to be a safe play for both men.
Negreanu, who was always most likely to lose, could always claim the disadvantage. And Polk, who was always likely to win, could play with the assurance that he would most likely come out on top. If anything, Polk assumed a little bit of risk in that a Negreanu upset would have been severely damaging to his reputation.
When the Poker Cards Were Dealt
For about a week at the start of the match, Negreanu, known among the game’s enthusiasts as Kid Poker, was neck and neck with his adversary. But in the second week of the match, Polk put together a string of victories to take firm control of the proceedings.
From there, ebbs and flows in the action kept the status of the match bouncing back and forth between “Polk has this in the bag” and “Kid Poker might be making a comeback.”
As the weeks dragged on, the slight glimmer of hope to which Negreanu was clinging to slowly started to dim. In his defense, most avid watchers of the match seemed to agree that Polk was getting the better of it in terms of the luck of the draw. A Friday session where Negreanu chalked up the largest single-day win of the match seemed to give him one last boost.
But that session also led to those snags we mentioned above and the reemergence of some bad blood. Polk came out the following Monday, suddenly changing up his aggressive betting strategy in favor of limping into many hands. In an apparently aggravated response, Negreanu came out the next session, taking forever to make decisions, causing Polk to temporarily storm out in protest.
The theatrics soon subsided, however, leaving the table set for Polk’s close-out on Wednesday.
In the wake of the final hands, the two players didn’t fire off any last shots, instead simply looking back at what had transpired. Negreanu repeated that he wished he’d gotten a little luckier at times during the match, while Polk admitted how much his opponent had improved.
But even if it’s not these two, the hope is that this battle inspired more top, name-brand poker pros to do the same and go at it in a one-on-one struggle. The head-to-head format is truly one that allows players to solidify those brands.
As great as tournament play can be, final tables are often made up by largely unknown players. While that can be thrilling in its own way, rivalries are what make sports. Think Yankees-Red Sox or Duke-North Carolina.
Can we add Polk-Negreanu to that list? Maybe not yet. But the fact that it’s even a consideration goes to show that this Grudge Match of the Century was a win-win situation for these two combatants.