Over the past year, the poker world has pivoted as much as possible to react to what’s been going on in the world. What’s interesting is how some adjustments that were borne out of necessity now seem likely to stick around into the future even as things normalize.
We’ve talked at length in this column about how real money online poker has boomed in the past year, as more and more top pros realize that there’s something to be gained even when they can’t be at the table in person.
The other big development has been the incredible boom in head-to-head action. While matches between two players have always been a part of the poker landscape, it seems like the past year or so has brought about a vast increase in terms of the quantity and quality of the heads-up action.
Whether it’s in person or online, these battles have drawn intense interest in the poker world.
While there’s no word yet on whether those challenges will be accepted, it’s likely that the offers are going to keep coming.
As for poker fans who like to watch the action, these battles are catnip. Tournaments are certainly entertaining, but the simple math of tournament play leads to many occasions when the last two players standing aren’t that well-known. That can almost seem like an anticlimax.
But with these preset battles, you’re ensured of seeing two of the best match wits. The fireworks that ensue are generally gleaned from both the actual play and the interaction between the combatants. After all, the players chosen for these showdowns generally have big personalities, which is why Helmuth and Negreanu are such naturals for the format.
Poker Brat vs. Kid Poker Round II
This past week, Hellmuth and Negreanu met for the second time in the High Stakes Duel format favored by PokerGO with $100,000 on the line. It’s a format in which Hellmuth has proven dominant, coming into the showdown with a four-match winning streak. Those four wins consisted of a three-match sweep of Antonio Esfandiari and a victory over Negreanu a few weeks back.
In that latter showdown, Negreanu jumped out to a monster lead and it looked like the oddsmakers that made him the favorite were going to be proven right.
But Hellmuth started chipping away as he clung to his dwindling stack and eventually forged back in front before completing the comeback victory. It had to be a tough pill for Negreanu to swallow, but a win in the rematch could have erased that bad taste from his mouth to some extent.
But it wasn’t meant to be. In what was more of a seesaw match than the first, both players saw hills and valleys without either forging too much of a dominant lead. But as the hands went on, Hellmuth once again wore down Negreanu with his clever play.
It came down to a hand with Negreanu, who at one point had over three chips to Hellmuth’s one, reduced to a similar deficit. He threw it all in with a pair of eights against Hellmuth’s off-suited ace-four, at least going into the race with a lead.
The flop featured a pair of nines, but the bigger news was that there were two hearts, which gave Hellmuth a shot at a flush.
Negreanu immediately mentioned Round 3, which will be his last chance at a rematch. If he should lose that one, the overall showdown ends according the rules of the High Stakes Duel format. On top of that, Negreanu will have to put $200,000 at stake the next time around because he’s behind.
Next Men Up
As has been the case lately whenever one of these battles takes place, social media was quickly abuzz, often coming from other pros reacting to the match. And in this case, the potential for both Hellmuth and Negreanu to jump into new matches was raised. Now, it’s just a matter of whether either player would accept.
In Negreanu’s case, his challenge came on the heels of a rather heated exchange between Kid Poker and Brandon Cantu, a buddy of Hellmuth’s. Without getting into the rather lengthy Twitter back-and-forth, Cantu criticized Negreanu’s play and Negreanu criticized Cantu’s character.
Cantu eventually ended up challenging Negreanu to a best-of-seven match using the High Stakes Duel format.
Negreanu didn’t follow it up from there, so it remains to be seen if he would go for that. He might not want to get into other match born of bad blood, as Negreanu’s showdown with Doug Polk didn’t end well, even though the two did end it on better terms than when they started.
Or he might see the new match as a shot at redemption to atone for his recent struggles in the head-to-head action.
Speaking of Polk, he jumped into the fray by challenging Hellmuth, almost like the winner’s bracket of this whole scenario. To really juice it up, Polk promised he’d put up $1 million and that the Brat wouldn’t have to risk anything.
But the key to this challenge was the proposed format.
Hellmuth has shown no inclination that he wants to get into that kind of protracted, months-long setup, instead preferring the quick fix that High Stakes Duel provides. Polk knows that he’d be in his wheelhouse, which is why he made such a confident bet. (Also, for a guy who’s supposed to be retired from poker, Polk sure is playing a lot these days.)
The Poker Action Heats Up
There is no telling when this little heads-up saga will end. Social media continues to drive the bus. Negreanu, Hellmuth and other pro Holdem players tend to have rabbit ears, so they’re not likely to let any insults go by without responding in some way.
There is a possibility that, at some point, the poker public’s appetite for these matches will start to dwindle.
You could also argue that winning a major tournament, with all of the grinding such a feat requires, is more of an accomplishment than putting up a good record in matches where you go in with a 50/50 chance of being the winner.
But the past week proves that this head-to-head frenzy still has a lot of juice left in it. Without a doubt, seeing the moves and countermoves between the best players in the game is something that has undoubtedly been a boon for fans everywhere.
The name-calling and posturing that goes along with it may be better suited for the WWE. But if that’s what it takes to get these stars facing each other down across the felt, it sure seems like it’s worth it.