Well, THAT was one hell of a ride!

After close to 25,000 hands of intense €100/€200 heads-up Pot Limit Omaha action, the seesaw online poker battle between Phil Galfond and VeniVidi1993 came to a thrilling conclusion yesterday when Galfond clinched victory with just 75 hands left to be played in the first match of the Galfond Challenge.

In the two-and-a-half months it took to complete the match (January 22-April 12), the constantly evolving story has been chronicled extensively within poker media as well as by more mainstream media sites including Deadspin and Barstool Sports. In retrospect, especially with the heroic comeback story elements now fully realized, the highly competitive encounter presented a bright spot of positive coverage for our game so sorely in need of it.

Much like a studious poker player ought to reflect upon past sessions to learn and improve, now would seem the opportune moment to contemplate everything that’s gone down over the 25,000-hand-long saga and see what sort of long-term takeaways we can emerge with. After having a good long think on the matter, I came up with a list of 10 things poker fans and players can learn from the Galfond Challenge about poker, from Phil himself, about ourselves, and even about life in general.

As we all bask in the afterglow of what proved to be a riveting clash at the virtual felt, there are numerous lessons that will stick with us for a long time to come.

Galfond challenge

10. Non-Hold’em poker games have a great deal of unrealized marketing potential

The culmination of the heads-up match saw upwards of 22,000 people tuning in simultaneously via Twitch to witness the final hands. Unlike the vast majority of poker broadcasts we’ve seen in the last few years (both live and pre-recorded), however, this was a Pot Limit Omaha match, and many folks – even longtime poker lovers – were getting their first exposure to “the great game” of PLO. That’s a great thing!

Now the caveats:

  • 22,000 is not a “gigantic” number by any means. Contrary to the feeling one might get by scrolling through Poker Twitter, it’s not as though everyone and their grandmother was watching.
  • Not having tuned in doesn’t mean that you don’t care about poker; it just means that something else (e.g., Netflix, family, exercise, sleep, etc.) won out in the battle for your attention. Perhaps poker will win next time.
  • It having been Easter Sunday, with much of the worldwide poker-loving audience quarantined or at home, are certainly two X factors that need to be taken into account as far as viewing numbers.
  • It’s not as though thousands upon thousands of poker fans were watching every single one of the 25,000 hands being played for 39 days. We’re reflecting on peak viewership, with the last couple hours of the final Day accounting for a massive swell versus average numbers.

All of those caveats notwithstanding, however, the fact that the match did get as large of an audience as it got points to something far greater than the game of Pot Limit Omaha. Sure, perhaps a no-limit Hold’em challenge may have gotten more viewers, but when a great story is being played out it almost doesn’t matter what poker variant is being played.

Switch out PLO for 2-7 Triple Draw, 7 Card Stud Hi-Low, or even Bagudi as the game of choice and you still have an amazing story. The upshot of all that is that while the story is being told, fans can get exposed to (and perhaps eventually begin playing) plenty of other non-Hold’em variants of poker.

9. Winners attract lots of fans

With respect and sincere apologies to VeniVidi1993, it’s quite something to see the level of excitement among poker fans that Phil Galfond was able to generate. As the first installment of the Galfond Challenge wore on, social media reaction gave the sense that poker fans were watching something akin to Tiger Woods approaching the 18th hole after mounting a late charge or Roger Federer holding match point after having warded off half a dozen of them from across the net.

It’s no stretch to make comparisons to those all-time greats in their sports when speaking of someone who has been at or near the top of the online poker game for more than a decade. A surefire future Poker Hall of Famer, Galfond attracted legions of fans (both old and new) to watch him ply his trade. It was frankly just a spectacle to behold.

8. People love great poker commentary

As enthralling as the matches have been, they were arguably only as enchanting as the broadcast commentators made them out to be. Go ahead, try watching a couple of the highlight clips below on mute. The experience is entirely different. Let’s never forget the power that great commentators have to make poker so incredibly engaging and craft a scintillating narrative. As much credit as they get, they need to get even more.

7. Phil Galfond is as humble and down-to-earth as he is a great poker player

Considering the high stakes being played for and how wildly the pendulum swung throughout the match, any sort of emotional swings and changes in tone would be entirely understandable, even of the most cool, calm, and collected professional poker players. Maintaining impeccable composure, a sense of humor, an acute self-awareness, and incredible candor throughout; THAT — far more than any well-played hand of poker — is what makes Galfond so damn heroic and inspiring. I don’t ordinarily embed so many Tweets consecutively in my articles, but the chronology of Phil’s statements below simply demands it.

Honorable mention here also must go to VeniVidi1993. While preferring to remain anonymous, one can only imagine what things were like from his perspective. In an age where everyone has a social media platform at their fingertips, to remain publicly silent for months amidst a cacophony of noise is practically astonishing.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of a supportive partner

As much as it takes a special kind of brain wiring to be a professional poker player and view money in an entirely different and unconventional way, it takes a similar – if not greater – level of intestinal fortitude to be the life partner of said professional poker player. It would reason logically that the higher the stakes and the more dependents in question, the truer the aforementioned statement.

Making the first match of the Galfond Challenge that much more compelling to watch was the very public presence of Farah Galfond throughout the proceedings. While she undoubtedly understands an immense amount about the game of poker, it’s completely understandable that she’d have the entire array of emotions on display watching Phil’s (and by extension her own) fortunes fluctuate at the felt.

Resoluteness under that kind of pressure is very impressive, to say the least, and ought to be lauded no less. If all else were even in this epic match, we could perhaps point to Farah as what tipped the balance in Phil’s favor.

5. Surround yourself with a great team of people

Phil is unquestionably the heart and soul of his Run It Once Poker and Run It Once Training brands, and serves as the frontman and main spokesperson for both of those businesses. To embark on the Galfond Challenge, while obviously a marketing initiative, meant that Phil would to a large degree be unavailable to fulfill his regular responsibilities and role with the companies.

Of course, competitive juices notwithstanding, this is a move Galfond would never have made if he didn’t feel that he had a highly competent, professional team in place to hold the reigns and keep things running smoothly while he focused on his match.

There’s been a LOT going on at Run It Once over the last quarter, and having worked hand in hand with a few key members of the RIO Poker and RIO Training teams, I can personally vouch for their incredible professionalism as well. More power to them.

4. Online poker still has room to grow as a spectator sport

For years now there’s been a good deal of effort invested by the greater poker industry in marketing online poker via Twitch streams. There will always be plenty of folks building their own personal audiences through online poker play, but for every bunch of base hits the medium can still hit a home run once in a while.

When a company gets it all right — the right people, stakes, conditions, commentators, timing, etc. — the stage is set for fans to swarm and spectators to surge. In a world of content-hungry poker fans, the Galfond Challenge is a perfect marketing vehicle for online poker.

The precedent has been set. Now it’s up to the industry to replicate and enhance what’s been proven to work. With the proliferation of esports and sports betting, it would seem that a trail has already been blazed towards the natural progression of what online poker could eventually become.

3. Taking breaks from poker is important

The first match of the Galfond Challenge featured 39 days of actual gameplay, taking place over two-and-a-half months. The individual sessions ranged in duration from 393-940 hands. Both players took breaks, with perhaps the most notable one being Galfond’s nearly month-long hiatus between Days 15 and 16.

With so much money at stake and facing a world-class opponent across the virtual felt, staying on one’s A-game is nothing absolutely critical. Surely both players also studied in between sessions and did their utmost to change up their game, adapt to each other’s playing styles, and gain an edge, however slight.

Staying sharp and making the right moves at the right times is only possible if you’re properly conditioned. Humans need breaks. If for whatever reason you feel you’re not on your A-game, a break is in order (even if it costs you a penalty, as stipulated in  the Challenge’s rules).

When a couple of the best online poker players take breaks to regroup, get their heads straight, and try to remain (or regain) laser-focus, the lessons are clear to every single other poker player out there. Plus, Phil giving a huge endorsement to Elliot Roe for his mental game assistance obviously means it’s something you might want to try as well if you’re aiming to climb to the highest levels the game has to offer.

2. Variance is real

While Galfond emerged victorious, his margin of victory after close to 25,000 hands of play was relatively small, indeed. Moreover, individual sessions hundreds of hands long ended with a player winning anywhere from €13.31-€267,949.70; quite the astonishing range!

At the highest levels of poker play, the difference in skill level among players is minuscule, and of course there’s a luck factor at play as well. Tomes have been written about the concept of variance, but a 25,000-hand sample can certainly help us visualize it.

With a bit more demonstrative appreciation for variance, then, it behooves serious and studious poker players not to focus solely (or even at all!) on the results of the Galfond Challenge, but rather on the play and the process. If you’re able to do similar by examining your own play (and keep the concept of variance in mind), you’ll undoubtedly emerge the better player for it.

1. There are plenty of great stories still to be told in poker

From a storytelling perspective, the first match of Galfond Challenge had it all: a hero, a villain (again, with sincere apologies to VeniVidi1993 for the depiction; there’s nothing “villainous” about you, of course) and hundreds of thousands of euros hanging in the balance. The ostensible obstacles of “ring rust” for Galfond to overcome and a mountain (of losses) to climb was reminiscent of a Rocky movie; heck we even had the proverbial Adrian sitting steadfastly on the sidelines!

To top it all off, the audience got treated to an epic Hollywood ending, as Lancelot finally slayed the dragon in the climactic scene.

Engaged poker fans will always look back upon the first match in the Galfond Challenge with joy and wonderment. It was a brief moment in poker’s history where one of the game’s true champions captured lightning in a bottle to mount an impossible comeback towards a victory that would further cement his already stellar legacy.

Stories are what drives us. Stories are what made poker boom. Stories are what will continue to keep pushing poker forward long into the future.

Thus, the greatest takeaway for us poker fans is that the Galfond Challenge is yet another chapter in the vast book of poker stories yet to be told.

How utterly satisfying.

Write A Comment

As Featured On