Are heads-up challenges good for poker? Yes, and here’s why

Geoff Fisk
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Posted on 04/02/2021

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece by Poker.org author Geoff Fisk. The views expressed here are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Poker.org or its staff.

The High Stakes Duel II matchup between Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu likely played out as one of the most-watched programs this year on PokerGO. The hype around that battle of poker legends reached epic proportions by the time match finally aired on Wednesday.

What viewers saw on PokerGO was a heads-up sit & go between two players we’ve been watching for nearly 20 years. The $100,000 on the line might not seem like a lot for Negreanu and Hellmuth, but High Stakes Duel II ended up as much-watch poker television nonetheless.

Heads-up challenges stand as poker’s big thing in the early months of 2021. Will that trend continue, or does the Hellmuth-Negreanu tilt hit the peak of what’s possible in the realm of heads-up hype?

Is poker going the way of WWE?

Doyle Brunson, perhaps poker’s biggest icon, doesn’t like where the heads-up challenge trend is taking the poker industry. Brunson tweeted Thursday that he fears the recent wave of heads-up matches is starting to resemble wrestling programming:

“I hope poker doesn’t become like the wrestling matches. Seems to me it’s about to go out of control,” Brunson tweeted.

“Texas Dolly” is spot-on in his assessment of the buildup to some of the recent matches we’ve seen. The wrestling-like trash talk between Hellmuth and Negreanu leading up to Wednesday’s match isn’t a bad thing though.

The pre-match hype for High Stakes Duel II led to this instant classic moment:

“Apex Predator Shit” will live on forever in poker lore, delivered as only Phil Hellmuth could. Hellmuth is all-in on his poker persona, and he’s the perfect character to continue defending the High Stakes Duel championship.

That title, fittingly, comes with a gold championship belt. This kind of stuff is great for poker, as long as the industry doesn’t become saturated with too many heads-up “feuds.”

WWE, wrestling’s biggest brand, churns out its product 52 weeks a year. Poker’s venture into heads-up challenge territory could flourish as an entertainment form, but only if it more closely resembles UFC and boxing.

Both of those combat sports genres also operate year-round, but only the biggest matches get the full marketing push into the mainstream. We don’t need to wear out the heads-up challenge format, but when the right personalities are involved let’s hype it up.

Tony Dunst provides the voice of reason

Poker pro and WPT host Tony Dunst has seen it all in the game, both as a player and a television personality. Dunst contends that the “wrestling” aspect of the heads-up challenges benefits the poker industry.

Dunst tweeted the following in response to Brunson’s tweet:

“Good tweet, but not sure I agree,” Dunst tweeted. “I think much of the poker audience is split into two groups: wrestling fans and chess fans. Wrestling fans want personalities, conflict, and stories…chess fans want strategy, nuance, and elite play. I don’t see one as better than the other.”

Dunst goes on to respond to other comments in that thread, adding that while the heads-up matches aren’t appealing to him, the format is producing plenty of interest:

“I agree about the ‘ego challenges’ (they don’t appeal to me) and yet poker Twitter has been buzzing about them for months, so seems like there’s plenty of demand,” Dunst posted.

Featured image source: PokerGO