Phil Galfond spills the surprising origins of his heads up challenges

Jon Pill
Posted on: June 24, 2021 11:28 PDT

In a recent thread on Twitter, Phil Galfond opened up. He laid out some of the reasons that the Galfond Challenge came to be. He described the personal flaws and private worries that led him to issue the challenge. And how the challenge helped him to overcome these flaws and quiet those fears.

Elliot Roe is a self-described "Mindset & Performance Coach."

One of Roe's videos, in particular, sent Galfond down the path of self-examination that triggered the challenge.

"Two years ago, I started working @ElliotRoe1, both in 1-1 sessions and through his course," Galfond wrote. "One of the first things I learned about myself is that I was terrified to try (and fail) in the post-solver era of poker. That realization sparked some big changes in my life."

The Galfond challenge was an open offer to play anyone in the world at heads up pot-limit Omaha. It ended up being the root of much of last year's heads-up craze. It's hard to imagine the Daniel Negreanu v. Doug Polk event having happened the way it did, without Galfond's multiple precedent-setting games.

So it was fascinating to get these behind the scenes snapshots into how it all came about.

"Detrimental Mental Programs"

The video that sparked the challenge fire for Galfond was about "Detrimental Mental Programs."

In particular, Galfond was struck by the idea of the person who is "too smart to try."

This is the kind of person whose early successes in life lead them to avoid trying. Especially at things they are not naturally good at. The high-school athlete who views academic success as for nerds and the boffin who dodges gym-class are flipsides of this coin.

Galfond saw himself as falling into this category too. He describes his childhood, coasting through school on the ability to do well in tests. This allowed him to avoid applying himself to other areas where he might fail.

In a flash, the video explained to Galfond why he was struggling to put the time in at the poker table. He was avoiding having to engage with the new solver-driven style play. For years, heads-up players had become increasingly guided by the outputs of solvers.

"I knew that part of this decision [to step back from poker] was due to the fact that I'd never studied solvers," he wrote. "And that I worried that my strengths as a player wouldn't translate well in the post-solver era. Especially given how little time I had available to dedicate to poker compared to my competition."

Run it again

The Elliot Roe video got Galfond to thinking. Galfond realized three things. 1) he loved poker. 2) he was more use to RunItOnce as a poker player than as just a businessman. 3) playing high-level poker would help him uninstall his "too smart to try" module.

So the Galfond Challenge was born. Giving the rest of us some entertaining and fascinating high-stakes poker to watch. And helping Phil exorcise something that had been troubling him for 34 years.

Roe owes Chance Kornuth a one million dollar apology.

As a nice side note, Galfond ends on one of the more hopeful views of the solver-driven style of play.

"It turns out that my fears were unfounded, & that poker hadn't turned into a game of memorization," Galfond wrote. "Solver-era poker is still about outwitting your opponents."

Featured image source: RunItOnce