Polk and Negreanu's immaturity is a coming of age for poker

Jon Pill
Posted on: January 30, 2021 05:00 PST

The book Meijin, by Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari (translated into English as The Master of Go), is a journalist's account of Hon'inbō Shūsai's retirement game in 1938. Go is a board game that occupies a similar niche in the Eastern mind as chess does in a Westerner's.

Meijin is a title a little like "Grand Master," except that there can only ever be one Meijin at a time and the title was held until retirement. Traditionally, the Meijin's retirement would be marked by a highly publicized match with a top player from the next generation.

In his retirement match, Shūsai played a younger player in day-long sessions. Each session had a break, with four or five days off for the players to relax.

The players had 40 hours each on their clocks. Time limits were a 20th-century invention. Go borrowed them from Western chess. Since the clocks only count down during the sessions, the whole match was stretched out over several months.

The game marked a turning point in the game of Go.

The title of Hon'inbō passed from the house to an official Go association called the Nihon-Kin. The title of Meijin would be won, defended, and lost instead of simply appointed from then on. Japan was already embroiled in the imperial actions in the Pacific that would lead, in a few year's time, to the U.S. joining the Second World War against them.

Modernity had come to Japan, and Go was following suit. Meijin, far more than Rounders or The Cincinnati Kid, is what I think of when I watch the Polk-Negreanu match.

Skill v. Luck

Daniel Negreanu has been a top player in the biggest live mixed-games for decades. Doug Polk is a flashy YouTube celebrity and an online heads-up hold'em specialist. It's the C20th v. C21st in a match that might genuinely prove which of the two players is better at poker.

It's not just the length of the game that echoes Meijin, with its week after week of high-intensity sessions broken up by days of strained peace. Poker hasn't got a tenth of the years under its belt that Go does. But something about the Polk/Negreanu match has a similar turn-of-the-epoch feel to it as Shusai's last match.

The match is what we have always wished — and half-pretended — heads-up poker to be.

Ever since the Kid went after the Man in 1965's The Cincinnati Kid, we've acted as if poker is a battle of pure wit and skill. Whoever beats the Man becomes the Man in that movie's world.

The reality, as the absurd final hand match up proves, is that luck means more in a single match than skill does. "Doing the wrong thing at the right time," the Man calls it.

But whoever loses the Polk/Negreanu match won't have luck to fall back on. The sheer number of hands mitigates volatility. Plus, the hand histories give us all-in equity, allowing us to quantify whatever variance remains. We will know, to within pretty tight error bars, which of these two players trained smarter, played sharper, and read their opponent better.

This win will create a title equal to the promise of a WSOP bracelet. It will be a real mark of competitive advantage.

The journey is the destination

The game began with a series of rulings on the kind of computer assistance each player could use. Old school players decried this as the end of poker. They were wrong. Computers have been helping humans improve at games since Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov black-and-blue on the black and white.

Both team Polk and team Negreanu have tweeted widely about their data collection methods and the way they crunch numbers with simulations and solvers.

There's no doubt that Galfond and his opponents have been playing the same kind of training game. But this time we got to see a glimpse of how they make the sausage. Far from cheapening poker, seeing the level of training and fine-tuning Polkgreanu has undergone has made me appreciate their game in a way more similar to how I appreciate a game of Go.

Poker cash game TV was entertainment. Tournaments were frivolous attempts to make it feel like a sport. But this is the real deal. This is real competition at a skill level utterly above what anyone else is putting on for the public right now.

And we've been able to watch them duke it out. Every hand of it.

Poker? I hardly know her.

The match grew out of a petty feud. The two men who are playing live their lives in tank tops, on social media, and at McMansions in Vegas. They are playing online with commentary from Joey Ingram and his overlay of shock-jock sound effects and pseudo-comedy GIFs. It should be crass and vulgar. A tale told by two idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.

Instead... well, as entertainment, Esfandiari v. Hellmuth was gold. As a virtuoso display of technical skill, Galfond v. Everyone is astonishing.

Polk v. Negreanu, though, is art. Real art. It has the same kind of beauty as a mathematical equation or a game of chess.

Or, indeed, a retirement game of Go.

Featured image source: Flickr