Phil Hellmuth’s next High-Stakes Duel challenger is…

Kat Martin
Published by:
Posted on 08/03/2021

Tom Dwan. Wow.

Never one to miss an opportunity for attention, Phil Hellmuth yesterday teased the poker world with the following tweet:

“I have just been informed by @PokerGo, on who my next “High Stakes Duel” opponent is, what is your guess?”

The poll was set to run for 24 hours, leading many to suppose an announcement would be made this evening. Whether PokerGo jumped the gun, or this is all part of Hellmuth’s cunning self-promotion plan, is unclear. But we do know his next opponent.

The tweet from PokerGo was brief and to the point:

@phil_hellmuth vs @TomDwan. That’s it. That’s the Tweet.”

Hellmuth has been crushing PokerGo’s High-Stakes Duel, mostly to the surprise of the poker community. While nobody can doubt the poker talent of the all-time leading WSOP bracelet winner, the mathematical basis of his play has often been questioned.

This criticism has become such a cottage industry that Phil Galfond, arguably one of the best poker theoreticians in the world, chimed in last year. He tweeted:

“We so often criticize the plays we see on TV from the comfort of our couches. I think it’s only fair to also give credit where credit is due.”

Despite Galfond’s gilt-edged credentials for assessing the quality of heads-up play, his tweet triggered a firestorm of dissent, with criticism of Hellmuth extending from the soundness of his play to his suitability as an ambassador for the game.

There’s an adage in sports that it is better to do one’s talking on the field by winning, rather than off it. Hellmuth is a master at both, and has continued to dumbfound and irritate his critics by absolutely destroying the PokerGo challenge.

The three-round format raises the stakes with the ever-present possibility of a 3-0 sweep. In his first contest against Antonio Esfandiari, Hellmuth achieved precisely that.

While Hellmuth’s detractors were disappointed by this result, they could reasonably argue that the match represented a small number of hands. Besides, was Esfandiari really playing much poker these days anyway? And you could almost hear the gleeful rubbing of hands when it was announced that Hellmuth would face Daniel Negreanu.

Fresh off his marathon heads-up battle with Doug Polk, Negreanu had spent months in the lab analyzing heads-up play. Despite losing to Polk, most analysts (including Polk himself) agreed that Negreanu had absorbed the nuances of GTO heads-up hold’em. A consensus developed that Hellmuth was about to get spanked.

The result? Hellmuth 3, Negreanu 0. Another sweep.

Tom Dwan is no stranger to heads-up matches, having issued the “Durrrr Challenge” to all-comers a decade ago. The match against Dan “Jungleman” Cates ended in controversy when Dwan stepped away from the challenge, heavily stuck, before the 50,000 hands had been completed. Nonetheless, Dwan is widely regarded as one of the first heads-up masters to incorporate game theory in his play. As such, the contest with Hellmuth is a test of new-school mathematics versus old-school soul reading.

And if Hellmuth wins, will it silence his critics? Of course not. And we doubt Hellmuth cares.

Featured image source: Twitter