The Biggest Story in Sports Right Now?

There is a sporting story currently unfolding in the poker world that is so dramatic and monumental that it feels deserving of mainstream attention.

In the early 2000s, the “poker boom” swept North America and much of the world. Poker – both live and online – exploded with the online player pool doubling every year and the World Series of Poker Main Event entrants rising from 839 in 2003 to 8,773 in 2006.

Phil Galfond rode this wave and became one of the early online poker superstars. With deep roots in the poker community, Galfond is a long time and highly respected member of poker forum 2+2, and his original poker ‘crew’ included poker legend Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan. A philosophy major in college, Galfond was making about $150/hr playing sit-n-gos in his junior year. After switching to cash games, Galfond’s average hourly rate increased to somewhere between $400 and $500, and it didn’t take long for Galfond to climb the ladder and start beating the highest stakes cash games in the world at Full Tilt Poker.

As the years progressed and Galfond became an established high-stakes boss, he began to turn some of his attention to poker coaching and making poker training videos. In 2012, Galfond founded, a poker training site. In the following years, over 100 poker pros (amongst them, the $32million dollar man, Fedor Holz, and the ultimate authority on poker theory, Ben ‘Sauce123’ Sulsky) made videos for RunItOnce and today it is still regarded as the best place to go for poker tuition and poker learning. Galfond still regularly makes videos for the site and there is a long, long list of world class players that attribute Galfond’s videos to playing a part in their poker success.

During these years, the poker landscape changed massively. A downturn in the economy and law changes in the USA (UIGEA in 2006 and Black Friday in 2011) meant the gravy train of the early poker boom began to slowly halt. Several early stars of the boom began to fade away, struggle financially, or fall behind the ever-steepening curve. With less money in the game to go around, some high-profile players were even outed as scammers or welchers. Year-after-year, with player-after-player of the old guard becoming less relevant, Galfond began to move from ‘new-school’ to ‘old-school’ and started to develop a reputation as one of the fairest, most honest, most ethical, most rational (a trait that is held in very high regard the poker community!) and most likeable players in poker.

In 2014, PokerStars, the market leader in online poker, was bought by Amaya Gaming for $4.9billion. With well over 50% market share, PokerStars may not be the strict definition of a monopoly, but legitimate competitors were few and far between. The corporate approach of Amaya saw a big shift in culture at PokerStars, and the once well-regarded site began to be seen as a greedy villain within the poker community. Ethically questionable changes of rewards programs and numerous rake increases seemed to indicate that PokerStars was systematically trying to kill the idea of the online poker professional.

Enter Phil Galfond.

In the autumn of 2016, Galfond posted a blog post with the opening line “A poker site should value poker players.” The reputable high-stakes crusher and poker coach extraordinaire turned his attention to the absolutely mammoth task of building an online poker site from scratch.

And he succeeded.

In Februray 2019, after two and a half years and thousands of hours dedicated to building the business, Galfond realised his goal of launching the real money online poker site

The Return of High Stakes

In November 2019, with the RunItOnce poker site now up and running, Galfond turned his attention to promoting the site. Galfond issued an open challenge to the world: high stakes, one-on-one, with a six figure side-bet.

The first challenger, an anonymous European simply known by his online screenname, ‘VeniVidi’.

The terms of the bet are Galfond and VeniVidi will play 25,000 hands of heads-up pot-limit omaha at stakes of €20,000 buy-in and €100/€200 blinds. Whoever is up money at the end of these 25,000 hands will also win the side-bet.

High level poker theory moves at an extraordinary pace. Recent trends have seen the use of AI and game theory optimal calculators bring the game to unprecedented technical levels. If you were a top player 12 months ago, but you haven’t kept up to date on the latest developments in the game, there’s a good chance you will struggle at the highest level.

Whilst Phil Galfond’s time was split travelling between his Vancouver home and his Malta business headquarters; starting an online poker site from scratch; having his first baby; (and doing a little bit of coaching and playing on the side), VeniVidi was diligently studying and playing poker at the highest level for much of the previous two years. Despite this, Galfond seemed to think it was a good idea to offer VeniVidi 2/1 odds on the side bet. If Galfond wins, VeniVidi pays €100,000. If VeniVidi wins, Galfond pays €200,000.

On the 22nd January 2020, the talking stopped and the playing began. Galfond, undoubtedly one of the greatest players in the world at one point, put his money where his mouth was and began battle with VeniVidi, undoubtedly one of the greatest players in the world right now.

Match one of the Galfond Challenge was underway…

In session one, VeniVidi gets off to a fast start winning €72,000 in 655 hands. VeniVidi continues to dominate, winning 10 of the first 11 sessions and finding himself up €569,000 after 7500 hands. Galfond may have thought a corner was turned in session 12 after recording his best day of the challenge – a €88,000 win. This was swiftly followed by his worst day of the challenge in session 13 – a €268,000 loss. By session 15, just under 10,000 hands have been played and Galfond finds himself down over €900,000.

Down almost 7-figures and facing a formidable opponent, Galfond decides to take a hiatus from the match. When arranging the match, pre-determined ‘rest days’ had been agreed. One of the stipulations of the match was that both players would be liable to pay financial penalties for every non-arranged rest day taken. This meant that for every day of rest and self-reflection Galfond took, he had to pay €3,000 for the privilege.

Galfond is left to ponder his decision. Either player can quit the challenge at any time. Galfond could pay the losing side-bet of €200,000, get to terms with the €1.1million loss, and move onto future challenges against (arguably) weaker opponents. But what about the PR side of things? How will it look if he quits his first match less than half way through? What if he continues to play and loses €2million, how will that look? What about the side bet? Is there any realistic chance of actually recouping the €900,000 and avoiding paying the €200,000 side bet? How good is VeniVidi really? Even if VeniVidi doesn’t have a technical edge, surely at this stage his psychological edge will be insurmountable?

Ultimately, Galfond’s decision comes down to one thing. Does he think he is a better poker player than VeniVidi?

On 4th March, Galfond stepped back in the ring and recorded his biggest winning session to date, €183,000. The month of March saw Galfond and VeniVidi play 16 sessions and 9400 hands.

The results?

Galfond recouped €746,000 to bring the overall score of the match to VeniVidi +€154,000.

On 2nd April, in session #32 of the match, having been down over €900,000 against one of the best in the world, Galfond does the unthinkable and goes from the negative to the positive for the first time in the match.

With 4000 hands to play, it’s anyone’s game. There are numerous ways to follow this epic match. Live streaming of the challenge is done on Twitch, results can be found on RunItOnce, excellent session recaps can be found on PocketFives, and anything else of relevance can likely be found on Phil Galfond’s Twitter or by using the hashtag #GalfondChallenge.


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