As Phil Galfond prepares to embark on an ambitious series of heads-up Pot Limit Omaha challenges against six competitors, PocketFives Managing Editor Donnie Peters talked to the three-time WSOP bracelet winner. In the second of two features, Galfond discusses the motivation behind the challenge and what it’s like for him to step back into the world of high stakes online cash.
Phil Galfond loves a good challenge. He built a professional poker career on challenging himself against the best players in the world at limits most of us can only dream about. After he conquered that, Galfond took on the even greater challenge of starting a brand new online poker site, Run It Once Poker, in the post-Black Friday world. Although his latest challenge is far from complete, it hasn’t stopped Galfond from dusting off the high-stakes boxing gloves and getting back into the ring.
Recently, Galfond challenged the poker world to high-stakes, heads-up poker. He called out coaches not part of the Run It Once team and everyone else who wanted to battle.
“The idea came together in a few stages,” Galfond said. “First, I noticed that my RunItOnce.com video views were dropping, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, that makes sense – I don’t play much anymore so they probably don’t think I have much to teach them.’ I felt that I still had a lot to teach people and, moreover, that the way they’re being taught elsewhere can in some ways be detrimental to their development, so I came up with the idea initially to ‘prove’ that to them. This is when I came up with the coach challenge of 3-1 odds on a 50,000-hand match.
“After running that by some of the team, a couple of things became clear. First, that it was unlikely a coach would take me up on that. Second, that this could also be a great promotion for Run It Once Poker. From there, it turned into the more open challenge that you’ve seen.”
Galfond now has at least six matches lined up to start and plans to start this month, with the possibility of more challengers to come. The players he’ll be taking on are Bill Perkins, Brandon Adams, Chance Kornuth, Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates, and two online poker players known as ‘ActionFreak’ and ‘VeniVidi1993.’
“I’ve missed it so, so much,” Galfond said when asked if he misses playing poker as much as he used to. “I love playing, and I have absolutely been less fulfilled, professionally-speaking, since I stopped playing full-time. I can’t wait to play again.”
All of these ‘Galfond Challenges,’ as they’re being called, will be played in Pot Limit Omaha, across various stakes and a set number of hands. Not only will the two sides be battling to win each other’s money, but there are side bets involved with huge sums of money on the line.
Against Perkins, the two will be playing €100-€200 PLO over 50,000 hands and there is a $400,000 stop-loss in place. Galfond is laying 4-1 odds to Perkins, with his $800,000 on the line against Perkins’ $200,000.
The match against Adams will be $100-$200 PLO and played in a live setting. Instead of playing a set number of hands, the two will play for 40 hours. Galfond has put up $150,000 to the $100,000 of Adams.
For the duel against Kornuth, Galfond has the most side action on the line. The two will play 25,000 hands of €100-€200 PLO, with Galfond risking €1 million on the side to Kornuth’s €250,000.
Against Cates, Galfond will play 7,500 hands at €100-€200 PLO, but the side action has still yet to be determined.
Galfond will then play €150-€300 PLO for 15,000 hands against ‘ActionFreak’ and €100-€200 PLO against ‘VeniVidi1993’ for 25,000 hands. Against ‘ActionFreak,’ Galfond is wagering €150,000 to his opponent’s €100,000. Against ‘VeniVidi1993,’ it’s Galfond’s €200,000 on the line against the €100,000 for ‘VeniVidi1993.’
“Losing to Chance or Bill Perkins and the Thirst Lounge will be the most costly, but I’d say I expect ‘Jungleman’ and ‘ActionFreak’ to be my toughest opponents,” Galfond said. “I also think that a longer match is favorable to my skill set as a player, and ‘Jungleman’s’ is the shortest, so I guess that’s the one I feel I’m most likely to lose.”
All told, Galfond has around $2.4 million in side action on the line from these six matches already lined up. That’s in addition to whatever is at stake from playing the matches themselves. He’s giving 4-1 odds to Perkins and Kornuth, but then he’s playing for even side action against ‘ActionFreak.’ If he wins all of these matches, Galfond will win around $850,000 in side action.
“In short, I think I laid odds appropriately for the most part,” Galfond said. “Some of my challenges are at 1-1 odds – I’m less confident in those ones.”
Preparing for Battle
Galfond told PocketFives that he had planned to study for these matches a lot but hasn’t had as much time as he had hoped. He has enlisted the help of some friends to learn how to use solvers, which he said was “long overdue for a high-stakes player like myself”. But, time is running out and the challenges will be here very soon.
“I’m trying to focus on areas where I’m playing the furthest from optimal and figuring out why that is – what I’m missing,” Galfond said.
Much like you see boxers make in-fight adjustments on the fly or in between rounds, Galfond knows there’s only so much he can do ahead of time to prepare and that he has to be willing to adapt throughout. It’s these in-game adjustments that Galfond’s views as a strength that he’ll look to lean on during the matches.
“For the most part, I’ve always had a lot of success heads-up,” he said. “I believe I do a very good job of adjusting to individual opponents, which is why I’m excited about some of the longer matches. I plan to spend a good amount of time breaking down my opponents in between sessions.”
He’ll also be juggling family life and work life in the middle of all of this. Galfond said he’s worked on a schedule with his wife, Farah, that should allow him to maintain a good balance. He also plans to take a step back from his Run It Once work while the challenges are running and is confident his team is well prepared to handle everything.
“I’m going to try to take a step back from Run It Once work over the course of the challenges,” Galfond said. “It remains to be seen if I can do that, but I think that realistically, the best thing I can do for the company is to go out there and be Phil the poker player and brand ambassador. We’ve got a fantastic team who can make decisions just as well as I can, but I’m the only one who can play the Galfond Challenges.”
Galfond challenged the entire poker world after being away from playing full-time, he’s short on time to prepare, and there’s a lot of money on the line. Whenever someone puts him or herself out there like this, there’s going to be pressure. Additionally, the two challenges within the overall challenge present their own unique pressures.
In one arena, Galfond challenged “anyone who currently makes training videos for a site other than Run It Once.” As the person who built Run It Once into the premier poker training site that it is today, Galfond has, to some extent, risked the reputation of Run It Once. Is it really the best training site out there if a coach from a competitor takes down the commander-in-chief?
In another arena where he challenged everyone else, Galfond has his own reputation as a poker player on the line. He joked that he was a “washed-up ex-pro” in his message to the poker world, but what if he really is washed-up?
“If I had gotten more coaches to take me up on the coach challenge, I’d feel a lot more pressure,” Galfond said. “Chance is the only coach who took me up on it, and I ended up having to lay a bigger price for fewer hands. I’d say this is the only match that I feel reputational pressure to win – I’m playing on behalf of Run It Once Training.
“The rest of the matches, I don’t really think my result has much of an impact on RIO or my personal reputation. If I win or lose them all, sure, but if I beat Perkins, Chance, and ActionFreak and I lose to ‘Jungleman,’ Brandon Adams, and ‘VeniVidi,’ for example, I don’t think people will view me much differently than they do now.
“The dollar amounts are certainly high, especially in the long-odds matches. If I get swept, it’s going to be very painful.”
It’s easy to understand how excited Galfond is about the challenges – how excited he is to get back into the ring with some very good poker players and have a lot at stake. He’s also hopeful that the challenges will lead to increased visibility for Run It Once Poker, especially once people get a peek at the fun, cutting-edge software Galfond and his team have built and are continuing to improve upon. Run It Once Poker and one of the sponsors of the challenge, MuchBetter, will be running multiple promotions throughout the challenge that give players a rooting interest in Galfond connected to their play on the site.
Will the challenges lead to more traffic more Run It Once Poker? That’s “unclear,” as Galfond put it. Will he be doing his damnedest to make it happen? You better believe it.