With people around the world quarantined in their own homes in the early throes of the global coronavirus pandemic in mid-April, Phil Galfond put the finishing touches on his back-from-the-dead victory against the mysterious ‘Venividi1993’ in the first of the Galfond Challenges. The poker world was tuned in and engrossed in the final moments.
Galfond ended up ahead of ‘Venividi1993’ by €9,843.25 to win the challenge and the €100,000 side bet that accompanied it. Poker media outlets spent the days following it going in-depth on how Galfond, long considered one of the best heads-up Pot Limit Omaha players ever, went from being down more than €900,000 to his opponent to emerging victorious.
The mainstream media ignored it entirely. At a time when majors sports were all on hold, the sports media companies that previously turned to poker during pro sports work stoppages couldn’t be bothered to give Galfond’s amazing comeback the time of day.
Enter David Hill and The Ringer. Having grown up in a small town in Arkansas where gambling was commonplace, Hill was introduced to most forms of gambling before he was old enough to legally drive a car. A childhood spent in what was once a “big illegal gambling town” combined with a flare for storytelling led Hill to a career as a freelance writer known for finding the best stories from the world of gambling. After writing a story about a professional sports bettor for The Ringer in 2019, his editor there wondered if there were more stories like that that could be told via a podcast.
“Definitely, yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. I think that this could definitely be a show,” Hill told his editor. And from that conversation, Gamblers was born. A narrative-style podcast that takes the listener straight into the action with the people making their living by winning by gambling. When Hill started vetting topics for the show, he knew there had to be a poker story in the first batch. He zeroed in on Bryn Kenney.
“I was going to fly to Korea for one of the Triton events and tag along with Bryn and just see if maybe there was something there, and he’s invited me to do it. But then of course it all got shut down,” Hill said.
The worldwide COVID shutdown didn’t just put an end to the Kenney episode, it almost ended Hill’s chances of getting the podcast to air. He had some of the interviews done for a few of the episodes, but being unable to travel to interview subjects and grab audio to use on the show almost killed the show entirely. When the Galfond Challenge began, Hill realized he wouldn’t have to travel to cover the action.
“We ended up doing Phil because the story happened at a moment where we weren’t even sure if the show was going to continue. When I started watching all this, I was like, ‘Man, this is great. This is such a good story’,” Hill said. “Suddenly I had a great story right in front of us on our computer screens. So, that really saved us. Had it not been for that, I’m not sure that we would’ve done poker in the first season.”
That episode, titled Phil Galfond, the Poker Player Who Couldn’t Be Solved, debuted Wednesday as the fifth of six episodes of Gamblers. The episode is focused on Galfond vs. ‘Venividi1993’ and features interviews with Galfond, David Tuchman, Joey Ingram, and a few others that poker fans will recognize, but Galfond is undoubtedly the star of the show.
The more time Hill spent talking with Galfond, the more he felt he had stumbled across a player who might have been the best of his generation while failing to live up to the stereotype of what a poker player of his generation looks like.
“The stereotype about this generation is that they’re all computer nerds, they were all Magic the Gathering nerds. And to learn that Galfond really didn’t fit that stereotype, that he studied philosophy as an undergraduate in college and he was a football player in high school,” Hill said. “He had an aptitude for math, but it wasn’t like he was studying math in college or pursuing it in any kind of serious way. Just that the way he found himself where he found himself in the game was just by a dogged pursuit of it.”
Three of the four episodes of Gamblers that preceded the one about Galfond focused on other professional gamblers including a card counter, a pool hustler, and a gin rummy pro yet each of those episodes includes ties to poker players that have spent some part of their career in the poker spotlight. This was intentional on Hill’s part to give a wider audience something – or somebody – they can connect with.
“Poker has broken into the mainstream. Poker is something that is a part of the broader popular culture in a way that other forms of gambling aren’t,” Hill said. “If I can compare things to poker or frame things in poker terms or show how things are relevant to that world, I know that most of the audience will have poker as a touchstone or whatever that will help them maybe understand things a little bit.”
While the poker world decries the lack of attention that mainstream media outlets have offered poker over the last decade, Hill believes that poker actually gets it right. While sports betting, which has enjoyed the full heat of the spotlight as legalization and regulation have pushed it forward, has a lot to learn.
“Poker really is the example for sports, and not the other way around. Because poker has been willing to really celebrate and make stars out of their best players, rather than hiding them away and kicking them out and shunning them from the universe,” Hill said. “I would say that poker should continue to do what they’re doing, which is take people like Phil Galfond, take stars in that game who are such fascinating people. Even if you’re not a poker player, I think you would like this episode just learning about Phil Galfond’s life.”
With only one unreleased episode of Season 1 still to come, Hill is hoping that the downloads, likes, and subscribes are strong enough with the first season so The Ringer decides to greenlight a second season. If that turns out to be the case, you can bet there will be another episode that jumps into the world of poker.
“It’s just something that I don’t think that I could avoid it even if I wanted to, but why would I want to? Why would I want to avoid poker when so many of the best stories and the best characters, the most interesting people, the most fascinating people exist in the world of poker?,” Hill said. “(Poker) is just a magnet for brilliant people. It is a magnet for creative thinkers. I’d be a fool to ignore the world of professional poker if I want to tell a story about the minds of the most interesting and brilliant gamblers.”