Polk vs. Negreanu: The Rivalry Poker Always Needed; Will it Continue? (Op-Ed)

5 min read

Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu’s heads-up challenge is finished, but it would be great if this rivalry would continue in some fashion. The poker world hasn’t ever seen a rivalry this exciting, and it would be a shame if we never get to see these fierce competitors square off again.

Doug Polk Daniel Negreanu
Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu have long been bitter rivals, and that’s good for poker. (Image: Poker Central)

Polk and Negreanu competed three times a week for three months straight. Despite playing so frequently, it’s clear the poker community never became bored of the challenge. Joey Ingram, Polk’s channel, and GGPoker each ran separate streams for all 36 sessions. They each attracted more than 3,000 viewers almost every day. Throw in Matt Berkey’s stream, and a few others, and there were more than 10,000 poker fans watching at all times.

The Galfond Challenge between Phil Galfond and Chance Kornuth, in comparison, only had a few hundred viewers during any given session. That isn’t a knock on the Galfond Challenge, and it’s a shame more poker fans didn’t follow the exciting back-and-forth match. But, the battle between Galfond and Kornuth lacked the drama that attracted so many, including myself, to the Polk-Negreanu match.

Settle it on the Felt

Leading up to the match, there was bad blood and animosity between Polk and Negreanu. It wasn’t a secret that they didn’t like each other. The feud originally stemmed from a 2014 argument over Negreanu claiming he could crush $25/$50 cash games online with just two weeks of study. In the following years, Polk repeatedly attacked Negreanu on social media and on his YouTube channel. He went so far as to purchase a billboard outside the Rio at the 2018 WSOP just so he could mock his long-time rival.

The pettiness, however, came to a halt over the past few months. Instead of fighting about nonsense on social media, they settled the dispute on the felt, the way it should have been done. At the same time, they provided the poker community just what it needed during COVID-19.

Sadly, poker doesn’t have many other longstanding rivalries or, really, any other intriguing rivalries whatsoever. I’m big on rivalries in sports. From the Yankees-Red Sox and Ohio State-Michigan to Duke-North Carolina and my personal favorite, because I’m an Iowa Hawkeyes fan, Iowa-Iowa State. There’s just something exciting about watching two fierce competitors who dislike each other, but also respect each other.

That’s what we witnessed during the Polk-Negreanu match. Negreanu entered Polk’s arena, playing mostly on Polk’s terms in a format of poker in which he doesn’t specialize. Negreanu even admitted going in that he was an underdog, and nearly everyone (except for Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth) agreed.

But Negreanu was willing to play, likely because he wanted an opportunity to stick it to Polk. Had the Upswing Poker founder lost, he would have lost much of his credibility among the poker community. Negreanu, on the other hand, had nothing but money to lose in this challenge because hardly anyone expected him to win. And although he dumped $1.2 million, it’s not like he’s going to end up homeless.

Battling Against all Odds

Few poker players would take on such a challenge knowing they’re heavy underdogs who stand to potentially lose $1 million or more. Most of the high-profile poker pros you see on TV would never play 25,000 hands of heads-up poker against a crusher in that poker variant. Hellmuth, for example, isn’t a regular in the super high rollers because he knows those young GTO bots have an edge against him, no matter what he says publicly.

Or Dan Bilzerian, who claims he’s won $50 million in poker, but backs down from any challenge against a top pro. He’d never risk his inheritance — errr his poker winnings — to prove he’s as great at poker as he claims; not when he can crush nosebleed home games against Mickey Mouse and Big Bird, and then pretend that makes him a great player.

Negreanu isn’t geared that way. He’s made his money playing poker and could spend the rest of his life cashing checks from GGPoker just to go down the same route as Bilzerian and Hellmuth, raking in the dough against wealthy fish. But he’s too competitive, and desperately wanted to stick it to Polk at all costs. And Polk was so intrigued by the thought of destroying Negreanu that he came out of retirement just to play him in a game he claims to no longer enjoy.

That is exactly what makes for a great rivalry — when two competitors want nothing more than to crush each other’s souls at all costs, even if it means coming out of retirement. Unfortunately, this is one of the first true poker rivalries in the modern era.

Sure, we’ve had Shawn Sheikhan vs. Mike Matusow at the 2005 WSOP, Dan “Jungleman” Cates vs. Tom Dwan in the never-finished Durrrr Challenge, Tony G vs. the Russian (Ralph Perry), Negreanu vs. Annie Duke, Hellmuth vs. Sam Grizzle in the early 2000s, and Andy Beal vs. “The Corporation.” Those were all kind of interesting for short bits of time, but they lacked the intrigue and intensity of the Polk-Negreanu rivalry.

Don’t Let it End

Polk recently wrote on Twitter that he has no interest in a rematch, nor will he take on any new challengers because he no longer enjoys playing poker. And that’s a real shame because the poker community needs this rivalry to continue.

We finally got the rivalry the game has always needed, and, poof, it’s gone. But it would be nice if these talented poker players would find a way to give the fans what they want and continue this rivalry. Perhaps, an annual 10,000-hand heads-up match. Heck, they don’t even have to play poker. They could play high-stakes tiddlywinks for all I care. Just give me Polk vs. Negreanu in some capacity at least once a year, and I’ll be happy.

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