Game On! Round 1 of High Stakes Duel II

It had all the feel of a shootout in the Wild West. Two cowboys with their boots and stirrups on, their holsters strapped tight, and their weapons at the ready, both waiting for the other to make their move. The dictionary defines ‘duel’ as a “contest with deadly weapons between two people, in order to settle a point of honour,” and that’s precisely what this was. A couple of big-time gamblers, gunfighters if you will, locking horns in a showdown for the ages. And, on Wednesday night, it was ‘high noon’ inside the PokerGo studios in Las Vegas.

In one of the most talked about heads-up matches ever, the bell sounded on Round 1 of the High Stakes Duel between Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth. And, you could feel the tension in the air. Friends, rivals, and both fierce competitors, this goes way beyond poker. This is about reputation, legacy, and bragging rights. More than anything it’s about respect, and it seemed like every chip that exchanged hands was personal. There were no ranchers or cattle barons on hand to watch, it was just two legendary gold prospectors looking to stake their claim.

High Stakes Duel Logo on PokerGo

“My prediction for the match? It’s going to be very frustrating for Phil.”

Producers played up the Hollywood western theme. The opening intro had all the desert sounds you might expect, suspenseful music, rattlesnakes, even the whispering of tumbleweeds, suggesting it was time to ’Cowboy Up’. Negreanu seemed very confident, too, like the result was already a foregone conclusion. Hellmuth, on the other hand, appeared to be searching for the respect he feels he so rightly deserves.

“Either I’m way behind the curve, and don’t know it, or I’m so far ahead of the curve you don’t understand it,” he said, incredulous as to why the younger generation fails to rank him among the game’s all-time best.

Tale of the Tape

“Do they know who I am?”

Hellmuth’s rhetorical question during Season 8 of High Stakes Poker provided fans a glimpse into the 1989 world champ’s mindset, and it also revealed one of the reasons some feel he’s become a caricature of himself. Is it all just an act for marketing strategy? Or, does Hellmuth really believe he is the greatest to ever play the game? One thing is for certain, Hellmuth continues to fight for validation, not only from the newer, younger breed of card shark, but from the older guard as well. Players like Negreanu. In truth, they are both phenomenal, and of the highest caliber. They are legends of the game.

Player stats for negreanu and hellmuth

Negreanu is not only Canada’s best ever, he is one of the world’s greatest, and is ranked third on the all-time money list with more than $42 million earned. The Toronto native has won six bracelets at the World Series of Poker and is the only player to be twice named WSOP ‘Player of the Year’.

Hellmuth, meantime, holds all the records. After introducing himself to the poker world at the tender age of 24, when he defeated Johnny Chan heads-up for the world title, he has carried on to fame and fortune. Not only has he captured 15 WSOP gold bracelets, more than anyone, but he has also written books, appeared in movies and commercials, and can often be found sitting in private boxes at sporting events’, a guest of the team owner.

Rules of the Duel

  • Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em
  • Blinds escalate every 30 minutes
  • Winner stays, loser has first option to challenge
  • If loser declines, loser seat remains open for 30 days
  • Cash out rules depend on rounds won

Phil and Daniel preparing for the duel

The stakes were definitely high. Each player bought in for 50,000 for Round 1, a No-Limit Hold’em freeze out, which plays like a tournament in that you are still alive as long as you have chips. Lose all your chips, and it’s game over. The loser will then have the option to ante up again for Round 2, essentially a double-or-nothing with a $100,000 buy-in. This is the 2nd edition of the High Stakes Duel. Hellmuth, the reigning and defending champion, clobbered Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari three straight in the first duel, and banked a tidy profit of $350,000 forms efforts.

‘Kid Poker’ Sets the Pace

First blood to Canada. Negreanu, who had said coming in that he wanted to “pitch the perfect game,” established control early and often. He wasn’t swinging for fences, it was more of a steady flow of jabs, but his game plan was effective. He was landing several small shots, and was wobbling his opponent by winning a steady barrage of decent-sized pots.

“You’re playing well,” said Hellmuth, as he glanced across the table. “I mean, there’s what everyone else thinks is playing well, and there’s what I think is playing well.”

Daniel Negreanu

Negreanu set the tone from the get go. On a board of 3, 2, 9, Q, Q, Helmuth raised Negreanu’s river bet to 1,750, and was snap-called. “You win,” he said, with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “I know,” Negreanu quipped, as he stacked his chips, a verbal jab for good measure. Next, Hellmuth looked down to find pocket jacks, and raised it up. Negreanu, with K, 9, called, and a king hit the flop. That pot was worth another 10,400. Remember, each player started with 50,000.

After one hand, while Hellmuth was left muttering to himself, Negreanu reached down beside him to grab a box of tissue, a planned prop, which he then passed across the table. Was he trying to put his opponent on tilt or embarrass him? Yes, both. And, as the match wore on, you got the sense that Negreanu was playing with disdain for his counterpart, that if given the chance, he would rub salt in the wound.

“Who are you going to get to coach you in the rematch,” he asked sarcastically.

Rants & Raves

Negreanu was certainly confident, and it was all going his way too. Pot after pot, he just had the best of it. By the two-hour mark, he had built himself a convincing three-to-one chip lead, was whistling nonchalantly, as if it was a walk in the park, and was cruising toward the finish line. The ongoing needle was ferocious, too. Negreanu was giving it to the ‘Poker Brat’, letting him know who the real boss was. And, he just kept applying the pressure. At one point, he had built himself a 19-to-1 chip advantage. With Hellmuth dejected, and sitting with a mere 5k in chips, it was time to cue the rant, and the rant was epic.

Phil hellmuth ranting

“This f—ing idiot,” he said, pointing across the table. “You might win this match, but I hate the way you played. You play so f—ing bad. What you’ve done to me is criminal.”

The outer monologue was fascinating. It was less self-talk, and more a peek inside Hellmuth’s soul. “He keeps raising, and I keep folding,” is how it began. “He can’t beat me this way, I’ll trap him, and he’ll give me all the money. I’ll just let him have the small pots, I’ll take the big ones.”

Across the table, Negreanu took the trash-talking to a whole new level when reached down beside him for another prop, a white towel, which he then began to wave to suggest it was almost over. “I’ve got you handcuffed and in jail,” he laughed. “Why let you out?”

Daniel holding white towel

Cue the Comeback

In reality, it was far from over. The ‘Poker Brat’ survived with a double up, then chipped up some more, then some more. “Phil Hellmuth is a grinder,” said commentator Ali Nejad, as the tides began to turn. “There’s no quit in Camp Hellmuth.”

End of night chip stacks


There was no quit indeed. It was fascinating to watch. When others would have crumbled by impatiently dusting off their chips, Hellmuth held firm and steady. He found his groove, and he began to replenish his once depleted chip stack, Negreanu’s chirping quietened. His smile vanished, too. And, incredibly, Hellmuth slowly and surely managed to claw things back to level, right back to where they started.

“So much for a short night,” Negreanu gasped.

Did he really expect it to be a short night?

The Heart of a Champion

It’s a unique style, Hellmuth’s. He does things others would never do. He folded top pair several times throughout the course of the evening, including one time with only 7k remaining in his stack. It’s hard to fathom at times.

“He FOLDS K7 on that board. What?!? Why!? I need to know this,” tweeted @BuffaloHanks.

Brent Hanks, co-host of the No Gamble, No Future podcast, couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and he’s watched a lot of poker. He wasn’t alone, either.

Phill Hellmuth

“This is astonishing,” Nejad said from the broadcast booth, not believing what he was witnessing.

In a match for the ages, this was a comeback for the ages. Eventually, Hellmuth snagged the chip lead with a huge re-raise after making a flush on the river with the 9, 6 of hearts. Negreanu called with his top pair of kings, and was left disillusioned by the result.

“I didn’t see the heart,” he said, the resignation now clearly evident his face.

From there, it was a slow grind to the finish line. Hellmuth just kept plugging away, betting and calling his opponent into submission, and shortly after the six-hour mark it was indeed all over.

Game, set, match.

“There will be a rematch,” Negreanu said, despairingly, as they shook hands.

Hellmuth’s exterior remained calm and composed, but on the inside, he was likely jumping for joy. What heart. What a comeback. Round 1 of the High Stakes Duel goes to the Poker Brat!


HIgh Stakes Duel Champion Belt

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio, and has interviewed a number of the world’s top poker players including Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Barbara Enright. A former, long-time radio and television broadcaster, Derrick has always had a passion for all things gambling (and darts too). He has even played at the World Series of Poker and other cash games all around the world.

To see more of Derrick is up to on a day-to-day basis, go follow him on Twitter @HighRollerRadio


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