In poker, to be the man, do you have to beat the man?

Does shying away from heads-up challenges disqualify you from the ‘greatest ever’ conversation in poker?

If you’ll forgive a quick dive into classic WWE quotes, as Ric Flair said, “if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man”. 

I was reminded of this quote over the weekend when Bryn Kenney challenged Phil Hellmuth to a seven-figure heads-up match. That’s quite a mouth-watering prospect for a railbird, the all-time money leader vs the all-time bracelet winner. 

Somehow Phil Galfond got brought up as a potential challenger to Kenney instead and things quickly got derailed. Kenney clearly stated he didn’t want to play Galfond saying he was too busy (but not too busy for Hellmuth) while Galfond made it quite obvious he was happy to play Kenney whenever he wanted. 

It made me ponder, if somebody is making public challenges to other poker players, must that player also be prepared to take on any challenges that come their way? By challenging Phil Hellmuth was Kenney making some grand claim that he was the best, and by ducking Galfond did he undermine that claim? 

Can you only be the best if you beat elite players?

In the 1980s the ‘SuperFights’ saw the best take on the best

There is something grandiose about challenging other people heads-up and we are seeing it a lot these days. Watching poker players challenge one player but avoid another one is not new and it reminds me a lot of matchmaking in boxing, which is as political as it is anything else. The greatest era in boxing was the 1980s ‘Super Fights’ where all the best fighters challenged each other rather than ducked each other. 

Of course not all challenges are about proving who is the best, when it was between Negreanu and Polk it was mostly about settling a long-standing beef between the two of them. 

Challenging somebody like Phil Hellmuth is perhaps an example of game selection rather than proving oneself. Mr Hellmuth, rightly or wrongly, does not have much credibility with a particular wing of modern players and what Kenney was doing was perhaps an attempt at shrewd game selection, appealing to Hellmuth’s own ego.

Game selection is still the master skill

“To be the man you have to beat the man”

I consider game selection to be the master skill in poker, so I can’t knock him for wanting to avoid Galfond. I also think that the ultimate best poker player in the world is the one who has made the most money, and avoiding tough regulars is one way of achieving that

Kenney has no need to feel compelled to accept a challenge from Phil Galfond and as the all-time money winner has nothing to prove as a player. But on the flip side there is something that is just incredibly powerful and honest about the way Galfond quietly leaves the door open to anyone who wants to play him. It’s the reason why I think he is perhaps the genuine GOAT of the online poker era, his willingness to challenge himself. 

So in poker I don’t think you have to beat the man to be the man, but it helps. 

Does avoiding players disqualify you from the ‘greatest ever’ conversation? Let us know in the comments:

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