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Doug Polk Defeats Daniel Negreanu In High-Stakes Heads-Up Grudge Match

Polk Wins $1.2 Million As Two Rivals Settle Seven-Year Feud

by Steve Schult |  Published: Mar 24, 2021


Despite live poker steadily making a comeback during the final few months of 2020 and into early 2021, most of the poker world’s attention remained fixated on the high-stakes, heads-up grudge match between Poker Hall of Famer Daniel Negreanu and fellow high-stakes poker pro Doug Polk.

The match lasted about three months as the two battled over two tables of $200-$400 no-limit hold’em for 25,000 hands on, with Polk getting the best of it and ultimately walking away a $1.2 million winner. The bitterness that led to the showdown, however, was several years in the making.

The Origin Of The Grudge

During the later years of the poker boom and the first few years in the post-Black Friday era, Polk cut his teeth on the virtual felt playing heads-up cash games. He discovered he had a knack for heads-up, and grinded his way to the highest stakes available on the internet. The Southern California native is no slouch in the live arena, either, and owns three World Series of Poker bracelets. But his bread and butter was always online heads-up games, and for a long while, he was considered the best player in the world in that discipline.

Polk made his initial splash in the live arena in 2014 when he won his first bracelet for $251,969 in the $1,000 no-limit hold’em turbo event. The same summer, Negreanu was on a tear of his own with nine cashes and a pair of runner-up finishes, one of which came in the $1 million buy-in Big One For One Drop.

Despite his massive score of $8.2 million, Negreanu faced some criticism on Twitter for some of his play during the final table. Online pro Daniel Merrilees said that based on his observations, Negreanu couldn’t beat $5-$10 no-limit hold’em online.

Negreanu responded saying that not only could he beat that stake, but that he could win in the $25-$50 no-limit hold’em six-max games with just two weeks of study. In fact, the six-time bracelet winner and then-PokerStars sponsored pro said he “would bet a million” on it.

The claim got the attention of many high-stakes online pros, and Polk was one of Negreanu’s loudest critics.

“It came across like he was undervaluing how hard it was to get there,” said Polk in an interview from 2014. “If you play $25-$50 these days, you’re really good. And I don’t think he realized how that felt to the online community.”

Polk was willing to bet against Negreanu’s ability to beat those games, but nothing ever materialized, and the debate died down. However, it would eventually become clear that those comments were never forgotten.

In the years following, Polk gradually stepped away from life as a poker pro and focused more on his training site, Upswing Poker, while also building a sizable following on his YouTube channel. He still played occasionally, evident by second and third bracelet wins in 2016 and 2017, which included a $3.7 million score for his win in the $111,111 High Roller for One Drop, but he was no longer interested in playing full time.

More Rake Is Better

Polk’s legion of followers was eating up his regular content on YouTube, so when Negreanu uttered the phrase, “more rake is better” during an interview that year, Polk took the opportunity to relentlessly rake Negreanu over the coals for the comment.

As PokerStars’ highest profile sponsored pro at the time, Negreanu had been dealing with the public relations fall out from several decisions the company made over the previous year. At the end of 2015, Stars announced that it would be greatly altering its VIP rewards program and would not honor Supernova Elite status for the following year. It was a move that cost many pros hundreds of thousands of dollars in rake back payments, not to mention all the time they had put into the promotion.

After eliminating the highest tier of their rewards system, the company then decided to raise the rake for most of its games. As a representative of the site, Negreanu defended both of those moves in multiple interviews.

In one interview, Negreanu made the argument that by raising the rake, fewer pros would be willing to play in the games. While more money would be coming off the table, the recreational players wouldn’t feel like they were being beaten down by the pros and would be more likely to stick around.

“If the rake is too high for the good players, what you’re left with is bad players, who are going to lose,” said Negreanu. “But they are losing less per 100 hands than they would be if the pros are playing with them. There’s a lot of games where that is true where the rake is really high and it keeps pros away because they’re like, ‘Well, we can’t beat this.’ But overall, for the game, it’s actually better because pros aren’t playing. They’re losing the rake money, which is going to be more, but they’re not losing as much. They’re basically passing the money around. There is nobody just dominating.”

Taking Trolling To The Next Level

Polk took the comments that Negreanu made and ran with them. He created several videos on his channel mocking the Canadian pro and even held a contest for his followers where they submitted a photo or video explaining why “more rake is better.” The top 10 winners received a free membership to his training site, among a few other prizes.

Polk ended up turning the phrase “more rake is better” into a campaign and used it to troll Negreanu any time he could, despite Negreanu’s best efforts to clarify his comments and deny any sentiment that he believed more rake was actually better for a poker game.

En route to his bracelet win, Polk sat next to Negreanu during the early stages of the $111,111 High Roller for One Drop at the 2017 WSOP. It was then that Polk took off his jacket to reveal a t-shirt that had the phrase “More Rake Is Better.” Polk pulled the same stunt again during the 2018 Super High Roller Bowl when he was seated directly to Negreanu’s left.

Polk's Billboard Near The RioJust a month later during the 2018 WSOP, Polk took things to literal new heights by purchasing a billboard just outside the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino that advertised his website The website is no longer functional.

The billboard eventually came down and the quarrel seemed to fizzle for another couple years until Negreanu began streaming some of his sessions during the 2020 online WSOP.

As the former number one player on the all-time tournament earnings list (now number three with $41 million in cashes), Negreanu had built up quite an online fanbase of his own, posting extremely popular vlogs on his own YouTube channel during the WSOP, and even streaming some of his own online poker play.

Negreanu’s Twitch channel was temporarily banned over the summer after he had choice words for one of the viewers in the chat. The person in question made comments about Negreanu’s wife Amanda, and the now-GGPoker ambassador went on a 40-second tirade where he told the viewer that he would “break his f***ing teeth” and “feed them to him anally.”

The clip picked up steam and was shared all over social media with varying reactions. Polk took the opportunity to troll Negreanu once again with a video that cut the tirade together with some of their past disagreements. The post was eventually deleted by YouTube.

Setting Up The Match

The day after the video was released, poker pro Joe Ingram tweeted, “Can Doug and Daniel settle this by playing poker against each other heads-up at some point please?”

Polk responded and said, “If this tweet gets 1,000 retweets, I will come back to poker for a no-limit hold’em, heads-up for rolls grudge match against Daniel Negreanu.”

After a couple weeks of back and forth, Negreanu agreed to terms for a match. The adversaries would play two tables of $200-$400 no-limit hold’em, with automatic top-ups back to the 100-big blind, $40,000 initial buy-in.

The game seemed tailored to Polk’s specialty, online heads-up no-limit hold’em, but Negreanu is no stranger to heads-up poker matches in general. In 2005, while serving as an ambassador for the new Wynn poker room in Las Vegas, Negreanu offered high-stakes heads-up freezeouts to anyone willing to play him.

For his challenge, Negreanu was willing to play a freezeout for any amount between $100,000 and $500,000 in either limit hold’em, Omaha eight-or-better, seven card stud, stud eight-or-better, 2-7 triple draw, A-5 triple draw, pot-limit Omaha, pot-limit hold’em, or no-limit hold’em. The only stipulation he had was that if he lost the first match and felt truly outclassed, Negreanu reserved the right to decline a rematch in the game his opponent chose. He had several takers including fellow Poker Hall of Famer Barry Greenstein and high-stakes legend Joe Cassidy.

When it came to online challenges, Negreanu was playing heads-up limit hold’em against anyone willing to play on PokerStars in 2012. He played two matches against Viktor “Isildur1” Blom on two separate occasions with mixed results, but neither of those challenges were anything even remotely close to what Negreanu was undertaking against Polk in 2020.

The betting markets reflected it too.

When the match was announced, the poker world was itching to put money down on which player would win. Everyone admitted Polk was the clear favorite, but the question was by how much. Of the best made public online, Polk came in as a roughly 4:1 favorite.

Phil Hellmuth was looking to bet on Negreanu, and Polk booked the action himself. Hellmuth bet $20,000 with the possibility of winning $80,000 if Negreanu finished the 25,000-hand challenge in the black. Polk also booked a massive bet with millionaire poker enthusiast Bill Perkins, although the amount was never made public.

Shuffle Up And Deal

In order to publicize and draw attention to the match, the first 200 hands were played on Nov. 4 in the live arena at Aria and streamed on PokerGO.

Negreanu won $117,000 during those 200 hands, making many think that he had an advantage in the match, but for the other 24,800 played online Polk dominated.

The first 1,000 hands of online play saw Negreanu go from up $117,000 to down $268,000. Negreanu was able to keep it within four or five buy-ins for about 8,000 hands before Polk ultimately pulled away for good.

As the match neared its midpoint, where the losing player had the option to quit, Polk was up nearly $1 million on Negreanu. The official halfway mark was reached just before the new year and Negreanu was able to respond by putting a small dent in Polk’s lead, but was still down $770,000 through 12,500 hands.

To his credit, Negreanu wasn’t ready to throw in the towel despite the large deficit. But perhaps he should have. Following a short winning streak to start the year where Negreanu cut the lead to $484,073, Polk found himself on a heater and crossed the seven-figure mark in the third week of January.

With the number of hands remaining continuing to dwindle, Negreanu decided to play a higher variance style, implementing a hyper aggressive strategy which won him $390,032 in a single session. It was the biggest single-session win of the challenge and nearly cut the lead in half, giving Negreanu a glimmer of hope.

With a massive amount riding in side bets, however, Polk countered by implementing “small ball poker” against the guy who coined the term. In the following session, Polk began limping buttons and playing a much more passive style of poker, hoping to keep the pots small and lower the variance for the remaining hands. He lost slightly more than a buy-in, but the strategy meant that there was almost no chance of Negreanu being able to win a large enough sum to finish the challenge with a profit.

The session after that, Negreanu decided he would counter Polk’s newfound passivity with excessive tanking. With every decision, Negreanu ran the time bank down to nearly zero before making a decision. It allowed him to play as few hands as possible in each session, while also developing a counter strategy with his coaches. This angered Polk and eventually, the two turned to high-stakes pro and fellow heads-up match specialist Phil Galfond to mediate the situation.

Galfond ruled that Negreanu could only tank when he was out of position. Eventually, Polk agreed to stop limping and the match resumed as normal. Negreanu was never able to regain the magic he had in his nearly 10 buy-in win and Polk only extended his lead down the stretch, eventually banking about $1.2 million when the match was all said and done in the beginning of February.

The Aftermath

In total, Polk won 52.4 percent of the hands dealt, according to his own statistics. While he had a slightly losing winrate of -0.8 big blinds per 100 while playing out of position, he won a whopping 22 bb/100 when on the button.

In Polk’s postgame interview after the final session of the challenge, Polk thanked his team that he put together for the challenge. He had hired a group of players to create optimal preflop ranges, and utilized a couple of heads-up poker coaches to help him refine his strategy. He also acknowledged a separate team that aggregated every action of every hand, which allowed him to identify patterns and exploits in Negreanu’s game.

Despite all of the negativity and mudslinging, what had started out as a grudge match ended up with both players discovering a mutual respect for one another, or at least each other’s game. In the same way that fighters congratulate each other after trying to knock each other out, the animosity seemed to fade down the stretch between the two poker pros.

Ryan Fee's New License Plate“I’m sure down the road there will be things that happen where we don’t see eye-to-eye,” Polk said to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “But I think we can come to it from a perspective more of mutual respect and keep it a little more within the context of the argument. Maybe not let it get so personal.”

Negreanu echoed similar sentiments.

“I feel like we went to war, we went to battle, and in the end, it’s just one of those things where it needed to happen, if you will,” said Negreanu. “And now that we’re past it, I think that chapter’s closed.”

While the chapter may be closed between Polk and Negreanu, one of Polk’s good friends and business partners, Ryan Fee, decided to take one last shot at Negreanu before the feud completely dissolved. Fee, who was Polk’s tag team partner during a WSOP bracelet win and likely had a significant piece of Polk’s action, bought a brand-new Lamborghini with his cut.

The license plate read “TYDNEGS.” ♠

*Photos courtesy of PokerGO and Upswing Poker.