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Phil Galfond: From Table Captain To Poker Boss

From The Board To The Boardroom, Galfond Takes On All Challengers

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jun 15, 2022


Click Here To Read This Issue This article is featured in Volume 35, Issue 13 of Card Player Magazine, available online now. For a print subscription, check out our latest offers.

Phil Galfond first graced the cover of Card Player in March of 2009. The Gaithersburg, Maryland native was a fresh-faced phenom at the time, tearing apart the highest stakes online. He was still known to others by his handle ‘OMGClayAiken,’ and coming off of winning his first World Series of Poker bracelet for $817,781.

“I don’t think that I’m the best poker player in the world,” the then 23-year-old Galfond said. “But I think I could possibly have the best mind in [regard to logic, probability, and psychology.] I think that because of this, I’ll always be successful at poker.”

Perhaps at the time he was merely talking about his success on the felt, but in the years since, Galfond has proven he can succeed in pretty much all facets of the industry. Now 14 years later, he finds himself wearing many different hats in the poker world, all seemingly with the word ‘BOSS’ stitched across the front.

As a player, Galfond has accomplished plenty. He is among online poker’s biggest winners ever, excelling in nosebleed stakes pot-limit Omaha games, and even appeared on multiple seasons of the popular show High Stakes Poker. After winning his first bracelet in the 2008 $5,000 PLO event, he narrowly missed added another in 2013, finishing second in the $25,000 PLO event for another $744,841.

In 2015, Galfond did get bracelet no. 2, taking down the $10,000 no-limit 2-7 lowball event for $224,383 and then in 2018, he nabbed his third WSOP title in the $10,000 PLO eight-or-better event for another $567,788. Despite a very limited tournament schedule, Galfond has still managed to rack up $3 million in live earnings.

But the former University of Wisconsin student had no problem sharing his knowledge with the rest of the poker community, launching Run It Once training in 2012. The online coaching platform revolutionized the way players viewed the game and has featured content from the likes of poker champions Jason Koon, Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates, Ben ‘sauce123’ Sulsky, Sam Greenwood, Brian Hastings, Daniel Dvoress, and more than a hundred others.

Not satisfied with the current online poker offerings in the wake of Black Friday, Galfond simply decided to start his own site. Run It Once Poker was started in 2016 and after nearly three years of hard work, the site launched in 2019.

Although he considers himself a ‘recreational businessman,’ Galfond figured what better way to promote his new online poker platform than by competing himself. So, he issued a challenge to the rest of the poker world, taking on all comers while laying odds in the game of PLO.

He is currently undefeated in the Galfond Challenge, including a €900,000 comeback win against online poker star ‘Venividi.’ His other victims include Bill Perkins, Dan Cates, Ioannis ‘ActionFreak’ Kontonatsios, Brandon Adams, and Chance Kornuth. (Be sure to check out a special PLO strategy column from Phil regarding his match with Kornuth.)

With his online poker site gaining traction, the 37-year-old CEO decided to sell it to Rush Street Interactive, one of the leading operators in the burgeoning U.S. sports betting and online casino gaming market. As part of the $5.8 million deal, Rush Street will retain Galfond and his team to integrate their software onto their platform.

It’s clear that Galfond has kept busy, and that’s to say nothing of his personal life. In 2015 he married actress Farah Fath, and in 2018 they welcomed their son to the world.

Card Player caught up with Galfond for an episode of the Poker Stories Podcast to talk about his passion for teaching the game, what it takes to start and sell an online poker site, taking on the world at PLO, and much more. You can find the highlights below, or listen to the full interview on Apple iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Julio Rodriguez: You recently made the news for selling your online poker site. How are you feeling off of that big announcement?

Phil Galfond: Good! You know, I’ve been sitting on [that news] for a little while. We actually completed the sale around Christmas time last December, so I’ve been anxious to let everybody know… especially everybody in the U.S., that we were on the way.

JR: What made you want to start your own online poker site in the first place?

PG: At the time of conception, a lot of people were really frustrated with PokerStars about some of the changes they were making and the way they were treating players. And we had some fears as players about the direction of the online poker industry. They were going in the direction towards faster game formats with lower edge and higher risk and less rewards. I got nervous about the future of online poker. I thought we needed some players involved in poker site decisions. So, [the attitude was], yeah, let’s just try it!

JR: I imagine that there’s a lot of things as a player you feel an online poker site needs, but then you talk to developers, marketing, lawyers, and they say, ‘Well that would work if we didn’t want to make money, or it was even possible, or if there wasn’t this certain law in place.’ Is it like opening a door and encountering another six locked doors behind it?

PG: Yeah, it was definitely. We knew we were biting off a lot, and it was still biting off more than we expected. There were always new hurdles. The biggest challenge by far for us was tech, and it was because I went with a team lead at the beginning that was the wrong choice. Eventually, we found a team that we felt better about, but if I were to start over, the most obvious thing I would do differently is start by hiring an extremely expensive tech consultant to help me find the team to start with.

JR: So what went into the decision to sell to Rush Street?

PG: We have a great product and people loved playing on our site. They loved the brand and what we stood for. They loved our customer service. So, we had done a lot of things right, but there’s just no substitute in online poker for the network effects of having [player] liquidity, with games running around the clock. We needed more muscle to break through, for [traffic] to compete with other sites. Without a large partnership of some kind, we were going to continue to fight that uphill battle.

JR: Well, your other RIO company, Run It Once training is also still going strong after a decade. In fact, you recently released your own comprehensive PLO strategy course.

PG: I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I think if I had not found poker, I would have ended up being a teacher of some sort. It must have been around 2007 or 2008, I made one [training] video and it was really well-received, and I really enjoyed it. And if I’m being honest, I thought I was very good at it and it’s fun to do things that you’re good at. I got a lot of satisfaction out of teaching people.

I knew I wanted to make videos and I thought that we (co-founder Dan Quinn) do it better than others were and bring a level of professionalism and polish that didn’t exist elsewhere. We did kind of immediately become considered the best and were the market leader without much marketing effort, really.

JR: Was there ever any hesitancy on your part to share your own personal strategies, especially considering the stakes you play for?

PG: I felt fine about it. If there was one player in the game with a huge leak that I was always taking advantage of, I would try to talk around that specific area in my high-stakes videos. I’ve always wanted to share everything, but I justify [holding that back] because it wasn’t going to help everybody else. It’s only going to hurt me and help that guy. I was worried about it at first, but once I started making videos and continued to be able to win, I stopped worrying about it.

For over a decade I’ve made videos, in an unstructured manner, reviewing my own gameplay. And that’s because that’s how I enjoy teaching. But I decided after these heads-up challenges from the last couple of years to organize everything I’ve learned on heads-up PLO and PLO in general. The concepts apply to all of PLO but are taught through the lens of heads-up play because that’s where I have the hand histories and experience.

JR: You brought up the heads-up matches, better known as the Galfond Challenge. Was that born out of desire to find some action?

PG: It was a few things, but we were going through our roster of coaches at Run It Once training to see who was getting the most views. And I noticed that my video views had been dropping. I had the realization that people don’t want to learn from me as much as they used to because I’m not out there playing poker anymore. They don’t see that I’m out there beating people anymore. I had been spending a lot of time on RIO poker and RIO training, and not playing poker much at all.

JR: You have to come out of the shadows every once in a while to win something and show the young kids who you are.

PG: Yeah, exactly. I wanted to show that I can still do it.

JR: There was a moment in your first match against ‘Venividi,’ who you laid 2:1 over 25,000 hands, where you found yourself down €900,000. What were you feeling at that time?

PG: I was more dejected than anything. I had essentially ‘come out of retirement’ to play a bunch of matches and I was really excited about it. I was working hard to prepare and was feeling confident going in, and I just showed up on the big stage and got smacked around. I thought I was running bad, but I was also questioning myself. A lot of people were excited to bet against me, expecting that my time off had hurt me, and I was proving them right.

JR: Against all odds, you somehow were able to turn the tide and claw your way back to a very tiny win. Was that a result of you finding some sort of leak that you were able to plug or was it just a matter of variance finally evening out?

PG: I think it was both. When I was down that €900,000 I honestly considered quitting. And even when I decided to come back, I had no expectation of actually winning the match. I really just wanted to prove to myself and everybody else that I could hang with this guy. Maybe over the last 14,000 or so hands we had left, I could win back ten buy-ins or so, something like €200,000.

The biggest change that I made was just going back to a little bit more of the old me. You know, this was the first time I had ever studied with solvers. Which sounds crazy late for a lot of people, but no-limit hold’em solvers had been around for a long time, but PLO solvers not as much. So, by the time PLO solvers came out, I [was busy with the business] and I hadn’t touched them.

When I did the challenge, I was trying to brush up on theory. I came in… overfocused on that, essentially. The solvers were great to focus on, but I had lost hand reading. It wasn’t even a part of my thought process. I was just trying to figure out what was theoretically correct in each spot, and reading his actual hand didn’t enter my mind so much in the beginning of the match. So, the shift for me was that the [solvers] had become a little bit more automatic, and I had the bandwidth to try and focus on reading his hand.

JR: You’re undefeated in the challenge and are up close to $2 million in profit and side bets. Are you still getting interested challengers or has the poker world learned their lesson yet?

PG: I’m still taking on anyone at $200-$400 PLO, but I’ve learned how long these matches take. I thought I would just go up to Vancouver to play these, maybe knock out five matches in six months. It turned out that I knocked out two. So, I don’t want to take another five-month trip. I’m pretty settled in Las Vegas, so you have to be willing to play me from here.

But I’m also just looking for any other action. I’ve really wanted the motivation and excuse to relearn no-limit hold’em, so I would love a half/half challenge. I think it’s been since about 2010 that I’ve played no-limit. Obviously, I think I am capable of learning it and playing it at a high level, but I’d love a reason to do so.

JR: Good luck finding action, Phil! ♠

Rapid Fire Questions

If not for poker, what would be your gambling game of choice?

Blackjack. I remember I was a senior in high school playing on some blackjack site. I was 18 and somehow won $4,000. I was just at school the next day and I couldn’t pay attention to anything.

What’s the biggest pot you’ve ever won or lost?

There was a $700,000 pot that I played at Aria. We were playing a big bet mix, something like 12 different games all either no-limit or pot-limit. This one was pot-limit double draw high, or five-card draw with two draws. It was a three-way pot with trips versus trips versus trips, going into the final draw. I had the best trips, but one of them filled up and I lost the pot.

What was your longest session at the table?

Somewhere in the 30-to-35-hour range. Long sessions always go badly. I’ve had like three or four sessions over 24 hours, and none of them were good.

You played football in high school, any glory games?

For my school, I was good, but we were not good. We had a coach that took it way too seriously, especially considering how bad we were. We were playing this game where we were probably down three or four touchdowns at the half. I hurt my arm and the medic said that I couldn’t play. But the coach said, ‘Absolutely not, get in there Galfond!’ And so I played, and I scored four touchdowns. I didn’t know it at the time but I had broken my arm. We still lost.

What was your worst job before poker?

I answered phones at Domino’s, and I really hated it. I don’t like talking on the phone, it gives me a lot of anxiety, but their system was so bad because you had to input everything in the right order. There were shortcut keys just labeled with letters. But if someone wanted extra sauce you had to press X instead of S because S was for sausage.

Do you have a celebrity doppelganger?

Phil and Farah Galfond Credit: PokerGOFor a little while I would get Jason Biggs, but I haven’t heard that since I grew out the facial hair.

Your wife Farah was on two of the biggest soap operas all time. She did more than 800 episodes of Days Of Our Lives and nearly 600 episodes of One Life To Live. How many episodes have you seen?

I’ve seen zero. She did a stint on the show a few years ago and I watched parts of those with her, but yeah, I haven’t watched.

What’s the best shot you’ve ever taken?

I’ll probably have to go with meeting my wife. It was a slow-developing romance that started over Twitter. She followed me, since she was a poker fan, and eventually [messaged]. But we were living in two different places as I was in Vancouver and she was in Los Angeles. Eventually I told her I was going to be [in town] visiting my friend and asked if she wanted to meet up. The truth was that I did visit my friend, but the purpose of the trip was to meet Farah.