The Phil Galfond Challenge: Changing Minds by Winning Hearts

I’m not saying that Phil Galfond is burning at a quarter-candle while everyone else is an electric lightbulb, but by his admission, he hasn’t been playing a bunch of poker lately.



Beard manicures.

Online Poker Rooms.

So much to do, and so little time.

Let’s say, his white glove slap across the face of the poker community in the form of the ‘Galfond Challenge’, is likely to be returned with a few baseball mitts. HighStakesDB even led with an article entitled: Why The Galfond Challenge is Becoming a Disaster For Phil.

But is it?

RIO Poker’s success is everything to Galfond.

A mistake that business owners make is persuading people to buy their product through the means of logical and rational thought, and there’s a lot of that flying around the trapezes of the poker circus.

However, the messages that get goosebumps pimpling don’t ambush the brain; they attack the heart.


You can’t change a mind without first winning their hearts.

If you love poker, then it’s hard not to respect Phil Galfond and what he’s trying to do at RIO Poker. How will it make you feel to see him battling against so many diverse characters across different stakes and platforms with millions of dollars on the line?

Will a few hearts flutter?

Will a few hairs stand on end?

Will one or ten of you choose to compete on the site after seeing the silky software?

It’s hard to persuade people to do things they don’t want to do — what better way than showing them how exhilarating it can be.

And the poker community needs this challenge after the ‘Durrrr Challenge’ debacle. Coincidentally, Phil Galfond was the only player banned from challenging Dwan when the challenge first got off the ground. Galfond chose to allow all-comers into his home, but who are the ones he’s secretly hoping he doesn’t have to ask to leave their shoes at the door?

“There are some players that I am thinking, ‘Man that would be a challenge,’” admits Galfond before continuing. “If only the top players had taken on the challenge, I would have had to have taken some on. But I have too many challengers, so I don’t have to play the toughest. I still might, and I will play more tougher players than I need to, so I can challenge myself, and for publicity for the site – but I do have my pick.”

Future thinking or dwelling on the past is the primary cause of our anxiety because the brain doesn’t know the difference between our mental models and reality. In the spirit, of using this knowledge to his advantage, and priming the pump ready for an injection of poker fairy dust, I ask him to reminisce over his fiercest battles.

“My most famous battles have been against Isildur,” said Galfond. “My biggest winning day was against Viktor when I won $1.6m. We started at $300/$600 PLO and moved on to $500/$1k PLO at some point during the session. I’ve also had a million-dollar losing day against him.

“Back in the day, I also used to play a lot with David Benyamine and Gus Hansen. Gus had that heads-up PLO table that had one seat reserved for him, with one open, and I played him quite a bit. This one time, Gus asked Full Tilt to create a $2k/$4k O8 table for him, and instead, they made a $2k/$4k PLO table. I might have been the only one to play him there, and won small. That’s the highest stakes I have ever played.

“I mainly played Benyamine at NLHE. It may have been before my PLO days. I’ve had at least three seven-figure losses playing online within 24-hours, and I think one was largely against him, but I can’t say that with certainty, because it’s been so long.”

Galfond has seen it all, and also has the perspective of his perch on the throne of RIO’s online training site – so what are the skills and abilities that make a world-class heads-up player?

“What makes a world-class heads-up player are the attributes that surround reading your opponent,” says Galfond. “Reads on game flow, their mood and the way they play as the match progresses and getting a feel for that and staying one step ahead. Or making reads based on stats or showdowns about some leaks that they have. The next step is being able to logically determine the correct counter strategy to take advantage of that.

“As poker progresses, people are becoming more proficient with solvers, and are approaching optimal play a little bit more. At the highest level, the best player is the one that’s super closest to optimal play, but I don’t think anyone is close enough right now for that to be the most important attribute. I think we’re still quite a ways off that, and everyone has enough leaks that if you’re able to identify them and combat them, then these are the most important skills.”

With so much money on the line; reputation, and the profitability of RIO Poker also in the lens – what are the unhelpful thoughts that go through Galfond’s head when it comes to achieving his goals?

“It’s a strange combination of having a lot of doubts in myself and yet being very determined to achieve my goals,” says Galfond. “I have never been a hard studier in poker, but in business, I have found a work ethic that I didn’t have before. I am hoping, as I focus on poker more these next months because of the challenge that my business work ethics rubs off on my poker one.

“I also have unhelpful thoughts around the belief that I am not good at studying or learning from the available new tools. I fear that I can’t digest the information, and it will end up hurting my game more than helping it. Fear of failure is a common problem, and in Elliot Roe’s Run It Once course, which I’ve been taking, I identified that as a big leak of mine. He has an exercise where you go through a fear like that and determine what you’re really afraid of and what you can do to combat the fear, which I found very helpful

The interest in the ‘Galfond Challenge’ has been phenomenal, prompting the thought – could RIO Poker be the new Rail Heaven?

“We have thought a lot about elevating RIO to the Rail Heaven of the past,” admits Galfond. “It’s always been a part of our plans, and we have changes planned in our software development to accommodate the high stakes playing and railing experience. The idea for this challenge happened pretty quickly, so the full experience that we have planned for the future is not available for this challenge.”

And who would Galfond like in a Rail Heaven cast?

“I want great players, but you need to give them an incentive to play with each other. Some of that comes from us, and some of that comes through recruiting non-pros, preferably those that are well known, to make the games better, and hopefully, we can offer something to them to make it worthwhile.

“If I had to give you names then I like to watch guys like Sauce battle. I like watching Berri Sweet, Ike Haxton, Trueteller – but I also think the fans would like to see guys like Ivey, Antonius; some of the old school high stakes players. Those are the names that immediately spring to mind, and now I am doing this high stakes challenge I will include myself in that cast.”

Now go and trim that beard, you’ve got hearts to win, Mr G.

Phil Galfond Challenge Lineup (Subject to Change)

VeniVidi1993 – €100/€200 PLO over 25k hands
ActionFreak – €150/€300 PLO over 15k hands.
Jungleman – €100/€200 PLO over 7.5k hands
Brandon Adams – $100/$200 PLO over 40hrs of live poker
Chance Kornuth – €100/€200 PLO over 25k hands
Bill Perkins & The Thirst Lounge – €100/€200 PLO over 50k hands or a €400k loss

*Rob Yong has also accepting the challenge, and negotiations have begun.

Side Bet Info

VeniVidi1993 – Side bet of Phil’s €200k to VeniVidi’s €100k
ActionFreak – Side bet of Phil’s €150k to ActionFreak’s €150k
Jungleman – TBD
Brandon Adams – Side Bet of Phil’s $150k to Brandon’s $100k
Chance Kornuth – Side Bet of Phil’s €1m to Chance’s €250k
Bill Perkins & The Thirst Lounge – Side Bet of Phil’s $800k to Bill’s $200k

PokerShares Odds

Galfond (2.16) v VeniVidi1993 (1.73)
Galfond (2.25) v ActionFreak (1.66)
Galfond (1.91) v Jungleman (1.95)
Galfond (1.60) v Adams (2.40)