Dwan against the world
While the cash game is alive and well in the homes of average Americans, it has become the forgotten field of combat in the realm of mass communication. Tournaments create a finite story line, complete with crises, climax and closure. They teach their combatants to share with the world, in contrast to the old-school cash gamers who keep their cards to the vest. For TV, the tournament is the perfect child. The cash game is simply the smarter, quieter sibling.
It's because of that relationship that it takes a superlative moment for the world to focus on cash games, such as the Johnny Moss-Nick "The Greek" Dandolos match (If it ever happened; recent findings suggest it may not have) fabled to have inspired the creation of the WSOP. You're getting the idea. Names like Archie Karas and Andy Beal are whispered in awe throughout the poker world because of those moments. Now, Tom "Durrrr" Dwan's name can be added to the list.
Dwan, the 22-year-old New Jersey wunderkind, has taken the poker world by storm over the past three years. After dropping out of Boston University at 19, Dwan took up poker. In the course of a year, Dwan excelled, moving from playing $1-$2 to the biggest games on the Web. With consistently massive profit margins (primarily in no-limit Texas Hold 'em and pot-limit Omaha), Dwan's estimated bankroll reached million-dollar status. He has graduated to live play, thriving in major events and excelling in the biggest cash games in the world. Just as impressive as his skill for the tactics of the game is the speed at which Dwan thinks and plays.
"For a while, I haven't really had many people who will play me more than two tables heads-up [online]," said Dwan. "I think the game is more interesting when you go beyond that. It's faster, so you're playing more, making more money. You may just be slightly better than your opponent and still make a lot because of the number of hands you play."
He's absolutely right.
Playing four tables of heads-up hold 'em online could result in up to 500 hands per hour, more than 10 times the output on the fastest live tables. Put another way, that's one hand completed every 7.2 seconds, a blistering pace that Dwan hopes the opposition will get lost in with the gauntlet he has thrown down to the poker world.
Dwan issued what has become known as "The Durrrr Challenge" last month. He and anyone who accepts will play 50,000 hands of four-table heads-up no-limit hold'em or pot-limit Omaha (opponent's choosing) with minimum blinds $200/$400. If at the end of 50,000 hands Dwan is up by a minimum of $1, the opposition must pay him $500,000; of course, this is in addition to any money lost over the course of play.
If the opposition is up, Dwan must pay $1.5 million.
Either player can step down at any time, but that is an acknowledgement of defeat, meaning the hard cash must still be paid. The challenge is open to anyone but Phil Galfond, a close friend of Dwan's who might have felt obligated to take up the challenge and potentially endanger the friendship. This isn't just a huge money proposition; it's also a call to action at the highest levels of a game in which defending one's honor is a must. In issuing the challenge, Dwan had to know there were a couple of players who were a given to accept. Indeed, that may be what he was counting on, getting those big bankrolls into a game specifically tailored to his strengths. If that's the reason though, he's not letting on.
"I just thought it was a cool idea to do, so I just went ahead and did it," insisted Dwan. "I just did it so someone would play me four tables at once. Either I'll be playing someone I'm better than and will be a favorite to make money against them, or I'll play someone better than me and learn something from them and maybe run good and win anyways."
Regardless of his reasons, they haven't stopped the challengers from stepping up. While the order hasn't been set in stone, a murderer's row of Big Game players has stepped to the plate. Finn Patrik Antonius, Frenchman David Benyamine and American Phil Ivey have all pledged to play. They each bring different expectations.
"I would have played him at even stakes," Antonius said. "I think Tom is the only guy who would do this heads-up. I don't really think anyone will lose much more than $2 million, but it will be interesting to see what strategy people bring."
While Benyamine couldn't be reached for comment, Ivey shared his thoughts on the challenge on PokerRoad's weekly feature "Tuesdays With Ivey." He seems to view the potential for bankroll obliteration as being far more realistic than Antonius does.
"Somebody's probably going to go broke," Ivey said. "What I don't think [Dwan] understands about this match is, playing four games, you're playing pretty high, so it's possible for someone to lose $5 [million to] $10 million."
Named more often than anyone else when the topic of "world's best poker player" is raised, Ivey is known for rising to any such occasion. The question is whether he'll be up to playing at this speed, which he has never done before.
"You know what?" Ivey said. "[Dwan] probably does have an edge, but there's something tempting about that $1.5 million to $500,000. I'm pretty sure what's going to happen is he'll start a huge favorite and I'll have a lot of catching up to do. I've been playing with him a lot lately, so I think that's helping. Guys like Tom, Patrick, David Benyamine are the ones I respect the most because they'll play anyone. I never posted a challenge because I assumed everyone knows I'm going to play every game."
Antonius agrees with Ivey's sentiment that he'll start an underdog.
"Ivey will be the underdog for the first 10,000 hands, but he adjusts his game so quickly," said Antonius.
Do any of these players have the bankroll to handle this type of challenge? Dwan is insistent that he will play as much as he can on his own dime.
"I'm not being backed," Dwan said. "If I lose two in a row I might sell some pieces or something like that, but I'm not planning on it right now."
Opinions seem to vary on the bankroll one would need to participate in this kind of a challenge. While Antonius put the number at $6 million, Barry Greenstein's answer was more introspective.
"If you're worse than Dwan, it doesn't matter," said Greenstein. "If you're appreciably better and the buy-in is $30,000, you probably don't need more than $500,000. If you're about even in skill and taking advantage of the odds [against Dwan], then you might need $2,000,0000."
Greenstein won't be playing Dwan on these terms, admitting, "If I played four games against Durrrr, I'd be drawing dead."
"I thought it was pretty obvious David, Patrik and Phil would take me up on it," Dwan acknowledged. "Then, I felt like there would be some online high-stakes hold 'em specialists who'll pool some money together and some of the Euro [pot-limit Omaha] guys would do the same. I think I'm playing Patrik first and then David and Phil will flip a coin or something."
While Dwan has suffered a recent $3.5 million downswing, he insists that won't affect whether the challenge goes off.
Presumably, the Antonius and Ivey matches will take place on FullTiltPoker (the site sponsors both challengers), with the public able to watch online in a digital scene reminiscent of the stories of Moss and Dandalos. Like that fabled story, this is a moment in time that, regardless of result, will not soon be forgotten.
"A lot of times I don't really want attention but in this case it's a good thing," Dwan said. "It's good for poker and it's good for me because it'll create action. Hopefully I'll run good, get lucky and the action will work out for me and I'll make some money from it."
Some. One assumes that's a relative term.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.