8:37 AM ET
Preston JohnsonESPN Sports Betting Analyst
- Professional sports bettor finding advantages in inefficient markets
- Joined ESPN in 2019
- MS Sport Psychology, University of Utah
The greatest comeback story is one that everybody missed. Remember when the Boston Red Sox came back from down 3-0 against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS? Professional poker player Phil Galfond may have topped it recently after overcoming a €900,000 deficit in a 25,000-hand head-to-head online poker challenge.
After comparing the odds in our database with some of the biggest comebacks across every collegiate and professional league, this is — at the very least — one of the most unlikely comebacks I have ever witnessed.
Here’s how it happened, and how Galfond had the mental fortitude to pull it off.
Phil Galfond’s place in poker history
Galfond started taking poker seriously while attending college about 15 years ago. Two $50 online deposits were all it took for him to work his way to being considered one of the greatest No-Limit Texas Hold’em and pot-limit Omaha (PLO) players of all-time. The Marylander was renowned for playing high-stakes cash games on Full Tilt Poker under the moniker “OMGClayAiken.” In February 2013, Galfond’s all-time online earnings on Full Tilt Poker surpassed $10,000,000. He has also won three World Series of Poker bracelets.
An innovator as well, Galfond founded Run It Once Poker with the goal of keeping the online poker dream alive. The company launched publicly in February 2019 to most countries worldwide. A foundational part of his vision was making high-stakes poker battles public for everyone to witness again. Enter the Galfond Challenge.
Galfond set up a series of high-stakes heads-up (one-on-one) matches between himself and various challengers to be streamed live on Twitch (you can check out the remaining schedule here).
The first of these challenges was a 25,000-hand PLO match that began in January against an online regular known as VeniVidi. Whichever player was profitable over the course of the 25,000 hands would be deemed the winner. To add to the intrigue, Phil and VeniVidi agreed to a side bet on top of the actual money won or lost in the 25,000-hand battle. Phil risked €200,000 to VeniVidi’s €100,000 that he would end up the profitable player.
Phil started the challenge with just one winning session in the first 15 days of play (roughly 10,000 hands into the challenge) and was down over €900,000 — nearly $1 million. To put this into context, PokerShares — a licensed and regulated website outside of the United States that offers people prices to pick winners of poker tournaments and political events — even stopped offering odds on Phil winning the challenge at this point.
PokerShares founder Mike McDonald said: “After Day 13 of the Galfond Challenge, we had him at 25-1 when he was down €750,000. I don’t think we even had him available to bet on when he went over the €900,000 mark, but it likely would have been around 35-1 if we did.”
A price of 35-1 implies a 2.8% win probability, or rather that Phil would need to win the challenge 2.8% of the time for a 35-1 wager on him to break even. The fact that PokerShares would consider offering 35-1 means they calculated the true likelihood of Phil winning the challenge to be even less.
“I went into the match pretty confident, and it was pretty disappointing to start out the way it did.”
I saw an analogy to Phil’s win being like coming back from trailing 30-0 in a baseball game. That’s too extreme. No team has even won a game by more than 27 runs in the modern era (since 1900); the biggest come-from-behind win is only 12 runs. The Patriots comeback when they trailed the Falcons 28-3 in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI came to mind, but that fell short as betting markets with in-game prices were only offering 11-1 on a New England victory.
Perhaps the most translatable probabilistic analogy in sport comes from that 2004 ALCS. Looking at the prices of the four straight games Boston won individually gives us an expected win probability of roughly 6%. At the time, sportsbooks were offering anywhere from 10-1 to 14-1 on Boston to win the series.
To actually capture a similar likelihood to Galfond’s poker challenge comeback, however, we need to dive into the win expectancy for the Red Sox in Game 4 when they trailed the Yankees in the ninth inning. According to Baseball-Reference, Boston’s chances of winning the game as Kevin Millar walked to the plate to face Mariano Rivera were 23%. To complete that comeback and subsequently win the next three games and the AL pennant, the win probability goes down to just 2.6% — right in range with where PokerShares would have lined Galfond when he was down over €900,000.
That’s what Phil pulled off. Phil is the 2004 Red Sox in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the ALCS.
The mentality of a comeback
Phil accomplished the seemingly impossible, but it didn’t come without a level of focus and confidence that rivals only the most elite competitors in the world. What was his mindset and process like during the €900,000 downswing midmatch? What enabled him to maintain that level of mental aptitude despite losing so regularly prior?
“I went into the match pretty confident, and it was pretty disappointing to start out the way it did,” Galfond told ESPN. “I took the break to think everything through. There was a little bit of pride involved given that I really felt I could beat him over time, and I wanted to prove that mostly to myself.”
Galfond decided to step away from the match for a couple weeks, a move that cost him a €3,000 penalty per day. Still, he believed it was the right choice, telling ESPN, “I really did believe that I still had an edge and could win over the 15,000 remaining hands and make a partial comeback.”
Fellow professional poker player Matt Berkey, who suffered a $5 million downswing a few years ago before taking a break to care for his grandmother, addressed Phil’s decision to take a break on his recent podcast.
“Phil taking time off despite paying the penalty is really critical,” he said. “We give ourselves way too much credit to be able to battle day in and day out and just shrug off the results, win or lose. It’s just not how our mind is oriented, and it’s not what motivates human beings. We need positive feedback loops … and when the game you are playing doesn’t offer them, you need to seek them out elsewhere.”
Galfond agreed with these sentiments and told ESPN that he took the break to take some time off and relax with his family for the first few days. But he also thought it was important to play against other opponents in the meantime to reinforce that he could still “make good decisions and win.”
This is the case for all professional gamblers whether they be sports bettors or poker players, and an important lesson: Galfond was humble enough to recognize that he wasn’t above a natural shift in psyche during a substantial downswing and stepped away.
What’s most interesting about the break to me is that he trusted his process wholeheartedly and turned to poker to start feeling confident again — even amidst a break from poker. Galfond noted, “So much of where my mindset needed to be was just trying to block everything else out and play each hand individually. Solve the puzzle for that hand, and then move on to the next one.”
He did just that when the challenge against VeniVidi resumed. In arguably the most crucial session of the entire match, he cut into the deficit to the tune of €183,481 in a single day.
I asked if he was scared of the idea of losing more once he returned. He wasn’t necessarily entitled to an immediate upswing just because he took time away.
“It’s tough to know because my first session went very very well, so it was not something I had to deal with,” he said. “I didn’t ultimately know how I would react. I had played against other players and played well and felt good about that. But I knew it was very possible that if we got back into it and we were right back to where we were with VeniVidi raising every time I bet the river and every time I called he had [the best hand], it wouldn’t have taken that much to spiral back into feeling as negatively as I did before taking the break.”
Phil rallied with that momentum and stormed all the way back. As the final session and 698 hands approached, he found himself down just €8,171. At the stakes they were playing, the match was virtually tied. We know how it ended.
Now, I’m rooting for a surplus of underdog stories in the upcoming months, maybe years. We need them. There will be people moving mountains creating success stories with likelihoods far less than 2.6%. Far more important ones too. I can’t wait to hear them. After all, who doesn’t like a good comeback story?