The true test match – poker’s longest heads-up battles

November 16, 2017

Test cover_16Nov17.jpg

Deep-stacked heads-up poker is the closest the game comes to the purity and attrition of Test cricket. On the eve of the 2017/18 Ashes, join us as we bring you the five most epic heads-up encounters of all time

When England lost their first Test match to Australia on home soil in 1882, a satirical obituary for English cricket, written in the Sporting Times, set in motion one of the world’s most epic rivalries.

“In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882…. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
The two teams have contested the Ashes ever since, with the format now set at the best of five Tests – each one a battle of wills over five days, where strategy and feel for your opponent is as important as delivering a killer blow.

The Ashes score is 32 apiece but Australia are the favourites to take the lead at home in the 2017/18 series, which takes place November 23 – January 8. They’re priced at just 1.4 to reclaim the Urn on BetStars, with England a very tempting 4.33. The first Test plays out November 23-27 and if you’re in the UK you’ll have to stay up all night, five days in a row, to watch it.

If you want to build up your endurance in the meantime, check out the longest heads-up battles the poker world has produced. Much like a Test match, deep-stacked heads-up poker is all about feeling out your opponent, and probing for weaknesses, before attempting to land a decisive blow. Unlike Test cricket though, none of these contests were in danger of having rain stop play.

1. Phil Laak v Various
June 2010, Bellagio, Las Vegas

The sporting world has thrown up some incredible feats of endurance. Like the epic tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 2010 that needed three days to complete, with the final set ending 70-68 to Isner.

However, just two weeks before that, a record was set that took place over five days, without play being suspended because of fading light. In fact, when Phil Laak broke the heads-up poker endurance record in Las Vegas, he had played $10/$20 continuously for an astonishing 115 hours – and ended in profit.

Laak_16Nov17.jpgPhil Laak is the king of endurance poker, grinding away for 115 hours in 2010

“The whole thing is surreal on so many levels,” Laak said when he officially made it into the Guinness Book of Records. “On hour 67 I was like jelly, I don’t even have back pain right now.”

If you think that sounds pretty coherent, this is what he said almost immediately after. “I’m connected into the web right now. It’s not a fugue state, it’s something connected, where I’m not as… it’s where you’re open to the focus temple of perception, where you’re just floating with the energy around you and it’s scaring me, I’m not doing anything, all this energy is circling… How can I sleep, do you know what I mean?”

Esfandiari_16Nov17.jpgLongtime best buddy Antonio Esfandiari was there at the conclusion of Laak’s marathon poker session

Key hand: Laak was stuck $17k an hour before breaking the record when Antonio Esfandiari ran his Queens into the iron man’s Aces. They ran it four times, Laak won them all and moved $6,500 into profit.

Time: 115 hours
In real life you could:
Sit in a cricket ground and watch a Test Match from start to finish without leaving your seat

2. John Juanda v Stanislav Alekhin
2008 WSOPE Main Event, London

The final table of the 2008 WSOPE Main Event was brutal. The super-slow structure and experience of the players involved led to the final nine taking an incredible 19 hours and 10 minutes to separate (not including the two-hour dinner break). It’s the longest final table in the history of the WSOP, smashing the previous record in the 2005 $1,500 Razz Championship (which still holds the record for dullest final table ever). It went on for 484 hands – 240 of them played heads-up over seven hours. Juanda eventually toppled Alekhin, with both players clearly exhausted and stressed at the end.

Juanda_16Nov17.jpgJohn Juanda endured an overnight stay at the poker table to secure his WSOPE bracelet

The final table had started at 1.23pm and finished at 10.32am in the morning. Juanda’s secret? He drank English breakfast tea throughout and when asked afterwards how many cups he’d drunk he replied, “about 80”.

Key hand: Alekhin was crippled when Juanda shoved a Kc-Qh-7c flop with K-6. Alekhin snap-called with 4c-3c and although a club would have ended it, it’s the very definition of an ‘I want this to be over one way or another’ call.

Time: 19 hours, 10 mins
In real-life you could: Read Tolstoy’s War and Peace

3. Elliot Smith v Tianyuan Tang
2017 PokerStars Championship, Macau

The spectators at the final table of the third PokerStars Championship didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. The final six players were shaved to two after just two hours, before Smith and Tang bedded in.

In fact once Daniel Laidlaw was eliminated in third, everything took an age. Smith and Tang spent an hour negotiating a deal, eventually settling for a straight HK$2,577,500 chop with HK$300,000 to play for. They then played for about £30k for close to 11 hours, chipping away at each other before Smith ended it with a flip. Talking afterwards Smith said, “It was just a gruelling, gruelling battle.”

Key hand: After almost 11 hours it all came down to a coinflip, but even this was epic, with Tang hitting a set of Sixes on the 6s-9s-7h flop. It wasn’t looking good for Smith’s Ad-Ks until the turn and river delivered two more spades for a trophy-winning flush.

Time: 10 hours, 50 mins
In real life you could: Work a full day in London, commute home, cook and eat dinner.

4. Qui Nguyen v Gordon Vayo
2016 WSOP Main Event, Las Vegas

When the final three returned for the conclusion of the 2016 WSOP Main Event it looked like it was set to be a short day. Cliff Josephy got all his chips in on the first hand with A-Q , but he doubled through chip leader Qui Nguyen. Josephy then got coolered with set-under-set by Gordon Vayo and fell 11 hands later to the same player.

Nguyen_16Nov17.jpgWell, nobody told Qui Nguyen that winning the WSOP Main Event was going to be easy…

Then the war of attrition started. The chip lead flip-flopped for the first hour of play and then it was all Nguyen… except he couldn’t, erm, win, with Vayo surviving three all-ins and playing his short stack like a nitty Phil Hellmuth. He never recovered the chip lead though and eventually fell with J-T v K-T at 3.22am.

Key hand: It could have been done after 45 hands when Nguyen called Vayo’s shove with Kh-9h. Vayo was in front with As-Jd and stayed there on the 8h-5s-3c-Qc-Th board.

Time: Eight hours, 22 mins
In real life you could: Fly from London to San Francisco and still have a few hours left over

5. Chip Reese v Andy Bloch
2006 WSOP $50k HORSE

The much-hyped $50k HORSE event at the 2006 WSOP fittingly delivered a final table for the ages, with Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and TJ Cloutier on one side, and young guns Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey on the other. Antonius and Brunson fell first, before Andy Bloch denied us the ultimate fantasy heads-up between Ivey and Reese.

When Ivey was eliminated in third, few would have predicted the epic encounter that was to follow. The final table was purely NLHE for the fans and spectators, but after seven hours, and at 9am in the morning, only a few stragglers were awake to see Reese wearily raise his hands in triumph. At the time it was the longest heads-up encounter in WSOP history.

Time: Seven hours, 21 mins
In real life you could: Watch the seminal Once Upon a Time in America. Twice.


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