“This guy is a raving lunatic,” said commentator Nick Schulman about the self-anointed King of LA, poker’s newest bad boy Nikhil Arcot as he downed his umpteenth glass of Pinot Noir during a tumultuous seven hours in the PokerGO studio.
Nik ‘Airball,’ as Arcot is better known, brought his signature smack-talk and rowdiness to proceedings from the get-go but as the wine took its toll, his schtick disintegrated into naked bravado and idiocy. It was noteworthy that his goader and cheerleader Doug Polk and Lynne Ji eventually stopped egging him on as it became apparent that he was off the rails, a dancing, shouting, burping buffoon.
Poker for the ‘Love Is Blind’ generation
It was a glorious circus and an inglorious horror show, compelling viewing that revealed the worst of poker. It was not just madness but the cause of madness in others. It was poker for the ‘Love Is Blind’ generation except it was the audience that wanted to pluck out their eyes.
Needless to say, poker is a competitive endeavor and with competition comes rivalry and with rivalry sometimes you get genuine animosity between players. Poker players are a diverse bunch, coming from all walks of life with a variety of world views so, off the felt, there is probably more conflict than you would find in other communities too.
Right now, it does feel like we are more polarized than ever before with arguments and disagreements between members of the community receiving more attention than the actual playing of the game we all love. These beefs dominate poker Twitter, occasionally spilling over to the felt.
Whether it is real beef or manufactured beef, shows like Hustler’s ‘Max-Pain Monday’ have leaned into the professional wrestling model, accentuating the pre-game verbal altercations to spice up the eventual on-felt activities. The concern is, however, that while conflict is certainly the key to riveting drama, it can also put off a lot of people.
there are a lot of people who are intimidated by the obnoxious carry-on”
My fellow Vegas Slots Online News contributor Dara O’Kearney is fed up of the “for clicks” justification. In an upcoming episode of ‘The Chip Race,’ he says “this sort of behavior might encourage people to watch poker but I don’t think it makes many want to play it. I know from personal experience of coaching students that there are a lot of people who are intimidated by the obnoxious carry-on. Worryingly, this group trends heavily towards demographics already underrepresented live, like females.”
Negreanu’s beefs cost him millions
Historically, one of the biggest poker beefs was between two of the games biggest content creators, veteran Daniel Negreanu and heads-up specialist Doug Polk. In July 2020, Negreanu finally had enough of Polk’s relentless jibes and accepted a challenge to play him heads-up. Seven months later, Polk had learned an important lesson about the price of trolling as he backed up the truck to the tune of $1.2m.
Negreanu may have lost a chunk of money but, in taking on Polk, he learned a lot about the modern game. He was keen to demonstrate those new skills by reigniting an old rivalry with Phil Hellmuth. ‘The Poker Brat’ obliged and a rejuvenated Negreanu had his fish on the hook for a High Stakes Dual.
The build-up involved a lot of boisterousness as Negreanu relentlessly criticized his rival’s belief in ‘white magic’ and questioned his record against tougher opposition. “On the major league high roller circuit, he cannot win,” said Negreanu, adding: “He may have been a GOAT of his era, but that era is long gone.” Negreanu also boasted of the additional side action he was taking on himself in the match.
Hellmuth won 3-0 for a $350,000 combined win
In response, Hellmuth was cordial, respectful and complimentary of Negreanu and when the matches finally took place between March and June 2021, Hellmuth won 3:0 for a $350,000 combined win. “Where’s the window, baby?” said an almost giggly Phil Hellmuth, after completing the High Stakes Dual II whitewash.
A World’s Fair of grudge matches
Other famous poker feuds include those between Polk and Charlie Carrel, Polk and Fernando ‘JNandez,’ Habegger and, more recently, Polk and Matt Berkey. There is also plenty of friction between Berkey and Nik Airball, Berkey and Ji, and Berkey and Eric Persson. It is against that backdrop that a live High Stakes Poker line-up was concocted by PokerGO Director of Programming Brett Hanks.
On April 17th, Schulman took to Twitter to break the news:
Billed as the World’s Fair of grudge matches, PokerGO had a hunch how things might go:
On Thursday night, Jean-Robert Bellande, Rob Yong, and Jennifer Tilly took their seats alongside the potentially explosive quintet of Polk, Persson, Ji, Berkey and Nik Airball. It was a tinderbox but some speculated that, in person, the players would adopt a more civil tone. Those thoughts were quickly cast aside when Berkey and Nik Airball clashed during the first orbit.
Airball versus Berkey
Nik Airball is an investment banker and regular in The Hustler Casino Live cash game. He has risen to prominence in the past year for his brash and rambunctious demeanour and, more recently, thanks to an appearance on Doug Polk’s podcast on which he called Berkey a scammer.
“When you run a training site and you can’t beat the games, you’re a scammer. You’re selling bullshit.
It just is what it is, you’re a scam artist.”
It was spurious reasoning from Nik Airball whose sense of entitlement seemingly extends to the idea that poker players should just drop whatever they are doing and travel to LA to play him when he hollers. The whole incident wreaked of clout-chasing but in the end, Berkey took the bait, albeit under his own revised terms.
Berkey offered to play Airball at the Bellagio at stakes of $200/400 every day for a month. Polk then offered himself as a replacement to which Berkey replied:
“We’ll roll the red carpet out for you to come play full ring you washed up geezer. No one ever has nor ever will duck you in ring games. Stay in your lane.”
The fighting talk continued and after trading several more barbs on podcasts and on Twitter, the two combatants finally decided on a heads-up ‘death-match.’ They also mutually agreed on an arbitrator for future disputes.
Run It Once founder Phil Galfond was asked to perform in the unenviable position of arbitrator for the grudge match. One of his first mediations was a potential deal-breaker for Berkey, who refused to allow Nik Airball to have his friend Eshaan Bhalla on the rail. Galfond shared to Twitter how the negotiations were going:
After that issue was resolved, Galfond posted that the pair had agreed on a 100-hour match at stakes of $200/$400-$400 with a $100k minimum buy-in. They would play three sessions per week with 6.5 hours per session. Either player can quit if down $1m and there would be a $10,000 penalty for a missed session or quitting early. The match began on April 2 but not before the pair went toe to toe for a bizarre weigh-in of sorts:
Since then, there have been several more disputes over Nik Airball’s egregious break-taking and Berkey exposing hands at showdown. However, all in all, Galfond seems to be keeping the match on track. At the half-way point, Berkey is up $306,800 as the two combatants took their rivalry to a different location and a wider audience.
Shots fired early on High Stakes Poker
PokerGO aired seven hours of poker pantomime but it only took a few minutes to witness a clash between Berkey and Nik Airball. The former set his trap, limping blind versus blind with pocket aces only to fall into that trap himself when the latter made a flush on the river. A $100,000 stack was shipped to Nik Airball but not quickly enough for his liking:
Although keen to participate in all of the banter going on, Polk who has been helping Nik Airball in his grudge match, was somewhat restrained when it came to Berkey. Polk insisted that he had nothing personal against him but rather his issues stemmed from how Berkey had negatively mischaracterized aspects of his new card club ‘The Lodge.’
For his part, Berkey mostly blanked Polk and the incessant cackling from Nik Airball and Ji. He was very much dialed into the poker, although on a Twitter Spaces after the session, he made it abundantly clear that his issues with Polk are personal, saying: “I really despise him.”
Drinks flowing, pots growing
As the night wore on, the drinks were flowing and the pots were growing. The deck served up some coolers as Tilly lost a few but then took a chunky one off Berkey. Then Yong and later Persson took big ones off Polk. Bellande bled all night until getting lucky with pocket Sixes versus Nik Airball’s pocket Aces in the final orbit.
Doug realized that he might on the wrong side of history
While the chips were certainly flying, it’s fair to say that the real story to emerge was the degeneracy of Nik Airball who was loud and obnoxious, badgering his opponents at every turn. As he got messier, it seemed as if perhaps Doug realized that he might on the wrong side of history:
The session ended on a rather bizarre note with Nik Airball losing an unnecessarily large pot to the always classy Tilly but not before he wasted eight full minutes tanking whether he would call off another $87,000 with a deuce-high flush draw. Throughout the spot, it was unclear whether he had misread his hand or if he was genuinely considering a moment of madness. In any case, the clock was called by a clearly unimpressed Polk and a line was finally drawn under the torrid affair.
A few weeks ago, Vanessa Kade said: “Twitter has been such a terrible shit-show this week” and when I saw that I thought ‘what an evergreen tweet.’ The level of discourse has devolved into something more resembling school yard exchanges between people who should know better and it is unclear whether this episode of High Stakes Poker was either an extension of that or a lancing of that boil.
The next morning, Polk expressed the dilemma facing livestream creators as it is undeniable that there were people who enjoyed the stream and people who were repulsed by the stream but rubbernecked it regardless:
In that segment for ‘The Chip Race,’ O’Kearney follows up by saying: “I do my best to dispel the idea that everyone who plays live is an asshole but it’s swimming against the current of all this supposed content.”
My own take is there is probably space for all types of poker streams, including this one, but it was disappointing to see an esteemed show like High Stakes Poker sully it’s brand by embracing the values of ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’ It is sadder still to think that PokerGO believed that they needed to co-opt the professional wrestling model to compete with the likes of Hustler Live.
In WWE wrestling, the storylines are written and the wrestlers are actors. In that sense, they follow the script and get paid for their performances. In live stream poker, however, the players are risking theirs and sometimes other people’s money while also playing the game within the game. The goal of that secondary game is achieving poker notoriety which can also bring supplementary revenue streams but is also desired by many in and of itself.
everyone involved in today’s high profile poker beefs has something to sell
It cannot be ignored that pretty much everyone involved in today’s high profile poker beefs has something to sell. It also cannot be ignored that the livestream producers also have a product to sell. The issue is whether those objectives run in line with or afoul of the broader goal of selling poker to a wider audience.
For better or worse, this episode of High Stakes Poker has brought eyeballs to poker. The question remains whether it will put bums on cash game seats or if it has just cast us as a bunch of dickish high-schoolers and fame-hungry wannabe reality TV stars with whom nobody would want to spend their recreational time.