7 Greatest Ever Poker Fights

On the surface poker might seem like a gentle good-natured game, but the reality is that it is war with money. Good poker requires you to get inside the head of your opponents and batter them into submission. That means that the game can get very personal, and inevitably this has led to some genuine poker fights, even at the highest levels.

poker fights

Although poker looks like a polite social game, we are all prone to tilt at the tables. At its lowest levels tilt can cause us to play a few too many hands or call a bit too much on the river, but at the extremes it can cause us to get very angry. There is no wonder that so many poker brawls happen when the game evokes so many raw emotions.

Tilt is something I am a bit of an expert in, because I have studied for years under mental game coach Jared Tendler, who is the definitive expert on tilt. He identifies seven types of tilt, and one of them in particular perfectly explains why poker can turn into fisticuffs. That would be Revenge Tilt, which is when poker becomes personal.

Revenge Tilt describes the times when you deviate from a winning strategy to specifically try and win money from one particular player. Usually this is a player who seemingly beats you in every pot, or at least got really lucky against you. Revenge Tilt causes you to reraise more often against that player, or stay in hands you shouldn’t be in, in the hopes you get really lucky against them and make them feel the same pain they brought to you.

At its extremes, Revenge Tilt can actually cause you to take the issue away from the poker table and into the boxing ring. Here are some of the most infamous poker player fights:

 

Johnny Moss gets 15-1

Back in the days of the Texas road gamblers, World Series Of Poker Main Event champion Johnny Moss almost died after a poker brawl prop bet.

The legend tells it that one of Johnny's friends bet him that he couldn't beat up a bar room brawler. This guy was big and reported to have a flawless 100-0 bar fight record. Moss was by no means a tough or big man, but took the bet anyway because his friend offered him $15,000 to his $1,000.

Moss jumped his opponent from behind to give himself a fighting chance. The brawler had no idea what was happening, but turned around and promptly beat the snot out of Moss. So badly, in fact, that Moss had to spend two weeks in hospital for broken bones. The beating almost killed him.

The reason I love this story was that Moss didn't even regret the encounter, because although he got hospitalised it was still a good bet to take. “15-to-1 was too good to pass up, I had to take it,” he said after the fight to fellow gambler Puggy Pearson, who visited him in hospital.

 

Sam Grizzle vs Phil Hellmuth

Considering how rude Phil Hellmuth is at the tables, it is amazing that he claims to have only ever been punched once. That was by his arch nemesis Sam Grizzle in 2003.

The story goes that Sam asked Phil to reserve him a seat in a cash game, but when he got to the tables another player had taken his seat. It must have been a particularly good cash game, because this prompted an angry Grizzle to demand Hellmuth meet him outside, where he proceeded to knock Phil out in the parking lot.

Hellmuth is a much bigger man, but Grizzle clearly is as fast with his fists as he is with his mouth, and this video sheds some light on their rivalry:

 

Jeff Lisandro vs Prahlad Friedman

One of the most famous poker player fights took place between Jeff Lisandro and Prahlad Friedman at the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event. Both men were deep in the event and the atmosphere was tense, so when Friedman accused Lisandro of theft, tempers flared.

Friedman called the floor over and suggested that Lisandro has swiped a $5,000 Ante chip when the dealer wasn’t looking. Given that a single Ante was pretty inconsequential at this stage in the tournament, and given that Lisandro has a solid reputation in poker, this was a pretty bizarre accusation.

Things got very heated both on and off the table for the rest of the event.

Last year it was also rumoured that Lisandro exchanged punches with Brandon Cantu at the WSOP, for Cantu’s non-payment of poker debts.

 

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Mike Matusow vs Shawn Sheikhan

There is something about the WSOP Main Event that really gets the blood boiling. It is the biggest tournament of the year after all and huge money is on the line, so there is no wonder things get heated.

Both Mike Matusow and Shawn "Sheiky" Sheikhan are well known for not holding anything back at the best of times, so when they find themselves sat at the same table in the biggest event of the year, this was always going to happen.

It is a cardinal sin of poker to comment on the hand when you are not in it, which is exactly what Sheikhan does when he punches the table, indicating he would have hit the flop, had he stayed in. Mike responded by telling him to ‘shut the fuck up’, and given this was at a time when swearing was banned in the Main Event, Sheikhan reported him to the tournament director to get him served a penalty.

It backfired, however, and both men ended up serving the 10 minute penalty, which hurt Sheikhan much more as he was very short stacked.

 

Gus Hansen vs Theo Jorgensen

All the previous poker player fights listed were of the bar room brawl variety, this next one set the trend for a new wave of fully licensed scraps, with money on the line.

Scandinavian poker legends Gus Hansen and Theo Jorgensen were both firm friends and infamous prop bettors. If they disagreed on something, they would bet on it. This often led to a number of sporting wagers between the two men, including Tennis, Golf, Ping Pong and even the PacMan video game.

Jorgensen was sick of getting beaten by the much more athletic Hansen, so he hatched a plan to beat him once and for all, when he proposed a boxing match.

His plan was to take the match much more seriously than his friend. This started when he purposely bet a low amount (for them) of $35,000 to the winner. Given Hansen’s proclivity for six and seven-figure action, Jorgensen knew his buddy would not be highly motivated by the amount. Jorgensen trained like a demon for five months with a boxing coach, while, just as expected, Hansen took it easy (Though he did have a sparring session with world middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler).

The two met in a Danish sports hall to a packed crowd of friends and poker fans, for three rounds of amateur boxing. The fight itself was ugly, and looked much more of a bar room brawl more than a pugilistic exhibition.

However, the plan paid off. Jorgensen was no Muhammad Ali, but he was beating his friend to the punch with clearer and more effective blows. He won easily in all three rounds with all three judges. The two men remain great friends to this day, and still bet on everything.

 

Lex Veldhuis vs ElkY

That match was the warm up to a much more exciting, entertaining and frankly emotional poker player fight in the squared circle. Dutch pro Lex Veldhuis and French Triple Crown winner Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier were also friends who prop betted together a lot. However, ‘frenemies’ was probably a better way to describe them. Grospellier made an off hand comment one night during a party that he could kick Lex’s ass, and, as is usually the case when poker players disagree, a prop bet was quickly made. This time, however, it would be a kick boxing prop bet.

Both men are well known for making challenging physical prop bets. The benefit of these types of wager is that even if they lose, they get fitter. Both men have made powerlifting and weight loss prop bets together previously, and ElkY cycled from Italy to Monte Carlo for another wager with Eugene Katchalov.

Lex was the clear favourite. Not only had he already had experience in the boxing ring before, he wasn’t averse to the occasional street fight as a kid. ElkY, on the other hand, had never been punched in the face before, and was putting all his stock in training with a world champion kickboxer.

I interviewed Lex before the fight and he explained he felt his opponent was out of his depth:

“I think the fight is gonna have something ElkY has never experienced before, the pressure of someone really wanting to hurt him badly.”

The two men met in an outdoor boxing ring in Marbella, Spain, where they were able to get a license to fight without head guards. Kicks were allowed, except to the groin, with no elbows or headbutts permitted.

Not many people were expecting ElkY to win, which he didn’t, but the poker world was mightily impressed when he was able to get up off the floor and carry on fighting after a solid kick to the head from Lex.

Since then, few people have dared call out Lex (Or ElkY, for that matter), but he clearly would be up for another fight. Just this year Lex has called out Antonio Esfandiari as a potential new kickboxing opponent, who thus far has not responded.

 

The felt meets the squared circle

Since ElkY and Lex duked it out, it has inspired even more poker pros to make similar wagers, but few have materialised. Andrew Robl tried and failed to make several mixed martial arts prop bets. One against Sorel Mizzi and another against JC Alvarado, but in both cases injuries called them off. 

One of the most unlikely of the poker players fights (which didn’t happen) was an MMA match between Daniel Cates and Andrew Feldman. Neither man is what you would consider athletic, and in particular neither of them you would particularly worry about if they started making threatening behaviour towards you. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when that never happened.

One poker player you really would not want to bet against in the ring is Terrence Chan. Unlike his peers he chose not to fight another, inexperienced, poker player in the ring but a genuine professional fighter. That is because Chan became a fully-fledged MMA fighter in 2012, mixing his time between playing poker games and competing in the octagon. He won his debut fight against Alex Lee by armbar submission in the second round.

Poker fighting bets are not just a male domain. EPT champion Liv Boeree fought poker TV hostess Melissa Castello in Vegas during the WSOP in an amateur boxing match. It was a good-natured affair, which Boeree won over three rounds, donating the winnings to charity.

 

As long as there is money, there will be fights

There have been countless more poker brawls at and away from the tables. They are probably an inevitable part of the game for two reasons:

First of all, to once again quote my friend Jared Tendler, losing money always hurts in poker because it is always about more than just the money. Money represents something in your identity – it could be your self worth, your future ambitions, your ability to feed your family or just a car you really want. When another player takes your money, you feel threatened in an evolutionary sense. At the extremes, there is no wonder this can blow up to a fully fledge poker fight.

As Lex explained to me, without the money, there wouldn’t be the motivation to fight:

“It would change a lot, not because I want the money, but because it has to hurt. When I play poker if it doesn’t hurt I can’t play my A game. I am genuinely convinced I play my A game when my whole bankroll is on the table. Financially you can always bring pain to someone, that's why money will always be involved, sometimes honour is not enough. Like with our kickboxing bet, there is no dishonour in competing and losing, you add money to add more pain.”

Secondly, poker has the great argument settler, the prop bet. You simply cannot argue with a poker player for too long, because they will ask you to put your money where your mouth is. It is hard to stop two people trying to kick each others’ ass when they are also financially incentivised to do it (And also potentially get in great shape training for it).

 

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Who would you like to see duke it out in the poker world? Who do you think is the toughest professional poker player? Who do you think is the wimpiest? Can there be fights in online poker tournaments? Let me know in the comments!

 


Barry CarterBarry Carter is the editor of PokerStrategy.com and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. He has been working in the poker industry for almost ten years as a writer but is still primarily a poker player at heart. Barry has spent the last five years working alongside renowned mental game coach Jared Tendler, which is why is why you will often see a lot of unique perspectives from the world of psychology in his writing.


 

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