We’ve seen several Twitter feuds find their way to the poker tables in recent years.
Matt Berkey and Nikhil “Nik Airball” Arcot were the latest two to give their keyboards a rest and let poker do the talking.
Who Is Matt Berkey?
You’re probably more familiar with Berkey than his opponent. Matt has over $4m in tournament earnings and a long history of cash gaming. His longevity and regularity at high stakes mean Berkey has a solid professional player image.
Berkey also runs a coaching site called Solve For Why, offering unique approaches to poker coaching. It includes live poker games where players discuss their thought processes aloud while wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
Some social media personalities recently questioned the credibility of both Berkey and his site. This scepticism was one of the catalysts that led to the challenge, but his longevity would suggest that this is probably in the name of clickbait.
Matt Berkey was advised against battling @nikairball in a high stakes heads-up challenge.— World Poker Tour (@WPT) May 19, 2023
Ultimately, he decided that defending his reputation was worth it.
How did @berkey11 overcome and celebrate his $1 million win?
Find out in our latest Feature! https://t.co/J8QiN7zpwQ
Berkey has shown plenty of fire away from the tables but is usually pretty stoic in-game. This image isn’t reflected in his opponent, who we’ll look at next.
Who Is Nik Airball?
Since he’s relatively new to the scene, there’s not as much known about Nik. According to The Hendon Mob, he only began playing live tournaments a couple of years ago. But he has also been a regular at high-stakes cash tables for a while.
He’s played some questionable hands on-stream, but he’s played some well too. So, it’s hard to say how good he is at poker.
He claims to be “the King of LA poker”. But, in reality, there’s not much to prove that one yet.
Nonetheless, while his skills might not be so obvious, his willingness to ruffle feathers at the tables is. He is a lot like Will Kassouf, waving ‘9 high like a boss’ in front of his opponents a few years ago,
Nik talks a lot of trash at the tables and loves to rub salt in the wounds of those he beats.
🥱🥱🥱— Nik Airball (@nikairball) May 2, 2023
Is 6.5 buy ins a lot in heads up?
Heading back to LA for a bigger game, ain’t no rest for the wicked. pic.twitter.com/TxTpZLxPPy
Along with countless other rub-downs, he’s called Dan “Jungleman” Cates a derogatory name, grabbed chips from his opponents and sat and needled a very timid Buttonclickr after a colossal $870k cooler.
These antics have led to a lot of hate thrown Airball’s way. But, while his behaviour is often quite classless, it’s very effective at getting to his opponents.
Thanks to the challenge, both Nik and Matt became pretty hot names within the poker world. Both were portrayed as pantomime villains by their opponents. It’s safe to say that Berkey’s more established history within poker makes Nik a pretty clear underdog in the match.
With that said, a mutual hatred of Berkey led heads-up boss Doug Polk to announce that he would be ‘helping Airball in this match’ on Twitter. This claim, if true, would have been a huge boost for Nik and his team.
Things kicked off when Airball attacked Berkey and his training site. In an interview with Doug Polk, Nik claimed that Berkey was a ‘scammer’ for running a coaching site when he can’t beat the games himself.
Later, he admitted that this might have been a little harsh and that ‘fraud’ was a more accurate choice of word. As you might expect, Berkey disagreed. Aided by some third-party social media influence, things between the pair heated up pretty quickly.
In one viral clip, the pair were caught in a schoolyard confrontation in the Bellagio, where Berkey squared up to Airball like an angry Earthworm Jim. By this time, the challenge was locked in and ready.
But, in an interview on The Nick Vertucci Show, Airball said that Berkey had initially ducked his offer to play before eventually agreeing to a heads-up match in Vegas.
The terms of the challenge were intriguing too. Both players agreed to play 100 hours at $200/$400, with a $1,000,000 stop loss. So, a player could only pull out if they were down $1m. Ouch!
Was This the New Negreanu vs Polk?
In another challenge a couple of years ago, we saw Negreanu take on Polk, with the latter coming out on top for over $1.2m. With two superstars going to war, this match-up hooked the poker world for months. But the Airball/Berkey challenge was different in a lot of ways.
The most disappointing difference was that the event was not streamed. The community loves to get involved in these rivalries, and it’s a shame we couldn’t see it going down live.
Berkey has been unapologetic in admitting that the challenge is all about taking Nik’s money. And he openly stated that the main reason he didn’t want to stream the event was that giving so much information away would be negative EV for him.
With Polk coaching Airball, this reasoning made sense. But Berkey, his company, and his reputation have been attacked a lot online recently.
Not wanting to give a community that has been so critical of him free entertainment may also have been a factor, especially since Matt rejected Polk’s $100k offer to stream it.
I offered Berkey the carrot, now he gets the stick.— Doug Polk (@DougPolkVids) March 31, 2023
Anyone that bet with me, feel free to cancel our bet if you want.
I wanted to remain neutral in this in case we played it at the Lodge. Given that isnt going to happen, Ill be helping Airball in this match.
There’s probably an element of self-preservation too. Berkey is not a heads-up specialist. So, it’s understandable he would be a little reluctant to have any mistakes broadcast on stream.
As we saw with Robbi Lew, the Twitter trolls are savage. Live streaming would expose his game to a lot of potential criticism, which would be awful PR for his training site.
The calibre of opposition differs from the Polk/Negreanu match too. We saw two accomplished, competitive poker players in action in that challenge.
- Polk was considered one of the best heads-up players in the world.
- Negreanu worked with top coaches to close the skill gap as much as possible.
The Airball/Berkey match-up showed a pro battling an amateur in a format that neither are specialists in playing.
Break #4: Matt +155k— Landon (@LandonTice) April 4, 2023
No hands of note to report, but Matt is sitting at the table while Airball has left.
Secret Meeting/Phone Call??
I will update with total time taken on breaks, but for now I have this clip for you! pic.twitter.com/sxBOmeXJZ1
The attitudes to the challenge are different too. Polk and Negreanu took the whole thing frighteningly seriously. Whereas Berkey claimed that Nik spent most of the challenge playing on his phone and ‘clicking buttons’.
- For Polk and Negreanu, the match was about the purity of poker and testing themselves.
- The Berkey/Airball feud was all about the money for Berkey and “the joy of stacking him” for Nik (or so they say).
When compared to Polk/Negreanu, the whole thing felt less classy.
How It All Went Down
Since we couldn’t follow the action via live stream, we had to rely on third-party reports and hand histories from the players. Several outlets were discussing hands on YouTube, but these tend to feel slightly biased, which is understandable given the context.
Both players have enormous egos, and neither is likely to share hands where they are either running good or playing badly.
Based on the reports of @LandonTice on Twitter, there was a lot of back on forth during the first few days of the challenge. Berkey took a sizeable lead, and Nik turned it around, moving into the black.
The lead wasn’t huge, less than $100k. But this could have been far worse for Berkey, with him running a straight flush into Nik’s royal flush on day 3.
Thankfully for Berkey, the pot was just $30k since he was yet to reload after running into Nik’s nuts in the previous hand!
Nik’s recovery was short-lived, with Berkey up around $670,000 fifty-five hours into the match. In one of his Solve for Why podcasts, he commented on Nik’s poor focus.
He claimed that Airball’s unprofessional attitude amplified a gulf so big that Airball had no chance of turning things around.
HU Match Result: -$1,029,700— Nik Airball (@nikairball) May 7, 2023
Congrats to Berkey. He played well and won the match. I’ll make a longer post in a couple days. ✌🏾
And Berkey was right. After another 5 hours of play, Nik busted, down $1,029,700.
Berkey claimed that the skill gap between them was too big ever to make up. As you might expect, Nik played things down a little bit more.
On Twitter, he dismissed the deficit as a mere 6.5 buy-ins loss. This claim is only technically accurate due to the deep $100k buy-in.
In reality, buy-ins are typically measured in terms of 100bbs, which makes his current losses in the region of 16.75, far more than 6.5.
His attempt to minimise the situation was understandable. But there was speculation that he was now struggling with either cash flow or confidence.
He had paid a $10k fine to cancel one of the most recent sessions.
While it’s no surprise that pro won, it’s worth noting that even the most damning of results can be misleading, especially heads-up where swings can be huge.
The two will unlikely settle their differences away from the tables. But Matt had these decent parting words for the loser:
I honestly think this statement is closer to the real person Nik is at his core than all of the antics reflect. Saw plenty of very small examples of him going out of his way to be kind both with his words and actions.— Matt Berkey (@berkey11) May 9, 2023
Thank you for the apology 🤝 https://t.co/Kjht30eS9d
Good for the Game?
The bizarre thing with these heads-up challenges is that they are often the result of personal vendettas with very little to do with poker. In this case, neither player claimed to be a heads-up regular.
So, what does winning prove? The whole thing feels like duelling pistols at dawn. Winning doesn’t prove you were right, only that you were the better shooter that day.
The whole public name-calling and “heads-up for rolls” drama is essentially childish. But it’s easy to see why people find themselves hopping on the bandwagon.
In his Solve For Why podcast on YouTube, Berkey compared the challenge hype to that of the infamous nosebleed battles on Full Tilt Poker, which is a little ambitious.
While there are some similarities, we can’t watch the hands going down, which takes away from the experience.
Instead, we must rely on second-hand reports to follow proceedings, which is a bit like comparing a newspaper report of the World Cup to being there and watching it.
You’ll get the gist but miss out on all the magic. This difference is where other challenges have had the edge over this one.
Is the drama good for the game?
When all is said and done, grudge matches only impact the people playing and those with a financial investment. Since we can’t see the action, the challenge does little for the poker community.
What it does do is give two players a platform to express themselves. And the value of this will be dictated by if/how they choose to use it.