WSOP Rewind: Blind vs. Blind

[This is the first of a series of hand reviews I’ll be doing from the World Series of Poker Main Event. You can watch the full replay of the final table here.]

Play is 4-handed with 500,000/1M blinds and 150,000 antes. Pius Heinz is the small blind and Ben Lamb is the big blind. Heinz and Lamb are the most aggressive players at the table. With Lamb sitting to Heinz’s left, he’ll be the big blind every time Heinz is the small blind. If the other two players fold they’ll find themselves in a heads-up confrontation. This incredibly tense scenario is likely to come up a lot — tense because both players want to claim the money already in the pot, but they’ll rarely have a really strong hand (you simply don’t get dealt premium starting hands very often). Therefore both are likely to risk a lot of chips with marginal or weak holdings. Whoever comes out on top in these confrontations is likely to win the tournament. Lamb is at an advantage because, sitting to Heinz’s left, he’ll have the positional advantage of acting last on every street, but Heinz will fight to at least hold his own.

The hand starts at30:24 in the second segment (11/06 10:30 PM EST).

Staszko (BTN): $23 M

Heinz (SB): $78 M

Lamb (BB): $42 M

Gianetti (CO): $62 M

Pre Flop: ($2.1 M) Heinz is SB with ???

2 folds, Heinz calls $500,000, Lamb raises to $2.7 M, Heinz calls $2.7 M

Flop: ($6 M) T of diamonds J of clubs 7 of spades (2 players)

Heinz bets $3.1 M, Lamb calls $3.1 M

Turn: ($12.2 M) K of diamonds (2 players)

Hero bets $6.3 M, BB folds

The other two players fold to Heinz in the small blind. Heinz limps in, just calling the big blind. Already this is a bit strange. An aggressive player like Heinz would usually raise in this spot if he’s going to play the hand. Merely limping is an invitation to Lamb to raise and seize the initiative. Lamb does indeed raise and Heinz calls.

What sort of hand would Heinz limp-call with? Most likely, a hand that flops pretty well but doesn’t want to get a lot of money in pre-flop. Something like QJ or T9s would make the most sense. By limping instead of raising he avoids getting re-raised and being forced to commit more than he wants to pre-flop. He’s very unlikely to limp-fold, because he knows Lamb will raise frequently and committing an extra 500,000 without getting to see a flop would be awful. Lamb knows this, so when he raises anyway, expecting to get called, he’s more likely than usual to have a strong hand, but as an aggressive player he’s still capable of having almost anything.

The flop comes JT7 and Heinz leads out for half the pot. This flop connects incredibly well with Heinz’s most likely holdings, mid-to-high connected cards. Hands like JT, KJ, or 98s are certainly possible. The commentators observe that we haven’t seen a lot of leading into the pre-flop raiser at the final table, which is true, but it makes sense for Heinz to do so here. If Heinz checks Lamb is likely to check behind frequently, either to control the size of the pot if he has a medium-strength hand like Tx or 7x, or simply to give up if he has nothing. Since Heinz can’t count on Lamb betting, it makes sense for him to lead out both for value and as a bluff. Half the pot has been his standard flop bet-sizing throughout the tournament, so that doesn’t give anything away.

Lamb calls. He’ll probably call at least once with most pairs. Additionally, any two over cards to the board (such as AQ) have a straight draw, so he won’t fold those either. He might also call with a one-card straight draw like A9.

The turn brings the Kd, making the board even more coordinated. Heinz fires again and Lamb folds pretty quickly. There’s an interesting discussion between the two TV commentators on the turn.

Hellmuth: “He must have really hit this flop if he’s going to come out with a big bet here, Antonio, don’t you think?”

Esfandiari: “Well he certainly is saying I hit this flop pretty big, but Heinz is capable of anything, so just because he bets I wouldn’t say he for sure has a hand. I mean…”

Hellmuth: “Of course not. Well just tell me whether you think he has it or not, that’s all.”

This discussion highlights the difference between how Hellmuth thinks about poker and how someone like me thinks about poker. Phil Hellmuth is an old-school tournament player. Most of his experience is at live, not online, poker. He looks into his opponent’s eyes, guesses whether or not he has a hand, and acts accordingly. He’s had a lot of success with this approach over many years. Esfandiari is also primarily a live player, but he’s absorbed more from online players than Hellmuth has. His answer is pretty much what I would say. To Hellmuth, it sounds like equivocation; he thinks about hands in a binary way: either he has it or he doesn’t. Esfandiari (and I) think more in terms of probabilities.

More specifically, I try to think of hands in terms of ranges. A range is all the possible hands someone can have given their actions. Both Hellmuth and Esfandiari miss the central feature of the hand: the flop and turn smashed Heinz’s range for limp-calling pre-flop. Heinz and Lamb are certainly both aware of this.

As it turned out, Heinz had A of hearts 4 of hearts, pretty much a pure bluff. Lamb had A of clubs T of spades. I’m a little surprised Lamb folded with a pair and a straight draw on the turn, but by betting again on the turn Heinz is representing a monster (2 pair+). He’s likely to keep telling this story by making a big bet on the river whether he has it or not. If Lamb calls the turn he’s likely to face a very tough decision on the river, so his decision to bail out immediately isn’t unreasonable.

Ranges are probably the single most important idea in poker strategy, but most poker books never mention this concept. If you understand ranges and how to exploit them you’ll have a big advantage against almost everyone you play against. Heinz won this pot because he knows that when your perceived range is strong you should be more likely to bluff.


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