Covering live poker tournaments for a living affords me the opportunity to see countless thousands of hands played out, many of which offer interesting and potentially valuable insights into how players — both amateurs and professionals — play the game. In this ongoing series, I'll highlight hands I've seen at the tournaments I've covered and see if we can glean anything useful from them.
It's back to the World Series of Poker for another hand this week, but this time, we're looking at a hand from the most prestigious tournament of all, the $10,000 Main Event.
Forgive the author for not having all of the details all the way down, but the concepts here still apply. This hand didn't appear on a live stream or in any coverage, but it was one I witnessed while sweating a friend at a nearby table. It was Level 9 (600/1,200/200), and the party of note was WSOP bracelet holder and World Poker Tour champion Keven Stammen.
Stammen, with around 200,000 in his stack, had a raise in the neighborhood of 3,000 in front of him in the cutoff, and an opponent in the small blind put in a three-bet of about 8,000. Stammen came back with a four-bet to a little over 19,000, and his opponent, who had around 80,000 to start the hand, called.
The flop came and both players checked. Check-check again on a turn, then a completed the community cards. The small blind fired out about 25,000, and Stammen quickly called. His opponent showed for a straight, and Stammen mucked face-up.
Concept and Analysis
Although the player in the small blind won this hand, it's a really good example of why playing marginal hands against good players can often be a losing proposition.
If he thinks Stammen is raising really light from the cutoff, he can three-bet for value in theory, although whether Stammen would call with worse is another question entirely. However, Stammen puts in the four-bet with aces. The player in the small blind is now faced with a raise that signals a lot of strength from a good player who has position.
Shoving is certainly an option as a bluff, as that would chase Stammen off of all of his light four-bets and win a pretty sizable pot. But nobody wants to go home with a Main Event story that ends in jamming king-high and running into aces for a ton of big blinds. Between calling and folding, the latter seems like the better play by far.
If Stammen is bluffing with air, he's still probably got decent equity against king-high, position, and the betting lead. If Stammen has what his betting says he has, he has position, a way better hand, and the ability to play his hand well postflop. For his opponent, it's just not a good situation in which to be getting speculative.
And the postflop action bears out why. Stammen ends up checking it down and probably costing himself the pot as a flop bet would have most likely won it. But seeing a flop of and holding aces, it's going to be really tough for most of your opponent's hands to catch up. Stammen likely figured he was up against two outs at most, so why not see if he can induce a bluff from a hand drawing thin?
Unfortunately from his point-of-view, both the turn and the river aren't the best of cards if you think your opponent has big pairs in his range for three-betting and then calling a four-bet. So Stammen ends up just calling on the river and dropping a good-sized pot.
Consider, though, that the small blind got almost the best possible board, where he had nearly the nuts. And he was up against the top of Stammen's range. Given that those two things both were true, and he still didn't even get a full double in a four-bet pot.
That illustrates one reason why it's so tough to play marginal hands against good players. They won't always pay you off big when you hit gin, and that's exactly what happened here.