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Shoving Small Pairs in Tournaments: Is There Fold Equity?

Neil Blumenfield


  • A look at a key decision the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event final table.

  • When short-stacked late in a tournament, consider your fold equity before shoving with a small pair.

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.

The Scene

The moment the whole poker world has spent months anticipating finally arrived, as the November Nine convened to determine who would take the mantle from Martin Jacobson as the world champion of poker. Like most everyone else, I watched the majority of the coverage.

On the third day of competition, appropriately, three players remained, but Neil Blumenfield found himself short as the night wound on. He had just 12,125,000 left during Level 39 (blinds 500,000/1,000,000, ante 150,000) when Hand #172 went down.

The Action

Josh Beckley (with just over 39 million to begin) opened for a min-raise on the button, then Joe McKeehen, who had a monstrous stack of more than 141 million, three-bet to 5.4 million from the small blind. Action moved to Blumenfield who quickly announced he was reraising all in. Beckley mucked right away, but McKeehen snap-called.

McKeehen: {q-Spades}{q-Hearts}
Blumenfield: {2-Hearts}{2-Diamonds}

Blumenfield needed a deuce to keep his Main Event dream alive. None appeared as the board ran out {7-Hearts}{4-Clubs}{10-Hearts}{4-Spades}{k-Spades}, sending Blumenfield to the rail in third place for a prize just short of $3.4 million.

Concept and Analysis

This hand starts normally enough with a min-raise from Beckley on the button (who incidentally had {A-Spades}{7-Diamonds}). Beckley raises knowing Blumenfield is under massive pressure with just a little more than 12 big blinds to start the hand.

McKeehen then reraises with pocket queens. He could theoretically be three-betting with a lot of hands, knowing he has huge leverage on Beckley since his stack of about 39 big blinds means he’s tantalizingly close to being heads up for the biggest prize in poker since Blumenfield’s so short.

Possibly taking this into account, Blumenfield decides to push all in with deuces. Beckley folded. McKeehen, as we know, had the goods, and called right away with queens.

Having 12 big blinds left three-handed is not a comfortable spot in which to be, since you’re in the blinds more often than not at that point. Even with two-hour levels in the Main Event’s outstanding structure, this is a situation that calls for a pretty desperate mindset.

Still, let’s look at the math behind this shove. Beckley opened for 2 million, and McKeehen made it 5.4 million. Blumenfield’s shove was for about 12 million, and with the antes that makes a pot of roughly 20 million when action gets back to McKeehen to call or fold. He needed to call about 6.6 million, so he was getting right around 3-to-1 on a call.

In that scenario, there’s almost nothing McKeehen can fold. Equity-wise, small pairs are usually about even money or they’re big underdogs if the opponent has a bigger pair. Shoving them when you’re short is usually fine, but when your opponent is priced into a call, it’s not a good situation. Because the small pairs are almost never far ahead, fold equity is an important part of their value.

Of all the November Niners, I thought Blumenfield had one of the more impressive performances at the final table. He showed a willingness to play for the win that seemed to hold some other players back. However, in this hand he would have been better off folding and waiting for a spot to shove where he had fold equity.

Of course, it proved to be Blumenfield’s undoing, and as we know, McKeehen went on to become the world champion of poker after defeating Beckley heads-up.

*Photo courtesy of Jamie Thompson/888poker.

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