Small-Pot Poker, with some Controversial Play
Recently, I saw the tape from the final table where I won my 11th bracelet. I remember how special that day was for me, and how remarkably the No. 11 influenced the occasion. First of all, I was going for my 11th World Series of Poker win. Second, the final table was held on June 11, 2007. And finally, my younger sister Molly, for whom the bracelet was promised years earlier, entered the world on 11/11/1971. Of course, Molly sent an e-mail to remind me that I was destined to win because of all of those elevens. Thanks, Molly — that e-mail helped me believe I would win. (It was kinda freaky.) That 11th bracelet now resides in New York City, in Molly’s home.
While I was watching the tape, I noticed an interesting hand, one that commentator Robert Williamson said I had played poorly. But here’s my take: Rick Fuller was the chip leader with $1.6 million, and I was a close second with $1.5 million. With a nine-handed table, the blinds at $15,000 to $30,000 and a $4,000-a-man ante, I opened for $90,000 with A-J. Fuller studied a while with Ks-8s and I said, “Rick, don’t make me call you down for a million when I know I have you beat!” Then Fuller called with his Ks-8s, and everyone else folded. The flop came down As-9h-5s. I had flopped top pair, and Fuller had flopped the nut-flush draw. I checked, and then Fuller checked. On the turn, the Jd hit, and I bet out $50,000 with my top two pair. Fuller raised it up, making it $150,000 to go. I called, which led Williamson to say, “That was a bad call; Phil should have reraised it there.” When the river fell Kh, I bet out $200,000, and Fuller, who hadn’t hit his flush draw, folded.
What happened in this hand? Did I misplay it? I liked my pre-flop raise of $90,000, but I didn’t like Fuller’s call with Ks-8s. Why call with this hand, especially against me? It’s too hard to win a big pot, and too easy to lose a medium-sized one (like on a J-8-2-4-6 board). It’s just not the kind of hand that you would want to play for a raise. I liked my check on the flop. If I had bet out, then it would have been hard for me to call a raise later. I liked Fuller’s check on the flop as well. Why not take a free card? If Fuller did bet there, and I raised it up, then he would be hard-pressed to fold his hand. And why put a lot of chips into the pot on a draw?
On the turn, I made a little “floater bet” of $50,000 into a pot of around $200,000. With that bet, I was hoping for two things: First, that Fuller was drawing dead; and second, that he would think I was weak. Of course, if Fuller thought I was weak, then he would most likely call or raise it up with a weaker hand, or even a bluff. Another virtue of the $50,000 bet: If Fuller did have trips, I would be potentially minimizing my loss in this hand. I didn’t mind Fuller’s $100,000 raise, but I would like to have seen him just call the $50,000 bet. Although his raise did give him the chance to win the pot, it also gave me a chance to reraise and force him to fold his hand. OK, my $100,000 call here was a bit weird, and Williamson called it a bad play.
I give Williamson these two points: First, traditionally, a call here is a bad play. I mean, top two pair is a super-strong hand, and you have a chance to win a huge pot, or drive a player with a flush draw out of the pot. Second, if I knew that Fuller was on a draw, then I would have reraised it, since I would have wanted to charge him for drawing to his flush, or just force him to fold. My two counterpoints are these: First, by just calling, I give my opponent a chance to lose more money to me if he’s holding one pair — say, A-8, A-10 or A-2 — when I smooth call the $100,000 and then bet out on the river. Second, and more importantly, is that I give myself another “life” this way (remember that Fuller had me covered here) if I lose the pot. More life if I’m beat, when my opponent has trips, or if he does have a big draw and gambles with it (and hits). Think about it: If I reraise and my opponent has trips, I’m out of the tournament when I’m forced to call his all-in reraise. Similarly, if I reraise, and my opponent has a drawing hand and he moves all-in, then I would call all-in too, and I would be at risk of going broke (if he completes his draw). So I just called to avoid the remote possibility of going broke, because I thought I could safely move up to first or second place without risking all of my chips in one pot.
Was I playing too safe? Is Williamson right? Yes, for the vast majority of the world, a call there is the wrong play. But for me, with the knowledge I’ve accumulated in 25 years, I like the call.
Going to lengths to avoid moving all-in:
A) Is very conservative.
B) Gives you a lot of lives.
C) May be a bad play for most players.
D) All of the above.