Last night’s Colossus final table came to a sudden and shocking end in Hand #126 when, with the chips split nearly evenly and a huge pot building, Brad McFarland tried a check-shove river bluff against his heads-up opponent, Cord Garcia. It was a bold move, but his timing couldn’t have been any worse, as Garcia turned out to have a full house and just about the easiest call for a quarter-million dollars that a player could hope for.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the hand is how out of the blue it seemed in comparison with the play up to that point. The two had played only a little over a dozen hands since Ray Henson was eliminated in 3rd place, but based on those hands it looked like both players were planning on playing a patient, small-ball game; only a little over half of the hands had even made it to a flop, and at no point had we seen more than two streets of aggression before someone gave up or the pot was checked down.
Within that context, McFarland’s decision to call down to the river with Ace high, then stake the entire match on a bluff seemed pretty reckless, perhaps even crazy. If you take it street by street, however, and look at the hand from McFarland’s perspective, it’s not so hard to see why he played the way he did.
Preflop, McFarland was in the big blind, holding the Ace of Diamonds and Eight of Hearts. That’s a pretty good hand for heads-up play. Garcia, on the button, opened the action with a bet of 3 million, or 3 big blinds. Although a 3x raise is unusually large for heads-up play at the end of a tournament these days, it was standard for Garcia, who professes not to like the modern tendency to raise the minimum.
McFarland flat called.
Although A8 is certainly well ahead of almost anyone’s heads-up opening range, it’s not a hand that plays well postflop, especially not out of position. Thus, although 3-betting for value may seem tempting, it’s likely to lead to unpleasant postflop decisions if a continuation bet fails to take down the pot, especially with stacks of around 55 big blinds, which is what they had. Furthermore, he would have to let it go if Garcia 4-bet, but it hurts to throw away a hand as good as A8 preflop when you’re heads up.
All these factors considered, flat call seems like the best move.
The board came out 4-Q-2 with two Diamonds. Although largely a whiff for McFarland, it did give him a backdoor nut flush draw, and only one card – the Queen – was likely to have hit Garcia’s opening range.
McFarland checked, Garcia bet 4.1 million, or about 2/3 pot, and McFarland called.
Some players like to lead out on these flops which are unlikely to have hit the preflop raiser, but that’s generally an amateurish and exploitable move, especially with a hand like Ace High, which is likely ahead of most of the opponent’s air hands.
Garcia would be unlikely to fold any pair or even a better Ace high, and if he did call with worse, it would be with the plan of outplaying McFarland on a later street. The same argument would apply to a check-raise, so neither of these lines would be standard here.
If betting and check-raising are out, that leaves check-calling or check-folding. As we’ve said, it’s a flop that would have missed Garcia pretty often, but also one on which he’d be continuation betting a fair bit. Even out of position, A8 has enough equity in this situation that folding to one bet would be extremely tight, probably too tight; the back door flush draw partially compensates for being out of position as well, as it makes him a lot more likely to pick up additional equity on the turn.
So, once again, I think McFarland played it just right with a check-call.
The turn was the 2 of Clubs. Neither player would be expecting the other to have very many Deuces in his range given the 3x preflop raise, so despite pairing the board, this would appear to McFarland as just about a total blank.
Garcia bet again, and again he sized his bet quite large, around 60% of the pot. McFarland called and I think if you want to make the case that he played the hand badly, this is where you’d have to make it.
After all, the Deuce seemed not to change much, yet Garcia was continuing to bet. McFarland had called the flop on the basis that his hand beat all of Garcia’s air hands, but for Ace High to remain good now, he would have to believe that Garcia would two-barrel with air. Conventional wisdom is not to multi-barrel when a blank falls, because since nothing has changed, if the opponent thought his hand was worth a call the last time, probably he still thinks it is. That would suggest that to be betting again, Garcia should have a hand with some showdown equity, and almost everything with equity is ahead of McFarland.
But this is where we get into the inevitable leveling war that happens in the late stages of tournaments. McFarland should have a lot of mediocre Aces in his preflop flatting range. He should likewise be flatting most of those on the flop. If those Ace Highs make up a big part of his range on the turn, and the “correct” thing to do with them is to fold to a second bet, then suddenly it makes sense for Garcia to barrel on blank turns, especially given both players’ image.
From that perspective, I think you can make a case for calling the turn. The trouble with that, though, is anticipating what Garcia will do on various rivers, and having an appropriate plan. Check-calling a third time would seem like lighting money on fire, but if Garcia was capable of firing two bullets with air, might he not fire a third time on a blank river?
McFarland couldn’t raise to avoid this situation, because there’s no credible reason that he would check-raise this turn with a Queen or better. If you’re not raising your value hands in a given spot, you can’t raise as a bluff either.
Personally, I think in McFarland’s shoes, I would have reluctantly folded the turn because so many rivers are going to be tough to play unless Garcia obligingly checks back. I’d be curious to know whether he was planning on check-calling, check-folding or check-shoving a blank river, but the way things actually happened, we’ll never know.
The river brought the Seven of Diamonds – a flush card. Although the blank turn had killed McFarland’s hopes of a backdoor flush, his Ace of Diamonds remained relevant because of exactly this possibility: he was now holding a blocker to the nut flush.
Garcia made yet another bet, an even larger one this time at around 70% of the pot. Since river bets are generally sized a bit smaller than other streets, this appeared very large indeed.
McFarland went all-in, probably to the surprise of most people watching. No one was more surprised than he was, though, when Garcia snap called. To understand why McFarland tried this bluff, though, we have to think about what Garcia could have.
Bluffs were still possible, but McFarland could no longer assume he could beat a bluff. He could still beat total airballs, but with McFarland having called two streets, it would now be possible for Garcia to be turning some small pocket pairs, maybe even better Ace Highs into bluffs, because it would look quite a bit to him like McFarland could have some kind of marginal pair – a bad Queen, A4, maybe a small pocket pair of his own.
At the same time, it would be possible – though unconventional – for Garcia to be making a merged-range value play with a hand like Ace-Queen or pocket Kings or Aces, putting McFarland on a marginal Queen and hoping to get called by representing a bluff.
Between these two possibilities, there could plausibly be a lot of hands in Garcia’s range that beat McFarland’s Ace, but would fold to a shove. What about hands that wouldn’t fold?
With the Ace of Diamonds in McFarland’s hand and the Queen on board, there simply weren’t very many large flushes Garcia could have. Certainly, something like King-Jack or Jack-Ten of Diamonds would be possible, but specific suited combinations like these are quite rare. There’s also the possibility that Garcia would have checked back some flush draws on the turn for the free card, rather than barreling with them. Finally, it’s even somewhat possible that Garcia could decide to fold some smaller flushes to a shove, what with the paired board and the fact that McFarland could credibly have either the nut flush or a slowplayed set the way the hand played out.
What about full houses? Garcia wasn’t likely to have a Deuce, so the only boats in his range would be sets. Queens could probably be ruled out – holding QQ on a Q422 board, Garcia would feel he was blocking most hands he could get value from, and would likely have slowed down. So, that would leave 44 or maybe 77.
Taking all of that into consideration, it seems like McFarland’s check-shove was a move that you would expect to work a fairly large percentage of the time, taking down the pot every time Garcia was turning a weak hand into a bluff or merging with a big pair, and perhaps even pushing him off a baby flush. A big flush, 44 or 77 would spell disaster for McFarland, but these should be only a small part of his range.
The Fours were perhaps the most likely of these possibilities, and unfortunately for McFarland, that’s exactly what Garcia had. There was no chance of him folding the full house, losing only to 77 and QQ, so before McFarland could blink, his tournament was over. Still, I don’t think the river shove can be faulted at all. If McFarland made a mistake, it was on the turn.
McFarland’s not the only one
It’s interesting to note that McFarland’s line not only makes sense, but isn’t even unique at this year’s WSOP. A very similar hand played out at the final table of Event #4: $3000 No-Limit Hold’em Shootout.
The hand in question was only the 7th at the final table, and involved David Peters and Loni Harwood. The main differences in that hand were that it wasn’t heads-up, Harwood was in position rather than out, and she did not have the nut flush blocker.
Peters raised from early position and Harwood called him from middle position. He made a continuation bet on an 8-2-2 rainbow flop, and she called him with Ace-Queen high. The turn and river brought running Diamonds – the Ten and Five, respectively – with Peters betting the whole way. Like McFarland, Harwood opted to turn her Ace High into a bluff on the river by moving all-in over Peters’s bet, but he turned out to have pocket Tens, for a turned full house.
I think Harwood’s line was a little more questionable than McFarland’s, but the basic thinking appears to be the same. Peters’s river range contains both some bluffs that Harwood can’t beat, and some merged-range value, both of which she can make fold, while there are only a few hands he can have which would call – nut flushes here, plus the Tens he was actually holding.
As the overall quality of play gets higher and higher in Hold’em, more and more sophisticated plays show up even at the lowest stakes. Still, turning marginal hands into bluffs is one of the few professional moves that doesn’t appear very often in the amateur’s playbook – at least, not deliberately. I think that a large part of that is that amateur poker players are afraid of looking stupid and, as both McFarland and Harwood have demonstrated, that’s one move that really does end up looking stupid when it doesn’t work… at least to those who aren’t thinking things through in the same way.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.