A very odd hand just went down at the final table of World Series of Poker Europe Event #6 – €3,250 No-Limit Hold’em, between Farid Jattin and Mario Lopez. It’s one that almost certainly should have ended in Jattin’s elimination just based on the players’ starting hands, but somehow that result was avoided due to some pretty unorthodox play by both players.

Five players remained in the tournament, with Jattin one of three short stacks with around 380,000 chips (19 BB). Lopez, meanwhile, was virtually tied for the chip lead with Pavlos Xanthopoulos, with around 1,400,000 (70 BB).

Lopez, under the gun, was dealt pocket Jacks, and opened for 42,000, just a hair more than a minimum raise. Jattin, on the Button, looked down at a pair of Sevens. Twentyish big blinds is of course an archetypical restealing stack size, and middle pocket pairs are likewise a very standard restealing hand. Holding Sevens in late position, then, and facing a standard raise, you would expect most players, in Jattin’s position, to pretty quickly ship their stack into the middle and hope either to get a fold or to win the presumed coin flip.

Instead, after some thought, Jattin decided just to call. It was a somewhat surprising decision, although not unheard of, but on the flop is where things got very weird. The dealer burned the requisite card, then flipped up the Ten of Hearts, along with a Three and Deuce of Spades. This was of course a fairly ideal flop for both players’ hands – Lopez ended up with an overpair, while Jattin had to expect at least one overcard to his Sevens, and a Ten was certainly among the more harmless ones he could have seen.

Instead of continuation betting, however, Lopez opted to check. Jattin, on the other hand, was willing to fire off a bet, for another 42,000. Lopez called.

The turn was the Six of Clubs, a nearly perfect blank as neither player would be likely to have 5-4 for a straight. The pot was now over 200,000 chips, and Jattin had only about 300,000 behind, continuing to make an eventual all-in seem likely. Once again, though, Lopez checked, and this time Jattin checked back.

The river was another blank, the Three of Hearts. Amazingly, both players checked yet again; that meant that Lopez’s Jacks were good to drag the pot, but Jattin, despite starting the hand below 20 blinds and being dealt what was effectively a cooler hand, somehow escaped with about three-quarters of his stack intact.

Baffled commentators, outrage in Twitch chat

The Twitch stream of the final table is being commented by the usual David Tuchman, joined today by Matt Matros. Neither had any explanation for what they had just seen, except perhaps that both players felt they had some sort of live read on the other that his opponent was very strong. If both felt sure that they were on the wrong side of a cooler, that could be one explanation for their play, but especially for Lopez, it would surely take a very strong read to just call one bet with an overpair, then check down the rest of the hand.

The hand in question was the last before break, and Tuchman and Matros were joined by Brian Hastings after the break. Although they brought up the hand again, neither had any better idea what they’d just seen than they’d had before the break, and Hastings had to admit he was as baffled as they were.

Many of the Twitch viewers, on the other hand, had a much less charitable view of the situation, responding with cries of collusion and soft play. To their credit, the commentators initially opted to ignore these accusations out of respect for the players, but the speculation continued for over an hour, so eventually Tuchman felt it had to be addressed.

Tuchman himself came down hard against the possibility of any funny business, insisting that it was just a weirdly-played hand. Matros and Hastings were a little more ambivalent, saying that although it almost certainly wasn’t outright collusion, the possibility of soft play wasn’t inconceivable to them. Personally, my feelings are close to Matros’s and Hastings’s and, like all three commentators, think that it’s out of line to accuse two specific players of such a thing on the basis of a single hand. Still, it’s not hard to see why the hand could look suspicious, especially to viewers who haven’t necessarily watched enough poker to know that players make weird-looking decisions at final tables all the time.

But what could they have been thinking?

Of the two players, Jattin’s play is far easier to understand. Really, the only unorthodox move for him was the decision preflop to call rather than shove. This, however, could be explained by the fact that he was very close in chips at the time to the two other short stacks – Thierry Gogniat and Sam Chartier – and was looking at the possibility of a €15,000 pay jump if one of them busted before him. It’s very hard to fold a hand as good as Sevens preflop when you’re short-stacked, but if he felt that Lopez’s under the gun opening range was sufficiently strong that he didn’t have much fold equity, he may have talked himself into flat calling and then making a decision on the flop, provided no Ace or King hit.

He then proceeded to get a pretty nice flop, and his opponent checked to boot. However, he had to assume that if he was ahead, that Lopez would have at least six outs, and maybe a lot more with a possible flush draw out, so betting his hand for protection would be natural. After he got called once, though, and the turn was a blank, he might not expect to get a fold with a second bet, and may now have worried that Lopez’s range would contain lots of hands like Jack-Ten suited which flopped a marginal top pair. Thus, checking back twice more and just getting to showdown makes sense.

Okay, but Lopez?

Lopez’s thinking, on the other hand, is a lot harder to figure out. The best I can come up with is that because of the size of Jattin’s stack, Lopez was expecting him to either 3-bet shove or fold in response to a preflop raise, and so the flat call spooked him. He may also have figured that Jattin would not be playing non-pair hands containing a Ten this short, and that Jattin’s non-trapping range would thus consist entirely of hands worse than top pair.

It’s really hard to know exactly what range Lopez would be putting Jattin on, but under the above logic he could reasonably assume that it would include mostly trapping hands which beat Jacks, and marginal value hands worse than top pair – middle pairs such as Jattin actually had, and maybe some middling Ace-high hands, like Ace-Jack.

Assuming all of that to be the case, then the question is how Lopez thought Jattin would play each part of his range. After all, a trapping hand could either spring the trap on the flop or continue to slowplay, and a marginal hand could just call the flop, but might also see this as a safe enough flop to just stick it in and pray. If Lopez felt he had no read in this regard, then by bet-folding he’d risk getting bluffed by worse hands, while bet-calling could also be a huge mistake if Jattin would only be shoving his monsters. By contrast, he would probably assume that if he checked, Jattin would be likely to bet his whole range, so in that way, check-calling and re-evaluating the turn could make sense.

Checking the turn again also makes sense if his plan was to re-evaluate, as he may have figured that on a blank turn, Jattin would give him perfect information by betting his monsters again and checking back his marginal hands. So far, so good.

But then, having seen Jattin check the turn, why would he not bet the river for value? This is where I get lost. Checking a value hand on the river instead of betting it makes sense when you think that your opponent is polarized to nuts and total bluffs, but I’ve just finished saying that Jattin’s flop play makes more sense to me against a more merged range of monsters and marginal value hands.

Ultimately, I think Lopez’s play simply looks inconsistent from the viewpoint of fundamental strategy, and therefore that Matros’s guess is the most likely scenario: that Lopez changed his plan for the hand partway through, based on some kind of incorrect read on Jattin that made him think the latter must be extremely strong.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.