Luca and Case’s Preflop War

One of the most fascinating aspect of tournament play is how different one final table can be from another. At one end of the spectrum, you have ones like we saw at the end of Event #20, in which Ben Zamani, Natasha Barbour and their opponents all played an extremely tight and cautious game, right up until Barbour’s ill-fated bluff on the final hand.

Ten events later, we’re seeing the exact opposite, with a final table where big pots and preflop battles have been the rule, rather than the exception. Despite the swings this has entailed, the event somehow avoided reaching a conclusion yesterday, with the final two – Ivan Luca and Artur Rudziankov – being forced to call it a night and return later today to determine who will go home with the bracelet.

The tone for the table was set early on, and was best exemplified by the 17th hand, in which Luca went to war with Travis Case. Although Luca got the better of Case in that hand, Case managed to remain a thorn in his side throughout yesterday’s play before falling in 3rd place just a few hands before play broke for the night.

A high-ICM context

As is often the case, understanding the hand requires an examination of the context. It was early in the final table and, although two players had already fallen, two more short stacks remained on the verge of busting, while Luca, case and the rest of the table were all in fairly healthy shape.

This kind of situation can produce one of two dynamics. If all the deeper-stacked players are more concerned with laddering up the payout structure than with winning the tournament, then play tends to be very tight, focusing largely on blind steals and winning small pots with continuation bets.

On the other hand, when the healthy stacks are trying to stay out of one another’s way, it can be tempting for one of them to exploit his opponent’s reluctance to engage. When players are too fixated on pay jumps, then they become vulnerable to light 3-betting preflop. It’s usually pretty evident when someone is trying to dominate the table this way, but the others are then left with a choice between allowing that player to creep into the lead, or make a stand and risk an ICM disaster.

What we saw last night is what happens when one player attempts to exert dominance over the table in this kind of high-ICM context, but the others aren’t willing to bend.

Bluff vs. bluff

The hand in question began with Case opening for 110,000 in the cutoff with King-Five. Luca was in the big blind with Seven-Six suited. Although Case had come into the final table with the chip lead and twice as much as Luca, the latter had won several pots and Case had lost a bit, bringing them closer together. Thus, although neither player had a particularly strong hand, it was destined to be a key hand in determining which of them would be top dog at the table.

Although Seven-Six suited is a perfect speculative hand to call with and see a flop, doing so out of position means folding a lot of flops, and Luca was unwilling to let Case creep back into the lead, so he opted to make a sizable 3-bet to 360,000.

Case’s hand was an awful one for calling a 3-bet with, but raggy Kings are actually quite a common hand for light 4-betting. I’ll get into the reasons for that I’ll get into below. To finish recapping the action, though, Case did indeed make a light 4-bet to 800,000 but had to fold when, after quite a long time in the tank, Luca finally managed to find a shove.

Why King-Five, though?

To understand why a hand like King-Five is a good light 4-betting hand, you have to step back and understand typical light 3-betting ranges. A big part of most players’ light 3-bet range is going to consist of small suited Aces, because they make good semibluffing hands for three reasons.

Firstly, they don’t flop particularly well except when very deep-stacked. For typical tournament stack sizes, you mostly want to be playing postflop with hands where you’ll be happy with a pair. Small Aces are either likely to make bottom pair, or top pair with no kicker, both of which are hands which can lead to trouble. Secondly, they aren’t totally dominated by very many hands. They’ll have three direct outs against anything but pocket Aces, plus a few extra percent equity due to chances for a nut flush or the wheel. Finally, they have an Ace blocker, cutting the odds in half of the opponent holding pocket Aces, and by a third for any other Ax combo.

Light 4-betting is different, however, because the opponent’s 3-betting range is going to be better defined than their opening range. Players open a wide variety of hands, but will often be 3-betting only Ace-King and big pairs for value; the rest of their range is going to consist of light 3-bet semibluffs… many of which are these small suited Aces.

You therefore typically don’t want to be holding an Ace blocker when light 4-betting, at least not against a player who is inclined to 3-bet light. Although it blocks the same value hands as it does when you’re light 3-betting, the problem is that it also blocks a lot of your opponent’s bluffs. A King blocker is much better, in that it still blocks Ace-King and one of the big pairs, but doesn’t block very many bluffs. The fact that it doesn’t block hands like Ace-Queen and Ace-Jack is also less important, because these hands will often flat instead of 3-betting, depending on the situation.

Meanwhile, raggy Kings (especially when suited) share most of the other advantages of the small Aces, in that they’ll have at least one live card against most hands and don’t have any real flop value that you’re missing out on by bluffing with them,

Stack sizes

In cases like these, where both players believe the other has a lot of bluffs in his range, stack size and raise sizing become incredibly important. You always want to be the player getting the last bet in if you can. If the effective stacks had been a little bit shallower, Case’s 4-bet could have been a shove and he surely would have won the pot. Unfortunately for him, going all in for around 2 million over a 360,000 3-bet would have been suspiciously large. For that reason, it might have been preferable for him to simply fold to the 3-bet and wait for a different opportunity with slightly different stack dynamics; that’s easy to say in hindsight, of course, so it’s hard to criticize the play without being results oriented.

There’s also a matter of being balanced. Earlier in the series, in Event #12, we happened to see a similar situation in which the small 4-bet was not a bluff. In this hand, which happens to have been covered today by PokerNews, Iaron Lightbourne held pocket Queens against what turned out to be a light 3-bet by Idan Raviv. He, too, could have opted to go all-in with his 4-bet, but instead made a small raise, aiming to entice Raviv to try to exploit his ICM issues by continuing the bluff. It worked; Raviv 5-bet shoved and had to flip over Ten-Five suited when Lightbourne snapped him off.

Thus, while there is an argument to be made for a shove rather than a 4-bet/fold when bluffing, there’s an indirect loss incurred in that you can no longer 4-bet small to induce. Against opponents with no prior knowledge of your play, you may be able to get away with shoving as a bluff and 4-betting to induce, but not when you’re playing in a high-profile tournament series like the WSOP, and especially not at a final table where you can’t be sure exactly how much information your opponents have on your play in the past.

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

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