Following Vanessa Selbst’s level one bust-out, which I discussed in my last article, the next Main Event hand which got social media buzzing was the one which broke the money bubble. Live tournament bubbles can be a long and painful affair, the Main Event in particular, because there are so many amateurs just stalling and folding in an effort to lock up a min-cash.
Quite often, that means that when the bubble finally does burst, it does so anticlimactically, as some poor soul attempting to crawl into the money finds himself forced to race to avoid being blinded out. Not so this time, as Chinese high stakes regular Quan Zhou made his exit in spectacular style.
When it came to Selbst’s bust-out, I said that the way the Twittersphere discussed the hand demonstrated one of the paradoxes in how we think about tournament poker. In Zhou’s case, I feel that it shows how frequently even experienced poker-watchers fall victim to biased thinking in evaluating a play, judging it not on its own merits, but rather on who made the move, and when, and how it turned out.
One bubble, two bluffs
There were actually two players who busted at the same time, due to hand-for-hand play on the bubble, and both players went out on bluffs gone wrong. However, it was Zhou who won the race to determine who received the dubious honor of being the bubble boy and the less dubious benefit of a free entry to next year’s Main Event.
That’s likely the main reason that his hand received more attention than Roger Campbell’s, but there’s also the fact that Zhou’s was made on the river, with 0% showdown equity, while Cambell’s was a flop semibluff with a flush draw. Since Campbell could still have won by hitting his draw, his play seemed, on the surface, less self-destructive than Zhou’s.
Zhou’s villain was the well-known French high roller pro Davidi Kitai, who opened the action to 14,000 (just over a min-raise) under the gun. Zhou three-bet to 32,000 from early middle position, and Kitai called.
The flop was a rainbow, with two Tens and a Jack, and both players checked, which is usually to be expected on this texture.
The turn was the Seven of Hearts, Kitai led out for 27,000 and Zhou raised to 70,000. Kitai called.
The river was the King of Hearts, Kitai checked, and Zhou made a massive overbet shove for 376,000 into just over 200,000. Zhou was bluffing, with the Ace-Nine of Diamonds for a complete whiff on every street (minus a backdoor gutshot picked up on the turn), and unfortunately for him, Kitai had pocket Kings, for the rivered full house.
A consistent story
Naturally, it never looks, nor feels good to jam for almost twice the pot and run into the second nuts, especially not on the stone bubble of the most important event of the year. But obviously Zhou is not expecting to get Kitai to fold Kings, nor should he assume that Kings are a big part of Kitai’s range.
There are two important questions to ask when evaluating the merits of a bluff: What range of hands can one credibly represent given the way the hand played out, and what range does one expect the opponent to have? The answers to these, combined with the pot odds, determine whether or not the opponent will feel he’s correct to call often enough to make the bluff unprofitable.
In the case of an overbet like this, Zhou needs to get a fold most of the time for the bluff to be profitable; at least 75% of the time here, given the ICM considerations inherent in having a workable stack on the exact bubble, against an opponent who has you covered. However, the bet size is a double-edged sword in that it makes the odds worse for Kitai as well; facing a typical half-pot river bet, one only needs to be good 25% of the time to make the call, but here, Kitai needs to be good closer to 40%.
One assumes that this isn’t the first time that Zhou got out of line at this table, so Kitai knows he’s not particularly tight. Nonetheless, three-betting an under-the-gun open on the bubble looks strong. Kitai can put some semi-bluffs into Zhou’s range, but many of those will have connected with this board in some way. By the river, Zhou’s range contains most of the possible strong hands, including a straight, backdoor flush, Ace-Ten, most of the possible full houses (all the pocket pair versions, plus Jack-Ten), and even quad Tens.
Most of these hands are also consistent with the flop check and turn check-raise as well. Those hands which were already strong on the flop would be strong enough to want to slowplay, while semibluffing the turn would make sense with many of those hands which were completed by the King of Hearts on the river.
The overbet shove, meanwhile, makes marginal hands for Zhou extremely unlikely. It’s not even certain that he’d bet this way with a straight or a flush, but he’s definitely not doing so with, say, pocket Aces, or Ace-King. Most hands Kitai could have, then – except the one he actually did – would therefore be bluff catchers, unable to beat even the bottom of Zhou’s value range.
When the opponent’s range is nothing but stone cold bluffs and monster hands, and there are many possible monsters for him to have, it makes a call very difficult. This is doubly true when the bet is as large as Zhou’s, and even more so when bubble concerns make a bluff an extremely dicey proposition. Finally, Kitai’s range contains a lot of hands like Ace-King and pocket Queens: hands that would be strong in a vacuum, but which are reduced to bluff catchers when Zhou takes this line.
A stroke of genius, when it works
Taking all these factors in combination, then, it becomes extremely unlikely that Kitai calls; it requires that Kitai either has a sufficiently monstrous hand of his own that he’s ahead of Zhou’s value range, or that he makes an incredible soul read.
In the alternative universes where the bluff works, Zhou likely gets praised for correctly putting Kitai on a range of mostly big single-pair hands and taking a line which forces him to fold them. But because Kitai had Kings, Zhou cost himself a Main Event cash, having started with a hand he probably should have folded preflop and a fairly decent stack which he could potentially have taken much deeper into the tournament.
As a result, most discussion of the hand ended up including such phrases as “torching his stack” and “redefining a ‘punt’.” Naturally, one looks foolish and feels foolish when running a huge bluff into the second nuts, but that doesn’t mean one actually was foolish. There’s particular irony in this judgment of Zhou’s play when, just a few days earlier, we collectively wondering whether Selbst should have found a fold with a hand as strong as Kitai’s, based on the notion that it was a spot in which her opponent should never be bluffing.
Of course, we all know that one of the gravest errors committed by poker novices is to assess their own play based on results, rather than probabilities. We like to believe ourselves above such results orientation when reviewing our own hands, and console ourselves with wise words like “I was ahead of his range,” rather than complaining about our bad beats. But when it comes to hands played by others, on a stage as large as the Main Event, suddenly it’s commonplace to see otherwise rational people beginning their analysis with the outcome and working backwards from there.
— Adam Schwartz (@PokercastAdam) July 14, 2017
The Asian high roller stereotype
Although this sort of results-oriented judgment is applied to every player who gets any amount of media attention, it seems to me that it’s especially predictable and particularly harsh when the nature of the play lines up with the traditional stereotypes about the player in question. I’ve pointed out in the past, for instance, that unorthodox plays by women are often assumed to have been made based on emotion, or previous interactions with the opponent in the hand. If a middle-aged amateur makes a tight fold, the assumption is that it’s because he’s tight in general, whether or not that’s actually the case.
Wealthy Asian gamblers like Zhou are often assumed to be lighting money on fire, and in many cases that’s an accurate assumption. The poker world loves hearing stories about Chinese businessmen not bothering to show up for Day 2 of a Macau High Roller because they were short stacked and decided to play baccarat instead. It’s also been just one year since we saw Qui Nguyen win the Main Event with an unorthodox style I’ve heard described as “mashing buttons.”
Now, it’s probably true that $10,000 doesn’t mean a whole lot to a guy like Zhou. It’s also true that in order to make a play like that on the bubble of the Main Event, one needs to be risk-neutral, perhaps even risk-seeking. Zhou’s personality and financial situation therefore contributed to the play, in that they made it possible; someone else might not have even considered taking that line.
The problem, however, is when one makes the implicit leap from recognizing that a risk-taking personality made the play possible, to assuming that the thrill of gambling was the primary motivation behind the decision. If I tell you that a rich Asian guy bubbled the Main Event bluffing his entire stack into the second nuts, it conjures a certain image, and the imagination tends to fill in the blanks in the scenario and slap a hashtag #yolo on the whole thing. Once you’ve made that assumption, you’ll tend to interpret the details of the hand from that perspective.
Don’t miss a learning opportunity
I’m not saying that people’s judgment of Zhou’s play is racist, mind you. I’ve explained in the past why stereotyping people at the poker table is okay, while stereotyping them away from the table is not. The reason is that if you use stereotypes to anticipate a player’s style, then if you’re wrong it can only hurt you.
I think that’s the case for a lot of people here: that they’re hurting themselves by assuming that Zhou’s failed bluff is a moment of comical self-destruction by a player who just came to gamble. When you see a dramatic hand like this, try to approach it without any of those assumptions. Ignore what you know about the player and the outcome. Go back to the beginning and analyze the hand street by street, evaluating each play on its own merits; you may very well find that the story you find is much more complex and interesting than the one you initially imagined.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.