This weekend I played my first four-figure buy-in live event, the Main Event for the Montreal Poker Expo at Playground Poker Club, outside of my home town of Montreal. Unfortunately, my run ended halfway through the first day in Level 7. I made some good moves as well as a few small mistakes, but ultimately went out on a hand which was a bit of a cooler, yet one which I probably should have been able to get away from. More on that later, though – let’s start from the beginning.


Although Playground is out of the city, it’s not too hard to get to, even if, like me, you’re not a driver. For those who are, it’s just a short ways off the island, across the Mercier bridge, but for the rest of us, there’s a bus which runs between the subway terminus and the satellite town of Chateauguay and stops in Kahnawake on the way. Either way, traffic and construction are frequent problems, but neither was yesterday and I was an hour early. I’d figured that with EPT Barcelona and WPT Legends of Poker going on, I wouldn’t have to contend with any big names in a mere $1100 event, even local ones. Even so, I’d noticed on Saturday that Mike Leah was in attendance, which made me worry I’d underestimated the field; I was therefore happy to hear several people saying it was their first thousand-dollar event too while we were waiting for the tournament to start.

Early levels

Because the vast bulk of my experience is online, I’m always nervous when I first sit down at a live table. Needless to say, playing for more money than I’m used to didn’t help matters any, so my hope was to take it easy through the first level and give myself a chance to settle in. Instead, in the very first hand, I flopped a set of Eights and rivered a full house against a guy who would end up being my principal villain throughout the day (pic in the link – if anyone knows his name, LMK). I was embarrassed and dismayed to find my hands shaking pretty badly by the time I bet the river, but I got my three streets of value and a call-muck from him regardless. I also found myself shaking a bit running multi-street bluffs later on, so at least I was balanced, and after a few levels my nerves subsided and the shakes with them.

Weirdly, my experience in live events is that it often ends up that most pots are being played by one end of the table while the other end nits it up; I would guess this is a combination of random player distribution combined with the fact that people usually respond to a loose neighbor by opening up themselves, and to a tight neighbor by generally tightening up, except for blind steals and such. In any case, I found myself essentially being the “Cutoff to Nitland,” with rather tight-passive players to my left, loose-passives to my immediate right, and loose-aggressives to theirs. This dynamic influenced my play a lot, allowing me to call in a lot of marginal spots preflop, as raises to my right were not typically very strong, and I didn’t have to be concerned about re-raises from the players on my left.

I continued to run very well through the first three levels and didn’t face many tough spots because I was usually flopping monsters or nothing at all. I also knew, however, that between my visible nervousness and the fact that I had only shown down big hands, I had a scared money image. This was confirmed by the fact that the villain from my first hand – a 30-something, maybe European guy sitting opposite me in shades and a designer sweatshirt – was calling essentially all my preflop raises when he had the button or was in the big blind, and floating most of my continuation bets as well. Since I knew that he thought I was playing super-transparently, I used that image to pull a few good bluffs on him, including one which I’ll be looking at as one of my hand analyses tomorrow.

The fateful Level 7

By the time Level 7 rolled around, my luck had started to turn. I’d actually never been getting much preflop; the best I’d seen in five hours of starting hands was Ace-King once and a couple of pairs of Eights. But as I said, I’d been smashing the flop a lot, and finding good bluffing spots when I didn’t. At the first break, after Level 3, I’d increased my starting stack by 50%, which was pretty good given we were hundreds of BB deep. I continued chipping up through Level 4, eventually getting myself over 50k and closing in on a double-up, but then things started going poorly through the next couple of levels. I didn’t have anything disastrous happen, and was managing to keep my stack roughly steady by picking up small pots, but I just wasn’t getting to see many flops and no longer getting much love from the deck when I did.

Level 7 was 250/500 with a 75 chip ante, and it was at this point that several people at the table seemed to be opening up their 3-bet game, which had been largely absent from the early levels, except for a few wars between two pros who seemed to know each other. I’m used to these dynamics from online play of course, and I knew that now that the re-raising was underway, I would have to both be willing to show resistance, and to start slipping in some light 3- and 4-bets of my own in order to remain competitive. Unfortunately, I found myself getting hands at all the wrong times and hadn’t been offered the right spots for either of these things. Meanwhile, I realized I was starting to look pretty weak, because 3-bets were working against me and I hadn’t yet fired back.

For example, early in the level, I’d picked up AJs in early position and raised it, only to be shoved on by a short stack in late position with around 20 BB. Based on my image and position, I figured he wasn’t re-stealing with many worse hands, and he had enough chips that I lacked the odds to call unless I thought I was close to 50% equity. I then got AQ in late position, but got 3-bet by a tight pro in the big blind. I called that one, but the flop came rags and although I floated the flop, had to let it go when he barrelled the K turn. There was also a hand where the big blind folded out of turn, leaving dead money in the pot. I raised 87s, got several callers and then a huge squeeze-bet from my Euro-pro villain; he showed QQ after we all folded, saying “I can tell you don’t believe me, so I’ll show you once.” The fact that he’d shown a strong hand here further convinced me that he was planning on getting out of line soon, which contributed to my downfall.

The “reverse Steve”

The hand which did me in was AK in early middle position, with the same old Euro-pro villain on the button, where he always seemed to be whenever I had a decent hand. I raised to 1100 and it folded around to him. I was sure he’d at least call, but he 3-bet to 3200.

I decided that flatting with my AJ-AK kind of hands would be what he expected from me, so I 4-bet to 8000 instead. I was hoping that my image was such that he would put me on a big pair and either fold or flat most of the time, and that I might even be able to trap him on an A- or K-high board by making it look like I had Queens or Jacks. What happened instead was that he thought for a bit, then 5-bet to 20,000, or a little less than half my stack.

Game theory probably says that although I have to fold AK here most of the time, I do have to shove some small amount of the time in order to be balanced, but in retrospect, I probably should have just folded. On the one hand, it’s true that he wouldn’t expect me to be shoving AK, but my whole reasoning behind 4-betting it was because he wouldn’t be expecting me to do that either. If my 4-bet range was, in his mind, really only premium pairs, then that 4-bet probably would have taken almost all marginal hands and bluffs out of his own 5-betting range, leaving only monsters that he wouldn’t fold. At the time, I felt that he could still have QQ+/AK, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like he might just have flatted QQ against a 4-bet from a guy with my image.

On the other hand, I did have a sense that he didn’t have Aces. Part of it was just inexplicable instinct (or perhaps emotionally not wanting him to have them), but if he figured me for scared money, he might expect me to have a merged 4-bet range and to be folding the bottom part of it to a 5-bet, that is with hands like JJ and QQ. If that’s actually what he thought, then in his shoes I would likely be flatting with AA and expecting it’ll be easier to stack the lower overpairs postflop than preflop. Furthermore, if he thinks I only have pairs and can fold some of them, then 5-bet/folding AK becomes reasonable for him as well, as his bluff works a lot of the time due to blockers, but when he doesn’t he’s crushed and can fold.

So, I convinced myself that his range was mostly premium hands but not Aces, and that he might fold QQ or AK to a shove, despite getting nearly 3-1, because he’d believe my 6-bet shove could only be AA and KK.

Instead, no sooner had the All-In plaque hit the felt in front of me than he shrugged and said, “okay, I call.” He sounded a little unhappy, but tabled KK. I turned over my AK to a groan from the table and the board blanked out.

Unfortunately, given the exact hand he had, it’s hard to say whether my shove was kind of okay or totally terrible. Whether it’s narrowly +EV or hugely -EV depends totally on his range, but KK is probably the one hand that is included in every reasonable 5-bet range you can construct for him, so seeing it doesn’t tell us anything about my assumptions being right or wrong. If he’s got only KK/AA when he 5-bets, then I effectively committed suicide. But if you take out AA and include an AK bluff of his own, then it’s probably pretty good, especially if he ever 5-bet/folds QQ as well. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time last night waffling about this, but this morning I feel like I’m leaning more towards thinking it was bad, mostly because of stack size. Getting nearly 3-1 and very little ICM at this point, he may crying call even if he does have AK/QQ, and if he does, then I’m not winning the pot enough to make up for those times he has me dominated.

That said, I’m not sure things would have ended much better for me if I’d folded. Having shown weakness in the face of 3-bets to that point before 4-bet/folding to an aggressive player would have been the equivalent of posting a sign in front of my stack reading “EASY 3-BET TARGET.” Of course, that could have worked out in my favor if I really did get dealt Aces in the coming orbits, but I’ve played enough poker to know that counting on getting cards is a poor way to play a tournament. In all likelihood, I would have had to put my foot down at some point, which would probably mean stacking off with something considerably more questionable than AK.

All I could think about, walking away from the table, is how appropriate it was that I went out by getting out of line with AK vs. KK, when one of the last articles I’d posted before the tournament involved me criticizing Steve Ruddock’s line when he folded KK incorrectly to Shaun Deeb’s AK. I got “reverse Steved,” fair and square. But at least I’m not a nit?


All told, I’m slightly disappointed with myself, but not feeling too bad about the tournament. Playing live poker at Playground is always a great experience, regardless of how luck treats you; it’s a really comfortable environment, the staff is consistently professional in my experience, and when you do go out in annoying fashion, you can always go have a few pints at The Rail until you’re done steaming, as I did. That said, I’m not sure I’m all that inclined to jump into another $1k the next time they have one. I definitely wasn’t the worst player at my table by a long shot, but I wasn’t the best either. The ratio of decent players to fish was similar to what I’ve seen at other live events at Playground in the past (and much fishier than online) but the caliber of the good players was much better. In the past, I’ve typically felt like two-thirds of the table was clearly worse than me, and the remainder close to my level, whereas here there were a couple of people at the far end who I felt were a cut above me, including the Euro-pro guy who busted me. It’s true that prior to the AK disaster, I’d taken more off of him than vice versa, but I was relying heavily on my image to outplay him, and that image was in turn hinging on hitting some big hands to show down; I felt like if the deck ran cold, I’d also have a harder time getting my bluffs through.

Furthermore, a slow structure cuts both ways, when you’re a middle-of-the-pack player. When you’re among the better players, it’s good, because it means you don’t have to rely on luck as much. But even if you’re above-average to begin with, if you’re not really at the top of the field, it works against you, as lower variance means the fish bust more consistently and the field gets sharkier faster. Even within the seven levels I played, this was noticeable, and I definitely had the feeling that Day 2 and beyond would be quite a struggle for me if I made it that far.

That said, I can’t wait to get back to Playground to play more live poker, which I find much more of a positive experience than online these days… but I think I’ll stick to $165, $220 and $330 events for a while.