The last hand of WSOP Event #20 – $1500 No-Limit Hold’em was hard to watch. Natasha Barbour isn’t the first player in this series to have blown her shot at a possible bracelet by way of a questionable bluff, and she didn’t even seem particularly heartbroken about it… but it was still the most painful bustout for me as a fan.

Part of it is just that I’m in the habit of rooting for women players to win tournaments, both because I’m a feminist and because I believe that it’s good for the game. So, I really wanted her to win, even if objectively speaking she wasn’t the best player at that final table. More than that, though, the particular sequence of events which led to her downfall – a combination of bad luck and bad decisions – is one that’s familiar to me, and probably to a lot of players.

As much as I defended Brad McFarland’s play at the end of the Colossus, and would love to be able to do the same here, it’s really hard to argue that Barbour’s play was good. She called a four-bet with Ten-Nine offsuit and, with half her stack in the middle, floated her opponent’s continuation bet with air before finally trying to bluff him off of trip Aces on the turn. As I said, it was hard to watch.

But although she could have – should have – avoided the disaster, it’s easy to feel for her when you consider the context.

A tight table

What’s crucial to understand is that it was an extremely tight final table, so the hand started off with Barbour likely believing she was making a good play based on image. The table was so nitty and the eliminations so slow to come that the final five had to break on Wednesday night and finish on Thursday instead. David Tuchman, doing the live stream commentary, was even complaining about how slow it was going by the end.

Neither Barbour nor Ben Zamani, her heads-up opponent, were any exception. He was playing tight and she knew it, and she was playing tight and he knew it. You therefore wouldn’t expect them to get into many preflop raising wars unless dealt a cooler… which means that trying a light three-bet a few hands into heads-up play was both brave and probably a good play.

Now, Ten-Nine is not a great light three-betting hand when stacks are as short as they were – about 30 big blinds effective. It’s too good to fold heads-up, but not strong enough to 3-bet for value. It flops fairly well, but doesn’t have any significant blockers. All told, it’s usually a pretty clear calling hand.

Sometimes, though, timing is more important than the cards. Barbour had the shorter stack, and 30 big blinds is only just enough to be 3-bet/folding as a bluff. If her plan was to get in a light 3-bet, then by calling with the Ten-Nine and waiting, she may have found herself without the ideal stack size to try it.

Unfortunately for her, Zamani was holding Ace-Queen, and wasn’t going anywhere.

The Call of Frustration

Zamani instantly four-bet her, but not all-in and not particularly large. Even so, a four-bet with 30 big blind stacks meant that calling would put about half of her stack in the middle and leave her with only a half-pot bet behind on the flop. Conventional wisdom in these cases is that calling is definitely not an option, that you must shove or fold.

Folding was clearly the right thing to do, but it’s always tough to fold once you’ve put a lot of chips into the pot. At the same time, it’s incredibly frustrating to make a 3-bet that “deserves” to go through based on image, and get 4-bet the very first time you try it. So she did what we all do sometimes, and started looking for a reason not to fold.

If she had shoved, she would have almost certainly been called by whatever Zamani was holding, and almost certainly been an underdog, probably a large one. Even if she believed him capable of semibluffing – with a small suited Ace, for instance – those semibluffs would turn out to be value hands against hers. So, shoving was out. Calling should not have been an option, but, but, but…

Although a small four-bet is often quite strong, Zamani had done it very quickly. If I were in Barbour’s place, I could imagine convincing myself that he would have made a show of hesitation with pocket Aces or Kings. So that would leave him with big Aces, which she could potentially outflop, and middling pocket pairs up to, say, Queens. Those could potentially be bluffed off of an Ace-high board if they showed weakness. These are the things you think when you desperately want to win a pot you really shouldn’t be in.

When you’re in that sort of head-space, you then start looking at the odds you’re being laid. Her 3-bet had been to 1.6 million and Zamani had made it 2.9. She was getting almost 3.5-1 direct odds to call. Could she win this pot one time in four?

She decided she could, and made the dreaded Call of Frustration, setting her on the road to the rail.

Zamani gives her just enough rope

The flop came Ace high, sealing her fate. Her hand had lost all equity against virtually anything Zamani could realistically be holding. This would have been a blessing if it had allowed her to get away from the hand, but she couldn’t have justified her preflop call if her only plan was to hit a pair and hope to be ahead of an Ace. Zamani’s range had a lot of pocket pairs in it, so if she was going to call, she had to have convinced herself she could outplay him on this kind of board.

Had Zamani shoved, she certainly would have folded, but he wasn’t going to let her get away so easily. If she’d called to trap with, say, Kings or Queens, he didn’t want her folding them… and if he suspected that she might have been calling with junk and hoping to bluff, well, then he also had to try to look weak. His bet was tiny: 900,000 into nearly 6,000,000. How could Barbour resist at this point? He’d given her just enough rope to hang herself. Deciding that a call looked stronger than an immediate shove, she opted to float the 900,000.

The turn sealed the deal. It was another Ace, cutting the odds by 1/3 that Zamani would have one in his hand. Of course, Barbour knew she had no equity when floating the flop, so in all likelihood she would have bluffed anyway, but with an Ace on the turn, there was really no choice. Zamani checked, she announced all-in, he snap-called and there was nothing left for her to do but laugh about it.

At some point, we’ve all talked ourselves into these kinds of terrible calls just because of the odds we’re getting and the simple fact that we don’t want to fold. Barbour’s exit shows us exactly why it’s so important not to do so. The immediate loss of chips is bad enough, but the real tragedy is that you inevitably end up making additional, even more costly mistakes in trying to make that loose call look like a good play. When you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, that first step can be a doozie.

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