The World Series of Poker Main Event final table got underway yesterday. In some ways, things played out predictably, with short stacks Patrick Chan and Federico Butteroni being the first two to fall, and monster stack Joseph McKeehen being the man to eliminate them. In other ways, the dynamic differed from what you might have expected, due to adjustments the players have made since July, when the tournament went on its extended break.

Blumenfield and Stern go to war early

None of the players was quite as surprising as Neil Blumenfield, however. As an older guy, an amateur and with an average-sized stack, Blumenfield could have been expected to play a conservative game early on, but instead came right out of the gates with a light three-bet against Zvi Stern, which got through. Blumenfield then happened to pick up Aces and Queens back to back, and played those aggressively as well, quickly generating for himself the image of table maniac, which no one could have anticipated.

Much of Blumenfield’s activity came at the expense of Stern, who is seated on his immediate left. Stern, for his part, is someone who would be expected to be more on the loose and aggressive side, and indeed, he attempted to play back at Blumenfield. On the second orbit of play, Blumenfield raised from the small blind. Stern tried three-bet bluffing with his King-Deuce, only to have the bluff thrown back in his face by Blumenfield, who came back with a four-bet, despite holding only Ace-Seven.

This altercation set the stage for what went down the next orbit, when once again, the action folded to Blumenfield in the small blind, with only Stern left behind him.

Hand #20: Suited rags all around

Blumenfield looked down to find an Eight and a Deuce of Hearts in the hole. Given that his image was loose and Stern seemed to be looking for a spot to stick it to him, many people in Blumenfield’s shoes would simply fold and give Stern a walk this once. Instead, Blumenfield elected to try to keep his heater alive, and raised to 1.2 million.

Stern turned out to have a very similar hand: the Nine and Deuce of Clubs. Funnily enough, his hand had Blumenfield’s dominated, although there’s no way Stern could have known that. Still, because of history with Blumenfield and the fact that it was blind-versus-blind, Stern elected to defend.

Nothing about Blumenfield’s raise nor Stern’s call is particularly unusual for a blind-on-blind battle. Many players will automatically fold such hands regardless of the situation, but the fact is that when it’s down to two players, it can be reasonable to play almost any two cards.

An above-average flop

Although both players were playing weak starting hands, the flop changed things dramatically as it came out 9-4-3, with two Hearts. Stern made top pair, while Blumenfield picked up a flush draw, guaranteeing that a significant pot would be brewing.

The pot had around 2.8 million chips in it, and Blumenfield elected to continue with a bet of 1.5 million, which Stern called.

The turn was a black Five, giving Blumenfield eight additional outs to a straight and a chopped pot. Given that his hand had improved and Stern could easily be floating such a flop with almost anything, Blumenfield could hardly have done anything other than bet again. He fired another 3.3 million into a pot of just under 5 million, and again, Stern called.

The river was the Deuce of Diamonds, improving Stern to two pair and Blumenfield to bottom pair, but failing to change their relative strength. Having been called twice, Blumenfield would not feel that his tiny pair would be likely to win a showdown, so he presumably understood the situation to be a question of either trying a huge three-barrel bluff, or just giving up. In the end, he opted for the latter.

Would a bluff have worked?

Given that Stern had called a fairly large-sized bet on the turn, it’s unlikely that a small river bet could get him to fold, even on the straight-heavy texture. The question for Blumenfield would therefore be whether he could credibly represent a monster hand with a larger bet sizing.

Certainly, not many players are going to be going for maximum value with a set or two pair on this texture, so if Blumenfield is able to represent anything, it’s a straight. And, in fact, it would probably be quite easy for him to have the wheel, given the way the hand played out. After all, raising preflop from the small blind with most Ace-X combos is pretty normal, as is firing a continuation bet with Ace High on a low flop. On the turn, he’d then have picked up a gutshot; between that and at least one overcard, a second barrel would be pretty natural.

But if he had an Ace, would he bet big, or small? For the most part, the televised commentary was pitched at a fairly low level, but at this juncture, Antonio Esfandiari had an interesting observation on this point. He felt that a large bet size wasn’t credible for an Ace, because Stern’s range – having just called every street – should contain a lot more Sixes than Blumenfield’s. That is, Stern would be likely to play a great many hands like Nine-Six, Six-Four, etc. this way.

Betting large with the third nuts against an opponent who can easily have the second nuts – and who is capable of raise-bluffing when he doesn’t – is indeed a good way to get oneself into some difficult spots. Of course, if Stern is going to be calling all the time with all his one- and two-pair hands based on this logic, then that would mean that Blumenfield should go for big value with an Ace… and the only resolution to that paradox is mixed strategies. Chances are that optimal play would have Blumenfield sometimes betting large with an Ace, and other times betting small or check-calling to trap. If he’s sometimes betting large for value, then he can also sometimes bet large as a bluff, but I think Esfandiari is right that the large bet should be a sporadic exception, not be the default or most common play in either situation.

Did Blumenfield make a mistake on the turn?

The river is therefore a bad spot for Blumenfield to be in when he gets called on the turn. He’s only going to be hitting a flush or straight about 30% of the time, but if he misses, his hand has no showdown value. Checking to surrender on the river in a large pot is always painful, so did Blumenfield make a mistake to put himself in that situation?

The first question to ask is whether a different river would have made it easier to bluff. I don’t think it would have. Certainly, there are lots of overcards that could have come out instead of the Deuce, but here Blumenfield would face the same problem; he probably wouldn’t be betting big with just one pair if he’d hit the overcard, so to be credible he would have to bet small, yet a player like Stern would be likely to call that small bet due to the pot odds being offered.

So, what could Blumenfield have done differently? Perhaps betting smaller on the turn would have been an option, to keep weaker hands in Stern’s range and therefore increase the odds of successfully bluffing the river. However, my experience is that players can be so sticky in blind-versus-blind scenarios that multi-barrel bluffs generally don’t work as often as you’d like them to in that situation.

So, could the best thing have been to check, with the intention of check-raising? After all, the check-raise is the one weapon that an out-of-position player has at his disposal to fight back against his opponent’s positional advantage. I’m actually not sure what the best play is, but there are at least a few good arguments I can see for check-raising.

First of all, Stern could easily be floating that flop with all kinds of hands, and if he does in fact have air, he’s going to have to bet the turn when checked to. He might also elect to bet some of his weaker showdown hands, like a Four or Three, because pairs that small are so vulnerable when you give free cards.

Secondly, I think the check-raise line on this particular turn looks really strong for Blumenfield. Both small sets and a turned straight are hands you could easily see taking this line, given that Stern’s aggression makes him a prime target for trapping lines, yet the board is too draw-heavy to make slowplaying a good idea. Even if he were called, showing that much strength on the turn would make a river bluff a lot more plausible, although it would be a risky play, as stack sizes were such that a river bluff after a check-raise would probably have to be all-in.

Finally, when you’ve got a hand with that many outs, but that little showdown value, getting a free card is no bad thing, so if Stern elected to check back instead of betting, that too would have been acceptable for Blumenfield. As an added bonus, by not firing the turn, Blumenfield could more credibly represent a one-pair value hand on the river, if he elected to bluff at that juncture, particularly if an overcard fell, as his turn check-surrender range would contain a lot of miscellaneous broadway cards which missed the flop.

What’s your play on the turn as Blumenfield? Bet big, bet small, or check-raise?

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