November Nine: Second-Night Gear Changes
The World Series of Poker Main Event final table continued last night, with the remaining six players playing down to an eventual three, as Thomas Cannuli, Svi Stern and finally Max Steinberg hit the rail. Left playing for the most-coveted honor in poker and nearly $7.7 million in first-place prize money are Joseph McKeehen, Neil Blumenfield and Josh Beckley.
McKeehen now has approximately two-thirds of the chips in play and has never been anything but a huge chip leader throughout the final table. The player I found the most interesting on the first day of play, however, was Blumenfield, who surprised everyone by coming out swinging from the start. And yet, last night’s Blumenfield bore less resemblance to Sunday’s, and more to the man we saw back in July, before the tournament went on its three-and-a-half month hiatus.
Basic poker strategy requires that one play more aggressively the fewer players are at the table, because the blinds come around more quickly, yet there are fewer players to beat in order to win a pot. Indeed, as players have busted out, most of the remaining competitors have become more aggressive, yet Blumenfield has gone the opposite way.
There are a few likely reasons that I see. The first is that most of the weaker players and short stacks busted out early on, leaving Blumenfield fewer targets to attack and making it harder for him to avoid people like McKeehen and Steinberg; indeed, one thing we saw a lot of last night was McKeehen engaging in a lot of table talk in Blumenfield’s direction with the apparent intent of making Blumenfield feel McKeehen’s reads on him were strong and further eroding his confidence.
Another is that McKeehen’s lead has grown increasingly huge throughout the table, while Blumenfield has been fluctuating up and down in the chip counts. Blumenfield may have decided after the first day of play that winning the tournament was likely out of reach, and to focus on laddering up through the payout table instead.
Finally, there’s always some value in playing a style opposite to the rest of the table. Although no one was getting too crazy last night, Blumenfield may have been expecting fireworks, and gone in with the plan of staying out of the way while the others went to war, while hoping to find a big hand at an opportune moment.
Whatever the case, the following are a few examples of how the other players have loosened up, while Blumenfield has tightened.
McKeehen: Button, 6h3h
Stern: Big Blind, 8d6d
McKeehen opens for a min-raise with his 6-3 suited. While suited rags are certainly playable from the dealer position, it’s certainly not obligatory when you have a loose player like Stern in the big blind, and thus minimal chance of taking the pot down preflop. It’s Blumenfield in the small blind, however, and with him playing tight, McKeehen does not expect to get three-bet very often.
The flop is Q95 with two spades, a wet texture that nonetheless helps neither player. Stern checks and McKeehen makes an obligatory continuation bet, since he has no showdown value. Stern calls, floating out of position with nothing but a gutshot and backdoor flush draw. Here we see Stern expecting McKeehen to be opening up his game and opening up his own in response.
The turn brings the Six of Spades, giving both players third pair, but also completing a possible flush. Stern checks and McKeehen checks back, since he now has some showdown value, while pretty much everything that beats him will still call this turn, except perhaps a bad Nine.
The river is an offsuit Jack. Here we would often expect both players to check, since they have showdown value, but Stern elects to turn his hand into a bluff instead, leading out and getting McKeehen to fold, thereby avoiding the split. Perhaps Stern felt that the Spade turn would have been a good card for McKeehen to continue on with both his best and worst hands, and therefore read him for perhaps a Nine or a Six, hands that he could be made to fold, given that Stern’s out of position flop call looks somewhat strong, and most possible draws got there by the river.
Beckley: Small Blind, Js6d
Steinberg: Big Blind, 4d2d
Beckley, who played fairly tight on the first day of the final table, had been on quite a rush at this point, having doubled up an orbit earlier, as well as winning a couple of other small pots for an overall triple-up in the past ten hands. With momentum on his side, he elects to make a fairly significant raise to around 2.4 big blinds with his raggy offsuit Jack, rather than simply completing. Steinberg calls with his suited rags due to position, despite not getting the same pot odds he’d have been getting if the raise had been a little smaller, or coming from a player who was not the small blind.
The flop is QJ6 with two Diamonds and a Spade, giving Beckley bottom two pair and Steinberg a flush draw. Beckley’s continuation bet and Steinberg’s call are therefore fairly inevitable.
The turn is the Ten of Spades. Beckley fires again and now Steinberg’s call is not so automatic. He’s getting poor direct odds but correct implied odds to call, provided that he will usually get a substantial bet out of Beckley when he hits his flush. However, his reverse implied odds are also bad; there’s the possibility that Beckley has a better flush draw, of course, but also, if he misses and Beckley checks, whether to bluff or not becomes a very difficult decision. For these reasons, folding the baby flush draw would be reasonable if the goal was to avoid variance and wait for others to bust; Steinberg calls, however, showing that he’s shooting for the win and willing to play a long ball strategy to get it.
Unfortunately for Steinberg, the river is a Jack, giving Beckley a full house. It’s hard to say whether Steinberg would have attempted to bluff if Beckley had checked, but instead, Beckley opts to make a very large, polarizing bet, presumably in the hopes that Steinberg has something like top pair and will pay him off.
McKeehen: Button, JsTs
Blumenfield: Small Blind, Ad5s
This was the hand immediately following Zvi Stern’s elimination at the hands of Blumenfield. McKeehen picks up what is quite a large hand on the Button and makes a minimum raise of 1.6 million. Blumenfield finds a small, offsuit Ace, and opts for a rather small 3-bet of 3.7 million. This might seem to contradict the idea that Blumenfield was playing tight, but it’s almost mandatory, given that any Ace is too good a hand to fold to a player who is raising almost any two cards, yet weaker Aces play poorly out of position.
We then see an example of McKeehen table-talking in Blumenfield’s direction to try to intimidate him: “Well, you just won a hand. Are you going for it, or…?” Jack-Ten suited flops so well that there’s no chance of him folding it in position, even with a read, so his goal must be to gain an advantage later in the hand.
McKeehen calls and the flop comes out K34 with two Diamonds. This is both an okay flop for Blumenfield’s actual hand – giving him gutshot straight and backdoor flush draws – and a great one for a tight player to make a continuation bet, given that it smashes a lot of his 3-bet value range. Instead, Blumenfield opts to check. The most charitable explanation I can think of is that Blumenfield thinks that McKeehen’s image of him is such that McKeehen will read him for a hand like Queens or Jacks, and will believe Blumenfield’s plan is to check-call the whole way down, and thus not attempt to bluff him. It may also be, however, that McKeehen’s table talk did its job of convincing Blumenfield that McKeehen sees through him, or simply that his plan all along was to try to take the pot down preflop and give up if called.
McKeehen may in fact take Blumenfield for some kind of pocket pair smaller than a King initially, because he doesn’t bet the flop either. They go to the turn, and it’s an offsuit Seven, improving Blumenfield’s gutshot to a double-gutshot. If Blumenfield wanted to sell McKeehen on a hand like Queens, this would be a good place to bet after the flop checks and the turn blanks, but again he checks. This time, McKeehen bets.
Blumenfield’s hand has a lot of equity, both in terms of its draw and the fact that Ace High could even be good against McKeehen’s hand after the later checks back the flop. McKeehen’s bet is sized quite large, however – 5.6 million into around 8.4 million – and it’s enough to convince Blumenfield to fold. McKeehen obviously sensed that Blumenfield had a marginal hand of some sort and wanted to see a river and possibly a showdown, but was able to use a combination of intimidation and bet sizing to convince him to go away.
Although, in the above hand and some others, Blumenfield’s downshifting has cost him pots, there were also a few moments that it saved him chips and kept him in the game long enough to get the lucky deals he’s been hoping for, such as his Ace-King versus Stern’s Ace-Jack to eliminate the latter. With three players remaining, Blumenfield has about a 1.7-1 chip advantage on Beckley, while both are vastly behind McKeehen. As such, the most likely thing we’ll see tonight it for Blumenfield to continue to play tight, while McKeehen bullies the two of them and Beckley looks for a double up. You never know, though; the only consistent thing about Blumenfield between the two nights so far is that he has done the opposite of what you’d expect, so maybe he’ll flip back to beast mode and surprise everyone yet again.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.