Postflop Fireworks at WPT Montreal
The World Poker Tour’s (WPT) Montreal Fall Classic has wrapped up, with Jared Mahoney becoming the latest entry into its Champions Club. The final table of the main event proved to be one of the better ones in recent memory, with both Mahoney and eventual 2nd place finisher Darryll Fish having dipped below ten big blinds – Mahoney as low as seven – before rallying to make it to heads up. All told, four of the six players at the final table held the chip lead at some point, and it ended up taking a gruelling ten hours to find a winner.
Inevitably, the final table’s long duration combined with the players’ relatively modest stacks to begin wtih (average 58 BB, three players under 20 BB to start with) meant that by the latter half of the night, the blinds had forced the action to focus on blind steals and preflop all-ins. Earlier, however, the action was both intense and complex, and reminded us of what was missing most of all from this year’s lackluster November Nine: post-flop raising.
As I said last week, the November Niners can’t be blamed for the style of play they employed, as it was probably in everyone’s best personal financial interest to play that way. Raising postflop with bluffs and marginal hands can be very high-variance (and high-stress), which is not the best thing when you’re fighting for pay jumps in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if you’re not raising with weaker hands, you aren’t balanced and therefore can’t get value from your stronger ones that way, and are better off just going for one bet per street.
Conversely, at WPT Montreal, there were more moments at which medium-sized stacks had the opportunity to jockey for position, as well as wars for the chip lead. Meanwhile, initial chip leader Brian Altman already had one WPT title to his name, Fish and 3rd place finisher Rainer Kempe are no strangers to big final tables either, and Carter Swidler has been grinding tournaments for years. Fewer players, more balanced stacks and high proportion of veterans all combined to make an explosive postflop mix, perhaps best exemplified by back-to-back hands about two hours in, with play down to five players following the 6th place elimination of Alexander “A.J.” Gambino.
Hand #38: Kempe Bluffs Both
Brian Altman: Under the Gun, QhQs
Darryll Fish: Small Blind, 9h9s
Rainer Kempe: Big Blind, 7d4s
Unsurprisingly, the first of the two hands I’ve chosen to look at features the three veterans, and a moment at which all three were virtually tied for the chip lead, with Fish sitting on just over 5 million, Altman just under that and Kempe in third place with 4 million. The blinds were 50,000/100,000, putting effective stacks in that 40-50 BB range where there’s room to play all three streets postflop, yet a bet and a raise at any point creates a strong possibility of being all-in by the river.
Between these factors and the players’ positions, then even without seeing the cards, this hand would have been a candidate to be a pivotal early moment. Those odds go through the roof when Altman looks down at Queens and raises to 225,000, while Fish finds Nines in the small blind.
Nines are ordinarily a strong enough hand to 3-bet when you’re five-handed, but the stack sizes and situation are awkward. A little bit shorter and Fish would be happy to play for stacks, and a little bit deeper and he could call a 4-bet, but at around 50 BB, it’s one of those medium strength hands that you really don’t want to get into tough preflop spots with. Additionally, he was current chip leader, yet Altman was close enough to virtually eliminate him, so running into a monster would be an ICM disaster. Therefore, Fish just calls.
Kempe’s hand is garbage, of course, but he only has to call 125,000 to play a pot of over 500,000. He also has position on Fish and can seek to check-raise Altman as the preflop aggressor, thus has good relative position. Finally, both Altman and Fish are likely fairly strong – Altman raising under the gun, and Fish flatting in the small blind – so their hands aren’t likely to overlap Kempe’s. All in all, it’s a reasonable spot to see a flop with pretty well any two cards.
The flop comes out King-Six-Four rainbow, giving Kempe bottom pair and bringing an overcard to both his opponents’ pocket pairs. Fish and Kempe both check, as you would expect, and now it’s on Altman to decide whether to make a continuation bet or not.
Altman opts not to, and the argument for that is fairly obvious. Unless one of your opponents has a pocket pair, they’re likely to have you beat with a King or else have nothing at all, so it’s hard to get called by worse when you bet. At the same time, the board is almost devoid of draws – only Kempe is at all likely to have some kind of straight draw, and many of those will be gutshots. The only card Altman doesn’t want to see on the turn is an Ace, so betting for protection is mostly unnecessary.
The counter-argument is that the K-rag-rag flop is good for Altman’s overall under-the-gun range, so he should be continuation betting a lot in general. Checking therefore narrows him down considerably, and makes strongish pairs like Tens, Jacks and Queens pretty likely. Of course, his opponents don’t necessarily know what it will take to get him off such a hand, but it’s a dangerous leveling game to play to allow your opponents to put you on a medium strength hand and then try to guess whether they’re bluffing you or going for value.
Since there are good arguments both ways, either checking or betting is probably fine, but in this case Altman elects to check and the three go to the turn.
The dealer flips over the Two of Diamonds, creating a possible flush draw and completing one possible straight, albeit one which only Kempe could really be expected to have.
Fish now leads out with his Nines, with a small bet of 260,000 into 750,000. Fish presumably feels that Altman’s check-back range contains a lot of Ace-Queen, Ace-Jack kind of hands, while Kempe could have all sorts of hands with equity but which are worse than Nines; against those ranges, Fish needs to protect his hand and hopefully get at least one of the two to fold, as most of the deck will be bad for him on the river if he keeps them both in. Mike McDonald, commenting on the live stream, was critical of his sizing, feeling that he would have bet larger with a King or a drawing hand, which therefore makes it easy to put him on a middling pocket pair when he bets small.
The most interesting decision in the hand, however, is Kempe’s. He only has bottom pair against two opponents, so folding is certainly an option. On the other hand, Fish could just be taking a stab, or could have picked up a backdoor flush draw, so if Kempe thinks that Altman will fold his marginal hands after seeing a bet and a call, then calling and hoping that the river goes check-check can be an option as well. The third option is to raise, and this is what Kempe does after some thought, making it 800,000 to go.
Altman is now convinced that his Queens are no good, and lets them go. Fish thinks a while longer and ultimately decides to fold as well. When you’re watching this with the benefit of seeing the hole cards, Kempe looks like a genius for bluffing two opponents off of fairly large pocket pairs, but it’s an easier move to see the value of when you forget about what everyone actually had.
Kempe is playing the board texture, his own range, and what his opponents are representing, rather than his actual cards. Altman is very likely on a marginal hand of some sort after omitting his c-bet. There’s an outside chance he’s slowplaying a set of Kings, since in that case his hand would be blocking his opponents from having anything to pay him with on that flop, but aside from that possibility, he’s very likely to be folding to a bet and a raise. Fish, meanwhile, is pretty heavily weighted towards one-pair hands and backdoor flush draws; there’s some chance of a set of Sixes or Fours, but Kempe is mostly blocking the latter. Thus, Fish also has a range that will at least sometimes fold to a raise or another bet on the river.
The only remaining question is what Kempe’s range looks like to the others, and as I said, preflop he’s the only person whose hand will contain a lot of cards in the bottom half of the deck. Thus, as well as the possibility of a made straight, he’s also got lots of two-pair, pair-plus-draw and combo draw options. Even if Fish does make the call, then, if he has one pair, there are going to be a lot of rivers which will make it hard for him to withstand another bet from Kempe. If anything, I think Fish’s tanking before folding is precisely because it’s such a tempting texture for Kempe to be representing the “big blind special.” Fish probably realizes that Kempe may be bluffing or semibluffing, but ultimately he decides that the river is going to be too tough, and lets his hand go.
Hand #39: Mahoney Calls Baloney
Carter Swidler: Under the Gun, Ac9s
Jared Mahoney: Cutoff, 4s4d
Brian Altman: Big Blind, Jc8s
No sooner had the three deepstacks had their confrontation than the two underdogs had their own turn in the spotlight. They were slightly shorter than the others, but not far behind with with 3 million for Swidler and around 3.9 for Mahoney.
Swidler’s Ace-Nine offsuit is certainly good enough for a raise five-handed, even under the gun. Mahoney calls with pocket Fours, and although they are technically deep enough for set-mining to be profitable, short-handed he is likely planning on playing on even with only one pair on a lot of textures. Kempe and Fish fold, and Altman is priced in to defend his big blind with his slightly-connected, offsuit Jack.
Once again, the flop comes out two wheel cards and a broadway: Ten-Five-Two, but this time around, a Club draw is also in play.
Altman checks to Swidler, who has a decision somewhat similar to Altman’s the hand before. Like Altman, he also opts to omit his continuation bet, probably for similar reasons: it’s hard to get called by worse than Ace High, and it’s much easier for the big blind to have hit this flop than anyone else. Meanwhile, he’s ahead of flush draws and would like to protect himself against them, but many flush draws will raise him and his hand isn’t strong enough to withstand that. Finally, he has the backdoor nut flush draw, so if the flop checks around and a third Club does come on the turn, that may actually prove to be good for him.
Once his two opponents check, Mahoney is in a position quite a lot like Fish’s on the turn of the previous hand. He has a hand which is quite possibly – though far from certainly – the best at the moment, against two opponents who are both likely to have some kind of equity. If he checks back and anyone bets the turn, he will quite likely have to give up his hand, so he bets and he sizes it fairly large, 350,000 into about 700,000.
Altman has nothing but backdoor draws, but as the big blind, is in a position to try something akin to Kempe’s move the previous hand. After a few moments thought, however, he elects to throw his hand away.
Swidler’s hand is both strong enough to consider calling and weak enough to consider folding, but instead he decides to check-raise. I think this is a good move, because of his Ace of Clubs: Mahoney’s most likely re-raising range is sets and big draws, so blocking the nut flush draw means Swidler is much more likely to see either a call or a fold. Meanwhile, by checking to Mahoney and let him take a stab, he offloads the risk of getting called by Altman, the big blind. Once Altman folds, then Swidler has managed to isolate himself against a player against whom he has a lot more fold equity than he’d have had with a simple continuation bet into two people. Furthermore, his check-raise looks like it could be a semibluff, so if he is called, then any Club turn is a perfect opportunity to fire a second barrel.
Unfortunately, Swidler makes a sizing error. It’s actually a technical error, as he tries to make it 680,000. Since Mahoney’s bet was 350,000, the minimum raise would be 700,000 and Swidler is asked by the dealer to add another 20,000 to complete a legal raise.
The raise nonetheless puts Mahoney in a rough spot. The small sizing means that a turn bet will be almost inevitable, so he can’t just blindly rely on pot odds to make the call. The implied odds to get to showdown with such a vulnerable hand are no good, so if he’s going to just call, he needs a clear plan going forward. Ultimately, he decides neither to call nor to fold, but to go all-in, turning his hand into a bluff – or, arguably, a sort of “reverse semibluff,” as some of Swidler’s call-off hands would be 15-out nut flush plus overcard draws that would only be ahead of Mahoney’s Fours, though only slightly.
One of McDonald’s guest commentators (Aaron Mermelstein or Jeff Gross; I don’t know either of their voices, so can’t tell which) felt that the illegally small sizing was a tell. He said that in his experience, players who have strong value hands – say, an overpair or a set here – are thinking carefully about their sizing in order to extract maximum value, and would not make such a mistake. By this logic, Swidler’s illegal raise would suggest he’d spent more time thinking about whether to raise than how much to raise, and would therefore likely be weak, unless angle-shooting.
Whether or not Mahoney read the illegal sizing as a tell, the fact that the raise was so small might also have been a giveaway. After all, most value hands – even sets – won’t want to see a flush card on the turn, as it will kill their chances of getting paid off even if it doesn’t cause them to lose. The small sizing suggests that Swidler is more interested in seeing another card than avoiding one, which weights him towards bluffs and draws and away from pairs and sets.
All in all, some great poker was played last night. It was welcome reassurance that streamed poker can still be entertaining at times, as well as a valuable lesson in post-flop aggression and the importance of bet sizing and what it says about your range and your opponents’.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.