Last night, Sheraz Nasir won WPT Season XIV‘s opening event, the Canadian Spring Championship. To do so, he defeated Lu “Chanel” Zhang heads up, denying her the title that had at one point seemed hers for the taking.
Whereas there are plenty of women who have won WSOP bracelets, and the EPT even has a two-time woman champion in Victoria Coren Mitchell, the WPT is still waiting for a woman to win a main event final table.
There’s no particular reason for this aside from variance, as plenty of talented women like Zhang have made deep runs, but so far luck has always turned against them at the last minute. In Zhang’s case, the fateful hand came when the table was down to four players: Zhang and Nasir, plus Levi Stevens and Gary Lucci.
If you’ve never heard of any of these people, that’s not surprising. The EPT Grand Final is currently running in Monte Carlo, so most of the big names in poker are there, either for the tournament or the famously juicy cash games taking place alongside. For that reason, the Canadian Spring Championship drew a small field of mostly local players, many of them amateurs. The only guy at final table with much name recognition was Dylan Wilkerson, and he busted out on literally the first hand of the evening.
A dream scenario turned nightmare
Having busted Trevor Delaney in 5th, Lu Zhang had a commanding chip lead and seemed to be cruising for a win. Everything was going according to plan, and now she found herself in a situation which promised to make things even easier for her.
Levi Stevens opened from under the gun, Lucci and Nasir both called, and now Zhang checked her cards in the big blind and found that she had pocket Aces. With all three opponents already in the pot and having them all covered, this is the sort of final table situation we all dream of.
Zhang made a big 3-bet, Stevens and Lucci both folded, and Nasir made a surprising call with K-J offsuit. The flop came King high and Nasir decided to check-raise, and then stack off when Zhang put him all in. All Zhang now had to do was dodge Nasir’s five outs and she would have almost 8 million chips and her two remaining opponents a combined total of only 3.5 million.
The King on the river felt inevitable, transforming the dream scenario into a nightmare, as Nasir doubled up to 5.5 million and left Zhang in a distant second. Although their eventual heads-up battle was long and competitive, she failed to come back from this stroke of bad luck, and you would have a hard time arguing that the entire tournament didn’t come down to that one card.
What was Nasir thinking?
The most frustrating part of all this – for Zhang and those of us who were rooting for her – is that it’s pretty hard to defend Nasir’s play in the hand.
Any time you’re the last player left against a squeeze, you’re going to be getting fairly good odds, so it’s always tempting to call. Zhang’s 3-bet was not a small one, however: 425,000, over Stevens’s open to 100,000, meaning Nasir was only being laid 2.3-1, hardly a must-call situation. Moreover, K-J offsuit is among the worst hands to have against a value 3-betting range, since hitting top pair is often just an excuse to go broke to a better hand.
The most likely explanation for Nasir’s decision was that proposed by Tony Dunst and his guests in the live stream commentary, which is that this was the second time Nasir was in exactly this situation, and he was probably still unhappy about the rather tighter fold he’d made the first time around.
In that other hand, the setup was exactly the same – an under-the-gun raise from Stevens, called around to Zhang, who took the opportunity to squeeze. That time, Nasir had had better odds (2.8-1) and a much better hand, King-Queen suited, yet had decided to fold, a move that had been criticized on the live stream as being too tight.
“I’ll get you next time…”
This is a leak that almost every player has had at some point in their poker careers and one that a great many never recognize or fix. The reason it’s so widespread is that it stems from an extremely natural bit of human psychology, which is that we don’t want to feel like we’re falling for the same trick over and over again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
At first glance, this seems like an instinct that would serve us well at the poker table. Poker is all about adapting to one’s opponents, after all, but usually that means adjusting one’s overall strategy to an opponent’s general style. Where it becomes problematic is when we try to adjust too narrowly, to a specific board texture or bet sizing or, as here, a particular preflop situation. Although it’s true that some very bad players are predictable in these ways, any remotely decent poker player knows better than to do the same thing every time in an easily identifiable spot.
It’s important to put yourself in the opponent’s shoes in these positions. Consider a typical blind stealing scenario: there’s a somewhat tight player at your table, and you’ve stolen his big blind every time for the last three orbits. The last time you did it, he took his time about folding and seemed unhappy. If you have the sense that he’s planning on playing back at you at the next opportunity, then you’re not going to be stealing lightly anymore. If you do raise again the next orbit, your range this time around is likely a fair bit tighter than it was for the first three, and if he sticks with his plan of playing back at you, he may end up regretting it.
That’s exactly where Nasir went wrong. He regretted folding his K-Q suited to Zhang’s squeeze, but rationalized it to himself by deciding that he’d stand up to her the next time she tried it. But of course, Zhang was at least as aware as everyone else of what she was doing, and would probably not be trying that move as a bluff the second time she did it. As it turns out, she wasn’t really bluffing the first time either – she had pocket Tens – but it was much more likely that she’d have been getting out of line the first time than the second. Therefore, if Nasir was going to make a stand, he should have done so the first time.
While it’s unfortunate that the final outcome of the event was likely decided by poor play and a bad beat, the upside is that there’s a clear lesson we can learn from what happened. Most of us make mistakes of this sort on a regular basis. If you don’t want to find yourself being taken to value town (or praying for a miracle river), then stop thinking in terms of snapping your opponent off next time – snap them off this time instead.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.