WPT Prague: Fahredin Mustafov and the Three-Body Problem
The Partypoker WPT Prague Main Event wrapped up this past Sunday, with Spain’s Javier Gomez finishing the night on top, taking home the title and €175,000. Gomez’s heads-up battle with second-place finisher Pavel Plesuv was quite intense; although Gomez had held the chip lead through much of the final table, Plesuv was on fire and repeatedly beat Gomez down to a short stack, only to see him double up again and again.
Although Gomez’s good fortune in all-in situations ultimately won him the day, Plesuv was generally the more impressive player both during their one-on-one confrontation and through most of the rest of the final table. The most interesting hand of the night, in my opinion, was one which played out between Plesuv, Fahredin Mustafov and Pedro Marques when the table was down to four players.
The three-body problem
The vast majority of pots in poker are played out between two players. It’s not uncommon for players to go three or four ways to a flop, but it’s rare that everyone has enough of a piece of it to continue much beyond that point, especially because one expects to need a stronger hand to win a multiway showdown. Playing the river in a multiway situation, then, is a tricky spot for most of us, both because we have less experience in that situation, and because playing against two opponents at once is actually much more difficult than the sum of its parts, even at a mathematical level.
In classical Newtonian physics, there’s a thing called the “three-body problem.” If you had only two orbiting bodies in an otherwise empty Universe – if we ignore everything but the Sun and the Earth, for instance – then the equations all work out neatly and you get the result that they both go around and around, following the same perfect elliptical trajectories for the rest of eternity. Add a third, however, and instead of nice ellipses, you get orbits which resemble a bowl of spaghetti, and which can’t be calculated exactly, only approximated through simulation or simplification.
The same is true with a three-way pot in poker. You can’t just consider each opponent’s range separately, as the likelihood of one holding certain cards decreases the likelihood that the other could have them and vice versa. Similarly, you can’t just consider one opponent’s possible responses to your action, but also have to think about how the second player will react to what the first one does, and so on. As a result, it’s often tempting to simplify the problem by taking a guess at which opponent has the stronger hand, and focusing on how to play against him. Like most simplifications, it’s an approach which can be useful sometimes and get you into trouble at others.
Plesuv: As6d – Button – 990,000
Marques: 8h8s – Small Blind – 1,200,000
Mustafov: 4s3c – Big Blind – 1,995,000
This was a pivotal hand in the tournament, as it began with Mustafov in 2nd place with nearly 2 million chips and Plesuv as the short stack with just under 1 million. The result of the hand was a momentum shift, however, and one which would ultimately see Mustafov out the door in 3rd place, while Plesuv’s foot remained planted firmly on the gas pedal from this point until his own luck ran out against Gomez.
Gomez folds under the gun and Plesuv picks up an Ace. The “worst Ace,” unfortunately – Ace-Six offsuit – but nonetheless a powerful hand on the Button with only four players remaining. He makes a standard raise to 65,000 (blinds 15k/30k).
Marques, with only slightly more chips than Plesuv, looks down at pocket Eights in the small blind. It’s a bit of a tough spot for him, as it’s certainly a hand one can three-bet for value in this situation, yet Plesuv’s 33 BB stack makes that a dicey proposition. It’s a little too deep for Marques to be shoving over a standard open, yet shallow enough that it’s difficult to fold if he ends up facing a 4-bet, so he elects to just call.
Mustafov’s call is nearly automatic at this point, even with only Four-Three offsuit, due to pot odds, and the fact that he’s closing the action preflop and will effectively be in position on the flop if he can check to Plesuv and count on the latter to make a continuation bet.
The flop comes out Ace-Five-Three with two Hearts, which is a pretty decent flop for all three players. Plesuv makes top pair, Mustafov has a pair and a gutshot, and Marques has only one overcard to his pocket pair, plus a backdoor flush draw with his Eight.
Marques and Mustafov check around to Plesuv, who bets 85,000 into 215,000. A continuation bet is very standard for the preflop raiser here, regardless of whether or not he actually has the Ace. With an Ace, you will usually get one street of value from underpairs as well as charging draws, while without one you will succeed in taking down the pot often enough on this texture to be worth taking a stab.
Marques is not overly happy to call here with an Ace on board and an opponent left to act behind him, but by flatting with his Eights preflop, he had to know Mustafov would come along and he’d be facing two opponents and at least one overcard almost all the time. He also knows, for the reasons we just stated, that Plesuv should be betting his entire range. Thus, a call is almost obligatory, and indeed, he makes the call.
Mustafov might have considered a check-raise semibluff had Marques not called, as it has a good chance of immediate success, good concealment if he makes trips or a wheel, and allows him to continue the bluff on any Heart turn. However, with Marques involved, that possibility is out the window, yet his hand has too much equity to fold, so he just calls as well.
The turn was the Nine of Spades, one of the least significant cards in the deck, both for the players’ actual hands and their likely ranges. Leading out would therefore have been very bizarre for either Plesuv or Mustafov, and indeed, both checked around to Plesuv again.
Plesuv knows he could still be ahead with top pair, and although the turn was not likely to have helped anyone directly, it could easily have given someone additional outs with Spades or a Five-to-Nine straight draw. On the other hand, with two opponents calling, it’s entirely possible someone else has an Ace, and the only Aces he beats are Ace-Four and Ace-Deuce. Most people will check back here and that’s what Plesuv does.
The river is another near-total blank: the Seven of Diamonds. The only plausible hands it could have helped would be pocket Sevens for a set, Seven-Five for two pair or maybe Eight-Six of Hearts for a flush draw which backed into a straight. This is a pretty narrow range, so both Marques and Plesuv are likely to feel that if their hand was best on the flop, it is probably still the best, and if they’re behind, they were probably always behind.
Despite the fact that nothing has changed, however, the fact that the turn was checked around now makes it plausible for either Marques or Mustafov to bet. If one of them were holding an Ace, they would no longer be expecting to get more value out of it by checking and hoping to call a bet from Plesuv.
I would actually be somewhat tempted to turn my hand into a bluff in Marques’s shoes, because I don’t think I’m likely to win a showdown, but he elects to check. Mustafov is certainly not likely to win with a pair of Threes, so the decision is now on him whether to take a stab or not.
This is where the “three-body problem” comes in. Mustafov thinks that the player he needs to make fold is Marques; after all, Plesuv should have been betting all his missed hands on that flop, and showed no interest in continuing on the turn, whereas Marques called a bet on the flop, out of position and with a player left to act behind him, and thus must have some kind of hand.
Trying to bluff the wrong guy
In reality, Mustafov needs both to fold, but Marques is highly unlikely to call, and the real problem is in fact Plesuv. Mustafov doesn’t know this, however, and is probably concentrating on reading Marques. He decides Marques is weak and makes the bet, and I can see two good reasons for thinking this.
Firstly, Marques probably doesn’t have an Ace. If he had a good Ace, he’d probably bet the river himself for value. Meanwhile, most bad Aces now have two pair. Finally, hands like Ace-Deuce and Ace-Four are good restealing hands, and Marques may very well have three-bet those preflop rather than calling with them out of position.
It’s also possible that Mustafov thought he had a tell on Marques. If you look at the video, after he checks, Marques begins staring intensely at Mustafov. Some players will do this kind of thing when they would like you to check, hoping that a bit of subtle intimidation will make you think twice about bluffing or going for thin value. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the case that Marques does have a tell in this regard, as he was known for staring at people in general and wasn’t at the table long enough for me to see if there’s a pattern. However, if you look at an earlier hand (at 0:44:13 in the video) where he was stronger, having made top pair on the river. In that spot, he does look at his opponent, but goes back and forth between his opponent and the board, rather than fixing a stare on the player the whole time.
Regardless, whether or not Marques does give something away is not really the point; if Mustafov felt that Marques was staring to feign strength, it could have contributed to his decision to bluff, regardless of whether or not that was really the case.
Whatever his reasons, Mustafov decides to try the bluff, firing out a huge bet of 380,000 into 470,000, and gets called by Plesuv. This may seem like a tough call for Plesuv to make, as he really only beats a bluff and has another player left behind him. However, Plesuv can reasonably assume Marques to be weak for the same reasons Mustafov does, while his own hand is very much under-represented. Mustafov’s large bet sizing is also polarizing, and possibly leaning towards weakness given that neither Plesuv nor Marques looks strong. Thus, all in all, I think it’s a higher-percentage call than it looks like, despite Plesuv’s poor kicker.
All told, Plesuv nearly doubled his stack through this hand, while Mustafov gave up about a quarter of his. As Paul Zimbler said in the live stream commentary, it’s not that Mustafov played badly, either; it’s a reasonable bluff to make in the situation, though I suspect he probably could have sized it a bit smaller. It’s just a perfect illustration of the difficulty of playing multi-way pots late in the hand: Sometimes your instincts about which player you’re really trying to beat can be misleading.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.