Yoon’s Small-Blind Limping Strategy
Season XIII of the World Poker Tour is in the books, with Asher Conniff as the surprise winner of the WPT World Championship last night. Naturally, Conniff is the night’s big story, both for his final table dominance and for the fact that he was only playing in the tournament in the first place due to having won an online satellite which he registered for by mistake. Some guys have all the luck!
There’s little to say about him or his performance that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere, so instead I’d like to talk a bit about third place finisher Brian Yoon and one particular hand he played.
An anticlimactic finish to the season
I’m an avid watcher of poker live streams, particularly the WPT final tables, as they’re usually a reliable source of interesting hands and surprising moves. The home stretch of Season XIII in particular has been riveting, full of hero calls and other hard-to-explain decisions.
Because it’s been such a great season, one would have liked to see an equally dramatic finish in the Championship, but that was beginning to seem unlikely even before the cards were in the air on the final day, simply due to the distribution of chips.
For a great final table, what you ideally want to see are deep average stacks, and close races for both the chip lead and the short stack. Instead, what we had last night was a short stack (Carlos Mortensen, 4th – $267,764) with only 16 BB, a deep stack (Alexander Lakhov, 2nd – $573,779) with just over 100 BB, and everyone else in a log jam in the middle with between about 30 and 60 BB.
This sort of setup is a recipe for a lot of stealing and restealing and not much postflop play, plus a tight table overall as players wait for one short stack after another to bust and give them a pay jump.
Fortunately, Brian Yoon had a strategy to deal with this dynamic which was both interesting to watch and did fairly well for him, giving him an eventual 3rd place finish for $330,358.
Hand #40 – Yoon vs. Qartomy
The most interesting hand of the night came about with five players remaining, between Brian Yoon in the small blind and Ray Qartomy in the big blind. Yoon had just doubled up with a flopped flush on the previous hand, rocketing him all the way from last place into second because everyone’s stack sizes were so similar… everyone, that is, but Conniff, who was already running away with the tournament at this point.
Fortune was continuing to smile on Yoon, who now found that the action had folded around to him in the small blind and looked down to find the King-Ten of Clubs in the hole, a fairly monster hand for a small blind vs. big blind situation. Rather than raising, he simply completed, leaving Qartomy with the option to bet or check. Qartomy, meanwhile, had a pitiful 7-3 offsuit, but elected to raise with it, presumably hoping to use a combination of position and aggression to buy the pot postflop.
Yoon called, and the flop brought T96 with two Hearts and a Club, giving him top pair and a backdoor flush draw. Qartomy followed through on his strategy by firing a bet when checked to, which Yoon again called. The turn was a Five of Clubs, improving both players’ draws: Yoon now had a direct flush draw to go with his top pair, while Qartomy had improved from a gutshot to an open-ended straight draw.
Again, Yoon checked and flat called when Qartomy fired a second barrel. The turn was the Three of Clubs, completing Yoon’s flush. He checked to trap, but unfortunately Qartomy checked back this time. Still, it was a fairly large pot for Yoon, and considerably more than he would have won if he’d just stolen the blinds by raising preflop.
What’s interesting about this hand, of course, is that Yoon had a monster the whole way, by blind-vs.-blind standards anyway, but never put in a single bet or raise. Qartomy, meanwhile, was aggressive on three of four streets, despite having total junk before the flop, and only improving ever-so-slightly on each subsequent street, ending up with fifth pair on the river. Of course, bluffing and slowplaying are both regular occurrences in poker, but this hand comes off as a bit of an oddball regardless. As is often the case in poker, to understand both players’ decision, we have to go back and look at earlier hands.
For starters, Yoon’s decision to complete rather than raise with K-T suited is easy to explain if you look at his play in the small blind throughout the final table. The live stream commentators suggested that it was because this particular hand was strong enough that he would regret making his opponent fold, yet not strong enough to be happy getting reraised. Although this makes some sense, I suspect that Yoon’s strategy was such that he would have done the same thing with anything from 7-2 offsuit up to pocket Aces.
It’s hard to say for sure whether he was really limping his small blind with his entire range, but it’s what he did every time it was folded to him in that position. The hand in question was only the third opportunity he’d had to limp the small blind, but he did it a few more times later on as well, so it seems pretty likely it was his intent to be consistent in doing so. He stuck with the strategy from the beginning of final table up until only three players remained, at which point he began making some raises and folds.
This is a strategy that we’ve seen a few pros adopt in recent years. Although conventional wisdom is that limping is bad, many players want to be able to play all, or almost all of their hands in blind-vs.-blind situations, and limping rather than raising makes it easier to do so. In particular, when stack sizes are starting to get short, raising one’s entire range can lead to many problematic situations when the big blind 3-bets. Completing with one’s entire range turns the tables on the big blind, forcing him to choose between letting the small blind see a cheap flop, or making a raise and risking walking into a limp-raise. It also keeps the stack-to-pot ratio high, which is a good thing if you feel you have the postflop edge on your opponent.
Letting your opponent bet for you
That brings us to the flop. Having flopped top pair and a backdoor flush draw, many people would be inclined to bet. Technically speaking, that would be a donk bet here, since Qartomy had raised preflop, but this is the sort of flop and situation where you don’t expect a continuation bet 100% of the time. For instance, if Qartomy had been raising for value with a hand like A-J preflop, he might be inclined to check back this flop to preserve his showdown value. He might meanwhile call a bet with such a hand, so there’s something to be said for Yoon leading out upon getting a good flop.
However, once again, if we look back at previous hands, Yoon’s motivations become pretty clear. As we said, this was the third time the two had been in this position. The first time, on hand #20, Yoon had likewise flopped top pair and led out with it, but Qartomy had folded. Next, on hand #35, Yoon had flopped bottom pair plus a wheel draw and check-called with it. They got to showdown that time and although Qartomy turned out to have hit a higher pair on the turn, Yoon had in fact had the better hand on the flop.
Based on the outcome of these two hands, it’s easy to imagine that Yoon would believe that the best way to get value out of Qartomy in these positions would be to let him do the betting.
Turn and river
It was, of course, frustrating for Yoon not to get any more money in on the river while holding the second nuts, but there was little to be done at that point. Leading out on a flush river card after playing passively for the rest of the hand would have been equivalent to turning his hand face up. To get called there, he would have to believe Qartomy could put him on a bluff, but he had at this point called three streets, so it would be hard to represent a bluff convincingly.
If there’s any place Yoon might have been losing value, it would be the turn. I’m not sure leading out there would have made much sense, but with top pair, second kicker and now a direct flush draw, in a blind-vs.-blind situation, you could probably make an argument for check-shoving, especially given that Qartomy now had about half his stack in the middle and would have a hard time folding. Of course, given his actual cards, Qartomy would in fact have folded, but it’s hard to imagine that Yoon was putting him on 7-3 offsuit at that point.
Yoon may, however, have believed that Qartomy would have a lot of multi-barrel bluffs in his range. Again, the last time they were in this situation, Yoon had shown a willingness to call two streets with a pair of Deuces and a gutshot. That’s the sort of dynamic which tempts some players into trying three-barrel bluffs further down the road, and Qartomy’s sizing on the flop and turn was such that he was leaving himself a shove of just over half the pot on the river. In playing the turn passively, Yoon may have been counting on him to spew off like this and didn’t want to chase him away before he had the chance.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.