Omar Zazay won the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open (SHRPO) Championship last night for an even million. To do so, he had to win an epic heads-up battle against local dealer Brian Phillis. Their heads-up match lasted over 100 hands, and it was an important one, with the jump from 2nd to 1st being worth $425,000.
Zazay came into the match at about a 3-1 chip disadvantage after Phillis knocked out former One Drop winner Daniel Colman in third. Needless to say, it took him a significant amount of both luck and skill to come back to win. The luck part came in hand #195 when he flopped trips against Phillis’s overpair of Kings and got a full double up; after that, it was all skill.
In the 20 hands following that fortuitous flop, Zazay took four more large pots, all of them holding a King with a bad kicker. That may seem like a coincidence, but how a person plays these sorts of hands, with one high and one low card can make all the difference in heads-up play.
Hands like Ace-Six, King-Three and so forth are tricky to play, because they can easily make a mediocre hand but very rarely a strong one. They’re unconnected and can’t make a straight, they’ll make bottom pair about as often as top pair, and even when they do make top pair, they’re often going to find themselves beaten by another top pair with a better kicker.
For those reasons, they’re often not worth playing outside of heads-up situations, and when they are, it’s usually as a bluff, using the high card as a blocker to assist in a steal or re-steal attempt. In heads-up, things are different, however; as problematic as these hands can be, they’re still going to be the better preflop hand more than half of the time, so you can’t let them go to waste. In order to play them profitably, though, you need to be good at playing marginal hands, and at knowing when to bluff.
These are tricky things to master, and this is why making the best use of these sorts of hands is one of the things which separates great heads-up players from okay ones. Making Zazay’s play more impressive is that all but one of these hands was played out of position, which only makes a tricky hand even trickier. We’re going to be considering the situations from his perspective, so I’ll only reveal Phillis’s cards at the end of the analysis.
Hand #199 – A terrible pair facing a turn raise
Zazay is dealt K3 offsuit in the big blind and Phillis raises to 500k, which was 2.5 BB at the time. As we’ve said, this is not a foldable hand for one raise preflop heads up, so Zazay could either 3-bet or call. He chooses the latter.
The flop comes 632 with two Hearts (neither of Zazay’s cards was a Heart). Zazay checks, presumably with the intention of calling or raising, but Phillis checks back.
The turn was the 2 of Clubs, and now Zazay leads out for 500k, which makes perfect sense. With a marginal hand, we’d prefer our opponents to be doing the betting, as it keeps in their bluffs, but there’s no guarantee Phillis would choose to bet on this fairly blank turn, and giving two free cards with a Pair of Threes is just begging to let one’s opponent hit his overcards, so a protection bet is in order.
To what I imagine would be Zazay’s surprise, Phillis does not fold or call, but rather minimum-raises to 1 million. K3 cannot beat anything except total air or a worse 3 on this board, of course, so many of us would snap fold to a raise here, but the question is what Phillis could possibly be representing. He likely would have continuation-bet with any hand containing a 2 for the same reason Zazay bet the turn: that he’d feel he probably had the best hand, but an extremely vulnerable one. So in terms of big, raise-worthy hands, that would leave 54 for a straight.
Compared to the odds of exactly 54, it seems much more likely that Phillis would be bluffing or semibluffing, as there are all sorts of flush, gutshot draw and overcard hands he could have. There’s a temptation for Zazay to re-raise then, to continue protecting his hand, but this really does just turn it into a bluff, and since Phillis has now shown interest in getting aggressive, it’s best to let him continue bluffing if that’s what he was doing. Therefore, Zazay calls.
The river is a 4 of Diamonds, completing a possible gutshot. That’s a little bit worrisome for Zazay, but Phillis had shown a tendency to limp a lot of mediocre hands, so the preflop raise makes a 5 less likely. Moreover, the whole point of the turn call was to induce bluffs, so Zazay checks. Phillis fires another small 500k bet and Zazay has an easy call for those odds. Sure enough, Phillis mucks without even showing (though we know he had Q7) and Zazay’s Pair of Threes proves good.
Hand #201 – Another call-down
Two hands later, a very similar scenario played out, although I think that in this case Zazay’s calldown was easier and more standard. This time, he’s dealt K2 offsuit in the big blind and Phillis again raises to 500k. Once again, Zazay opts to flat call rather than 3-bet semibluff his raggy King. (I say semibluff rather than bluff because top pair is a monster in heads-up, even with no kicker, so K2 can still catch a good flop even if called.)
This time, the flop comes J72 rainbow. Again, Zazay opts to check and hope to induce a continuation bet. This time, Phillis complies, betting 400k into a pot of just over a million. This is a kind of flop that’s unlikely to have hit anyone very hard, so Zazay could expect Phillis to be continuation betting most of the time. It’s therefore a pretty easy call with a Pair of Deuces.
The turn is a 4 – a total blank – and Zazay checks again. Now he’d probably fold to a second barrel, I imagine, because the nature of the board is such that neither player can really be on a draw (except maybe a gutshot with e.g. T8), so Phillis would likely only continue to bet with a pair of some sort. But Phillis checks.
The river pairs the 7. The only point in betting would be if Zazay thought he could get value from Ace high, but he can’t range Phillis that narrowly nor can he be sure of getting paid, so his check is natural. Phillis bets 1 million into 1.85 million. This is, in my opinion, a pretty terrible bluff. The large sizing seems like Phillis is trying to represent a 7, but a good 7 doesn’t seem likely given his small flop sizing and turn check-back, and a bad one doesn’t seem likely given his preflop raise. Also, Zazay looks pretty weak himself, having just called the flop and checked the turn and river, so if he Phillis did have a strong hand, he would likely bet smaller to try to get a call.
Zazay calls and again Phillis has nothing at all – 63 suited, this time.
Hand #211 – Small pair, big bet
Once again, Zazay is in the big blind, now with K6 offsuit. This time, Phillis limps. Unless he’s trapping, this means Zazay is likely to hold the better hand, so he puts in a raise of his own – the amount is not specified in the hand history, but based on subsequent bet sizes, I assume it’s to the same 500k Phillis had been using.
Phillis calls and the flop comes JT6 rainbow, giving Zazay bottom pair. We’ve seen that he’d usually check this (as would I) if Phillis had been the preflop aggressor, but giving Phillis’s limp and the two broadway cards, it’s going to be checked back too often, so Zazay continuation bets for 500k.
Phillis calls and the turn is a 3. This changes nothing, and now that Phillis has shown interest in the hand, Zazay switches to bluff-inducing mode and checks. Phillis bets 700k. Against some people I would assume a Ten or Jack and fold, but given Phillis’s preflop limp and tendencies to this point, a worse 6 seems entirely possible, so I think calling is correct, and Zazay thought so too.
The river is a 9 and now I have to admit that I’m not sure what Zazay is thinking when he bets 1.4 million, which is nearly 60% of the pot. The 9 is a good card to bluff on, because it completes a lot of straights and two-pair hands, but turning his 6 into a bluff seems inconsistent with his turn play from my perspective, assuming that his intent there was to induce bluffs from Phillis.
I see three possibilities: one is that he’s worried that Phillis had some kind of straight draw which now paired the 9 and wants to bet enough to make him fold it. Another is that he’s actually trying to represent a bluff and get a hero call if Phillis has a worse 6, since Phillis will now presumably check a 6 back. A final possibility is simply that he’s taking a weird line for the sake of mixing up his play, since he’s taken bluff-inducing lines on the turn and river with bottom pair so often already.
Whatever the logic behind it, the bet turned out to be great, as Phillis happened to be holding T8 for a flopped middle pair, but was convinced to let it go by Zazay’s bet-check-bet line.
Hand #214 – The game-winning bluff
This time, Zazay is in position and gets dealt K2 offsuit in the small blind. He min-raises to 400k – his standard sizing – and Phillis 3-bets big, to 1.2 million. Phillis had not been 3-betting very frequently and both of the last two times he had, he’d folded to a 4-bet by Zazay. That being the case, if I’m Zazay, I’m not expecting him to be 3-betting very light here, and not expecting him to fold to a 4-bet for a third time. That being the case, I’d be inclined to fold, but Zazay makes the call.
Calling a 3-bet with K2 offsuit with the hope of making top pair would be extremely spewy, so Zazay is calling with the intent of outplaying Phillis later in the hand, presumably because he knows Phillis is likely to put his foot down if he tries another 4-bet. Personally, I would probably have just let this one go, but if Zazay feels pretty sure that Phillis has either a pair or an Ace, there will be plenty of chances to take the pot away from him. Sometimes, in heads-up play, having the wider range is better than having the better hand, because hand reading is so important.
In any case, the flop comes AQ3 rainbow and Phillis continues for 1.3 million. This is of course a good flop for Phillis’s 3-betting range and a bad one for Zazay’s hand, but he decides to float because he has position. I likely would have folded, but it’s possible Zazay thought he sensed weakness and guessed Phillis had a pocket pair. Certainly, calling makes Zazay look like he has an Ace, so Phillis should be easy to get off of a pair of Jacks or worse.
The turn is a Q, bringing two Clubs to the board, and Phillis checks. This is of course what Zazay wanted, so he bets 1.2 million. I would be expecting a fold or sometimes a check/shove trap here, but Phillis calls.
The river is the 5 of Clubs. Phillis checks again and Zazay bets 3.5 million, which would put Phillis all-in. I think here, he’s realized that Phillis does have an Ace after all, but it must not be a very strong one for him not to have bet or check-shoved the turn. As it turns out, that’s exactly what he had: A7 offsuit.
What’s important to Zazay here is that both the turn and river are scare-cards for a mediocre Ace, allowing him to represent both trips and a flush, as well as possible stronger Aces or a flopped Set of Threes. So in that sense, it’s a good spot to run a two-barrel bluff, but it’s still an extremely hard bluff to pull the trigger on. If Zazay had just checked back and surrendered the hand, Phillis would have had about 11.5 million chips and Zazay about 15.5 million, thus retaining the chip lead. On the other hand, if Phillis had managed to find a call, those stacks would have been reversed, more or less, putting Phillis ahead. Moreover folding top pair is never easy for anyone heads-up, regardless of how scary the board is, so even if Zazay knew for certain that Phillis was as weak as A7, he couldn’t feel totally confident of making him fold it.
But after a long tank, Phillis made the laydown, leaving himself only 16 big blinds. Despite one double-up a few hands later, this hand was more or less the breaking point for Phillis. It took nearly another 60 hands for Zazay to whittle him the rest of the way down, but Phillis never really looked likely to make a comeback after letting this one go.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.