Based on how risk-averse everyone seemed to be during the latter half of Day 1, I expected the start of Day 2, with 43 people competing for 40 prizes, to go quite slowly. In fact, we saw four eliminations in three hands, and just like that, the bubble was over.
I was responsible for one of the eliminations that burst the bubble. Blinds were 5K/10K/500, and the small blind open jammed something like 85K into my big blind, where I held 99. I called and busted him to the delight of my tablemates, some of whom also seemed a bit surprised by my call. Although I wasn’t thrilled, mostly because of how tight I thought he might be shoving on the bubble, I did have him covered with enough left to last me more than an orbit, so I was confident I could fold into the money even if I lost. As it turned out, he had Q2s, which of course if he’s jamming that wide it’s a very profitable call.
I picked up another big pot jamming my 20BBs into a 4x open from UTG and a UTG+1 call. Given that it was a ten-handed table, I expected the original raise to show extreme strength, but I’d also seen enough nitty folds to believe that I might actually get him off of some pairs or even another AK. A player in MP took two minutes to fold his hand because he hadn’t realized the action was on him, and yet somehow this still hadn’t given UTG enough time to think because he then tanked for at least two minutes before I called the clock on him. He ended up showing JJ to the player on his right before folding, and UTG+1 folded as well, so I increased my stack by about 50% without a showdown.
A phrase I hear a lot is “I don’t want to flip at this stage of the tournament.” Well, I don’t want to flip either, but I also don’t want to give away 2.5 BB (a rough estimate of my edge assuming I were to get all in with AK vs a pocket pair in the preceding hand) plus fold equity when I’ve only got 20 to begin with. It never ceases to amaze me how many people enter tournaments, the furthest thing from a sure thing poker has to offer, and proceed to demand near-certainty before they’ll take a significant risk. A lot of run good went into my winning this tournament, but the biggest skill edge I had consisted in the willingness to take these risks as well as the wherewithal to exploit opponents who wouldn’t.
The next time I got AK, I was in the BB. A player in MP opened, I jammed, and he ended up calling it off with KJo (he had me well covered, not that that makes it a good call), and I held.
This all goes to show the importance of having a solid theoretical understanding of concepts like expected value and game theory rather than just playing by feel. I can promise you there were plenty of situations where it felt “icky” to stick my stack in with AK or to min-raise as a bluff off of a 17 BB stack, but I was able to override my natural risk aversion because I understood the math well enough to know that these simply had to be profitable moves.
This also kept me from getting frustrated when these moves didn’t work out. For example, the players on my immediate left were making no secret of the fact that they were just waiting for strong hands and were not going to bluff. Consequently, I was min-raising any two if I got the opportunity to open from the button, even when I only had 14 or 15 BBs. Once, the BB called this raise and bet out on an Ace-high flop that missed me entirely. I folded, and he showed me AQ, which, far from tilting me, made me feel even better about my open with 83o, even though it had cost me about 15% of my stack.
It seemed like what most of these guys wanted was just for everyone to get out of the way so they wouldn’t get drawn out on when they had a monster. I was happy to oblige them in exchange for far more than my share of the pots where no one had much of a hand.
Predictably, the nits on my left were eventually replaced with (slightly) better players, and I did open fold T4o on the button and Q2s in the CO when I had a barely 10 BB stack. That same orbit, I picked up A4o with six players to act behind me. My push/fold game is a little rusty but I believe this is a fold at equilibrium. In this case, though, I believed everyone would be tight enough with their calling to make it a good shove, and it got through.
The very next hand I picked up A5s, which again would most likely be an equilibrium fold now that my stack was larger, but which I think was a clear shove given the opponents. I ended up getting called and sucking out on 77, to the shock of much of the table. I distinctly overheard someone mutter “What is he doing?” The general consensus seemed to be that I was simply reckless, which again reflects completely the wrong approach to late game tournament play, especially in an event as top heavy as this one was. Believe it or not, there were people openly sweating $600 prize increases with thousands already locked up and $125K up top. Short effective stacks make aggressive stealing a high variance proposition, but they don’t make it less correct.
I was also the player to burst the final table bubble, calling a 10BB shove from the SB with 22 and beating her QJs. There was once again some shock expressed at this call, which one onlooker described as “Spartan”.
The Final Table
One of the many ways I ran well was with regard to the seat draw at the final table. Contrary to what I reported on Twitter, I entered as the chip leader. The next biggest stack was clear across the table from me, and the best of my opponents, a guy named Stuart who had I think the fourth largest stack, was on my immediate right. There was an accomplished tournament player with a resteal stack on my immediate left, so that kept me in line initially, but other than that things were laid out pretty ideally for me.
We were required to step away from the final table to use phones, and even when I wasn’t involved in the pot I wanted to pay close attention, so I wasn’t able to take notes as I had during the rest of the tournament. Apologies in advance: details going forward will be a bit more spotty.
That said, I don’t think I contested a single pot in the first orbit and a half, so when the action finally folded to me in the CO, I couldn’t resist opening K5o. The aforementioned player on my left moved all in, and I had to fold. I don’t know what I had, but it was a good spot for him to shove almost anything, so I redoubled my resolve not to get too far out of line pre-flop, especially in obvious spots.
The next pot I opened was with As 9c UTG, once we were nine-handed. I got three calls and a Js 8h 3s flop and checked, fully intending to give up. However, the action checked to an amateur on the button who’d been openly bragging about his big laydowns and overbetting and then showing his big hands. He bet 200K, about the half the pot, and I went into the tank.
I have a habit of always considering my options when the action is on me, even when the right play seems automatic. In doing so, it occurred to me that a small check-raise might garner an absurd amount of respect from this player, even though it would be a strange line inconsistent with how I’d play many if any strong hands. I had him covered and there were several shorter stacks out there. My biggest fear, really, was that one of the other players in the pot would sniff out what I was up to and shove. However, I thought that was probably giving them too much credit, and besides they’d have to sweat the button actually waking up with a hand and busting them, whereas my check-raise could risk very little. I made it 450K, and everyone folded. The button gave me a bit of sweat but ultimately told me he was folding JT.
I was already pulling well ahead of the next biggest stack when I opened QTo in early position, mostly because the same amateur player was in the big blind. The other big stack called on the button, and the BB called as well. The flop came JTT and I bet 200K into 500K. I like this sizing in a vacuum, but for expoitive reasons I think 300K would have been better. Anyway, the button called and the BB folded.
The turn was an 8, and with an SPR of roughly 2, I found myself in an awkward spot. I doubted that I could get two more bets out of worse. I hadn’t observed much of this player’s behavior, but in this tournament in general I’d seen a lot of big “protection” bets from marginal hands that just wanted to take the pot down, so I figured I’d give him a chance to do something like that. I checked, he bet 450K, and I put him all in for about three times that. He tanked for a long time and reluctantly folded.
That gave me a commanding chip lead, close to half the chips in play at an eight-handed table. What set me back was a bad beat from the aforementioned amateur the next time he was in the BB. I opened with AJo, a medium stack called in middle position, and the BB, now short stacked, called. The flop came A96 with two diamonds, and he open shoved for about the size of the pot. Of course I called, and to my surprise, MP called as well.
That worried me a bit, but ultimately I just couldn’t see him playing AQ or AK this way pre-flop, nor two-pair or better on the flop. So, I jammed the turn, and after a long tank he folded what he told me was A6. The BB had a flush draw that got there on the river, so that set me back.
To make matters worse, Stuart, by far the toughest of the remaining players, doubled through the same guy by getting it in 77 vs AA and spiking a 7.
On the plus side, this created a new dynamic. I still had him covered, but he was the second largest stack, and given that he was also the second best player, he had a lot of incentive not to tangle with me. I started leaning hard on his BB.
Somewhere in there, I picked up AA in the SB when someone open shoved in front of me, but the board ran out a straight and I chopped with his AQ. The crowd erupted, but I knew enough to treat this as completely irrelevant. I don’t even consider it bad luck. The action would have gone down exactly the same if he’d had AA and I’d had AQ. If you insist on thinking in terms of luck, you can say that I was lucky to cooler him pre-flop and he was lucky to escape with half. You’re looking for excuses to feel sorry for yourself if consider this an unlucky outcome.
Speaking of luck, I busted the player who’d entered the final table second in chips when I opened KJ and got a QT9 flop. I can’t fault him for jamming over my flop bet with an A5s that flopped a flush draw, but I don’t think calling my pre-flop raise with it was such a good idea.
That left the player on my left as one of the shortest remaining stacks, which actually made it tougher for me to put pressure on him, as he had less to lose. I still planned to jam on him pretty aggressively given the opportunity, but I twice got hands so bad that I had to give him walks. The third time it folded to me in the SB, I jammed about 10BBs with J8o and he woke up with AKo to double through me.
Meanwhile, Stuart was busy winning a flip against one of the weakest remaining players plus a couple of medium-sized pots against me, putting the two of us virtually even. Thankfully, I busted the other two remaining players and entered heads up with something like 60% of the chips in play.
A few people suggested a chop both at the start of the final table and when we got to five- and four-handed, but neither Stuart nor I was interested at the time. First place paid about twice second, a difference of nearly $60,000, and I might have considered chopping a portion of that if Stuart had suggested it. That said, I did expect to have a sizable edge, as even many otherwise good players lack heads up experience, so I wasn’t all that eager to chop. I figured I’d let Stuart be the one to bring it up, as that would give me an edge in negotiating, but he never did.
The match was over almost before it began. On the third hand, I three-bet him with AQs, he jammed K2o, and my hand held up.
I have a bit more to say about the aftermath of victory, but this post is plenty long enough already, so I’ll save that for tomorrow.