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A Chip, a Chair, and a Plan

A very nice play

by Lee H. Jones |  Published: Oct 10, 2007

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do"

If you're one of the producers of the European Poker Tour television shows, please stop reading now; I'm about to make a pretty startling confession: Watching a typical no-limit hold'em all-in confrontation is about as interesting as watching a roulette wheel go around. For example, it has all the appeal of listening to grass grow. One of your players gets the reds, the other gets the blacks, and the guy with the pocket pair (instead of the overcards) gets zero and double zero (green, for the roulette novices). The point is that once the cards go on their backs and the dealer starts putting out the flop, turn, and river, the skill is gone. Now it seems that some poker commentators think that the "pros" (for example, anybody who's won a bracelet and/or has announced that he/she is a pro poker player) have some magical ability to make their 48 percent equity a huge favorite - or at least, the commentary implies, they deserve to.

But you and I know for sure that if Phil Ivey turns up A-Q against Hillary Duff's 8-8, we're gonna take Hillary and give the points. That Phil might be the best poker player in the world and Hillary thinks a club is where you go after the show has nothing to do with it; Hillary is a 5-4 favorite and all of Phil's talent can't fix that.

This is why I'm much more interested in what goes on behind the scenes of a poker game or tournament. What happens when there are cards to come and bets to be made - when we separate the men from the boys; or, in this case, the women from the girls.

I introduce again my friend Jeanne, whom you may recall from a previous column. I spelled out in grim detail how Jeanne had played pocket queens "like a little girl" (her phrase, not mine), and ended up folding the best hand in a monster pot during a sit-and-go. Well, she's back, but this time she made what I consider to be a world-class play.

Jeanne was in a tournament at the local casino, and they were down to five players, but she was in pretty deep trouble. Specifically, she was down to $2,500 and the blinds were $1,200 and $2,400. That is, she had the big blind plus one lonely $100 chip. She was on the button and everyone folded to her. Both blinds had plenty of chips. I won't say what cards she had - the specific hand isn't important - but suffice it to say, the hand was "playable."

"I call," she said, carefully leaving her one remaining chip capping her cards.

"Are you all in?" asked the small blind (a co-worker of hers).

"If I were all in, I'd have announced that," she replied.

As soon as she described this play to me on the phone, I sat up straight in my chair; this was incredibly good poker thinking.
Why don't you take a minute and see if you can figure out what Jeanne was up to.

You're back? OK …

"I knew that if I went all in, the small blind would probably call, and no matter what, the big blind would call instantly. He'd be correct to call without looking at his cards. Then they'd run out five cards and I'd have to beat them both, since they'd surely check the whole hand down.

"But by leaving myself that one chip, I forced them to play poker against each other. If one of them wanted to get me all in, he'd have to make a full ($2,400) bet. And he might not want to risk that. And if one of them did bet, I could fold if I was absolutely sure that I was beat. Furthermore, if one of them bet, suddenly there would be a significant side pot; if they really got mixed up in it, I could fold and hope that one of them busted out."

Now this is what makes poker a fascinating game; I'd rather hear one story like this than 100 runner-runner bad-beat tales.

The story even has a happy ending. As it turned out, the small blind completed the bet and the big blind checked. Jeanne flopped top two pair. Both blinds checked - and she checked, too! Absolutely! She still had the problem of both players getting the right price to call with virtually any two cards. The turn was a blank, and they both checked again. And again, Jeanne checked. Finally, when they checked on the river, she put in her last chip, they both called, and her top two pair was very, very good. And, in fact, she went on to win the tournament after making a deal for most of the money when heads up.

But the fairy-tale ending to the tournament is no more important here than whether the roulette wheel comes up red or black (or green) in my whimsical analogy above. There's nothing that Jeanne (or Phil Ivey, or Hillary Duff, or you, or I) can do about the cards that come out. But by using your logical skills, you can ensure that you get as much of the roulette wheel as possible on your side. Therein lies the key to winning poker.

Well done, Jeanne - very nice play.

"Two can be as sad as one"

Lee Jones is an executive consultant with the European Poker Tour, and the author of the best-selling book Winning Low Limit Hold'em.