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A World Series of Poker Hand

by Daragh Thomas |  Published: Jan 01, 2010


When I first got interested in poker I used to watch as much of it on TV as I could. After a while, as I learnt more about the game, I began to become more discerning as to what I would watch. On a lot of shows, the commentary and small stack sizes would begin to annoy or bore me. Even now though, I look forward to watching the World Series of Poker every year. The poker is interesting and I like the atmosphere and commentary. I even have a strange fondness for Norman Chad’s ex-wife jokes (although he seems to have toned them down this year unfortunately). 

There are quite a few interesting and educational mistakes being made by players in the hands shown. Before I go any further I want to point out that a single badly played hand is not much of a reflection on that player’s ability. The criticism could be wrong, or there might be an unknown factor that we can’t be aware of (perhaps Ivey just got a phone call about a big game happening somewhere and is trying to bust himself out!) or more likely than those two, the hand might be a single mistake brought on by tiredness, or a similar factor.

The WSOP is a great example for the last reason, because it is such a long and arduous tournament. Personally, I usually play poker for around two to three hours, and when I play in a large live multitable tournament my play gets substantially worse after a few hours because my brain wants to switch off and do something else. I have heard from plenty of people who played the main event that a lot of otherwise good players make serious mistakes towards the end of each day. In some ways such a large tournament is an endurance contest as much as a poker tournament.

That said, the hand I want to discuss today which contains a fairly large mistake, wasn’t caused by tiredness. I’ll go through the hand before I discuss where I think Mike Matusow went wrong. It’s day one with the blinds at 150-300. A tight man in a sports jersey, whose name is Johnson limps under the gun. As so often happens, this limp sets off a chain of limps. The next player folds, but Mike limps with Qs Js, the next players limps with 8d 6d, the small blind with K-10 off-suit, and the big blind checks with an unknown hand. 
Mike Matusow
So there are five players to the flop and the pot is 1,500. The flop comes out 9-6-3, all spades. So Johnson, from under the gun (UTG), has flopped two overs and the nut flush draw, and Mike has flopped a queen-high flush. The blinds check and UTG bets 700 with his draw. Mike, who has looked like he was playing pretty snug all day, then raises to 2,200. None of the rest of the players have much, so they all get out of the way and fold to the UTG player. Johnson then immediately pushes for 16,000.

Matusow then begins to talk to himself and contemplate what to do. You can tell by the tone of his thoughts that he is seriously contemplating folding. In fact, you can tell that Mike has really come to the WSOP to fold. A lot of the pros are so concerned with not being busted out that they fail to think through the hand properly. He never gives any serious consideration to what range the other player has. Let’s do it quickly now.
So Johnson, who Mike thinks is the tightest player at the table, limps under the gun, bets and then three-bets in after the flop which contains three spades. Preflop his range is probably going to be a lot of high aces, A-Q, A-J, maybe A-K (he may or may not raise), and maybe some relatively suited aces; I also think he is going to have a lot of pairs, some premium pairs going for a limp reraise, or slow play; some medium and small pairs hoping to either play a small pot or flop a set. I think he may limp some hands like K-Qs, but I reckon he folds it most of the time. 

So then the flop comes out nine-high, with three spades. He leads out, is raised, and then shoves. I think it’s important to always try and put your opponents on a range of hands, and not just a single hand, but in this case the hand that screams out to me is A-x, where the ace is a spade but the x is not. Because it’s a tight player I think the other card is going to be another ace, or maybe a nine, or K, Q or J. He could also have a set, although I think he probably flat calls the raise sometimes with these hands. And then of course you have to consider the fact that he could have flopped the nuts, A-x of spades. However I would heavily discount this because his play would be so bizarre with the nuts — why bet out for half the pot, and then shove for a large overbet when he is raised. That is a hand that thinks it’s good, but wants to end the pot now (which is why I would think there is a great chance he has aces). Also, Mike has the Q and J of spades, so he can’t have A-Q or A-J of spades. He also can only have K-10 or K-9 of spades, not K-Q or K-J. So, the only high flushes that are available are A-K (which is going to be raised pre some of the time) or A-10 which he probably folds some of the time. There is a small chance of a lower flush, but since he limped UTG, I think this is quite unlikely, and there’s an even smaller chance of some bizarre hand with little or no equity, like 10-10 with no spade. 

So clearly, against a range like that there is no mathematical analysis needed. Mike is a big favourite against Johnson’s range, because it is so hard for Johnson to have a higher flush. Unfortunately for Mike, he thinks for a while and folds. Some players become so convinced of their greatness, that they play more and more cautiously to the point where they are actually playing bad poker, as highlighted by this hand. It isn’t possible to play poker without taking some risks, that’s what it is all about, constantly taking calculated risks. In theory, there is no harm in passing up very small edges, but when you begin to pass up large edges like this, it is unlikely you can continue to have a positive edge in a tournament. Embrace the variance. Spade Suit

Daragh Thomas has made a living from poker over the last three years. He also coaches other players and writes extensively on the poker forum, under the name hectorjelly.