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Stu Ungar’s Final Hand in the 1997 World Series of Poker

A great catch on the river

by Phil Hellmuth |  Published: Apr 01, 2011


Thinking back to day two of the main event of the 1997 World Series of Poker, I remember that I played at a table that was pretty stacked. Sitting there on that day were world champions Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Stu Ungar, and me. I remember that Ungar and I were the chip leaders of the tournament, and we dueled all day long. Unfortunately for me, I was eliminated the next day, with 27 players remaining, but Ungar went on to face John Strzemp heads up for the title and the $1 million first prize.

The final table was played outdoors, in front of Binion’s Horseshoe, with the ESPN cameras there to catch the action. It was windy that day in Las Vegas, and I remember that it was an issue for the dealers.

With the blinds at 10,000-20,000 and a 2,000-a-man ante, Ungar (with more than 2 million in chips) opened for 60,000 from the button with A-4, and Strzemp (with less than 1 million in chips) called with A-8. The flop came A-5-3, Strzemp bet 120,000 into the 124,000 pot, and Ungar studied his cards for a long time (more on this below) before he finally moved all in. Strzemp called for all of his remaining chips, and Ungar needed to catch a 4 or a deuce to win his third World Series main-event championship. The 3 on the turn meant that Ungar now needed to catch a deuce, and only a deuce, to win. The river was a deuce, and Ungar became a three-time World Series of Poker champion.

Let’s take a closer look at this hand. Ungar’s raise of 40,000 before the flop was a pot-sized preflop raise, and represented the standard for the time. New-school standard betting sizes are different, and the standard today would be closer to a 25,000 raise. Strzemp’s 40,000 preflop call was interesting. In 1997, it was more standard to reraise with A-8 in a heads-up situation like this one, and if Strzemp thought that he had the best hand, he should have reraised! The new-school standard also is to reraise in this spot. Basically, I would teach my students to reraise if they thought they had the best hand, and if they weren’t sure, to reraise anyway (unless they had a strong read), because A-8 is a pretty good heads-up hand. Personally, I could have gone either way, depending on my read and the strength of my opponent. If I thought that I could beat my opponent and I wasn’t sure if his 40,000 raise was weak or strong, I would have just called. If I thought that my opponent had a weaker hand than mine, I would have moved all in.

Strzemp’s 120,000 pot-sized bet on the flop was not a good one. Since he was going all the way with this hand on the flop, why bet it? Why not check-raise and give Ungar a chance to bluff off some chips? Or, if he had to bet it, why not bet less and try to appear weak? After Strzemp bet, Ungar spent a minute appearing to be studying his holecards.

A few years later, after I had seen the hand on tape, I told Ungar, “I know that you looked at only the ace before the flop, and that you knew you had a ‘two across’ with it. Then, when the flop came, you knew that you had either top two pair or aces with a straight draw.”

Ungar acted very surprised, and asked, “How did you know that?” (“Two across” or “two spotter” means that when you look at the spots on the side of half of the card, there are two. Thus, a two across is a 4 or a 5, a three across is a 6, a 7, or an 8, and a four across is a 9 or a 10.) No-limit lowball players “sweat” their cards all the time by looking at how many spots they see on the side. If, for example, they are even money to have a pair or a strong lowball hand (maybe a 5 pairs them and a 4 gives them the best possible hand), they may make a huge bet, not knowing if they have a great hand or squadush! After all, it is harder for someone else to read you when you yourself don’t even know if you’re strong or weak!

Ungar’s all-in move here was fine. He wins the pot if Strzemp is bluffing or folds, and if he gets called by a better ace, he can always hit a 4 or a deuce. Strzemp’s call was a good one. He correctly surmised that he had the best hand, and actually, when he bet the flop, I think that he felt like he was going to go with it, if necessary. ♠

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