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Great Plays

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Aug 08, 2012


Matt LessingerFirst things first: I would like to congratulate fellow Card Player columnist, Matt Matros, on winning his third WSOP bracelet in three years, a tremendous achievement. In modest fashion he credited most of it to luck, but winning tournaments is all about putting yourself in a position to get lucky, and he’s been doing that for almost a decade. He has consistently made great plays and he is now reaping the rewards.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about great plays. When someone talks about a “great play” in poker, what comes to your mind? Personally, I’ve always thought of bluffs. What could be greater than winning an entire pot that you were not entitled to? Then I think of someone snapping off a bluff. When someone makes a gutsy bluff and someone else makes an even gutsier call, I’ve always thought of that as great.

But the more poker you play, the more you realize that a great play doesn’t necessarily have to involve winning the pot. Anytime you lose less than most players would lose in the same situation, you have done something special. In other words, if you can come closer than almost any other player to making the “optimal” play, then you have set yourself apart.

The optimal play is what you would do if you could see your opponent’s cards. Sometimes making that play would be completely unrealistic. For example, if someone open raises with A-A and you are behind him with K-K, the only way you could possibly fold is if you saw his cards. No sane person is going to fold K-K for a single raise. Most people will probably get stacked, and usually that is an acceptable (if not desirable) outcome.

Other times, especially in deep-stack tournaments, there are ways to escape. With that in mind, let me recount a hand from the 2004 World Poker Tour event in Paris. Those of you who were around poker at the time might remember this hand. To others it might be a new story:

It was the very first level of the tournament. Blinds were 25-50 and everyone started with 10,000. Howard Lederer, who had 12,000 in chips, opened for a raise to 150. Everyone folded to Jan Boubli, who had 6,700 in chips, and he made it 400 to go. Lederer then made it 1,500 to go. Boubli raised another 2,500, making it 4,000 to go. Lederer then made a five-bet shove.

Most people thought Boubli would instantly call. Keep in mind that he had only 2,700 left and the pot was 10,775. Instead he went deep into the tank, and after a couple of minutes he folded K-K faceup. Although Lederer did not show his hand, he admitted later that he had A-A.

There were some imperfections in his play. For example, Boubli just about priced himself into the pot with the size of his four-bet. Even if he knew Lederer had A-A, he was getting almost 4-to-1 on a call. Each step of the way, he might have been able to raise in smaller increments, anticipating the possibility of folding and therefore saving more of his stack were he to fold.

But those are nitpicks. The point is that Boubli made a correct fold and allowed himself to stay alive with his remaining 2,700. What makes the story legendary is that he took that 2,700, made a monster comeback, and eventually went on to finish second in the tournament for €178,000.

Remember that this hand occurred in 2004, when a play like that was nearly unheard of. It sparked plenty of discussion, although most people said that they would have gone broke with K-K regardless. At the time, conventional wisdom suggested that you shouldn’t put in more than half your stack unless you were willing to commit the rest of it. Although everyone was impressed by Boubli’s comeback to finish second, most players said they would not have made the fold.

I was completely in the other camp. I thought he made a tremendous play, and I immediately added it to my tournament arsenal. I fine-tuned it, realizing that you could accomplish the same thing by making smaller raises. I also realized that it had the added benefit of getting more action when I had the best hand. I had a checklist of several things to remind myself before every tournament, and one of them was to make “step-raises,” which was my term for making non-committal three-bets and four-bets.

Throughout my early career, most pros felt that anytime someone reraised and then folded, it was a very weak play. It took some time, but eventually that thinking changed. Personally, I realized that strong plays didn’t necessarily have to be ones where I was stacking the chips. A fold, even after a reraise, could be a strong play if done properly. Out of context, if you told me that someone had put in four bets preflop and more than half his stack but then folded to a five-bet, I would have thought he must be a live one. Of course, Boubli was anything but.

Now “step-raises” are commonplace. Anyone who doesn’t have incremental four-bets and five-bets in their arsenal is ill-prepared for today’s deep-stack tournament fields. If you aren’t three-betting and sometimes folding to four bets, then either your three-betting range isn’t wide enough, or else you are staying married to marginal hands too long.

Optimally speaking, it is a waste of chips to three-bet and then subsequently fold. But realistically speaking, you can’t see your opponents’ cards and therefore the best you can do is put them on a range of hands. From that point forward, any play which helps you maximize your profits when you are ahead and minimize your losses when you are behind can become great. Big laydowns aren’t sexy, but they can keep you alive when most people would go broke. Sometimes you can then go on to hit a big payday. And those are very sexy. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at