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Don’t Be Afraid of the Big, Bad Hellmuth – Playing Strong Poker Against the Poker Famous

by Ben Yu |  Published: Aug 21, 2013


Ben YuIf you’re anything like me, there is a significant chance your interest in poker was sparked by the poker boom broadcast on ESPN beginning in 2003. Our gateway into poker was paved by Chris Moneymaker, but also by the personalities featured on High Stakes Poker and the plethora of poker shows following it.

The advent of televised battles on the felt changed the lives of those of us who discovered poker, but it also warped the people we watched. They were made famous. A few years later, we found ourselves sitting at the table with the same celebrities and they began to learn how they could use their notoriety to their advantage.

Many players feel intimidated and are prone to being thrown off their game when playing against a professional. Common reactions to playing against a well-known personality are getting run over by folding too much or aggressively attacking the professional in marginal situations. This phenomenon is expressed in different ways — Phil Ivey and Michael Mizrachi are infamous for their intimidating presence at the table, while Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth garner information through their extensive table talk.

The effect is amplified by a disparity in playing time. Professionals not only have more experience at the poker table, they also have more experience specifically playing against laypeople than laypeople do against professionals. If a field consists of 90 percent amateurs and 10 percent experts, everyone in the field is playing against amateurs the majority of the time. This means well-known players have a wealth of information to rely on, whereas amateurs have little to draw from when strategizing against experts.

Most people correctly attempt to adjust their play based on first impressions, especially in tournaments. With little information and constantly changing opponents, good players must make decisions using assumptions backed by a small sample size.
However, the majority of rounders make inferior adjustments when confronted by the poker famous and would be better off if they simply stuck to their game.

This phenomenon is expressed most blatantly every summer at the World Series of Poker due to a conflux of factors. The prestige of the WSOP leads many players to overvalue their tournament life. As poker professional Jamie Kerstetter puts it, “One of the biggest advantages we can afford is to get all-in in a high-variance spot and simply go to the pool if we don’t win, if you’re playing one WSOP event all year, you really really don’t want to bust — I’m going to make sure I’m the one sticking it in on them.”

Additionally, excellent players are congregated alongside many who do not play tournaments or even poker regularly. These factors contribute to many incidents of weak play at WSOP, epitomized by one situation I am reminded of every time I contemplate the topic.

It is day one of the 2012 WSOP $2,500 mixed hold-em event in the seventh level. In a no-limit hold-em hand at 200-400 blinds, 50 ante, David Williams raised on the button to 800 and had a stack that covered both players remaining to act. The player in the small blind (SB) called with 16,000 chips behind, and Richard Brodie folded in the big blind.
The hand was not notable until sixth street, for the conversation which spawned once the cards were turned over — the SB showed A-Q suited and exclaimed “The only reason I didn’t three-bet preflop was because it was you.” He elaborated further “you know, cause you’re a pro.”

Without detouring too far into a discussion on strategy, three-betting A-Q suited to 2,300 with the intent to five-bet all in for 42 big blinds (BB) is the standard play here. Williams is a loose, aggressive player possibly opening at least 80 percent of hands on the button, and capable of four-bet bluffing. The SB is well ahead of the Williams’ opening range with two relevant blockers, so a three-bet for value fares well.

In response, Williams will either fold and forfeit his equity or call and allow the SB to get his chips in as a significant favorite. He could also four-bet, but it will include enough bluffs which fold to our five-bet and hands we are comfortable getting all-in versus.

There are certainly viable reasons to call the raise in similar situations. For instance, if the BB likes to squeeze, or if the button is insanely tight, but poor at navigating postflop, it can be defensible to flat. The point is the player in question knew the hand was a standard three-bet, but elected not to do so because he was playing against someone famous.

Brodie pointed to me and said “He’s a pro, too,” to which the SB defended himself, “well you know what I mean, a TV pro.” The player didn’t mean to offend me and I wasn’t insulted, he had just never heard of or interacted with me and was going to play normally if Ben Yu were the opener. He would have correctly three-bet me, just as he should have three-bet Williams too.

This scene has become commonplace enough that many professionals are successful despite demonstrating poor fundamentals. Oftentimes, they are even justified in ignoring sound basic strategy. In our example, if the SB is only three-betting with A-K plus through J-J plus, Williams can make an unorthodox fold with A-J offsuit, which doesn’t flop well against those hands, or call speculative hands with good implied odds to outplay or stack the SB postflop.

There are legitimate adjustments to be made when playing against well-known players, but they are non-intuitive and not in the toolbox of many players. My next article will address specific ways to avoid feeling starstruck and reasonable opportunities to alter your play. ♠

Ben Yu attended Stanford University but knew even before finishing that he wanted to embark on a journey to become a one of the finest professional mixed-game players. He made his debut onto the tournament scene in 2010 with a second-place finish in the World Series of Poker $1,500 limit hold’em shootout and followed it up in 2011 by leading the WSOP with seven cashes across six different games.  In 2012, he moved to Rosarito, Mexico in order to continue playing online and was enthralled to perform well at the World Championship of Online Poker, including a final table appearance at the $10,300 poker 8-Game High Roller, and a cash in the main event.