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Looking at No-Limit Hold’em Hands

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Mar 30, 2016


Steve ZolotowThis is the first in a series of columns in which I will look at a variety of poker hands. Most of them will be no-limit hold’em hands, since this is currently the most popular game both live and in tournaments. Before I start discussing any specific hands, I want to give you a warning. When deep stacks are involved, there is almost never a clearly correct way to play a hand. There are occasionally times with a short stack when one choice is definitely superior. This is usually a choice between going all-in (either as a bet or a call) or folding. To illustrate the difficulty involved in making the correct play even in these relatively simple situations, I want to revisit a much-discussed hand from this year’s WSOP main event final table.

On the second hand of the final table, action folded to Joe McKeehen on the button. He was the big stack (with over 150 big blinds) with the two smallest stacks (around 15 big blinds) behind him. He was dealt A-4 offsuit and shoved. Patrick Chan was dealt K-Q offsuit in the small blind and called. McKeehen’s ace held up, and Chan was eliminated. His call generated a great deal of discussion and analysis. Chan’s decision was fairly close, and it is only the fact that this situation arose at the main event final table that made it so interesting. If it had occurred in some random sit-and-go, no one would have cared enough to analyze it, and had they done so, the Independent Chip Model (ICM) would have shown that it was clearly correct for Chan to call. The strange payout structure, in which there were small jumps from ninth to eighth to seventh is part of the reason the call was correct, from an equity point of view. Chan would, on average, make more money calling than folding.

To demonstrate how difficult it is to analyze even this simple situation, a recent issue of Card Player, happened to do so twice. Once in a Tournament Hand Matchup, which concluded, “Even with Chan’s very reasonable estimates of relative hand strengths and the payout considerations, king-high is not sufficient to call off a stack of 14 big blinds.” The other, a more detailed analysis, was in a column by Jonathan Little, which stated, “Chan has an easy call.” My personal feeling is that Chan, at the table, and Little, analyzing at leisure, got it right—calling is technically correct. Of course, all this is predicated on what you think McKeehen is doing.

I personally think McKeehen’s decision was a lot more interesting. He has a variety of choices. Let’s look at a few of them. The worst choice is to fold. I admit this has some psychological appeal. No one wants to reach the final table as the big stack and implode, ending up as one of the first ones out. Losing 10 percent of your stack while doubling another player up could be the first step on the road to ruin. This is both humiliating and costly, and many players would find it psychologically devastating. One clearly good choice is to shove. This is the one McKeehen chose at the table. ICM only analyzes fold or shove decisions, and assumes all players possess equal skill. It suggests that McKeehen should shove with a little more than the top 50 percent of his hands. Since A-4 offsuit is included in the top 35 percent or so, ICM shows shoving is clearly better than folding. I assume that with two months of preparation, McKeehen knew this and made the decision accordingly. I think psychologically the shove is strong since it makes a statement to the whole table that McKeehen is the boss. Anyone who is willing to mess with him is in danger of losing their whole stack. If he suspects that final table pressure might cause the two short stacks behind him to tighten up a little, he might extend his shoving range to 60 or 70 percent of his hands.

I might expect him to make a smaller raise with some of his best hands. For example, with aces does he really want to blast everyone out of the hand or would he rather raise an amount that might get him a caller? If his strategy is to shove with good, but not great hands, then Chan’s call is even more correct. Another possible strategy, mentioned by Little, is to shove with strong hands that flop poorly, such as small pairs and A-x, but make a smaller raise with his other strong hands. In this case, Chan should fold.

Assuming McKeehen decides to use a strategy other than shove or fold, how much should he raise? My feeling is that a minimum of raise to two big blinds or 2.5 big blinds might get nearly as many folds as the shove. If they are only calling with their best hands, you could min-raise with any two cards. If one of the short stacks shoves, folding your worst hands becomes a viable option, especially if you think he is only shoving with a very good hand. Of course, the min-raise may have induced a bluff from one of the blinds, which means you are faced with making another decision.

In summary: McKeehen’s shove was definitely a good move (although he may have had a better one,) and Chan’s call was correct, assuming McKeehen was following a shove or fold strategy. All of which brings me back to my initial warning that it is seldom possible to be absolutely certain what play or strategy will produce the best results in any given situation. There is, however, a lot to be learned from analyzing or thinking about specific hands and situations. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With two WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.