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Final Table Takedown: Jesse Sylvia Shares Heads-Up Strategy on the Way to a World Poker Tour Title

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Dec 07, 2016


Jesse Sylvia grew up on Martha’s Vineyard. He always loved games as a kid and played cribbage, chess, Risk, and gin rummy with his parents and siblings. He became interested in poker during the Moneymaker boom, and played at friends’ houses in high school.

During Sylvia’s freshman year of college he started playing at casinos and online. After finishing college he decided to become a poker pro and focused mostly on online cash games. He moved to Las Vegas in 2011. In 2012 he made the final table of the World Series of Poker main event, eventually finishing second to Greg Merson.

He has made three WSOP final tables and one World Poker Tour final table. Sylvia has more than $6.7 million in live tournament cashes.

Event: World Poker Tour Borgata Poker Open
Players: 1,179
Entry: $3,300
First Prize: $821,811
Finish: 1st

Key Concepts: Reading boards; Reads on opponents to make exploitive folds

Craig Tapscott: Coming into heads-up play did you have a master plan?

Jesse Sylvia: Well for me, heads-up play is all about fundamentals. You need to have solid hand ranges, meaning don’t do anything too “random.” Don’t open 5-3 suited one button then fold 9-6 suited the next, unless you have a really good reason to do so. Stay aggressive and let your opponent respond to your constant pressure. Force them to make thin calls and check raises, if they don’t, you’re already profiting. Try to take all the info you have gathered on your opponent across the tournament and consolidate it in your head into different groups. How has he played rivers? What do his varying bet sizes on the turn mean? The more you focus in on their tendencies, the more you will be able to make exploits successfully. 

Gruneberg raises to 600,000. Sylvia reraises to 1,875,000 holding ADiamond Suit QSpade Suit.

CT: A three-bet is a no brainer. Correct?

JS: Yes. Preflop Zach has about 52 big blinds. I think three-betting a hand of this strength is somewhat mandatory. An Important point to note here is that this was my first three-bet since we had been heads-up, so I’d imagine Zach perceived my bet as skewed toward strength. If he had four-bet, I wasn’t going to be thrilled with my options (I wouldn’t be folding). But I still chose to three-bet because I would get called by a lot worse. And his calling range is often dominated, and I want to deprive hands like 8-4 suited of any equity.

Flop: QHeart Suit JDiamond Suit JClub Suit (pot: 3,800,000)

Sylvia bets 1,325,000.

JS: On this flop I decided to do something a bit exploitable and bet. I believe that game theory would dictate that we normally check this spot, as we can get value later in the hand. We protect our weaker hands such as 9-9 and A-K, and we allow our opponent’s hands such as 7-8 suited to hit a pair and pay us off on future streets. So why did I bet?

CT: That’s my question. You beat me to it.

JS: I had a few reasons. I thought that Zach was likely to check a gutshot plus overcards like K-9 suited, A-10 suited, etc. I wanted to charge those hands and get value. I thought there was a chance that Zach would call the flop with something pretty light like pocket sevens, which I may not get value from later if a bad card, like a nine for example, comes off on the turn.

Gruneberg calls.

Turn: 10Spade Suit (pot: 6,450,000)

Sylvia checks. Gruneberg bets 2,100,000.

CT: Can you continue when he shows extreme strength by leading out? And what range are you putting him on?

JS: Zach’s bet on the turn scares the crap out of me. I’d imagine his range after flop to look something like 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, and maybe 10-10, K-10, A-10, 8-9s, 9-10s, Q-9, K-Qs, Q-10, A-Qo, J-9s, J-10, J-Q J-K and A-J. Of that range, only K-9s and 8-9s and the occasional 10-10 get there. So why do I hate his bet so much? Because I don’t ever think he’s bluffing. Zach’s entire range makes either a pair on the turn, already has a pair, or has us beat. Almost every hand that makes a pair has a draw to go with it. Generally, hands with a pair and a draw make for good hands to pot control.

CT: Which means what?

JS: Which means that basically every hand that we beat tends to want to check back the turn. So what does that leave to bet? Perhaps 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, and hands that beat us. And worse, I don’t expect Zach to bluff with the smaller pairs, based on his play in prior hands across the last few days. 

Sylvia calls.

CT: It feels like you are calling reluctantly.

JS: Yes. I really felt on the turn that I was basically always beat. I ended up calling because I felt that Zach might occasionally bet a worse hand for value, like K-Q, or he might occasionally bluff with hands like 6-6 and 7-7. But I honestly think he doesn’t bet those hands enough to justify a call on the turn. That’s an exploitive fold I could and should have made.

River: 3Heart Suit (pot: 10,650,000)

Gruneberg moves all-in. Sylvia folds. Gruenberg wins the pot of 10,650,000.

JS: When Zach jams the river, I finally fold. It’s actually a bit frustrating. Because if he did turn something like 6-6 into a bluff on turn, he might just continue that bluff on river. But even then I honestly don’t think he has enough bluffs on the river to justify calling. Sometimes you just have to say “nice hand” and move on if they actually find a bluff.

Key Concepts: Delayed continuation betting; Accessing multiple profitable river lines

Gruneberg raises to 600,000 from the button. Sylvia reraises to 1,875,000 holding JHeart Suit 3Heart Suit.

CT: Share your thoughts about your three-bet in this spot heads-up.

JS: Preflop looks a little crazy, but I don’t think it really is. In heads-up play, I have a lot of incentive to call a ton of hands from the big blind, since we are often getting a great price to do so. I would still like to three-bet our best hands, so we also want to throw in some bluffs for balance. I tend to use the worst hands I would normally play as bluffs, since stronger hands I am happier calling with and J-3 suited fits fairly well.

Flop: KHeart Suit 8Spade Suit 5Spade Suit (pot: 3,800,000)

Sylvia checks. Gruneberg checks.

CT: So why no continuation bet since you were the aggressor preflop?

JS: Well I want to check hands like Q-Q, J-J, 10-10, and Zach has more kings than me in his range. And since I would just call preflop with K-10 offsuit and K-J offsuit a very high percentage of the time it is a better spot to check. Additionally, if Zach checks back, I am going to highly discount 8-8, 5-5, and K-Q, so I will be happier making a delayed c-bet into his now weakened range on the turn. I would also check kings on this flop, such as most K-x and of course pocket kings.

Turn: QHeart Suit (pot: 3,800,000)

CT: What now? Can you lead out?

JS: Yes. The turn is obviously great for my hand, but also a card I like in general. Sure, Zach has some queens, but now it’s going to be very difficult for him to peel with most A-x hands, most pocket pairs, etc. Additionally, I can fire the river on certain cards and get Zach to fold a queen. I am planning to fire a lot of rivers, because Zach will have J-10, some lower hearts, some A-J, A-10, and some Q-x type hands that will fold. 

Sylvia bets 2,025,000. Gruneberg calls.

River: 9Heart Suit (pot: 7,850,000)

CT: Gin. Now how do you extract the most value?

JS: Here I have four decisions: bet small, bet big, jam, or check-jam. I think betting small is out, as I doubt Zach is bluffing over our smaller bet very much. I had not yet seen him bluff-raise a river yet. So I would imagine his frequency to do so would be very low. And it wouldn’t cause him to value raise much lighter than he would if we made a bigger bet. And jamming possibly runs the risk of losing value from hands like K-J, so that’s out.

CT: So what’s the best choice?

JS: In my mind it’s between check-jam and bet big. I believe check-jam is better if either of the following things is true: 1. Zach is going to value bet almost the same range that he would call if we bet. 2. Zach bluffs a lot when checked to. Neither of which I think is true. I really didn’t expect him to bet K-10 on that river. And it seems unlikely Zach would bluff since almost every draw made a pair on the river and goes for showdown. So I decided a big bet would be the best option for me.

Sylvia bets 5,325,000. Gruneberg calls and reveals JDiamond Suit 10Spade Suit. Sylvia wins the pot of 18,500,000.

JS: As it turned out, Zach had J-10 and just called my large river bet, which stung a bit since a check-jam may very well have won me all the chips. However, I still like my decision overall.

CT: I’m curious. When you’re away from the tournament scene how do you work on your game and stay sharp?

JS: I watch a lot of training videos as well as live streams of final tables. I try to decide what I would do in a player’s shoes before they do it, and then if our choices differ I do some calculations to see whose line would be better. I also want to keep up with which trends seem to exist in current games. And I also work out a lot and eat well. Being in shape is severely underrated in tournament poker. You are often playing many long days in a row. It can be stressful and you usually get less sleep than normal. Having that extra endurance can be absolutely crucial. ♠