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Ghosts of Poker Past: Phil Ivey vs. Bill Chen

by Matt Matros |  Published: May 06, 2020

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Trapped in our homes this spring, many of us have become more poker fan than poker player. But luckily, we fans are about to receive a much-needed gift straight from the Ghost of Poker Past.

In the summer of 2010, Dr. Bill Chen—math PhD, personal friend, and all-around genius (although he seems to lose his cash or his phone roughly every other day)—faced the great Phil Ivey heads-up for a bracelet in the $3k HORSE event at the World Series of Poker. Late in the match, the following hand came up during the limit hold’em round.

Bill raised from the small blind button and Phil called from the big blind. Phil led with a bet on the flop of ASpade Suit 10Heart Suit 2Heart Suit and Bill called. Phil continued with a bet on the 9Club Suit turn, and then Bill raised. Phil called and checked the 7Heart Suit river. Bill bet, Phil check-raised, and Bill folded. Action-packed hand, no? Don’t you wish you knew what they both had?

Well, now you can. All hole cards were magically revealed during Bill’s appearance on Jennifer Shahade’s The GRID podcast. You’re about to get a glimpse into the ten-year-old strategies of two of the top limit hold’em players at the time!

Before I listened to the podcast, I thought I’d do an analysis the usual way—without knowing the hands. Here’s what I came up with.

Preflop, Bill will be raising his button with around 90 percent of hands, and Phil will be defending his big blind with at least that many. About all we can say so far is that Bill cannot have the very worst starting hands (7-2 offsuit, 9-3 offsuit, etc.), and that Phil is unlikely to hold a premium hand like a big pair or a big ace.

Phil’s lead on the ASpade Suit 10Heart Suit 2Heart Suit gives a hint of just how ahead of his time Mr. Ivey was. Limit players in 2010 (and indeed, most players in the $40-$80 games I play in today) were extremely reluctant to lead out from the big blind into a raiser, especially on an ace-high board. We now know from seeing solver solutions that this play should be a fairly normal part of the arsenal, but in 2010 this was the bet of a confident, world-class player bucking “standard” lines. That said, it’s hard to narrow Phil’s range very much based on this bet. He’s probably weighted toward weak aces, flush draws, and other one-pair hands, but he could have just about anything with at least some frequency.

Bill’s call tells us nothing except that he doesn’t have total trash. Bill would likely slowplay his monsters here, as I know he subscribes to the (very solid) idea that it’s good to disguise information in the first two betting rounds before the bets double in a Limit game. Bill could have anything from queen-high to a set, and he could have any backdoor flush draw or gutshot straight draw or better draw.

The turn is where it gets interesting, and where we can finally start to narrow the ranges. Phil continues with another bet when the 9Club Suit falls, which means we can pretty much rule out his total bluffs. But he can probably still have any gutshot, open-ender, flush draw, or any of the made hands he led the flop with.

When Bill raises, suddenly his range goes from very wide to quite narrow. His minimum value hand is probably a strong ace—say AQ—or better. With any worse one pair hands or hands with showdown value like king-high, Bill probably just calls. Any open-ender or flush draw could potentially be in his semibluff range (note that JSpade Suit 8Spade Suit, a hand with which Bill would’ve peeled the flop, is now an open-ender, as is Q-J).

Phil calls the raise, which probably means we can rule out the very strongest hands from his range, as top two pair or better would like to three-bet for value on this draw-heavy board. How stubborn will Phil get with his calls? He is probably hanging on to almost any pair getting 6-1 on his money, but he can safely fold his weakest draws like the 54 or 43 gutshots. If he did bet the turn with any low pocket pairs, he can probably fold those as well, since they often have only two outs.

The 7Heart Suit on the river completes the flush draw, and also completes two straight draws—8-6 (which is an unlikely holding for either player) and J8, which either player can plausibly have. After Phil checks, Bill will likely show down with his one pair hands, and maybe even with his weakest two pair hands on such a scary river. With a good two pair or better, though, he’ll be compelled to bet for value.

And since all his flush draws have now converted to value bets, he can probably go ahead and bluff with any busted straight draws in his range, but the only one he could really have is Q-J. And yet, Bill did say on Twitter recently (with no memory of what he had, by the way!—we’re relying on his friend Matt Hawrilenko to remember Bill’s cards for us), that “with Q-J I may not bluff vs Ivey, just show down. That’s why it’s a little inconsistent.”

Indeed, if Bill would show down Q-J here, then it’s even harder to find his bluffs, which means that when Ivey check-raises the river and Bill folds, Bill is folding a value hand! It’s rare in limit hold’em that you bet for value and then fold to a raise, but it’s definitely correct to have this plan occasionally. Did Bill really make a thin value bet with something like A-Q, only to fold it to Ivey’s raise? It seems hard to believe, knowing how much Bill hates folding.

Phil has some obvious value hands in his raising range (namely flushes and straights), which means he can and should have some bluffs to go with them. Like Bill, Phil’s most likely bluffing hand is Q-J, but it’s at least possible to imagine him also holding Q-8 with some small frequency, stubbornly calling the turn with what he hopes are seven outs.

Having heard a rumor that the results were going to be “fun”, I took the risk of looking very silly and made a guess as to what they both had. Bill: Q-J, Phil: Q-8. I then listened to the podcast, and it turns out I was half right. Bill did indeed have queen-jack, even if he wasn’t sure, ten years later, whether he would’ve played it that way. But Bill wasn’t the only one bluffing in the hand. Phil had Q-J too.

Matt MatrosMatt Matros is a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, poker instructor, and the author of the strategy/memoir The Making of a Poker Player. His new book, The Game Plan, is available now from Amazon. Want to see how the Game Plan would apply to a hand you’ve played? Write Matt at jacksup@mattmatros.com.