Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine
Wsopbanner

Final Table Takedown: Justin Saliba Continues Run With PokerGO Cup Victory

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 08, 2023

Print-icon
 

Justin Saliba c: Antonio Abrego PokerGOJustin Saliba graduated from the University of Dayton with a degree in chemical engineering, but the former soccer player had already fallen in love with poker and decided to pursue his dream in Las Vegas.

The 28-year-old has been on an incredible run over the last two years, going from a relatively anonymous mid-stakes grinder to a feared competitor in some of the biggest buy-in tournaments around.

Saliba won his first bracelet in the 2021 World Series of Online series for $253,800, taking down the $5,000 event. After several final tables at events like the Stairway To Millions, Texas Poker Championship, Poker Masters, and WSOP Circuit, Saliba found the winner’s circle once again in October of 2022, earning his second WSOP bracelet and another $154,752 in an online high roller.

He followed that up with a third-place showing at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Poker Open $25,000 high roller for another $402,634 to close out the year. His 2023 campaign picked up right where he left off, with a final table at the Borgata’s The Return Championship in Atlantic City for $304,629. Saliba then went to the PokerGO Cup, and promptly won a $10,000 no-limit event for another $195,000.

Just days later, Saliba had a runner-up finish at the Lucky Hearts Poker Open $25,000 high roller for $353,175 and closed out January with another final table in the Bahamas at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. He now has more than $3.2 million in recorded tournament earnings.

When he’s not traveling the circuit, Saliba shares his tips for the Poker Coaching training site. (Get a FREE strategy bundle at PokerCoaching.com/CardPlayer)

Card Player caught up with Saliba to break down some hands from his last victory in the PokerGO Cup at Aria in Las Vegas.

Craig Tapscott: You’ve been on quite the run. What goals or expectations did you have coming into the new year?

Justin Saliba: Thank you! I didn’t really set any concrete goals for the year in terms of a timeline. I don’t care too much about the money or any specific accolades, but I do want to continue moving up and prove myself at the highest stakes in the world, against the toughest competition.

I know it doesn’t just happen overnight, so I honestly feel like my process, goals, and expectations are a bit the same as they have been in the past few years. I want to work hard and get better every single day and I want to do everything that I can to put myself in situations to have success and longevity.

CT: What, if anything, have you struggled with over the last few years?

JS: There are tons of things that I’ve struggled with, both from a technical standpoint as well as the mental and emotional struggles that come with poker. With that said, I’d say that my biggest struggle in 2021 and 2022 was around performance and the mental game.

I felt that I had a strong understanding of poker, but I think I lacked the ability to really execute at a high level consistently. Focusing less on tiny EV differences in decisions and focusing more on execution and performance I think has really helped me perform at a much higher level recently. 

It’s like when you bluff the river in a big spot and get called to bust; many players, myself included in the past, have a process of running the hand through a solver, or checking it on a very flawed public library of sims. We want to see if we played it right or played it wrong. Iterate this process 100x, and all you’re doing is essentially ‘checking your work’ using flawed models over and over.

And for me, this led to a lack of confidence and a lack of growth, not trusting my instincts enough in high-pressure moments and always defaulting to thinking what a default solver that I’d studied would look like, instead of what an actual solver would do in this exact, unique spot. 

CT: How do you approach the process of improving your game?

JS: In terms of what I’m working on now and my current learning process, I’m much more focused on reviewing spots from a broader viewpoint. I’m always trying to focus on what assumptions I’m making, and how the different assumptions affect the strategy.

My goal is to try and understand the game at the highest level I can, rather than if I played one exact spot ‘perfectly.’ I love experimenting with new strategies, and bet sizes, and always want my game to evolve month to month.

Event: PokerGO Cup
Buy-In: $10,000
Entrants: 78
Prize Pool: $780,000
First-Place Prize: $195,000 

Stacks: Justin Saliba – 530,000 (10 BB)
Anthony Hu – 3,600,000 (72 BB)
Blinds: 25,000-50,000 with a 50,000 big blind
Players Remaining: 6

Hu raised from the button to 100,000. Saliba called in the big blind holding ADiamond Suit ASpade Suit.

CT: Why not just raise all in given how short stacked you were?

JS: The aces were a very welcomed sight. Clearly, I wanted to get all of the money in. But with the chip leader opening so wide on the button, I actually had a reasonable amount of fold equity. If I had five big blinds, and he was going to call every time, I’d just jam preflop. But off of nearly 10 big blinds, I wanted to call and look to trap.  

Flop: 8Diamond Suit 6Heart Suit 3Club Suit
Saliba checked. Hu bet 75,000, and Saliba called.

CT: Again you decided to just call.

JS: This was an interesting board where I would want to do a decent amount of jamming with my range, but I thought my hand was still a good one to continue to trap. So many of his hands I have practically dead and I either want them to catch up or feel the need to bluff on future streets. 

Turn: KClub Suit
Saliba checked, and Hu bet 100,000. 

CT: Was it time to move in?

JS: Well, this spot felt very close. With 305,000 total effective stacks, I tanked for a while and decided to… 

Saliba called.

JS: This was really tricky to me in game. If I could see his hand, I certainly would have just jammed and I think jamming here is very reasonable. But I still think that there are a ton of hands that he has here (such as J-10, Q-J, 10-2 suited, J-4 suited, Q-4, etc.) that have little-to-no equity against my hand. I wanted to give them every opportunity again to catch up or bluff the river, so I decided to continue trapping.

River: QDiamond Suit
Both players checked, and Hu revealed 9Diamond Suit 7Club Suit. Saliba won the pot.

JS: Anthony ended up making a good check-back on the river with his hand and saved the 205,000 that would have been worth a lot to my stack at the time. 

CT: What was the main reason you wanted to share this hand?

JS: Overall, this hand showed some of the complexities that can still occur even with less than 10 big blinds at a final table. Too many people think sub-10 big blinds means time to play all-in or fold. But if you’ve been watching some of these high-stakes guys recently, there are a lot of things that you can do with short stacks to gain an edge. Overall, I was really happy I trapped preflop. But leaving some money on the table that would have been made by jamming the turn stung a little bit. 

CT: Please share some advice with our readers on a probable checklist of what to look for when their stack dwindles down to less than 15 big blinds or so.

JS: First off, you want to do your best not to reduce your options. If you only play all-in or fold with 15 big blinds, you’re leaving a ton of money on the table. Look for creative spots to find min-raises, calls, and even spots to limp. Why shouldn’t you find calls from the small blind off of eight big blinds or limp the button off of 12 big blinds? Finding creative ways to pick up chips can really be the difference between running deep or busting quickly. 

The second tip I would say would be to attack wide ranges when you’re short-stacked. Some people are too scared to be all-in, get called, and lose, so they play too tight. If an aggressive player opens the button, you should re-jam very wide. If you have 15 big blinds in the small blind facing a two big blind button open, you can jam suited broadways, suited aces, tons of pairs, and big off-suit cards. The most common occurrence will be that both players fold, and you go from 15 big blinds in the small blind to 19 big blinds on the button, increasing your stack by over 25 percent. Being aggressive, specifically against wide ranges, is a huge equity print in tons of spots. 

Stacks: Justin Saliba – 4,700,000 (37 BB)
Anthony Hu – 4,900,000 (39 BB)
Blinds: 75,000-125,000 with a 125,000 ante
Players Remaining: 2

CT: Going into this heads-up match with Hu, what was the plan? 

JS: It was a little bit funny because I’d never played heads-up in a live tournament before this. But I was feeling really excited because I’d recently battled tons of hours against the heads-up legend, Jonathan Jaffe, for PokerCoaching.com as a part of the Advanced Tournament Course. I learned a ton from playing against him, but also a lot from Jon on how he thinks about these heads-up spots. We talked through a ton of big blind ante heads-up strategies and built preflop ranges for it. I was just really excited to get to play the format for reasonably high stakes. 

With that said, Anthony is a strong player, so I didn’t have any real plan for how I wanted to play specifically against him. Moreso, I wanted to stay really aggressive and focus on executing my strategies the best I could. 

Action: Saliba raised to 400,000 holding 7Heart Suit 6Heart Suit. Hu called.

JS: Preflop here I’m going to be doing a ton of limping, but with so much money already in the pot in big-blind ante heads-up, using a big raise first-in size and trying to take down the pot immediately is also great. I’ll be mixing a ton of my range between limp and raise here, folding zero hands from the button. 

Flop: 9Club Suit 2Heart Suit 2Spade Suit
Hu checked. Saliba bet 125,000, and Hu called.

CT: What were your thoughts when this flop and texture landed?

JS: On a board like 9-2-2 rainbow, I have a really big equity advantage here, but Anthony has more 2-x in his range. That led me to want to bet a very small size here and force him to defend a huge portion of his wide range. I was certainly going to be doing a decent amount of checking as well, but my hand made for a really nice bet. I had seven high, a backdoor straight draw, and a backdoor flush draw which is helpful because it allows me to pick up equity on future streets. 

Turn: 8Heart Suit

CT: What a good turn card.

JS: Yes. The 8Heart Suit is one of those turns that gives my hand a lot of equity. Also, by calling so small on the flop, his range is still extremely wide. I fully expect him to be raising my small flop bet with a ton of 2-X and 9-X, so at this point, his range is made up of mostly high cards that I want to target to fold on the turn. By betting the turn, I’m saying I have a strong hand now, so I want to really size up and start to put a lot of pressure on his high cards. 

Hu checked. Saliba bet 800,000, and Hu called.
River: 4Spade Suit
Hu checked.

JS: The river card is very interesting as it doesn’t improve nearly any hands. All of the straight draws miss, all of the flush draws miss, top pair remains the same. This causes me to want to have two sizes on the river, first an all-in size with my best hands and some bluffs, and a medium size with thinner value hands and some bluffs as well.

In a spot like this, I had 7-high on the river, so I felt that I should bluff my hand at a reasonable frequency. But I really didn’t feel the need to try to fold him off of a pair. I really just wanted to target all of the combinations of J-10, Q-10 heart draws and stubborn ace-high hands on the river. If he has a nine, I think he’ll call any size, so I went with…

Saliba bet 1,700,000. Hu folded and showed QHeart Suit 3Heart Suit.

JS: Thankfully, he had one of those missed draws that I was targeting and not a stronger hand in this spot; that’s a part of run-good that most people discount a bit too much. At some frequency, he’s just going to have 9-2 suited, say all-in, and I’ll quickly fold my bluff. In this case, I was able to chip up a bunch with this river bluff and continued running hot to take down the tournament.

You can learn from Saliba directly at PokerCoaching.com/CardPlayer. Be sure to check out his courses on six-max online cash games or GTO tournament strategies. Find him on Twitter @Justin_Saliba. ♠