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Poker Strategy: Final Table Takedown With Nine-Time WSOP Circuit Ring Winner Ari Engel

Las Vegas Pro And Mid-Stakes Crusher Takes Card Player Through His Thought Process From Hands Played At The Final Table Of His First Bracelet Win


Ari Engel is considered one of the most successful mid-stakes tournament players on the planet. He is the owner of nine World Series of Poker Circuit rings and outside of his victory in the Aussie Millions main event for $1.1 million, he racked up more than $6.2 million in tournament earnings, mostly in buy-ins between $500-$2,000.

Engel won his first WSOP bracelet at the 2019 WSOP in the $2,500 no-limit hold’em for $427,399, proving to the poker world once and for all that he should be feared at any stake.

Engel sat down with Card Player to discuss his thought process from a few hands he played at the final table of his first bracelet victory.

Hand 1

Concepts: Understanding absolute hand strength versus relative hand strength with regards to bluff catching.

The Action: Ari Engel raised to 110,000 from early position and Pablo Melongo called out of the big blind. On the flop, Melongo led out for 80,000. Engel called. Melongo led out again on the turn, this time for 165,000. Engel called. On the river, Melongo bet 685,000 and Engel folded.

Steve Schult: You are raising from early position with another one of the bigger stacks in the big blind. Do you tend to vary which hands you will raise based on what type of stack sizes and player types are in the blinds? Or are your ranges static?

Ari Engel: I tend to vary it based on all the players left to act and the blinds too. I would have some variations of what hands I play.

SS: What is your standard range from early position if you were to just sit down at a table with no reads and get dealt a hand in early position?

AE: Probably all pairs, all of the ace-x suiteds, all the suited Broadway hands, K-Q, K-J, and A-10 or better kind of situation.

SS: How wide do you think Pablo is going to be defending his big blind?

Engel in between Ben Yu (left) and John Morgan (right)AE: Maybe 60 percent of the hands or something like that. Probably some of the better hands will be discounted a little bit because sometimes he will three-bet them and sometimes he won’t. Sometimes he’ll call. It’s a pretty wide range.

SS: Post-flop is where the hand gets interesting. He leads out into you for 80,000. How do you generally deal with these donk bets (a bet where an out of position caller leads into the preflop raiser)?

AE: It was also a pretty small bet relative to the pot. But with 4-3-2, he has a lot of the super-strong hands and I have a lot of the relatively strong hands like the overpairs and hands like that. I’m not going to raise with A-5 too often and 6-5 probably none of them. He’s going to have all of those and two pairs and things like that.

So it’s super reasonable for him to be wanting to put pressure on my hand because a lot of them don’t love that flop and can’t stand too much pressure. I think he had a bigger stack than me at that stage. So just in general at the final table, putting pressure on your opponent as the bigger stack makes sense.

It was a small lead by him, so I think A-K is too strong to fold. Maybe I can try and raise and try and get him off of some medium-strength hands, but I’m not trying to create a huge pot when I don’t have anything. So I think a call is pretty standard.

SS: Do you raise with any hands here? Because if he does have a range advantage, does it make sense to raise and possibly face a three-bet from a range that can contain the nuts when yours can’t? Is it even possible for you to have a set in this spot?

AE: I can have some sets here. Maybe I don’t raise twos [preflop] every time there. Maybe sometimes I don’t raise the small pairs there. I probably raise fours and threes, so I could have a set, but it is real hard for me to have of course.

SS: You make a wheel on the turn when the board one-lines. At this point, does he still bet any of his two pair or sets on the turn?

AE: It’s interesting because I will have tons of sevens through kings here. That does make up a fair amount of my range. And then there is also some A-X and then maybe some sets.

But like the sevens through kings that I call with on the flop, and I do open all of those from early position, so they make up a larger percentage of the hands that I’m playing, all of those can’t really handle the pressure. So he could definitely still be either value betting lightly/for protection with two pair. It could make some sense to bet there.

Or just straight-up bluff me with some of the gutshots that didn’t get there. In theory, he could be bluffing me with nothing, but it doesn’t seem that likely. But there are tons of hands that I can fold still.

SS: When the river pairs the four and he bets big, what is he really representing? It seems kind of polarizing. Is he representing a full house at this point?

Engel at the 2018 WSOPAE: Even just a six is being represented here. I have an ace a vast majority of the time the way the hand played out. Maybe there’s a few sets in there, maybe a few pocket sixes. But in general, I think I have an ace here a ton, or maybe I held on with a pocket pair, but I probably would have folded already on the turn.

If he’s value betting, he’s probably not going to value bet an ace with that sizing since it’s going to be very hard for me to call with worse than that. But maybe he is. Or maybe he is trying to get the other ace to fold. Maybe he is just doing this with his whole range and just trying to put me in a tough spot and bet big. But I have a bluff catcher at this point for sure. I only beat bluffs.

And there is an old idea that maybe isn’t so relevant anymore. It is called ‘Captain Zeebo’s Theorem.’ It’s the idea that people don’t fold a full house no matter what. Even if the board is 7-7-7 and they have pocket twos, they don’t fold no matter what. It just means that they don’t fold strong hands even if their relative strength isn’t very good.

A straight has very high absolute strength, but my ace doesn’t have very good relative strength in that spot. At that point, it’s just a pure bluff catcher. So it’s a little bit of an optimistic thing to try and get someone to lay down an ace there. Having said that, this is pro on pro, so you can start getting into these leveling wars and doing things that are out of key.

He’s a very creative player, so I can’t just say, ‘Oh, he’s value betting,’ or ‘Oh, he’s bluffing.’

Hand 2

Concepts: Bluff catching against opponents who won’t value bet thinly.

The Action: Ari Engel raised to 135,000 from the cutoff and Wilbern Hoffman called out of the big blind. On the flop, Hoffman checked, Engel bet 150,000 and Hoffman called. Both players checked the turn and Hoffman led out for 400,000 on the river. Engel called.

SS: When I was reading through the updates, it seemed like you were one of the more aggressive players, at least preflop. How do you feel that people adjust to continual preflop aggression? And beyond that, how do you adjust to them with some of your more speculative holdings?

AE: You can adjust a lot of ways. It is important to get good fundamentals and learn those kinds of things, but then at some stage, you really want to have highly adjustable ranges, based on the table and how they are playing.

If the players are three-betting you too much, you could adjust by tightening up and not opening light as much. You can go to four-betting more, or you can go to calling those three-bets.

Engel in the $111,111 High Roller for One Drop at the 2017 WSOPThis is one thing that a lot of people don’t understand. They see pros play a lot of theses weak hands, but it is very difficult to maneuver with these weak ranges and these weak hands. It’s very easy to just put in the three-bet, but then what happens when the flop comes and you miss and things like that. Or you have second pair or all kinds of different medium-strength hands.

And that’s where people will end up making mistakes. They might have made a correct three-bet in a vacuum against someone that is opening too light, but then they don’t know how to proceed because they only have a medium-strength hand. And then they end up in a huge pot. And everybody knows that when you play a huge pot, you aren’t supposed to go broke with one pair or whatever it is.

I like to put pressure on people and have them kind of playing around me and having them change up their game for me and things like that. Either way, I think you want to open pairs when you are in later position.

SS: Wouldn’t this flop hit a lot of the big blind’s range? Why did you decide to bet?

AE: It’s a combination of me having, for example, when I raise preflop, I have all the super-strong pairs like aces, kings, and queens, while he is heavily discounted. People defend the blinds with a super wide range. So if he has 6-5 it hits him, but if he has Q-9 it doesn’t hit him.

You want him to fold all of those random two-card hands that have a bunch of equity. And also how is this hand going to play out? You’re going to check back and you’re going to just hope they check it down with you. Or are you going to hope that he doesn’t bet the turn and the river? It doesn’t really play out that well no matter what.

All of these things are problems with playing weak hands. You get into these questionable middle ground spots. Good players don’t try to avoid these questionable spots. They just try and get better at maneuvering through these questionable spots.

I think I like to bet this flop frequently and then get him to fold a bunch of hands. If he has an ace, a lot of times he’s going to want to fold. Of course, when he has a straight draw, he’s going to call a lot and sometimes raise, which won’t be great for me. But equity denial is a large component of [the flop bet].

SS: When you check behind on the turn, are you giving up most of the time? Or are you going to pot control some bigger pairs?

AE: I don’t know what the best strong hands to check back there would be. Maybe sevens or eights because there aren’t many bad river cards. I’m not sure what the best ones are. A lot is going to depend how I expect this player to play.

Engel at the 2017 WSOPAre they going to check-raise bluff the turn at all? Are they kind of a calling station? A lot of players when the turn goes check-check, it’s an auto-bet for them on the river. So for players with that kind of tendency, you want to be checking the turn a little more. Same thing if they are going to check-raise bluff the turn.

If they are kind of like to call, and are a little bit of a station, then you are probably going to be missing out on value with bigger pairs if you check. I think in general, I’m on the more straightforward side. I’ll probably bet most of the hands that I think I’m ahead with and when I check back, it will lean more towards the weaker strength and medium hands.

SS: Walk me through your thought process on your river call. Why did you decide to end up bluff catching with deuces?

AE: I think that he wouldn’t value bet light here. Some people would bet an A-4 here. I had that happen to me yesterday in a similar kind of situation. My best understanding now is that the player wasn’t really value betting necessarily, but they sometimes just bet and it turned into a value bet.

Let’s say he decided to bet with a 4-3 type of hand. I think he would’ve been betting hoping that I folded and it would’ve worked out for him. He might just bet for the hell of it and without thinking about it too much what he’s trying to accomplish. That’s a problem sometimes.

But when you’re at the final table and all the pressure is on the line, it’s hard to value bet thin. So now, what is he trying to represent? He’s trying to represent a bunch of strong hands, which is really hard to do. So once you take out all of those thin river bets, it becomes a lot easier to make those hero-style calls.

The math works out so much better for you. There are only so many sixes he can have. There are only so many slow-played flopped straights that he can have. He doesn’t have really many tens that came on the turn. It becomes harder for him to have me beat and I’m getting some sort of sick odds there. I don’t need to be right too often.

It’s not like one of these things where I’m like ‘I know he’s bluffing. Boom. I call. I know I’m right.’ I thought ‘Okay. I think I could be good here half the time. I’m getting good odds. Good enough.’ ´