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Poker Strategy: Final Table Takedown With Two-Time WSOP Bracelet Winner Tom Koral

Koral Takes Card Player Through His Thought Process During His Second World Series Of Poker Bracelet Win


For someone with seven-figures in tournament earnings and cashes that date all the way back to 2005, Tom Koral has managed to somehow fly under the radar for the most part. After earning his second World Series of Poker bracelet this past summer, it will be tough for him to continue to do that much longer.

Koral took down the $1,500 no-limit hold’em double stack in July by besting the huge 2,589-entry field to earn $530,164. His first bracelet came two years earlier at the 2017 WSOP when Koral won $96,907 for his victory in the $1,500 seven card stud event.

Koral’s most recent bracelet win was the largest score of his 14-year poker career. The victory upped his career tournament earnings to more than $2.6 million and was more than double his previous career-high from his Chicago Poker Classic victory in 2011.

The Chicago-native sat down with Card Player to discuss his thought process from a few hands he played at the final table.

Hand 1

Concepts: Working medium-strong hands into your flop check-calling range so that you aren’t exploited by aggressive players in position.

The Action: Tom Koral raised to 850,000 from early position and Barry Shulman called in the hijack. On the flop, Koral checked and Shulman bet 1,200,000. Koral called. On the turn, Koral checked and Shulman moved all in for 7,200,000. Koral called.

Steve Schult: Shulman was one of, if not the actual, short-stacks at the table. When he calls your raise preflop, what kind of range do you realistically put him on?

Koral at the 2011 WSOPTom Koral: I think it’s 6-6 through J-J, A-Q, A-J suited and possibly K-Q, although I block that hand. There are also some combos of suited broadways, but I do think that suited broadways make up way less of his range, if he even has them.

SS: Does Shulman’s chip count handcuff the type of range he can realistically have? Would he generally shove some hands as bluff, as well as some of the premiums like bigger pairs than yours and A-K?

TK: I expected him to be more straightforward than average and I think he’s definitely weighted towards medium pocket pairs since I block A-Q and K-Q. Those were the only offsuit combos I could’ve imagined him having. He could’ve had A-A or K-K of course, but I thought I had a pretty solid live read that he didn’t have those hands. He was pretty active in the previous hour when this hand occurred. I think he jammed on people four times I the last 30 minutes. Even people were just joking that his name was ‘Mr. All In.”

I don’t think he’d be flatting too many bad hands based on where I raised from and the table dynamic. I also thought maybe he would’ve bet smaller with a set on the turn instead of jamming. In my experience, players tend to have weaker relative holdings in this exact spot. Some of the time your opponent’s equity can be zero, so overbet jamming will be, in general, less profitable. I probably had the bottom of my [turn] calling range there, but I still felt with how passive I was on the flop that I was still way ahead of his 6-6, 9-9, 10-10, J-J and 9-10 suited combos.

SS: Why did you decide to play passively on the flop and just check-call? Was this mostly pot control against what could be a pair-heavy range?

TK: I did this just because the board wasn’t that draw heavy. I think it was a way-ahead or way-behind type of scenario. I block his K-Q combos and A-K gets it in preflop, so most of his flatting range has two or three outs against me with two cards to come.

I was just trying to find the most profitable way to extract value. I thought allowing him to potentially bluff two streets was more profitable than trying to shut him out of his equity. Of course, that backfires sometimes. But you gain more when you can induce bluffs versus much weaker hands that don’t have a ton of equity or can’t call a bet on the flop. I also thought check-calling would look like I had some weaker ace-high type hand in my range.

If my check-call range is all sets, ace-highs, 8-X and 7-7-type hands then I can be easily exploited by anyone who’s willing to fire two barrels. Of course, I combat this by getting it in on almost all turn cards with a hand towards the top of my range. This is just a way to have a variety of hands in my check-calling range that aren’t nutted hands. It wasn’t anything about pot control.

Barry ShulmanSS: You check the turn as well, which makes sense for a number of reasons, but do you ever work in leads in this spot?

TK: I think in this particular instance, I’d have zero leads. I’m trying to tell the story that I have a weak hand. Leading to induce just didn’t seem like a correct play versus this particular player’s style.

SS: Would you have played the hand the exact same way if you were able to see his exact hole cards?

TK: Absolutely. He had two outs with two cards to come, as I suspected, and he turned a set. It was a bit unlucky, but I felt he could’ve jammed overpairs worse than me and also 6-6 and possibly some 9-10 suited on the turn. You’re going to get unlucky sometimes. If you play hands in a way to maximize overall chip EV, in the long run, you will be just fine as long as you can handle the swings.

Hand 2

Concepts: Adjusting your shove range to account for player tendencies.

The Action: Tom Koral moved all in from the cutoff for 5,800,000 and everybody folded.

SS: On the broadcast, the commentator said, “I think he recognizes that players are overfolding a little bit.” Is this true? Were there any factors in play that led you to shove a little lighter than normal?

TK: There were actually quite a few factors that led me to shoving here. First was that I had the chip leader on my right and playing around 40 percent of the hands. This was giving me less opportunities to open jam in a spot where I had fold equity.

Tom KoralSecond, I had gotten a five-big blind shove through on the button the hand before and Barry [Shulman] in the big blind snap-folded his big blind. He should be calling close to 100 percent of hands there if he’s not considering ICM (Independent Chip Model). Of course, giving him some ICM considerations, I can understand him folding some hands given he was virtually tied for fourth in chips. The fact that he didn’t think about it for more than three seconds made me think that Barry was being too ICM conscious. When you have a player that isn’t calling your shoves correctly behind you, then you can adjust your shoving ranges to make weaker hands more profitable.

The third reason I shoved was I had an extremely conservative-looking table image at the time. This was the third hand I had shoved or reshoved in about 45 hands played at the final table to this point. When it appears as if someone is playing on the more conservative side, other players left to act are more likely to adjust their calling ranges slightly to adjust for how they perceive their opponent to be playing. It just means I can bluff with weaker hands at this point and be more likely to get away with it. I also had won the pot the hand before, so from a psychological perspective, most people play more straightforward when they have won the pot before. At that point, they’re no longer in desperation mode. I think playing two hands back-to-back like this actually makes the second hand look stronger.

The fourth, but not least important, reason I shoved was that I had around 40 percent of the chip stacks of both the small and big blinds. They were virtually tied for fourth while I was sitting in sixth. The pay jump from sixth to fourth was around 80 percent which is pretty significant. This made any scenario where I could potentially pick up chips from the two opponents tied for fourth a massive win for myself in sixth. The ICM makes it much tougher for even an established pro like Darren [Rabinowitz] in the big blind to call because he can swing from fourth to sixth if he makes the wrong decision. A lot of the time players in that situation are better off allowing the larger stacks to take the higher variance gambles.

SS: If this is a lighter than normal shove, what is a more standard shove range from the cutoff for a little more than seven big blinds?

TK: Hands close to mine I could’ve possibly shoved would be J-10 offsuit or better, 10-7 suited or better. I adjusted down a bit for reasons I just described and ICM shouldn’t be as important to me in this scenario because I’m drastically shorter than both the other short stacks. The shorter you are, relative to your opponents, the less ICM considerations should come into play.

SS: What are some of the type of hands that you expected your opponents to fold that they shouldn’t be folding here?

TK: I honestly would not have been surprised to see Barry fold A-J in this scenario and possibly 8-8. Would he have? You’ll never know, but I suspect he was being way more pay jump considerate than he should’ve been. Darren probably would’ve folded something around the bottom third of his typical calling range due to ICM.

SS: This is a bit generalized, but when facing a shove, how do you construct your calling range? Is this just spending hundreds of hours studying Nash equilibrium charts or is there a way to get a rough estimate of what is correct at the table?

TK: [The program] SnapShove is a great time saver and will give most people a general idea as to what they can and can’t profitably do. Of course, you can make player and situation dependent adjustments which are very necessary, especially in the live poker arena.

Hand 3

Concepts: Check-calling with big hands to give bigger stacks the opportunity apply ICM pressure

The Action: Tom Koral completed the small blind and Freek Scholten checked his option in the big blind. On the flop, Koral checked and Scholten bet 1,800,000. Koral called. On the turn, Koral checked again and Scholten bet 4,700,000. Koral called. On the river, Koral checked a third time and Scholten bet 12,000,000. Koral called.

SS: You checked a big overpair on the flop against Barry Shulman earlier at the final table. Now, you flop two-pair and check again in a limped pot. Do you generally employ a trapping strategy out of position a lot or was this because of ICM considerations against the other big stack at this point?

TK: I wouldn’t say I employ a trapping strategy a lot, but some scenarios certainly warrant it more. Both of these hands just happened to be spots where I wanted to protect my check-call range with a hand that was underrepresented. This makes it harder to bluff someone because by the time the river comes, it’s hard to “know” someone has a weak hand or a strong hand. The main reason to play pot control was because of ICM implications, however.

When I have a stack of 25 big blinds and my opponents have stacks of 10 and 15 big blinds, respectively, you have to be very careful in the spots that you’re getting into. The pay jumps are really large at this point, but with that said, winning a large pot against the chip leader can really change the dynamics of the final table and your equity as a whole.

Tom KoralSS: What hands, if any, would you lead out with on this board?

TK: I think in this scenario, I’d be leading less than average because with the ICM implications, I expected Freek to be more aggressive than normal.

SS: How wide do you think he’s betting this flop?

TK: I think he’s betting the flop with most of his range since it’s a good spot for a cheap bluff, and also a great spot to double or triple barrel if he picks up some additional turn equity because of ICM considerations.

SS: When he bets the second time, what does that narrow his range down to? Does he sort of polarize himself to draws and big made hands at this point? Or could he possibly be barrel with no-equity bluffs?

TK: I think with the two flush draw board he’s not bluffing as often with close to no equity. There are just too many hands the small blind can continue with even he thinks he’s behind. With that said, this is an excellent ICM spot for him to really go after. If he thinks I’m weak he absolutely should try and put pressure on me. The only way to counterbalance what I believe his best strategy should be is to check-call and allow him to potentially three-barrel.

SS: His river bet is quite large and puts a ton of pressure on you given the stack setup at the table. What hands can you call here with what can be an uncapped range?

TK: I think with all the missed draws on this board, you should be calling reasonably often on this river. Q-J or better is probably a fine range to call with. You don’t block 10-X bluffs and his sizing is almost a little suspicious in this spot. Also, calling your stronger hands when you don’t have a diamond or heart in it are good candidates. That way, you’re not blocking his potential semi-bluffed flush draws.

His turn and river sizing was so big that it almost seemed like he was just putting maximum ICM pressure on me more than value betting. To him it probably looks like I don’t have much better than one-pair hands in this spot. So, in theory, he could be value betting two pairs that are worse than mine as well. This makes my decision much easier.