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Poker Strategy With Jonathan Little: A Closer Look At The Poker In Rounders

Two-Time WPT Champion Breaks Down The Film's Absurd, Yet Climactic Hand Between Mike McDermott And Teddy KGB


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To play any hand optimally, you must take many different variables into account including your opponent’s tendencies, the stack sizes, your image, and physical tells. It can be overwhelming to take in so much information, but with practice, it becomes more natural.

Let’s take a look at my thought process by analyzing an iconic poker hand from the final scene of the movie Rounders where Teddy KGB and Mike McDermott battle in a high-stakes, heads-up poker game for Mike’s net worth.

Jonathan LittleTo set the stage, Mike ventured into the notorious underground poker club run by Teddy, putting his entire bankroll on the line in an attempt to settle debts, prove himself, and ultimately have a chance to go to Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.

Playing a $50-$100 heads-up no-limit hold’em cash game with $27,000 effective stacks, Mike raised to $200 from the small blind with 9Spade Suit 8Spade Suit.

Note that in this hand the big blind is also the button and acts last on all betting rounds, including the first. This is the opposite of the structure of heads-up poker today.

Since Mike will be out of position, he should use a tight preflop strategy. When you are 270 big blinds deep, it will be difficult to play out of position, especially if your opponent is overly aggressive, as Teddy clearly is. I would have limped, which is what I would do with almost all my playable hands from out of position playing deep stacked. My goal would be to keep the pot size as manageable as possible while still seeing lots of flops with a wide range due to my excellent pot odds.

I do not like Mike’s min-raise because it essentially forces Teddy to call with his entire range due to getting amazing pot odds. Of course, he can also re-raise, forcing Mike to play a bloated pot from out of position.

Teddy called Mike’s preflop raise.

I would generally call with most of my hands that flop reasonably well. I would re-raise with my premium hands as well as some hands that flop poorly that also have a high card blocker, such as Q-4 offsuit.

The flop came 10Heart Suit 7Spade Suit 6Diamond Suit. Mike checked with his straight.

When Mike flops the nuts, his goal should be to get as much money into the pot as possible. If Mike had no reads on Teddy, he should make a continuation bet of $300 into the $400 pot. A continuation bet guarantees the pot grows while also concealing Mike’s range (assuming he intends to continuation bet most of the time, or with a range of his best made hands and draws). Betting may also induce a bluff-raise from Teddy, getting a lot of money into the pot. That said, Mike apparently knew a lot about Teddy’s strategy. After Mike checked…

Teddy bet $2,000 into the $400 pot.

Seeing how Teddy bet five times the size of the pot, Mike’s check was clearly excellent.

Facing a gigantic flop bet, it is important to realize that Teddy’s range is almost certainly polarized, meaning he has either a premium hand, such as a straight or three of a kind, or nothing. When he has nothing, he most likely has a draw, including hands like AHeart Suit 9Heart Suit and 5-4. Since Mike has Teddy either drawing dead or thin, he should call in order to induce additional bluffs on the turn and river.

Check-raising is only a good option if Mike can confidently count on Teddy to mindlessly blast his whole stack in. When a wild player is applying immense pressure, the last thing you want to do is raise and give him the chance to get off the hook with all his bluffs.

From Teddy’s point of view, the gigantic flop bet actually has some merit. Especially on this board, which should generally be better for the preflop caller than the pre-flop raiser, a giant bet makes almost all of Mike’s range into bluff catchers. When your opponent is playing for his entire bankroll, he will likely not be able to withstand the pressure with less than the nuts once he is put to the test for his entire stack by the river. While I would have bet smaller, perhaps $600 into the $400 pot, the idea of attacking coordinated middle card boards makes a lot of sense.

If Teddy knew that Mike would only put his entire stack in the pot by the river with exactly the nuts (because he is playing for his net worth) then the only way to set up that situation is by betting way more than the size of the pot on all three betting rounds. Apparently, Teddy thought Mike was a weak-tight player who would eventually fold to the immense pressure. Unfortunately, we will never know if his read was accurate because Mike was lucky enough to have the nuts.

Mike called. The turn was the 2Club Suit. Mike checked.

Mike’s turn check is great. He definitely wants to let his maniacal opponent bluff again.

Teddy bet $4,400 into the $4,400 pot.

Assuming Teddy wants to try to force Mike off all non-nut hands, he should probably bet a bit larger on the turn so that he can realistically go all-in on the river. You will find that your bluffs will typically show more profit if you get more money in the pot on the earlier streets, assuming you can still make a sizable river bet.

For example, if Teddy bet $6,000 on the turn instead of $4,400, the pot on the river would be $16,400 instead of $13,200 and the remaining stacks would be $18,800. By betting larger on the turn, Teddy will be able to steal a larger pot on the river while having roughly the same amount of fold equity, since he would still be betting more than the size of the pot.

When Teddy bets the size of the pot on the turn, he is likely still polarized to a strong made hand, most likely three of a kind, or a junky draw, most likely a nine, eight, or 5-4. Since Mike still has that range crushed, he does not need to raise for value or protection. Unless he is confident that Teddy actually has a premium hand, he should call and give Teddy an additional bluffing opportunity on the river.

Mike called. The river was the ASpade Suit. Mike checked.

As on the turn, Mike should check to give Teddy a final opportunity to bluff or value bet a worse made hand. Leading on the river would look as if Mike is afraid to check on the river, fearing Teddy would check behind.

Teddy went all-in for $20,400 into the $13,200 pot.

The rivered ace is an interesting card because it improves one of Mike’s most likely bluff catchers, A-A, into a much stronger bluff catcher. When Teddy uses a gigantic all-in bet size, his range should be either the nut straight or a bluff. With a set worse than top set, Teddy should probably bet a bit smaller, perhaps $7,200 into the $13,200 pot, looking to get called by a worse made hand. If Mike check-raises a $7,200 bet, Teddy should probably fold middle set. Very few people are capable of check-raise bluffing on the river while giving their opponent amazing pot odds to call when their entire net worth is on the line.

Facing the all-in, if Mike had K-K, Q-Q, or J-J, he should probably make an optimistic call because he beats almost all of the missed straight draws. He loses to A-9 and A-8, but those hands would probably check behind or bet small on the river. So, all or almost all of Teddy’s bluffs lose to J-J.

Since Mike clearly thought Teddy would be willing to run a big bluff (demonstrated by Mike’s flop check), he should call down with all of his of bluff catchers. Perhaps the worst hand he should call with is J-10, although calling with even weaker pairs could be ideal. The main reason for not calling down with overly weak bluff catchers such as K-Q is because Teddy could easily be turning a weak pair such as 8-7 into a bluff.

Mike called $20,400 with the nuts, doubling his net worth.

The way Teddy reacts after Mike’s call with the nuts leads me believe he was bluffing instead of over valuing a worse made hand. If I was forced to put Teddy on an exact hand, it would be J-8 with a backdoor flush draw. This is because J-8 has a draw to the nuts yet it still loses to almost all of Mike’s range. He also has an eight blocker, making it more difficult for Mike to have 9-8. Of course, his river bluffing range is certainly wider than only J-8, but J-8 (and J-9) is a prime semi-bluffing candidate due to having blockers and also having a draw to the nuts.

Mike played this hand perfectly. He knew his opponent well enough to know that he could not resist the temptation to run a large bluff on a scary board. This hand beautifully illustrates that if you know your opponent’s tendencies, you can make incredibly profitable exploitative plays (in this case, checking the flop and not raising at any point).

“Pay that man. Pay that man his money.” ♠

Jonathan Little Jonathan Little is a professional poker player and best-selling poker author with over $7,000,000 in live tournament earnings. If you want to learn how to play fundamentally sound poker and increase your win rate, check out Click here to try for free.