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Poker Strategy With Jonathan Little: Retro $25,000 Buy-in Tournament Hand Revisited

Two-Time WPT Champion Looks At A Hand He Played Nearly A Decade Ago


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Jonathan LittleI have played no live poker since January. I am ready to get back out there, but I doubt it will be any time soon.

So to stay sharp, I thought I would revisit a hand I wrote about that I played in the 2011 $25,500 World Poker Tour main event at the Bellagio to see if I made any substantial blunders.

To keep things interesting, I am reading and writing as I go. Read my thoughts from then, along with my current thoughts (bolded) on how things went down nearly a decade ago.

I busted in 20th place, while 18 people got paid. Going out almost on the bubble is never fun but always a memorable experience.

I already remember the hand without even reading it. Big bubbles are brutal that way!

Michael Mizrachi, with 500K chips, raised to 27K from middle position at 6K-12K-2K blinds. I, with 400K, picked up A-K in the small blind. Antonio Esfandiari was in the big blind with 180K. While I was looking at my cards, I glanced to my left and saw Antonio perk up a little bit, which led me to believe he may go all-in if given the opportunity.

I know it probably sounds egotistical to think I picked up a physical tell on one of the greatest live players ever, but he was losing every pot due to getting unlucky and seemed to be a bit loose with his physical actions. I can still remember to this day how he perked up when he looked as his cards.

I decided to call, hoping Antonio would go all-in with whatever he had, and I didn’t really care what Michael did because I had A-K, which would crush any range he could reasonably have.

While this is true, I should have strongly considered just three-betting to about 90K or even going all-in preflop. I was so wrapped up in hoping to get my money in “good” that I forgot that A-K is ahead of two reasonable ranges, but not incredibly far ahead, like A-A would be. For example, against two reasonable ranges, A-K offsuit only has between 33 percent and 38 percent equity, which is not especially how you want to get in a decently large stack on the bubble of a $25,000 buy-in event.

I was thrilled to see Antonio instantly go all-in as soon as my chips hit the felt. I was equally happy to see Michael go all-in, which I thought was clearly an isolation play.

While I am in fine enough shape against their ranges, this is not an amazing spot to be in on the bubble due to the immense payout implications.

I, of course, called. Michael had QDiamond Suit JDiamond Suit and Antonio had K-J. I had to fade a queen or jack to end up with a million chips, but a queen came to send me home.

I was actually in amazing shape this time, having a whopping 58 percent equity. Even on the bubble, I would happily sign up for this.

When most players bust from a tournament, they usually try to figure out how they could’ve avoided the situation. I try to figure out if I could’ve gained more equity in the hand. Notice in this hand, if I re-raised preflop to around 90K, Antonio would have almost certainly folded and Michael would have called.

How stoic of 2011 Jonathan Little! It is worth noting that Michael may have also jammed all-in, which I would have happily called.

I would then have to play a pot out-of-position against someone who tends to not fold whenever the flop is good for his perceived range or bad for my perceived range, which basically means he would almost certainly play back at me on any board that does not have an ace, king or queen. This means I often win small pots when I hit my top pair and lose small pots whenever any other flop comes. That is not a good thing.

I agree. Playing from out of position against a loose, splashy player who will put you in tough spots on the turn and river is not where you want to be, especially on the bubble for all your chips.

I could also re-raise large preflop, to around 120K, but I think that’s a fishy play because it will force Michael to fold most hands that do not have the correct equity to call. Whenever you have your opponent’s range crushed, you almost always want him in the hand. The last thing you want to do is drive him out of the pot when he has a hand such as A-J because they’re drawing thin. What this boils down to is I did the absolute best I could in this hand and that makes me happy.

While I agree that you want A-J offsuit in the pot, you also don’t especially want to play post-flop pots on the bubble where your opponent will play well enough. I am saddened to see that I did not even consider going all-in, but it is probably what I would have done today. I have (probably) learned to play better over the last nine years. That is lucky!

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But you risked going broke on the bubble.” While I did, notice I got all-in with 58 percent equity in a large pot, which certainly would have given me a great opportunity to make a really deep run in the tournament. Unless your stack is short, where getting in the money would be a huge success, playing like a super nit to get in the money is rarely a good play. In this event, 18th place paid $40K and first place paid $1.1 million. I would much rather give up a “guaranteed” $40K in exchange for a 1-in-15 shot at $1.1 million.

How I got it in this specific time does not matter. I was only in marginal shape against two reasonable ranges. Pertaining to calling off once it gets back to me, I completely agree that when you have a medium stack, your goal should not only be to sneak into the money. Many players make the mistake of essentially ensuring they collect that $40K cash in exchange for an excellent chance to win. Had I won this hand, I would have been in great shape to make a very deep run. Instead I bubbled. That is the risk you must be willing to take once you accept the high variance line of just calling preflop.

Sadly, most people cannot or have not done the math and believe cashing for the minimum is the way to be profitable at poker. If you look at the players who cash regularly but rarely win, you’ll see they are usually breakeven, at best. To be a big winner in tournaments, you must put yourself in situations to get a lot of chips late in the tournament. This hand is a great example of how I do this on a regular basis. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out.

While I agree that cashing a lot but rarely winning is terrible, given my A-K is a strong, but non-nut hand in this instance, jamming all-in on the bubble is the preferred play I would make today. Improving is nice! Too bad I could not fade a queen or jack!

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.