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The Debate: Stuck in the middle

12/17/2008

The beauty of poker is 10 players could play the same hand 10 different ways. Granted, most of us would raise with aces preflop, but the amounts might be different. Or maybe the way we would play them against different opponents would change our respective strategies.

Thanks to all those who have submitted questions recently. Joining me to analyze this week's debate is Brian Kornfeld, the 126th-place finisher in the 2006 WSOP main event.

Don't forget to leave your feedback in the conversation section -- your response could be featured in the next debate column. You can also suggest a hand and be featured in a future article.

Let the debate begin. ...

Situation: There are 25 players left in a six-handed tournament that began with 727 players. Additionally, it is a bounty tournament in which knocking out a player earns an additional payout. The blinds are $1,000/$2,000 with a 250 ante; our hero begins the hand with $35,030 and is sitting on the button. He is currently fourth in chips at the table with the second and third stack in the small and big blind, respectively. The short stack in the cutoff seat starts the hand with $4,184.

As action begins, the first two players to act fold. The short stack moves all-in for $3,934 and hero looks down to see 8-8.

Feldman: It's an interesting spot that hero is in. The first thing to note is the range of the short stack is huge. With such a small stack, he's probably willing to push with just about anything, but given his patience, would probably have an ace or big king. Unless the short stack got extremely lucky and picked up a big pair, I'm confident to say hero is ahead in this hand, but is most likely racing. That said, I'm either calling or raising here, but unsure at this point as to which method would be best with two big aggressive stacks left to act.

Kornfeld: First off, you are right. This guy's range is very, very wide. There is no way you are folding any pocket pair here, especially for about one-10th of your stack. Hero's 8-8 is very vulnerable to other hands. If hero calls here, he is inviting at least two other players into the pot and they'll probably play a small preflop pot and check it down. Hero would basically have to hit a set to proceed in the hand with more action. Whether or not this is a bounty tournament, I don't like seeing a four-way flop with 8-8 at this stage of a tournament. I like an isolation raise here. With only two players left to act behind you, it is highly likely both blinds will fold. You then will play heads-up against one player who you are most likely ahead of, and if you lose, you can afford it.

Feldman: I wouldn't want to be in a four-way pot with two aggressive players, but given it is a bounty tournament, you are absolutely right that they will call behind hero to try and knock out the player. That said, isolation is the only way to go. Obviously we can't be afraid of one of the remaining two players waking up with a big hand, but putting all the chips in the center with only eights might be a mistake at this point. Is it worth it to raise, but not all-in?

Kornfeld: First off, hero shouldn't get too caught up in the fact this is a bounty tournament. Although getting bounties can add up, he's already deep into the money, and the top three spots will give a lot more money than one-6th the buy-in. Hero should be more focused on how to put himself in the best position to win.

That being the case, I completely agree a raise is the way to go. Before hero can decide the amount of the raise, there is one question he needs to ask: "Am I going to call off all my chips if one of the aggressive players goes all-in over the top of my raise?"

If your answer is yes, then hero can make a slightly bigger raise, something like $10,000 or $12,000, inviting a bigger stack in behind him. After that has been determined, hero needs to figure out what types of hands will be shoving on him? Probably two overcards, an ace, and a pair. A lot of this will depend on his table image. If he feels like he has shown that he folds a lot of hands and 8-8 is beating your opponents' range, this isn't a bad play. It's a gamble, but not a bad play.

If hero's answer is no, then he has two options. The first option is to make a small raise to maybe $7,000. He needs to realize, though, that by adding more money to the pot, he's adding dead money here. If he get reraised and folds, the reraiser will at minimum break even on the hand, so he is risking nothing, even with a very weak hand. With a small raise, hero is also inviting medium hands such as queen-jack or even any ace into the pot. If you make this raise though, hero must be willing to let his hand go if he gets reraised.

The other option is to move all-in. The cold-call of the initial raise is 10 percent of your stack. He most likely has a weaker hand than you. Hero will be shutting out medium hands from the blinds and won't be leaving any dead money on the table. He has only two guys to get past. This is the extreme isolation play and at this stage of the tournament may be dangerous because there is a chance the blinds can wake up with a big hand, but I think it's a risk one must be willing to take. I think all-in is the best play here.

Feldman: I'm just saying that the added value is there and people will go for the bounty, no matter how insignificant. Especially if it means calling less than two big blinds.

So, hero needs to ask himself that question, but understanding the table as it is right now, I'm thinking that he should really go for the smaller raise to try and isolate, but not really commit him. I think that since hero knows the other two players are aggressive behind him, making a raise here should signify a bigger hand and one the bigger stacks should shy away from. Hero has over 60 percent of both their stacks and I'm sure they wouldn't want to get involved in a spot where they didn't have the goods.

I'm leaning toward a smaller raise to $7,000-$8,000, given our options. Yes, this is more tentative, and perhaps all-in is the right method, but in this situation, I feel the simple small reraise would show more strength and get our opponents out of the way.

Action: Hero reraises to $12,000.

Feldman: I like the reraise, but $12,000 puts hero in a very intriguing spot. Does he call if an all-in occurs behind him? Can he get away from the hand?

Kornfeld: This should signify to everyone else that hero is committed to this hand. The problem is he has left himself vulnerable to a reraise. If a blind reraises, the blind should have a very big hand, but an aggressive player who can pick up on weakness will also reraise with a medium hand because the hero has now left $8,000 in dead money on the table, and the reraiser can increase his stack by a minimum $4,000 if the hero does fold. I personally do not see a hand that the hero is beating (note -- I said beating; I do not consider him beating two overcards, I consider that a coin flip and approximately even odds) and I do not want to call off my chips where I am at best a coin flip. If I get reraised in this spot, I probably have to let the hand go and fight another day with 12 big blinds.

Feldman: I think you have many good points here, but one thing to note is the aggression of the bigger stacks. Seeing that dead money, I wouldn't be surprised if they raised with weaker holdings, but even so, given how much is in the pot, they should expect hero to call and therefore, would have no reason to think a steal would work here.

Action: The small blind reraises all-in, enough to cover hero's stack.

Feldman: Before continuing, we must now understand that this is a new situation. The hand doesn't seem to have been played optimally up through this point, but now that we're here, we need to make the best decision. That said, hero has put in more than a third of his stack with his pocket pair, but the reraise by the aggressive small blind should represent a much bigger hand and at the very least, two overs. Even though the math is screaming call, I can't see how hero would be willing to put his tournament life on the line after he's been reraised in this spot.

Kornfeld: Looking at pot odds, hero would be calling off $23,000 to win a pot of approximately $53,000, so he is getting well over two to one on his money. The problem is, as you said, hero is most likely facing two overcards, and it is for his tournament life. In a cash game, I would probably snap call here and take my chances, but this is a tournament. Personally, I hate calling off my chips if it's a coin flip unless I feel completely pot committed. In this case, you can fold and leave yourself with 12 big blinds, which is plenty to play with at this stage of a tournament.

The thing to decide is whether or not you are a coin flip at best or a coin flip at worst. Is he making this reraise with smaller pairs and weaker aces than ace-8? I understand the small blind is an aggressive player, but is he a stupid player as well? Also, what is the hero's reputation? Has he folded a lot of hands when facing reraises? What does hero think his opponent thinks hero is holding? All of these factors should be incorporated into the hero's decision.

With all of these factors, I still see this as a very difficult call to make in a tournament. I would much rather be the aggressor with a medium hand than call off my chips with one.

Feldman: I agree, and I'm leaning toward folding in this spot. Being able to push with 12 big blinds is still a weapon and hero, with a tight-solid image, will be able to get players to lay down with all-in shoves. The inherent problem with any hand discussion is that poker is a game of incomplete information, but given the information we have, I have to give the small blind for having better than A-8 in this case. At best, hero is racing and I don't think it is worth it to risk his tournament life in this spot.

So what happened?: Hero let his hand go and the small blind turned over A-10. The short stack turned over A-7. The flop came eight high, which would have given hero a set and a turn 10 declared the small blind the winner of a nice-sized pot.

Feldman: This was a very interesting hand. In retrospect, I think the best move for hero would've been the all-in, as I strongly doubt the small blind would have called more than half his stack with only A-10. The small blind's reraise was timed well and represented a much bigger hand than he was holding. It was a good deception to take down the $8,000 in dead money in the pot and, of course, give him a chance to knock out the short stack.

Personally, I'd rather put the tough decision-making on my opponents. In this case, hero put himself into a tough decision by making the raise to $12,000. If he was thinking he would fold to a reraise, he should've mentally walked through the hand before he made that initial bet and figured he could save himself some chips with a smaller raise. By moving all-in the tough decision would've been on the A-10 and all the other variables that player factors into his decision-making process.

Kornfeld: So hero would have hit his set and doubled up, but based on poker strategy, I still like this laydown. First off, I know the ace is shared, but you cannot factor in the short stack's hand because his stack is so small and you cannot put him on an ace. He could've had anything. Second off, the small blind had your stack covered and had two overcards. A coin flip isn't worth it in this spot, and this hand should not be judged based on the results.

I think the lesson to be learned is the "chess lesson." Before a move (bet) is made, look into the future and think about what your opponents might do before they do it and to prepare for all circumstances. That way, you'll leave yourself in the best position possible.

What would you do if you were in this situation? Leave your comments below and we'll take a look at your thoughts next time.

There were 72 comments from the last debate, here are some of your thoughts:

mfoist: It goes without saying this hand would have been a lot easier to play if the opponent had bet out on the flop (which he should have). Since he didn't, it is very tough to put him on A-10. I agree with hero checking the flop. When the board pairs on the turn, I immediately slow down, knowing I very well could now be beat, and just cautiously call the $375 bet. When the opponent bets quickly with $1,100 on the river (a very large bet for the first hand of a deep stack tourney) I see only two clear options here -- call or fold. His bet feels like a full house bet, unless he is simply a poor player being way too aggressive (we have no accurate read yet, though). In this case, being a deep stack tourney, survival is the most important thing early on, and I either call with my fingers crossed or fold and wait for a less painful situation to gamble with 25 percent of my stack.

Andrew120: There are many different ways to play different hands, so while I don't agree with the way the hand was played, I can understand each move the way it played out ... up until the river. Someone instantly betting on the river almost always means one of two things: they either have the nuts or it's a complete bluff. To raise either of those possibilities doesn't make any sense at all, especially on the first hand of the tournament. If there's the extremely odd chance that the opponent is savvy enough to instantly value bet the river with three 10s or less on a 3-flush flop, then they will be savvy enough to fold to a river raise because a river raise by hero screams full house or flush.

thw10pinguru: Maybe I'm missing something here, but why would hero check the flop. He was in perfect position, wasn't he? I could see a check first or middle, but last is just a foolish play, especially early on in a [deep stack tournament]. A flop bet from position will look a lie, and get paid off from weaker holdings.

What happened later in the hand was unavoidable, and therefore irrelevant to the playing of the hand. Big blind calls hero's bet, hero's broke ...

The mistake, [in my opinion] is not betting the flop. The big blind checking the flop was the smooth play and got him paid after hero's error. Hero could've picked up an extra $700 to $1,200 just by making the simple play of leading out from position. Worst case with the flop bet, aside from a smoothie by the big blind, opponents have zero and you get the $475 small pot, and leave the hand with $5,475. The best case, you'd most likely get that extra bump to $1,000 or an over raise of $1,000 and take it down with the reraise before the turn even hits. Now your stack just went up by over 20 percent and you can get an early table read when everyone else joins in.

The best part would be showing the nuts on the flop, increasing by $1,375, and stealing for the rest of the day. Hero could easily steal his way into doubling his stack with no cards for eight hours, or be a card rack and one of the tournament leaders heading into Day 2 or the money.