Thursday, October 07, 2010

Lying or mistaken?

In the October issue of Poker Pro magazine, Carl Sampson reviews a hand from the 2008 NBC Heads Up Poker Championship. It's Andy Bloch versus Chris Ferguson in the final round. It's played best two out of three, and Bloch won the first match. Here's the first hand of the second match:

I'm sure I watched this when it first aired, though it didn't make any lasting impression on me.

Sampson questions whether Bloch really misread his hand. If Bloch genuinely thought he had Q-8 instead of Q-5, wouldn't he have made the continuation bet on the flop? He was in position, and his hand would have been as good as he could expect it to be. He had raised pre-flop, and so could represent having the ace. Besides, the I-have-you-beat-whoops-no-I-don't schtick seems kind of phony, a little Hollywood.

Which is all true. However, I'm inclined to think Bloch was being honest about his error.

Why check behind on the flop if he thought he had caught second pair? Pot control. Avoid a check-raise, which would have meant making the difficult decision about whether Ferguson did or did not have an ace. Also, he didn't have to bet to protect against any flush or straight draws, because the flop presented almost none.

Sampson reasons that Bloch had floated Ferguson's turn bet with the intention of the river going bet-raise, an audacious bluff on the river, having sensed weakness in Ferguson. However, when Ferguson didn't follow up his turn bet with a river bet, that plan went to hell. Sampson's theory is that Ferguson is more likely to make a thin call there after a check and a bet than after a bet and a raise, so the planned river bluff lost much of its value.

Sampson also argues that Bloch's plan was to keep Ferguson from knowing that Bloch had raised pre-flop with a hand as marginal as Q-5. But that doesn't make sense to me for two reasons. First, Ferguson well knows that proper heads-up strategy means raising in position a hefty percentage of the time, including with hands like Q-5. It's not like he's going to recalibrate his idea of what Bloch is capable of by gaining that bit of data. And Bloch knows that Ferguson knows that. In other words, the fact that Bloch had raised on the button with Q-5 is not something that he needs to keep secret, as if it's some wildly creative bit of play that will give away his game plan. Second, if Bloch was lying about the misread of his hand, and if Sampson's theory is correct, then Bloch would have simply mucked his cards unseen after Ferguson showed the winner. That would have left Ferguson wondering if Bloch had raised pre-flop with a big ace that missed, with a tiny pair (2-2 or 3-3), or with air.

Something that Sampson doesn't address is the breach of ethics that Bloch would be guilty of if he had deliberately miscalled his hand, announcing to Ferguson that he had him beat. It's inconceivable that he would shoot an angle trying to get Ferguson to pick up his tabled hand and throw it in the muck; there's no way that Ferguson would do that, or that Bloch would think such a trick would work, or that Bloch would be so sleazy as to try. But even the phony announcement of having the winner, quickly followed by the truth, is a pretty scummy thing to do to an opponent, especially one that you respect and consider a friend (and in this particular case, one that is Bloch's business partner in Full Tilt). I have a hard time believing that Bloch would do that. What is there to be gained by it? As a joke? Nobody is going to think that's funny in such a high-pressure situation. Maybe in a penny-ante home game, but not on this stage.

Overall, my conclusion is that it is more plausible that Bloch genuinely made a mistake here. At some point, his brain saw the 8 on the flop and translated that into a memory that he held Q-8 in the hole. (I have done such a thing a few times. I get in my mind what cards I want to see come, and crossed mental wires lead me to believe that what I want to see is what I have and vice-versa.) I think his play, his actions, and his words are reasonably consistent with that scenario. However, it is not wholly out of the question that Sampson is right and that Bloch was lying about misreading his hand. If he was, though, I'm hard-pressed to understand what he hoped to accomplish with the song-and-dance.

What do you think?

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