Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Interesting TV hand

This happened Thursday on the PokerStars "Big Game." It was indisputably the hand of the week. Watch it here (cuz if you don't, the rest of what I have to say won't make any sense):

(In case that embed stops working for some reason, go here, find Week 10, Episode 4, and fast forward to the 13:30 mark.)

I thought there were all sorts of interesting things about this hand.

Hellmuth's call

I was stunned when he made the call. Yeah, I know it's easy to make good decisions when I'm looking at the guy's hole cards. But that's not it. It's a confluence of two thoughts. First, this "loose cannon" had not put all his chips into the pot all week, and he was not under any extraordinary time pressure to do so here.

Second, of the hands with which the LC might shove there, what could Hellmuth beat? As Hellmuth himself notes, he's unlikely to have pushed with A-10, let alone A-2. A wary call would be the play of choice. So if his opponent is value-betting because he thinks he's ahead, he has top two pair (A-J), a set, or a straight--all of which have Hellmuth beat.

I conclude from that that Hellmuth saw this guy's range as purely polarized: he was very strong or he was on a complete bluff with, most likely, a busted flush draw. Hellmuth must have known that his aces-up hand was only a bluff catcher now, which means that he decided it was more likely than not that the LC (David Fishman) was on a bluff. But that was a very expensive call to make when there were so many plausible hands Fishman could have that had him beat, and when Fishman had shown not a single bluff all week. Hellmuth had to call about $74,000 to win a $167,000 pot, which means that Fishman had to be bluffing at least 44% of the time there to make it a profitable call. That seems to me like a rather large overestimate. Hellmuth had shown strength at every opportunity in the hand; how could he conclude that the amateur would pick this spot for his first big bluff with that kind of frequency, when failure would mean the end of his dream?

Seems like a seriously bad call to me.

The tells

The call gets even worse when factoring in the tells. Hellmuth says after the fact that he hesitated in making the call because of the guy's chatter, the implication being that all the talking made Hellmuth estimate him to be stronger (i.e., less likely to be bluffing) than he otherwise would have. Which, if correct, should have tipped a close decision toward a fold.

But the tells were kind of a mixed bag. First there was the phony "I'm not going to let you do this to me" stuff--sighing, looking scared, rubbing his face as if in fear. Weak means strong. Again, should have been a red flag.

Then there was the obvious trembling. At face value, shaking more often signifies a monster than a bluff, which Phil obviously must know. Assuming he noticed it (and how could he not have? It doesn't show up terribly well in this clip, but it could not have been missed at the time, given how prominent it was), that would be another reason not to call.

I thought the shaking looked unnatural, and in an interview afterwards, Fishman told Amanda Leatherman with a laugh that it was not real. I don't get that. Unless he doesn't even know the most basic facts about tells, why would he simulate looking strong when he was trying to induce a call?

I guess I shouldn't criticize, because whatever he did, it worked--but as I was watching it, I really thought he was harming rather than enhancing his chances for a call. If Hellmuth's commentary after the fact is to be believed, I was correct to be thinking that. He came close to blowing it.

Lesson: Unless you're really, really good at understanding what specific effect your chatter will have on an opponent, it's better to just keep quiet.

For what it's worth, the adrenaline-induced shaking that often sets in with a big hand tends to affect the small muscles more than large ones, so you will see it more in the hands than in the arms or torso. It also tends to be of a higher frequency than what Fishman was doing voluntarily. Those were the two reasons it read false to me; even though trembling would not be unexpected in his situation, it wouldn't look like that.

The aftermath

The clip above cuts off the discussion, but I liked William Perkins (whom I had never heard of before) laying into Hellmuth for his complaining. He said, emphatically and repeatedly, "He's a schoolteacher [read: he doesn't make much]. You have endless trunks of money." In other words, let it go. Rise above it. The money means more to him than it does to you. Grow up, stop whining.

Nicely done, sir, though I'm afraid your target is not capable of learning to behave in the civilized and sportsmanlike way you point out that he should.

The subsequent play

That hand gave Fishman a lock on a big win and a virtual lock on the extra $50,000 end-of-season tournament buy-in bonus--as long as he didn't blow it. He chose to fold every hand thereafter. It cost him about $10,000 in blinds and antes, but he didn't have the option to quit playing, so that was his least costly tactic.

Of course, he could have kept really playing, trying to increase his profits. But, first, that would obviously jeopardize his winnings. And, second, perhaps he understood what would happen. His opponents were no dummies. They would all know that he was now going to be playing scared money, and they would bet and raise him mercilessly, putting him to painful decisions on every street of every hand, knowing that if he played back at them at all, it would only be with the stone-cold nuts and then they could easily fold. Indeed, the one time he momentarily broke from his lock-down commitment, with pocket kings, he tried to limp in, somebody raised, and he agonized before folding. Every single hand would have been like that. It would have been an impossible position from which to try to win. (And, interestingly, the one time he folded pocket aces pre-flop, Phil Laak had 6-6 and flopped the other two sixes in the deck. That could have been a true disaster.)

The lesson: This illustrates that you must be willing to lose in order to win. If your opponents know that you are unwilling to lose any significant fraction of the stakes you have on the table in a no-limit game, you are toast. They will eat you alive, if they're any good. Never continue to play when you have in front of you an amount that you are unwilling to lose, that you are unwilling to put into the pot when you believe you have the best of it.

The commentary

I thought the producers would hate Fishman for basically refusing to play for the last 1 1/2 episodes of a 5-episode series. And maybe they did. But I was glad that they let the two commentators both discuss and praise the LC's strategy. They made clear why he was doing what he was doing. Moreover, they said they didn't blame him at all. They said, paraphrasing, "He's playing by the rules we set up for him. It's his money and he can do with it what he wants to. He has two small children to think about." Maybe it was all phony, meant to cover up the producers' true feelings, and play to what was inevitably going to be an audience rooting for the underdog to have such phenomenal success. Or maybe they really meant it, whether or not the producers agreed with them. Or maybe the producers loved having a nobody walk in and take $130,000 from the pros, and didn't mind him nitting it up the last portion of the week as part of the bargain. I can't tell, and I don't really care. The commentary came off as sensible, supportive, and compassionate, and I appreciated that. It would have felt terribly out of place for them to criticize him in that situation.

The closest they came was when he had the aces and they said something like, "No true poker player can lay that down." But that wasn't true. There are a few rare, specific situations in which folding aces pre-flop is either unquestionably correct or at least justifiable. This was one of them, and his decision to muck A-A said nothing about either his skill or his sincerity as a poker player.

The other players were classy and supportive, too, except for Jason Mercier, who seemed not to understand why the guy was folding every hand, and even placed a prop bet that Fishman had not actually folded aces. (You lose, dude.)

All in all, it made for a really interesting hand, and an interesting aftermath, seeing if he would stick to his chosen strategy, and how the others would react to it. The Big Game doesn't always hit home runs, but last week they sure did.


Shrike said...

There was some interesting feature of the spotlight hand which you failed to mention: firstly, Hellmuth called out Fischman's actual holding -- KcQc -- early in his tank-session before making the crying call.

Secondly, whilst you can criticize Hellmuth for a whole host of things -- I'm certainly no Hellmuth apologist! -- once he was felted a few hands later and quit the game, he immediately went over to the loose cannon and congratulated him on his big win. I don't think he needed any reminders from Perkins about how much the money meant to the schoolteacher.

Hellmuth's poker persona is incredibly obnoxious, but I've heard many poker insiders say on the record that he's a very good guy away from the cameras. I've often wondered if that is indeed the case.


Anonymous said...

If the announcers weren't going to take Phil Laak to task for folding the 2-4 pre-flop in this hand, then they certainly wouldn't have the moral authority to question anybody folding a hand as shaky as aces later in the match.


Anonymous said...

Phil's playing the persona for the TV cameras. The other poker pros seem to like him okay when I watch these shows, which I don't believe they would if he was really that obnoxious. And while I enjoy Daniel Negreanu's helpfulness and thinking out loud on "The Big Game," there's no doubt Phil adds entertainment value when he shows up.

I would also add that many of the Loose Cannons aren't loose at all and tend to fold much more than the pros, so I don't know if this LC folding every hand was all that different from the norm!

Brian said...

Phil's call on the river is LOL I can't believe it. This is a standard fold this deep at 50NL.

And the LC acting job is pretty LOL too.