Main Event hand analysis: Sometimes it’s better to lose a little value than risk losing a lot of chips
BY J.C. TRAN / 2013 WSOP NOVEMBER NINER
Needless to say, I consider my run in the 2013 World Series of Poker Main Event to be a tremendous success. When you win more than $2 million, it can’t be all bad, right? However, when you have designs on the bracelet, there’s a certain degree of disappointment when you finish in fifth place. And it’s natural to look back and wonder, What if I’d played this hand or that hand differently?
For me, looking at my summer run that led me to the final table, there’s one particular ESPN-televised hand that left some people questioning my play. It came early on Day Seven, with 26 players left in the tournament. I flopped an ace-high flush in a three-way pot. Some people believe I failed to extract maximum value. Let’s break down the hand, and I’ll explain why I don’t have any regrets over the way I played it.
The blinds were 60K/120K with a 15K ante, and I was almost exactly 100 big blinds deep. Sylvain Loosli, who was on the button, was among only two people at the table who had me out-chipped, while Mark Newhouse, who was directly to my right, was a little below the average stack size. Mark min-raised in third position, and with A-5 of spades, I flat-called. I know some of the online phenoms prefer to three-bet and represent a hand that’s stronger than what they really have, but I prefer to see flops and make my big decisions after the flop. My attitude is that in a tournament like the Main Event, it’s more about minimizing your losses than maximizing your wins. I know my approach is going to cause me to miss value at times, but that’s okay.
Sylvain called, so I had position on one opponent but was out of position against the other. The flop came 9-8-7, all spades, giving me the absolute nuts unless someone had a straight flush—which wasn’t a possibility I was even remotely considering. I didn’t know my opponents’ hole cards, of course, but as it turns out, the flop hit Sylvain pretty hard, as he had Js-10d, giving him a straight with a (theoretical) gutshot to a straight flush. Mark had Qc-10s, for the open-ended straight flush draw. Even though he was the pre-flop raiser, Mark checked his drawing hand on the flop.
Second to act, I checked. When Mark checked, I felt that meant he didn’t connect too well with the flop. There was no need for me to bet because I expected that I was going to lose Mark if I did, and it’s a huge mistake if I lose both of my opponents when I flop the ace-high flush. Plus, Sylvain had the button; on a wet flop, I felt like he might connect somewhat and bet in position, and if he missed entirely, he was probably going to bluff at it because Mark and I both checked.
Sylvain bet 425K into a pot of just over a million chips. Mark flat-called him, and now that I had two opponents going to the turn and the pot was building nicely, I saw no need to check-raise. The check-raise would have looked way too strong there. I hadn’t done a whole lot of raising post-flop, and these guys were well aware of that, so had I put in a raise there, I’d get weaker hands that were drawing dead to fold. Even with the straight that he had, Sylvain might have folded to a check-raise there. The only hand that would have been likely to re-raise me back was a smaller flush, and if indeed one of my opponents had a smaller flush, I was still expecting to extract value on the turn and river. On top of that, if I had check-raised and Sylvain called with position on me, it was going to make it tough for me to play the rest of the hand if the board paired. I didn’t want to set him up to turn an inferior hand into a bluff.
So, yes, I played the flop a bit cautiously for a guy who pretty much held the nuts. But I had several good reasons for doing so.
When the turn peeled the ace of clubs and Mark checked, I was thinking about what Sylvain was putting us on. I figured that he put one of us on the ace of spades. So I bet 925K into a 2.3 million chip pot, representing the ace of spades and top pair. At this point, I was hoping that Sylvain would raise me and we’d play a big pot. I figured if he had a smaller flush or a straight, he would raise there. But he didn’t—he just called—which is a credit to how smartly and conservatively he played the hand. And because he didn’t raise, I figured, incorrectly, that he had a set or two pair.
Mark, meanwhile, folded his draw. So we had a little over 4 million chips in the pot and I was heads-up with Sylvain. The river was the eight of hearts, pairing the board. It went check-check, and on the broadcast, Norman Chad made a funny joke referencing the fact that I’m a Sacramento Kings fan, saying, “J.C. misses a little value on the river—kind of like drafting DeMarcus Cousins.” But I don’t believe I really missed value on the river. Remember, I flatted the flop after Sylvain bet and Mark called, and if I had bet the turn and the river, it would have been very tough for Sylvain to put me on a hand that wasn’t better than his straight. If I was the one with two pair or a set, I got there. If I had a flush, he was drawing dead all along. Chances are, I wasn’t going to get paid off on a river bet.
I wasn’t checking to fold, of course. I was looking to check-call. But I was also perfectly satisfied when he checked behind, because if he had made a strong bet, I would actually have had to at least think about folding. I put him on two pair or possibly a set, especially when he called the turn, so the board pairing was worrisome to me. And let’s say he had a two-pair hand like nines and sevens, where the eight on the river counterfeited him. If I check, he can follow through with a bluff. I checked to keep the pot small, but also to give him a chance to bluff.
Here’s the big thing: I felt like if I led out on the river, Sylvain was a good enough player to turn his hand into a bluff. And the last thing I wanted to do was put myself in a situation where half my stack could be at risk and I might have to fold the best hand.
In the end, I won a nice pot. People saw that flop and they might have thought I should have gotten more chips out of it. But if you examine the hand closely, I think you’ll see that there was a reason for every move I made and that there’s no guarantee I was going to win a bigger pot playing it any differently.
J.C. Tran is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and World Poker Tour champion who finished fifth in the 2013 WSOP Main Event.