If you have even found this website or read my blog at all, your probably already know I’ve had a great summer so far. I placed 2nd in the WSOP National Championship, 7th in a $3k shootout, 2nd in the $3k Mixed-Max, and 15th in the $5k 6-max. I’ve been very happy with the way I’ve been playing. Obviously, there’s slight disappointment from my side on both those 2nd places, especially given that I was in a great position to win in both tournaments (I was a 92% favorite with AK vs KT on a K753 for the win in the mixed-max only for a dreaded T on the river). But I’ve had a last 12 months that many players would die for and I feel so happy that I’ve been able to accomplish this sick stretch of tournaments.
Instead of a typical blog post about deep runs in the WSOP containing tournament summaries and hand histories, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about playing great players. Over the first half of the summer I’ve witnessed 3 hands played by great tournament players, against great players, that illustrate a major flaw in the logic of almost every tournament players. To the tournament player, the best hands are the ones that display ownage at it’s best: 5bet shoving with air, calling with K high, jamming over a turn bet with no pair and no draw and getting a fold. And in tournaments, where many of the players are sub-par at best, being able to make these plays can be essential to achieving a high winrate and winning bracelets.
But against a great player, these plays will backfire hard (I’ll explain why a little later). I was absolutely shocked when I saw 3 plays at the WSOP this year, all made by great tournament players, that we’re absolutely terrible by all accounts against the players they were playing against. The first hand was with T2o by Vanessa Selbst. She was playing my good friend Bryan Pellegrino headsup in the 10k headsup when this happened. She raised T2o otb, Bryan called. Flop was 954, check check, turn 5. Bryan checks again, she bets, he c/rs, and she jams for a lot of chips! Bryan calls with J5 and Vanessa is drawing dead.
The second hand was against my other good friend Ben “Sauce123” Sulsky. Against Don Nguyen in the semi finals of the 10k hu. Sauce 3bet Nguyen’s raise 35bb deep. Nguyen shoved with 82s and Sauce called with AJ. Nguyen sadly ends up binking a straight.
The last hand was actually against me. I 3bet pre 50+BB deep hu after 3betting the hand prior in the round of 8 in the mixed max. Brandon Cantu, having raised T3o, snap jammed and I called. He claimed later that before the hand he had decided he was “going to jam no matter what.”
While these hands can be good against bad players, they are all absolutely atrocious against great ones. And the reason is because great players are always playing semi-balanced ranges. Bryan is never c/r that turn without several strong hands and Sauce and I are never 3betting there without a range of mostly strong hands. Yes, we’ll be bluffing some of the time, but we’ve all constructed our ranges to be at least close to balanced, which means we will be doing very well against these ridiculous plays.
Contrary to popular belief, a balanced range doesn’t breakeven against any strategy, it breaks even against the best counter strategy. Think of it this way, let’s say on the river you make a pot sized bet with a range of 2/3 nut hands and 1/3 bluffs. To counter this correctly, our opponent needs to call with 1/3 of his bluff-catchers to break even. However, let’s say he folds everytime. Well that means we are winning the pot everytime and our bet is significantly +EV. If he calls everytime, we get paid off with all of our value hands and also earn a shitload of money. Imaging a xy graph with the left side of the x axis folding too much and the right side calling too much, with the middle of the x axis being the perfect counter strategy. The Y axis is profitability. Overall, a balanced betting range will look like a parabola, with folding too much slowly making our range more profitable, calling just right making us breakeven, and calling too much also slowly making our range more profitable.
Maybe it seems glamorous to make that big play, or maybe they just were dumb enough not to respect they’re opponents game. But the bottom line is great players use mostly balanced ranges when playing other great players, only adjusting their strategies slightly to account for the ways their opponent is playing exploitably. I’m sure Cantu, Nguyen, and Selbst do very well in tournaments, but if they think these plays are good, they are fooling themselves. And if you disagree with me, you are too.
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I do not consider myself a tournament player. For most of my poker career, I either played deep-stacked cash games, heads-up, and then later, before Black Friday, heads-up sngs. I played tournaments sporadically, and enjoyed them, but they have never been my main focus. And even now, after a rather large amount of live tournament success, I still consider heads-up my best game.
Now that Black Friday has taken away my ability to play poker online in America, I’ve been focusing mainly on live tournaments. I’ve found that these tournaments have many nuances that I didn’t anticipate when I first got into them. I thought that they would be as easy as beating the 20bb CAP games on Full Tilt, but they are not like the CAP games at all. And it’s because of the aforementioned nuances. More recently, I’ve finally started to figure out what these nuances are and, more importantly, how to take advantage of them.
This blog is about one of these nuances, something that I call gear-changing (for lack of a better term). Because of the rising blinds a changing stacks that come in tournaments, there are points in a tournament for both individual players and players collectively, where suddenly the game must be played differently in order to be profitable. A simple example of this is in the middle stages of a random tournament, lets say the 300/600/75 level, where most people may have somewhere around 18k chips. In this situation, you and everyone else has 30bb and can 3bet without putting in their entire stack. The level changes to 400/800/100. Now you have close to 20bb and everyone now will have to reraise all in for their entire stack in many situations. To play well in this situation, you must “change gears” and play for your stack more often. My theory is that this changing of gears doesn’t happen immediately, it takes time for someone to a) change gears and b) get comfortable in that gear.
The above example isn’t really a shocking observation. You’re probably saying to yourself “I could’ve been reading reddit instead of this.” But when you get into a more complex example of this phenomenon, you see how much of an impact it can really have. In the reraising all in example, the gear change is very fast for most players (especially online pros) because they are so good and comfortable at 20bb stacks. It doesn’t seem like changing gears actually takes time, even though it may take a hand or 2 for many people. But let’s highlight a different situation Let’s say you start a tournament with 15k chips and the blinds are 25/50. In this scenario, you and everyone else in the tournament are 300bb deep and without multiple raises one a street, it is very hard to play for stacks with anyone. The biggest pots will probably be for about 1/3 of your stack. But 2 hours from now the blinds are now 75/150. Now you’re 100bb deep, and with a single flop raise you could theoretically bet your entire stack by the end of the hand without overbetting. Now, in order to play well, you must be prepared to either bet your entire stack or call off your entire stack if the situation calls for it. But what I’ve found is most people are not prepared to do this, they are comfortable being able to play small pots for fractions of their stack. Because the change is not as obvious, it takes a while for most players to change gears or sometimes they won’t even change gears at all (they will delay playing for their stack).
Just like a car, people are much more comfortable in gear than when they are changing gears. Trying to put someone in a spot when they’re uncomfortable is almost always beneficial for you. But I think this theory also is helpful for analyzing your own game. Next time you’re in a tournament, try looking for times where your stack changes and the fundamental play of the tournament changes. Maybe you’ll find that it took you a half hour to realize that a triple barrel will now put you all in by the river, or you never realize until someone has put you all in on the turn in a 3bet pot that your stack is now small enough where you can easily get stacks in on early streets. Ask yourself, am I changing gears?
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