Playing for your Net Worth – From “Rounders”

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I am often asked what goes through my mind while I’m playing a poker hand. To play any hand optimally, you must take many different variables into account including your opponent’s tendencies, the chip stacks, your image, and physical tells. It can be overwhelming to take in so much information, but with practice, it gradually becomes more natural.

Today, I will show you my thought process in a lighthearted, yet informative, way by analyzing an iconic poker hand, the final scene from the movie “Rounders” where Teddy KGB and Mike McDermott battle for Mike’s entire net worth. A video of the hand is at the bottom of this post if you have not seen it.

Underground Russian Mafia Club in NYC — $50/$100 No Limit Hold’em Cash, 2 Players 

Mike McD (SB): $33,000.00 (330 bb)

Teddy KGB (BB) (BTN): $27,000.00 (270 bb)

Pre-flop: Mike McD is SB w/ 9♠-8♠

Mike McD raises to $200, Teddy KGB calls $200

It is interesting to note that in this hand the big blind has the Button and acts last on all betting rounds, including the first. This is the opposite of the structure of heads-up poker today.

Since Mike will be out of position, he should play a snug pre-flop strategy. When you are 270 big blinds deep, it will be difficult to play out of position, especially if your opponent is overly aggressive. If I was in Mike’s shoes, I would have limped, which is what I would do with almost all my playable hands when out of position. My goal would be to keep the pot size as manageable as possible while still seeing lots of flops with reasonable hands. I do not like Mike’s raise because it allows Teddy to re-raise, forcing Mike to play a bloated pot out of position.

I am not surprised by Teddy KGB’s call because they are deep-stacked and he is in position. He should continue with almost any two cards when facing a min-raise, either by calling or re-raising. I would generally call with most of my hands that flop reasonably well and re-raise with my premium hands as well as some hands that flop poorly.

Flop: ($400) 10♥-7♠-6♦  

Mike McD checks, Teddy KGB bets $2,000, Mike McD calls $2,000

When Mike flops the nuts, his goal should be to get as much money in the pot as possible. Given the overly deep stacks, this will be difficult to achieve. With no reads on Teddy, I think Mike should make a standard continuation bet of $300 into the $400 pot. A continuation bet guarantees the pot grows while also concealing Mike’s range (assuming he intends to continuation bet most of the time). It may also induce a bluff-raise from Teddy, allowing a lot of money to go into the pot.

However, Mike has a read that Teddy KGB is on tilt and may make a big mistake if given the opportunity. This makes Mike’s check acceptable and likely the best play. Seeing how Teddy bet 5 times the size of the pot when checked to, Mike’s check is obviously ideal.

Facing an abnormally large 5x pot bet, it is important to realize that Teddy’s range is almost certainly polarized, meaning he has either a premium hand, such as a straight or a set, or nothing. When he has nothing, he most likely has a draw. Since Mike has Teddy either drawing dead or thin, he should call in order to induce additional bluffs on the turn and river. Check-raising is only a good option if Mike can confidently count on Teddy ignoring that obvious sign of enormous strength. When a wild player is applying immense pressure, the last thing you want to do is give him the chance to easily get off the hook.

From Teddy’s point of view, I don’t mind a giant bet. Especially on this board, which should generally be better for the pre-flop caller than the pre-flop raiser, a giant bet turns almost all of Mike’s range into a bluff catcher. When your opponent is playing for his entire bankroll, he will likely not be able to withstand the pressure once he actually has to call off his stack on the river with less than the nuts. While I would have bet smaller, perhaps $600 into the $400 pot, I like the idea of attacking coordinated middle-card boards.

If Teddy happens to know that Mike will only put his entire stack in the pot by the river with exactly the nuts (because he is playing for his net worth) then the only way to set up that situation is by betting way more than the size of the pot on all streets. Apparently Teddy thought Mike was a weak-tight player who would eventually fold to the pressure. Unfortunately, we will never know if his read was correct because Mike was lucky enough to have the nuts.

Turn: ($4,400) (10♥-7♠-6♦)-2♣ 

Mike McD checks, Teddy KGB bets $4,400, Mike McD calls $4,400

Mike’s turn check is great. You definitely want to let a guy who is either a maniac or on tilt bluff again.

When Teddy bets the size of the pot on the turn, he is likely still polarized to a strong made hand, most likely a set, or a bluff. Since Mike still has that range crushed, he does not need to raise either for value or protection. Unless he is confident that Teddy actually has a premium hand, he should call and give Teddy an additional bluffing opportunity on the river.

Assuming Teddy wants to try to force Mike off all non-nut hands, he should probably bet a bit larger on the turn so that he can realistically go all-in on the river. You will find that your bluffs will typically show more profit if you get more money in on the earlier streets, assuming you can still make a sizable river bet. For example, if Teddy bet $6,000 on the turn instead of $4,400, the pot on the river would be $16,400 instead of $13,200 and the remaining stacks would be $18,800. By betting larger on the turn, Teddy will be able to steal a larger pot on the river while having roughly the same amount of fold equity, given he would still be betting more than the size of the pot.

River: ($13,200) (10♥-7♠-6♦-2♣)-A♠ 

Mike McD checks, Teddy KGB bets $20,400 and is all-in, Mike McD calls $20,400

As on the turn, Mike should certainly check to give Teddy a final opportunity to bluff or value bet a worse made hand. Leading on the river would look as if Mike is afraid to check on the river, fearing Teddy would check behind.

The rivered Ace is an interesting card because it improves Mike’s most likely bluff catcher, A-A, into a much stronger bluff catcher. When Teddy goes all-in, his range should be either the nut straight or a bluff. With a set worse than top set, Teddy should probably bet a bit smaller, perhaps $7,200 into the $13,200 pot, looking to get called by a worse made hand. If Mike check-raises the $7,200 bet, Teddy should probably fold middle set. Very few people are capable of check-raise bluffing on the river while giving their opponent amazing odds to call when their entire net worth is on the line.

As played, if Mike had K-K, Q-Q, or J-J when facing the all-in river bet, he should probably make a speculative call because he beats almost all of the missed gut shot draws. He does lose to A-9 and A-8, but those hands would probably check behind on the river most of the time. This means that almost all of Teddy’s bluffs lose to J-J.  Since Mike clearly thought Teddy would be willing to run a big bluff (demonstrated by Mike’s flop check), he should almost certainly call down with all of his bluff catchers. Perhaps the worst hand he should call with is J-10, although I could actually see calling with an even wider range, assuming Teddy is betting a polarized range on the river and most of that range contains bluffs. The main reason for not calling down with overly weak bluff catchers, such as K-Q, is because Teddy could easily be turning a weak pair such as 8-7 into a bluff.

The way Teddy reacts after Mike’s call with the nuts leads me believe he was bluffing instead of over valuing a worse made hand. If I was forced to put Teddy on an exact hand, it would be Jx-8x, likely with a backdoor flush draw. This is because J-8 has a draw to the nuts yet it still loses to almost all of Mike’s range. He also has an 8 blocker, making it a bit more difficult for Mike to have the nuts. Of course, his river bluffing range is certainly wider than only J-8, but J-8 (and J-9) are prime semi-bluffing candidates due to having blockers and also having a draw to the nuts.

Mike played this hand perfectly. He knew his opponent well enough to know that he could not resist the temptation to run a large bluff on a scary board. This hand beautifully illustrates that if you know your opponent’s tendencies, you can get well out line (in this case, checking the flop and not raising at any point), allowing you to crush your opponent.

Pay that man. Pay that man his money.

2013 World Series of Poker $10K Main Event Final TableResults: $54,000.00 pot 

Final Board:  10♥-7♠-6♦-2♣-A♠

Mike McD showed 9♠ 8♠ and won $54,000 ($27,000.00 net)

Teddy KGB mucked and lost (-$27,000.00 net)

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends! If you want to learn more about how to exploit your opponents, I strongly suggest you check out my new ebook, Strategies for Beating Small Stakes Poker Tournaments. Thank you for reading.

5 Comments

  • Kacey says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I agree that betting the Flop in normal circumstances is the best play. So if you bet the Flop and a loose aggressive player calls is there value to checking the turn in order to let him try and bluff you out? The turn is so dry and I’m thinking that if you check your opponent will throw some $$ into the pot to try and get you off your over card or something.. Or is it better to just keep barreling to inflate the pot.
    Also, if you do check and get checked back.. do you bet the River or let them rep the Ace?

    • I would tend to bet again on the turn to build the pot and keep my range wide. The problem with checking is that if you check-raise, you look super strong and if you check-call, you also look like you have some sort of made hand. If your opponent is competent and he knows you have something, he probably will not run an insane river bluff.

  • Theo says:

    Actually there is a frame that shows Teddy mucking pocket 10s. My guess is that Teddy most likely put Mike on a lower set or even A-8, A-9 A-10 which explains the “value” shove on the river. I would think that if he thought Mike had JJ,QQ,KK he would bet lower on the river to induce a call

  • Robbie D says:

    I like your breakdown on how you would play the hand. However what I got from the scene is that Mike McD was trying to simulate Johnny Chan’s strategy against Eric Seidel in the WSOP final Table. Where Johnny knew his man so well to check it down to the river. Mike McD supposedly knew KGB so well that he would bet aggressively down to the river knowing he would eventually get it all in.

    What I don’t get is the betting when MIke sat down at a table with Jackie Chan at the Taj? He sat down with $6000.00 in front of him and played tight for a hour hardly playing a hand “folding most of my hands”. They were playing 300/600. Johnny raises, Mike 3 bets, JC 4 bets, Mike 5 bets…JC folds. Mike doesn’t have enough behind him to bet. Math doesn’t work. Errrr

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