Monday, 13 January 2014

Standing still is just waiting to be overtaken says Jeff Kimber.

If you’re winning at something it’s very easy to sit back and relax, thinking you’ve cracked it, be it sport, business, games or just life in general. In an ideal world, once we reach the peak, life should be a breeze, but in reality standing still is just waiting to be overtaken as the chasing pack look to take over as alpha male.

Take a look at some of the great sports stars. Michael Jordan used to be first into the practice gym and last to leave, shooting over and over again, perfecting his stroke, even though it was already perfect, making sure he remained at the top. Mo Farah was the hero of the London Olympics, a double gold-medallist. He’s undoubtedly the best middle distance runner in the world, so he should be enjoying his success, right?
Not a bit of it. Despite having three kids, including one-year-old twins, he spends almost half the year away from them, training at altitude in Kenya, Utah, St Moritz and the French Pyrenees, making sure he remains, sometimes literally, at the peak.

It’s no different in poker.

Recently I heard an excellent quote from Jason Koon, one of the best young pros in the game: “If you don’t look back and think you were a terrible player six months ago, you’re not working hard enough to improve your game.”

Think about that for a moment. Terrible? Just six months on? Can that be right? Maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the gist of what Koon is saying – poker is a game evolving at a rapid rate. You make sure you move with the times, or in no time at all you’ll be standing on the roadside wondering where it all went wrong.

In line with that, I try and watch every bit of televised poker I can, including the live feeds of the big tournaments, if only to see how the great players, the ones who win big titles, are doing it. At the final of a couple of recent tournaments I watched, I noticed a huge change in the way the eventual victors went about playing heads-up. I love playing heads-up and, having won the World Heads-Up title back in the day, think I’m pretty good at it, but watching these guys go at it made me realise I needed to brush up a little bit.

When Tom Middleton won EPT Barcelona, no one could have been happier for him than me – a great player and a lovely lad I’ve known for years. But once I’d congratulated him, I couldn’t wait to ask him about his thinking in a couple of hands where he’d broken the traditional rules, while bossing his opponent perfectly.

Middy had found spots where he should be polarised, and absolutely bombed the river with a larger than pot bet with a medium strength hand. I found two examples of these huge river bombs, although there were many more, where he made these huge polarised bets, only to turn over a weakfish hand that was good.

The first time I thought he was lucky: wow, the guy called with a worse hand than you were bluffing with? But the second, third and fourth time, I started to realise Middy was making these huge bombs as pure value-bets. He was turning up with a hand no one would ever think of value-betting big in that situation, getting called and winning.

Traditionally, we’d go into check-call mode with a weakish hand, checking and hoping to get to showdown cheaply. Sometimes we’d throw out a blocker bet, “knowing” that if we’re raised it means we must be beat so we can fold, just hoping to keep the pot small.

Middy thought differently and it was beautiful to watch.

Take this hand with blinds at 200k/400k:
SB: Kimmo Kurko 7c3c
BB Tom Middleton Jc8h
Kurko limps, Middleton checks. Flop 2h3h6s
Middleton leads 600k, Kurko calls.
Turn 6h. Check/check.
River Kh. Middleton bets 2m. Kurko calls and mucks.

This hand was fantastic to watch. Traditionally, in Middy’s shoes, this hand may have gone check-call on the turn, then a small value bet on the river when you backdoor your flush, which may or may not be paid off (or maybe even just check your weak flush hoping to be able to turn over a winner).

Middy’s thinking was different. Kurko has limped, so it’s unlikely he’s got an overpair when he calls the flop lead. If he had top pair, it’s unlikely the turn gets checked through, so it’s likely he flopped middle or bottom pair, if anything worth showing down. Basically, his range is capped; he can’t really have a big hand.

Instead of a “normal” river value bet – say, half the pot – Middy then decides his capped opponent likely has a small part of this board, and Kimmo, being an excellent player himself, knows that Middy knows this, so the big river bet now looks like he’s trying to get him to fold his weakfish hand.

It’s polarising. Middy should either have the nuts or nothing, one of those hands where a commentator will tell you top pair is the same as third pair, the guy’s either bluffing or he has it. Middy had a pretty strong hand, but more importantly, knew exactly what his opponent had, and that his opponent knew he knew too.

A little later a similar situation came up. The board read 4s5dKsKh2h and, with how the action had progressed, it was obvious Kimmo had some kind of hand that wasn’t a king but had some showdown value, probably a five. Middy fired 2m into 1.88m and, after a long delay, Kimmo decided to call with 7d5h, exactly the hand Middy put him on. Middy showed a rivered straight with 6s3c and scooped another big pot.

Not only do these big bombs give you momentum and big stacks, the psychological damage they do to your opponent is almost as important. In both hands, Middy knew his opponent had flopped middle pair, and both times he’d got maximum value. When your opponent knows your exact hand, it can start to make you second guess every time they put a chip in the pot.

Having spoken to Tom, he thinks that getting caught running a big bluff just before the two players headed for their dinner break was key. He knew that Kimmo and his friends would be talking about that hand, that they had a good read on his play, and that they had him worked out, so he had to change things up and bluff a lot less against a guy who was suspicious and had a tendency to call.

A few weeks later, I watched the heads-up between Adrian Mateos and Fabrice Soulier for the WSOPE Main Event bracelet. Frenchman Fabrice had a boisterous home crowd and years of experience on his young Spanish opponent, but watching the following hand instantly made me think Mateos was good enough to overcome all that, and he did so in some style.

Blinds 20k/40k
SB Fabrice Soulier X-X
BB Adrian Mateos Qh6h
Soulier raises to 85,000. Mateos calls. Flop Th6c4d.
Mateos checks, Soulier bets 80k, Mateos calls.
Turn 4s. Mateos leads 225k, Soulier calls.
River 3c. Mateos leads 1million. Soulier calls and mucks.

In this hand, Soulier insta-called the river bomb – which was 1m into 780k – with what was presumably ace-high. On the turn he’s decided there’s no way Adrian leads a big hand like trips, and it’s far more likely he has some kind of hand which he no longer feels strong enough to check-call (or he was floating), so wants to take it down now. On the river, Soulier feels his opponent is polarised – he either has trip fours (or better) or nothing – and he quickly concludes he’s got nothing. When Adrian turned over second pair, on a paired board, Fabrice looked visibly stunned, like he was thinking was that a bluff or a value bet, but Adrian turned his hand over very quickly like he was turning over the nuts.

While his play is a little more risky – Middy made sure his opponent was capped, while here Fabrice may have chosen just to call the turn bet with a big hand – the river bomb persuades your opponent you’re polarised.

When they replay the hand in their heads, and realise there’s no way you can have a monster, they arrive at the conclusion that you must therefore be bluffing. So they call with weak showdown hands, ace-high or bottom pair, using the logic that it’s as good as top pair against a guy either bluffing or with an unlikely monster.

The concept of being polarised does still exist, but more importantly good players are now using that concept to value-bet super thin in situations where they’re supposed to have the nuts or nothing. As long as the concept of being polarised exists, good players can use it to their advantage.

It’s a risky, complex play, and one that requires you to know exactly where you are in the hand. You also need to know how your opponent plays in certain hands and how lightly they call. However, it can be hugely profitable, and can affect an opponent psychologically for the rest of the heads-up match.

Tags: Jeff Kimber, strategy, Tom Middleton, Fabrice Soulier, Adrian Mateos