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Slipping up with Big Slick

Looking in the rear-view mirror at November’s WSOP’s Main Event final table, Duncan Wilkie picks apart another high-profile mistake with the ever-troublesome ace-king.

If I were to tell you that a lot of people wind up going broke with A-K, it would hardly be the most ground-breaking of revelations. That, however, doesn’t mean that this simple tenant of poker doesn’t bear repeating. While Big Slick can certainly be a powerful starting hand given the right set of circumstances, many players frequently find themselves getting roped into huge pots pre-flop with what is essentially nothing more than the best ace high.

It’s certainly worth noting that no matter how strong a holding A-K can be pre-flop, it’s a hand that has to improve on the flop to fully realise its earning potential. Should this basic criterion not be met, any further action in the hand is likely to result in a string of tricky decisions—particularly if your opponent has position on you. This simple fact is perhaps no better illustrated than in a hand that took place at the final table of the 2008 WSOP Main Event between Dennis Phillips and Russian pro Ivan Demidov.

Despite beginning the final table as chip leader, amateur Phillips was little-fancied by the bookies, and their scepticism soon proved justified when a couple of fundamental mistakes with A-K dealt a hammer-blow to his title chances. With the blinds at $150k-$300k and a stack of just over 23 million, Phillips elected to limp into the pot with Ah-Kc. I have no particular objection to this play as limping allows Phillips to disguise the strength of his hand and he has the chance of picking up the pot uncontested with a re-raise should a player behind him open bet.

Demidov did his part by raising to $1.025 million in position with Ac-Qc and action folded back to Phillips, who could spring his trap by putting in a third bet. I favour the re-raise over a flat call in this spot as it would give Phillips a chance to take down the pot there and then as Demidov bet a wide range of hands in this position. Additionally, re-raising would allow Phillips to negate his positional disadvantage if Demidov folded and he at least gained information on the strength of Demidov’s hand if the Russian called. Folding was, of course, out of the question.

Phillips indeed re-raised Demidov, but he only made it $3.525 million in total to go. I am not a fan of this bet as it now cost Demidov $2.5 million to play for a pot of $5,360,000 (including blinds and antes), which gave him odds of around two-to-one and meant that he could have profitably made this call against queens, kings and—when you factor in his positional advantage and undeniable skill-edge—even A-K. I would have rather seen Phillips raise to around $5.5 million to drive out Demidov’s calling hands, but the Russian put in a further raise to $8.225 million anyway.

This is where the alarm bells should have gone off for Phillips. In most instances, limp-raising is considered a massive sign of strength—and by putting in a fourth bet facing this amount of action, Demidov indicated that he was holding a bona-fide monster. Never mind that he actually only had A-Q. If I were in Phillips’ shoes I would have mucked my hand at this stage. After all, he must have considered himself a coin toss at best in this situation. Couple this with the fact he only invested $3.5 million in the hand and the call would have left him out of position against the only player at the table who had him covered, and it looked more and more like an easy fold.

Phillips, however, didn’t see it this way and he put in the additional $4.7 million to make the call. The flop came down 8d-10c-Js, missing both players, and again Phillips was left with a tough decision. With the pot now at over $17 million, it was very hard for Phillips to make a significant bet that didn’t leave him committed to calling an all-in, so if took this line he was better off shoving himself. If he did this, Demidov was probably going to call with most of the hands he represented. But even in the worst likely scenarios (aces or a set of jacks), Phillips had four outs to a straight. Additionally, Demidov was likely to be fairly reluctant to put his tournament on the line if he held A-K himself, let alone his actual hand.

The other option was to give up on the hand entirely and check-fold if Demidov made a continuation bet. This may seem like a fairly defeatist approach, but it would have left Phillips with $15.5 million—still 51 times the current big blind—and meant he wasn’t left playing an all-in pot for his tournament life, drawing to between four and eight outs. I actually prefer this approach, as given Demidov’s likely range of hands and the size of the pot, he was just not going to fold to an all-in bet enough for it to be a viable play. Even with $15.5 million in chips remaining, Phillips was in a great position in the tournament and in no immediate danger whatsoever. If I were him I’d have waved the white flag and waited for a better spot.

Unfortunately, Phillips chose neither option and instead put out a weak bet of $4.5 million. So it’s hardly surprising that Demidov moved all-in for an additional $13.38 million with his double-gutter straight draw. This was a brave move by Demidov, but in this instance he read the situation perfectly and Phillips had no choice but to dejectedly fold the best hand. In effect, Phillips cost himself nearly $13 million in a pot where he could have gotten away from for just 3.5 million, without ever holding anything more than ace high. Hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes he did and dodge the pitfalls of the treacherous Big Slick in future sessions.
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