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Seeing the Bigger Picture

In poker, just as in life, first impressions can mean everything. However, as GOM’s Duncan Wilkie explains, sometimes it’s necessary to let preconceptions make way for sound logic and reasoning.

As any hold ‘em player who’s been around the block a few times will tell you, sometimes there’s a lot to be said for going with your gut when it comes to making crucial decisions and not letting what you know of a player influence your actions. In fact, a lot of the time in poker, over-thinking a hand can effectively be the difference between making a trivially easy call and an unnecessary fold.

In this classic hand between Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth on season four of High Stakes Poker, “The Mouth” makes a huge error by letting his preconceptions of how his opponent plays influence his judgement and prevent him from analysing the hand in a clear and rational fashion, which in turn renders him incapable of making what would otherwise have been a fairly routine call on the river.

Now before we delve straight into the hardcore analysis of the hand and you’re left wondering what on earth Hellmuth is doing re-raising pre-flop with a pair of napkins like 7-2 offsuit, it’s important to note the external reasoning behind his unorthodox hand selection. Being essentially a group of high-rolling degenerates, the cast of this High Stakes became bored of pushing tens of thousands of dollars back and forth and introduced a special side game to keep things interesting—anyone winning a pot and showing 7-2 (the worst hand in poker) would receive $500 from each player at the table.

As such, when Matusow opens to $1,800 with Ks-Kc in the first hand of the session and action folds around to Hellmuth, we can understand the Brat’s move of three-betting to $7,000 with 7d-2s to set the benchmark for the day’s play. “Phil, the way you looked at me it looked like you might have a big hand,” says Matusow, making his first mistake in the hand by unnecessarily narrowing Hellmuth’s three-betting range based on little more than history and what he knows of his opponent’s game.

At this point, Matusow elects to just flat-call with his kings which, despite looking like a conservative move, is actually a fairly standard play in deep-stacked cash games. Here we assume that Matusow believes he has the best hand and is hoping he can extract more money from Hellmuth on the right kind of flop. However, he soon contradicts this assumption when action is checked to him on a Qd-6h-Js flop and, rather than firing, he elects to check behind.

While a case could be made for controlling the size of the pot with a check, Matusow flopped an over-pair on a fairly innocuous board. And by not betting his hand, he gathered no information about Hellmuth’s possible holdings and additionally allowed all the ace-high hands his opponent would have re-raised with a chance to catch up on the turn. Essentially, it seems as though Matusow has flat-called pre-flop hoping to see a board of this type of texture, only to convince himself that Hellmuth either holds aces or flopped a set with queens or jacks.

By narrowing his opponent’s range to three specific holdings—and ignoring the possibility of a 7-2 bluff—Matusow second-guesses himself by negating the possible hands he’s beating and instead focuses solely on the smaller group that has him crushed. As such, Matusow makes it very difficult to play the hand with anything but caution from there on in, and it’s hardly surprising when he decides to just flat-call Hellmuth’s $17,000 on a fairly safe-looking 8d turn.

The 6c arrives on the river, pairing the board and ensuring that Matusow can now also beat the unlikely Q-J holding, but when Hellmuth pulls out the big guns with a $40,000 second barrel, Matusow’s over-analysis of his opponent and the current situation again leads him to draw the wrong conclusions. “I know Phil never makes the big bet on the river unless he has it,” he says before resigns his pocket kings face up. Needless to say, Hellmuth wastes no time proudly displaying his bluff and raking in the kudos and $500 chips, leaving Matusow wishing he let the action—and not his opponent’s reputation—dictate his decision.

Mike Matusow gets the action underway by open-betting with pocket kings, but Phil Hellmuth wakes up behind him with a monster 7-2 offsuit. Unable to resist the allure of pulling of a huge bluff and scooping $500 from each player, Hellmuth three-bets and Matusow proceeds with caution.

The flop provides no help for Hellmuth, but he checks to represent a big hand and despite flopping an over-pair, Matusow lets his opponent’s reputation coerce him into checking the action behind.

After flat-calling a bet on the turn, Matusow wilts under the pressure when Hellmuth places $40,000 into the pot on the river and resigns the best hand. Suffice to say, he doesn’t take the bad news too well when Hellmuth flips over his cards.
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