The art of the re-bluff…

The art of the re-bluff…

Sunday, 23 February 2014

or… The most batshit-mental hands of all time

Seldom is poker more entertaining as spectacle than those rare moments of bluff and re-bluff and even re-re-re-bluff. These hands have it all – aggressive levelling wars, inscrutable meta-game, the sheer heroism of cold four-betting without a safety net. Conversely, as we will see, it can also be a lethal game of chicken and, should neither party flinch, it can end up in a horrible car crash. Here follows a reflection on some of our favourite re-bluff moments, caught on camera. But before we get down to it, a preamble.

Back in the naughty noughties, the poker community known as the London Poker Meet Up referred to 2-3os as “The Biggins” and they used to play it fast, like aces, because it held magical properties and it always won. The origin of this legend lay in an episode of a show called “Showbiz Poker”, now lost in the mists of time, where portly, flamboyant figure of fun Christopher Biggins tangled with Michael Greco, who was very serious about his poker back then, and still is by all accounts. In this episode, a foolhardy Greco attempts to trap a clueless Biggins by limping pre- with A-Q.

The flop comes A-x-x (we’re relating all this from memory, no footage exists, so we may be wrong about the details, who knows?) and the Eastenders star opts to slow-play his top-pair monster by checking to the portly, flamboyant figure of fun. A relieved Biggins is happy to check behind because it means he won’t have to consult his hand-rankings sheet.

The turn is a four and this time the wily Greco leads out. Biggins examines his sheet, squints at the board, then back at his sheet, and calls, hoping, perhaps, he has a straight with his 2-3 powerhouse. The river is a five. Now Biggins has a straight. Greco goes all in, Biggins calls, Greco busts, hilarity ensues, cue Greco meltdown, etc, etc.
This rather long preface is by way of introducing a man who knows all about the powers of the 2-3os. Is it a train? Is it a van? No, it’s Van Tran, the re-bluff man. And he’s a man with a plan.

Van Tran vs Alcober

“Henry” Van Tran raises in middle-position and his subsequent fishy table talk prompts Ben Alcober to re-raise with ke8e from the blinds. Undeterred, Van Tran four-bets his Biggins and Alcober flat calls. So far, so mental.

The flop of 9-4-7 is a great one for Van Tran – if he’s playing 2-7 hold’em, but alas there is no such game. Alcober executes his master plan and bets. Unimpressed, and without as much as a second thought, Van Tran raises and, again, a suspicious Alcober calls. We can only guess at the intense meta-game that is going on between these two players.

The turn is another nine. But woah there, Skippy. As if suddenly realising that they are sitting on the feature TV table of the WSOP Main Event, and what the hell are they doing in this pot anyway, both players slow down. Check, check, it goes. Good job, boys, we wouldn’t want this pot to get out of hand, would we?

The river’s a deuce, making Van Tran a shiny pair of ducks, which is a pity because there’s no thrill like winning a big pot with just three-high, which we hope had been Van Tran’s intention. But as it turns out, this re-bluff story transforms into a hero-call story, as Van Tran picks off the bluff on the end, taking over 100bb. With The Biggins. Wowza!

Ivey vs Jackson

One man who has undoubtedly never heard of Christopher Biggins is Phil Ivey. He’d probably never heard of Paul “ActionJack” Jackson either, until the two clashed famously at the Monte Carlo Millions in 2005. You know the one. That hand. Off YouTube. It’s had over 2m hits. Phil Ivey finds himself heads-up against a man many consider to be one of the best poker players in West Bromwich, when, in an un-raised pot, and on a flop of J-J-7, all hell breaks loose. Ivey has Q-8, Jackson 6-5. OK, just in case you haven’t seen it in a while, it goes bet (Ivey), raise (Jackson), re-raise (Ivey), re-re-raise (Jackson), all-in (Ivey), fold (Jackson).

“It’s just two guys bluffin’ with nuthin’!” declares the veteran American sports commentator Barry Tompkins, memorably.

His sidekick, poker author Michael Konik, takes up the mantle: “Watching this hand is like witnessing great art – it’s absurd and wonderful at the same time!” he burbles, less memorably, suggesting that Ivey has made his mind explode. He will do that to you, Ivey.

Remember, this is 2005. The term “three-bet” wasn’t even in general use, let alone “four-bet”, which, one assumes, must have been coined after “three-bet”. Maybe, like, a few seconds after, but still after. People just didn’t do this, except perhaps in Sweden where it had all just been invented. It was, at the time, the most extraordinary hand of poker caught on camera, and maybe it still is.

I was there that day. You can see me in the background twiddling with my hair as is my wont. Little did I know, as I nursed a terrible, trembling hangover, that I was witnessing poker history, and that my fuzzy, frazzled image would be viewed by over 2m You Tubers. I don’t recall much about that hand, because we couldn’t really see what was going on, and there was no TV feed for the audience, but I could tell something slightly odd was happening. I also remember Ivey stalled for about ten minutes before making his decision to move all-in, staring Jackson down and even pacing the around the room – of course, all cut from the final footage.

We talked to Paul soon after the Monte Carlo Millions, and here’s what he told us about that hand: “I went out drinking with Phil that night and asked him how he’d been able to make such a move, and it’s ironic because his thinking was flawed. He was aware that I wasn’t going to lie down and die and let him walk all over me – which was true. But he also described a couple of previous hands where I was very, very strong and I had used his aggression against him by flat-calling his bets and then re-raising him when he bet again. He believed that on those two hands I had actually been making moves on him.

“Why he then thought that I would make another move so soon after, I don’t know. But his reasoning was that, given his enormous chip-lead, the amount in the pot, and how many chips I had left, it was worth taking a chance, no matter how small that chance was, that I didn’t have what I was representing. He said that although it was more likely I had a monster, given the value it was worth taking the chance. But the important thing was that he had decided, wrongly, that I had been making moves on him. I think he was the only person in the room who didn’t think that I had a jack.”

So there you have it. Ivey got it all wrong and made himself look like a genius by accident.

ActionJack may have been an unknown entity to Ivey, but what happens when you know someone too well and you clash in a big tournament? That’s when the real super-levelling starts and it can only end in hot, salty tears of shame.

Our two erstwhile bosom buddies here are Vanessa Selbst and Kevin Macphee, who contrive to engage in a game of chicken from which neither flinches nor emerges from the wreckage with their dignity intact.

Selbst vs MacPhee

Vanessa raises from under-the-gun +1 to 17k with pocket fours. Kevin MacPhee picks up A-9os on the button and decides that, against Vanessa’s range, this hand is pretty much the nuts – as strong, almost, as The Biggins – and makes it 37,000. Vanessa knows that he knows this, and four-bets to 79,000. Here’s where this should stop, but wait: Kevin knows that Vanessa knows that he knows that A-9 is pretty much the nuts against her range, and we believe that it is this particular line reasoning that prompts him to five-bet to 131,000. However – and here’s where it gets interesting – Vanessa also knows that Kevin knows that she knows that he knows that A-9 is pretty much the nuts against her range and that a six-bet jam all-in should put a stop to all this nonsense. Using this very premise, she does just that. OK, no more bluffing and pissing about, MacPhee, now it’s about calling for your tournament life.

However – and keep up because this is complicated – Kevin also knows that Vanessa knows that he knows that she knows that he knows that A-9 is pretty much the nuts against her range and that a six-bet jam all-in should pot a stop to all this nonsense.

“It’s such a sick spot,” claims Kevin, inaccurately. He also claims that his plan had been to snap-call but he’s clearly feeling a little sheepish about that plan now. However, he’s getting almost 4:1 on a call and he feels he dominates a significant part of Vanessa’s range; specifically, the acey-bollocky part. He makes the call and an ace on the flop decimates Vanessa, who is visibly disgusted.

“He’s the fucking worst player that I’ve ever seen,” she spits to MacPhee’s then girlfriend, Liv Boeree, who has been looking on aghast from the rail, poor woman.

“That’s going to be an interesting plane ride home,” quips Joe Stapleton.
So, the moral is that familiarity breeds contempt and maybe don’t go apeshit in a really expensive poker tournament while the cameras are rolling. Play tight, Vanessa. Tight is right. Alright?

Daut vs Haxton

One of my personal favourites occurs, appropriately enough, in the middle of a hurricane. It’s 2007, on a windswept beach in the Bahamas, and Isaac Haxton and Ryan Daut face off for the WPT Championship Event, which for some reason is being held during the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. It’s Haxton’s first recorded live tourney cash and we’re heads-up for a $1.5m first prize. Daut limps on the button with 7-5os. Haxton, looks down at – holy crap he’s got The Biggins!

Haxton may be a maths genius but he’s also clearly a fan of Showbiz Poker and he ain’t going to let go of the Biggins in a hurry, especially when he flops a wheel draw. However, it’s not until the river, on a board of Qh4hAcKdQc, that the action really heats up. Haxton bets the river and Daut re-raises. “He thinks he’s stealing the pot, but he’s actually got the best hand with seven-high!” exclaims Mike Sexton incredulously. “He’s going to make it $2m with absolute garfunkel.”

Haxton has the worst hand that it’s possible to make on this board, although he is winning at 2-7 hold’em, so what is he thinking about? Surely not? Suddenly, his tousled leonine locks flapping in the wind like something from a Bon Jovi video, he announces “all-in!”

He did what now?! Haxton may have had a lady’s haircut in 2007 but his balls were made of stainless steel. He even shows the bluff!
Did you know there’s a state park in Minnesota called Great River Bluffs? We didn’t make it up. Go on, Google it. You know, we hope that somewhere in that park there’s a statue of the great Isaac Haxton.

So what have we learnt? Well, here’s what. Sometimes you have to have courage and moxy to get on in this world. Also, don’t be afraid to go with your instincts, but try to keep a level head, because nothing in life or poker is ever for certain. After all, even the Biggins doesn’t win 100% of the time.

Honourable Mentions

Blumenthal vs Parise

If someone raises your bluff on the river, it’s pretty much game over, as far as we’re concerned. This gentleman, however, had the presence of mind to re-pop his opponent. Good work!

Mestre vs Coren

What is this man doing re-bluffing that nice Victoria Coren off the telly? What is he even doing in this pot in the first place? Maybe only he knows.

Tags: Phil Ivey, Paul Jackson, Isaac Haxton, Vicky Coren, Vanessa Selbst, Kevin Macphee