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The 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event commenced in July as a giant window into the world’s poker ecology. With more than 7,000 entrants in this no limit hold’em tournament, Day 1 of the event sported a motley crowd of amateur online qualifiers adorned with various online poker company badges and lapels, a dwindling number of tough hew faced roadside gamblers, nice and predictable family men looking to “take a shot,” elite engineers and wealthy businessmen whose abilities in the workplace translate well at the poker table, cagey live professionals who made their riches playing in swanky underground games and Vegas Casinos, and finally, the lords of the room, baseball cap adorned, early to mid-20s “online ballers.”
Seven days later, the event has dwindled down to a nerve-manglingly quiet four remaining tables, populated with whip-smart online players from across the globe. The remaining 37 players are competing to make the “November Nine” final table, which will be covered live by ESPN during the first week of November. First prize is close to $8 million, and 9th place is guaranteed $700K and change. Now, so close to life changing money, each cackle of shuffled chips sounds like a death knell.
Matt Giannetti is an “an online baller.” He has a frat boy get-up: his lean, muscular arms protrude from a tight v-neck t-shirt, and he has a 5 o’clock shadow dimmed further still by a brim curved Texas University Long Horns baseball cap. The more dominant part of Giannetti’s visage, however, depicts obsessive and all left-brained online poker grinder: his swarthy eyes are deeply inward, analytical, incisively opportunistic; his ears are Ewok pointy and he is more cheek than chin.
Gianneti is the perfect amalgamation of an online poker player: just enough All-American assertiveness to make a well-timed cavalier bluff, coupled with deeply ingrained objectivity developed from playing over a million poker hands online a year (online poker hands are dealt about ~100 per table an hour, and many top online players play more than several tables over the course of many hours a week).
You just don’t want to see this Matt Giannetti at a poker table. That is, unless you are a tempestuous Brazillian named Hilton Laborda, who sports a carnivorous, gimlet eyed gaze and is draped in a cloak of his national flag. For Laborda, it doesn’t matter if the raiser in a hand is Doyle Brunson, a home-game fish from Omaha, or an online baller. If Laborda gets a reasonable starting hand and has position (i.e., he’ll be the last to act in every round), he’s going to smell blood and pounce.
Laborda’s logical abilities are not up to par with Giannetti, who is deeply familiar with an innumerable number of poker patterns. But then again, Laborda doesn’t care – his confidence and aggression are on high, which quite often, is enough to win a single No Limit Hold’em Tournament.
At the start of the hand, Laborda has Gianneti out-chipped at 9.6 to 6.2 million. Blinds are 50,000/100,000 with a 10,000 ante, meaning that 9 million chips is really only 90 bets. That’s not a bad amount, but not a wealth of chips either. And when blinds escalate after two hours, if either player failed to accumulate chips (or lost them), then they would then have significantly fewer bets.
The action folds to Giannetti, who in middle position (4th or 5th to act), looks down at two queens. This is an extremely strong hand pre-flop, but really, Giannetti is such a capable player that he’ll raise a whole bunch of hands in this spot. He raises to 220,000, a small percent of his stack. Laborda, on the button (7th to act) looks down at King of clubs, 9 of clubs – what is called a “marginal” or decent starting hand. That’s certainly good enough for Laborda to play, so he just calls in position.
For the most part, online strategy forum members will call both player’s decisions here “standard,” and request information on the flop
The flop comes out Queen-Ten-six, all of clubs, giving Giannetti top-set and Laborda the second best possible hand, the king-high flush. Before the flop, Gianneti was a 67% favorite to Laborda’s 33%. By the flop, “luck” causes the fortunes to be reversed: Laborda is now a 67% favorite to win with his flush over Giannetti’s three Queens (which 33% of the time will fill up to a full house if the board pairs later in the hand). Both players don’t know what each other has, of course, but Giannetti is skillful enough to know this flop can make his hand vulnerable. Meanwhile, Laborda’s situation is by far easier: he just needs focus on extracting as many chips from Giannetti as possible.
Giannetti bets $300,000 chips into a $640,000 pot with his top set. Giannetti’s hoping that Laborda hit a small piece of the flop and will call, will make a big re-raise with a big drawing hand. Laborda, in response to the bet, first pushes 300,000 chips past his cards. As he reaches for more chips to make a raise, the presiding tournament director admonishes Laborda that as he already moved his 300,000 chips in front of his two hole cards, he can no longer raise. The seemingly irritable Laborda obliges to the rule so quickly, it stinks that he already has a made hand or a big draw. Giannetti observes this, and Laborda probably realizes after the fact that he just cued Giannetti into his hand range.
Most professionals will agree that Gianneti’s flop bet was warranted. The real debate comes with the nuances of bet sizing; an ironically under-appreciated aspect of poker, which given that how much you bet leads to how many chips (and money) you win. For insight into this matter, I asked my friend “E,” an online professional who spent 2010 playing poker full-time, for his take on the hand. By way of introduction, “E” earned a salary playing online poker in 2010 sufficient to live comfortably that he says felt more secure and personally satisfying than at his former full-time job where promotional opportunities have become scant and layoffs were looming. When the Department of Justice foreclosed major online poker sites from operating in the U.S. in 2011, like many other professionals, “E” feels that he has been forced out of a job.
He provides the following analysis:
“300,000 is too small – Giannetti should have bet 400,000 instead. This is an action flop, so if Laborda has a piece of it – a paired queen, or a draw to a flush or a straight – he will call or raise over 400,000 just the same. So why bet less? Of course, it’s possible that Laborda may have a made flush and that all the money goes in while Gianetti is behind, but, that’s just really bad luck. And in any event, Giannetti still has a 30% chance to win the hand. So, really, there’s no reason to start betting bigger from the get-go.”
The 9 of diamonds is dealt on the turn; now, Laborda is an 80/20 favorite to win the hand with one last card to be dealt. However, the news isn’t all that good for Laborda: the 9 is also a massive red-flag card that is going to probably cost him some action. The 9 completes Laborda’s conceivable straight draws: if Laborda has J-9, he now has the Queen-high straight. If he has King-Jack, he just made the King-high straight. Giannetti, acknowledging both these possibilities, not to mention that Laborda might already have a flush, checks.
Laborda then bets 400,000 into a 1,240,000 chip pot. His bet is only one-third of the pot because he is hoping to keep Giannetti around with paired queens and tens on this extremely dangerous board. Giannetti calls.
Laborda made his first major error of the hand. While “400,000” seems like a lot, it’s only one-third the pot, and thus way too small in proportion to it. There is no reason to anticipate Gianneti is going to check raise here; most likely, he’s just going to call. So, once again, why not bet more? The bigger problem is if Giannetti is drawing with the lone ace of clubs to a higher flush, or a set to a full-house, then Laborda just gave him a perfect price to call.
Giannetti, who has been in this spot online probably a few hundred times, wisely checks and then gladly accepts the 400,000 bargain price Laborda presented to him.
The 9 of hearts is dealt. Unless Giannetti now has Laborda beat, the 9 freezes Laborda’s action. If Giannetti has a really weak hand, like a pair of queens or a missed draw, it’s doubtful he is going to call a bet or re-raise it as a bluff.
However, fortune has made another dramatic shift and Giannetti has the hand won with a made full-house (Q-Q-Q-9-9). Gianneti then checks the hand to to trap Laborda into making a bet against which Giannetti will then re-raise. Laborda obliges by making a massive pot size bet of 2 million chips. Laborda wanted to bet big to represent a missed flush himself. He had been playing so erratically, that he probably thought a big bet could throw Giannetti for a loop.
Giannetti only has one option now – the pot is already at a massive 4 million, and Giannetti has about 5 million left. He re-raises all-in. Laborda, perhaps for the first time the entire tournament, looks reluctant. But he just can’t let go of his flush having to only pay 3 million more to win about a 13 million chip pot.
Giannetti wins, of course, and doubles up to become a tournament chip leader, while the mercurial Brazillian’s chip stack is crippled.
Laborda’s massive river bet wouldn’t have been so bad if the second 9 weren’t so frightening. Basically, Giannetti isn’t going to call anything that Laborda has beat. And, if Giannetti check raises now that Laborda has invested so much in the pot, making a fold is going to be unbearable (which it turned out to be).
A 22-year-old online semi-professional who multi-tables while completing his university studies in Canada stated, “I would just bet 1 million instead, and if I get re-raised, sigh and pitch the hand.” By betting 1 million, Giannetti might make what is called a “crying call” with a pair of queens. And upon Giannetti’s re-raise, it may have been easier for Laborda to make a fold having only bet only half the amount of chips that he had.
In this hand, the players exchanged the lead twice, showing just how much luck is involved in poker. However, with all the information available to Giannetti, he first tempered luck when he was behind in the hand, and then optimized it when he was ahead. Even if the river didn’t complete Giannetti’s full house, the pot would have only been 2 million, and Giannetti would have probably gotten rid of the hand if Laborda bet the full pot. Once Giannetti did complete the full-house, however, he was shrewd enough to check knowing that Laborda would not just check back, but make a sizable bet.
Laborda could have saved a lot more on the river if he analyzed all the factors clearly rather than make a bet based more on a super-simplified strategic approach of one upmanship
After the hand, Giannetti walked away from the table. When someone commented at his check on the river, Giannetti flashed a half-grin smile and stated, “I knew what he had, that’s why I checked.”
Laborda was soon eliminated from the tournament when he went all-in on a flush draw against a set of twos on the flop. The turn completed Laborda’s flush, hoewver, his opponent’s set of twos filled up to a full-house on the river.
Giannetti, meanwhile, proceeded to accumulate nearly 24 million in chips over the next several hours, good for 3rd place entering into the November Nine.