Few of us will ever experience the extreme pressure of playing in front of the ESPN cameras on the bubble of the Main Event final table. Ten remain, nine will return to play for millions months later, and one will leave with half a million dollars to wipe his tears with and a moment he'll wish had gone differently for the rest of his life.
Situations abound in tournament poker where one bad decision or bad beat means heaps of money changing hands. Since wizards learn from the mistakes of others, let's examine this year's Main Event bubble hand and look for lessons.
Blinds were 200,000-400,000 with a 50,000 ante. A week earlier, each of these guys plopped down $10,000 to receive 30,000 in chips. Now they were the only players with chips left; 6,342 other people, myself included, had lost theirs somewhere along the way. Action folded to Carlos Mortensen in the cutoff, where he sat with 5.4 million in chips and Ac 9h. Mortensen raised to 800,000, and J.C. Tran, the chip leader with 31.8 million in the big blind, called.
The flop came down 10c 6c 3s. Tran checked, Mortensen made a continuation bet of 800,000, and Tran called.
The turn was the 9c. Tran jammed, and after only a few seconds Mortensen called it all off with second pair, top kicker, and the one-card nut flush draw.
I know both of these guys and respect their games immensely, especially their ability to read people. But I'm not sure why Mortensen made a minimum raise preflop instead of simply going all in. I'd shove in that spot, and you should, too.
Mortensen had 5.4 million, and there was 1.1 million in the pot. If he'd gone all in and everyone folded, his stack would have increased by about 20 percent. To accumulate those chips without seeing a flop would have been awesome. I don't mind minimum-raising in this spot if my opponent is only going to shove or fold preflop, or if my opponent is a weak player. But Tran, holding 8c 7s, saw a great price and wanted to see a flop, because he's really good at poker. Mortensen's A-9 is strong enough that if he's minimum-raising preflop, he often should be calling a shove, and that has a lot more variance than simply shoving preflop. When short-stacked in bubble situations, it is better to play in ways that reduce variance, and shoving a short stack preflop has less variance than minimum-raising.
Mortensen's flop bet was awful. He bet 800,000 of the 4.6 million in his stack. He presumably would have to fold to a shove and would often be folding the best hand. A bet of 500,000 would have accomplished the same thing with less risk. Even better than betting is checking, because Tran wasn't going to fold a pair, and it turned out he wasn't folding eight high either.
I have no clue why Tran called Mortensen's flop bet with a gutshot straight draw and under cards. Even knowing he could get all of Mortensen's stack if he hit his straight, Tran wasn't getting the right price to call, and there was enough money in the pot that any bet on the turn was likely going to be all in for one pot-sized bet.
Tran got his straight on the turn and shoved to deny Mortensen a free shot at a flush. I can't blame Mortensen for calling. I'm sure he wishes he had folded -- or hit a club instead of the 2d on the river -- but if he had shoved preflop, he wouldn't have had either regret.
Bryan Devonshire is a professional poker player from Las Vegas. Known as "Devo" on the tournament circuit, he has amassed more than $2 million in career earnings.