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How Not to Play AK in NLHE

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  • How Not to Play AK in NLHE

    I was reading an old issue of cardplayer, and I happened to stumble upon Phil Hellmuth's hand of the week column. This particular hand of the week focused on how Robert Varkonyi (2002 WSOP Champ) misplayed QT suited against Phil. However, as I read the article, I think it should be entitled "How not to play AK suited."

    Here is the situation:

    There are over 6 million in chips in play and the tournament is down to 60 players, meaning an average stack is 100K. They pay 45, so getting a check is of paramount importance at this time (this tournament is one of the few times you play to get into the money first as low cash is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20K). An average stack at the final table will be 600K.

    The relevant numbers: 600K at the final table, 100K now, and survive 15 more players to earn $20K.

    When the hand came down blinds are $1200-$2400. Keep in mind, it is well-known that Phil will laydown a big hand to an allin bet.

    Varkonyi opens the pot from EP for $8,000. All fold to Phil in the SB. Looking at it from Phil's position, Varkonyi made a standard pot sized bet from bad position (pot has $7600 in it when he makes the $8000 bet). Phil has a drawing hand (a very strong drawing hand, but still a drawing hand). The pot has Varkonyi's $8000, $4000 from the antes, and $3600 from the blinds, meaning there is $15600 in the pot. Phil has to want to win this pot right here, no flop. Phil makes it $25K to go, a pretty good size raise of $17K.

    For what its worth, this is what I think Phil was thinking when he raised 17K. Phil has 116K, Varkonyi has 106K. He is thinking, "this guy is a weak player, I want his whole stack, and he probably has some piece of garbage like AT, so if an ace flops, I can get his stack."

    When Phil raises to $25K (or 25% of his stack), he is allowing himself to fold to a reraise. He is giving himself an out. If he intends to call a reraise, he should bet more, probably 50% of his stack, with the intention of moving in on the flop if called. Once Phil bets 50% of his stack, Varkonyi knows Phil will call an allin reraise because Phil is now committed to the hand.

    So here is where I think Phil made a terrible play. He properly raises the pot, and he raises enough to move Varkonyi off anything but a legitimate hand (AK or a decent pair). Varkonyi must fold or move in. If Varkonyi moves in, Phil must fold. Phil's raise has dictated these actions.

    Varkonyi now moves all-in for a total of $106K. Based on his preflop play, he either has AA, KK, AK, possibly QQ or garbage (ie a bluff reraise). That's the range of his potential hands. Phil has approx $93K left. Now I don't care how good of a read he had on Varkonyi, in this spot, at this particular time in the tournament, he needs to lay this hand down and move on. He still has an average stack after the laydown, and as the self-proclaimed "best tournament player on the planet" he should not CALL FOR ALL OF HIS CHIPS WITH A DRAWING HAND. If he wanted to play this AK to the bitter end, he needed to raise more than $17K.

    So despite Phil's rationalization of his play, he played the hand poorly. Every move in NLHE sets up the next move. He backed Varkonyi into the "raise allin or fold corner," and Varkonyi responded with an allin move. When that happens, Phil has to follow the script and fold. He is an underdog to most of the hands Varkonyi will have here (AA, KK, QQ), he pushes if Varkonyi has AK, and he is a slight favorite over 2 undercards (the bluff). The only hand Varkonyi can have that Phil loves is any Ax. No one reads players well enough to put a player on a weak ace.

    In short:

    (1) The betting sequence dictated Phil fold to the reraise
    (2) the range of his opponent's possible hands dictated a fold;
    (3) the depth of the money dictated a fold;
    (4) the tournament situation (15 players fron the money) dicated a fold; and
    (5) Phil's superior talent and ability to recover the $25K down the road dictated a fold.

    Phil's terrible play was one of Varkonyi's stepping stones in becoming World Champion, and deep down, he knows it.

  • #2
    Great analysis Apryll. I think AK along with QQ and JJ are the hands that get more players in trouble than any other. Smaller pairs you can get away from easy - smaller aces too are also easier to dump - but AK, QQ, and JJ cause problems when faced with a decision - most players will push all their chips in the middle, and I know Noodles would probably say that 90% of the time this is the correct decision - but I think in certain circumstances (such as the one here) you must fold these hands if given undue pressure.



    • #3
      Great post Apryll! As always your analysis is dead on.

      I sat next to Varkonyi, at Foxwoods in a tourney and discussed the hand with him. He absolutely felt the same way as you, and figured Phil had only Ace big, since he left the door open to a fold on the reraise. Varkonyi said he almost pooped his pants when Phil called!
      Couldn't believe it when he saw that Phil only had AK!

      Phil committed two cardinal errors, and received the wrath of the poker gods...

      1. Don't signal your hand with your betting unless you are bluffing or inducing a bluff, and

      2. If you are gonna signal "Follow the script!"

      By the way, Robert is a really nice, unassuming, unpretentious guy. Very smart and aggressive, but human!

      I look forward to the day someone I have played with here wins The Big One!

      P.S. Varkonyi hands out "business cards" that have his name and "QT" on them, in the form of playing cards out of a poker deck!


      • #4
        Tell me why in this situation, calling may not be correct?

        $6800 to call. 7% of your stack. You get $15,600 to $6800 odds, over 2 to 1. If you flop an A or K and the board is not showing a str8 or flush, you gotta figure you are ahead here. You can't live in fear of AA, or KK for that matter.

        I know you want to see all 5 cards. But if the flop is a complete miss, you can bet out the pot and try to steal, or see if you the other guy has a hand, or the guts to bluff you out if he misses.

        Just curious as to other's logic on this. I play AK very situationally. In this situation, I may just call what is a small amount of my stack.

        I do agree this was a misplay.



        • #5
          Thank-You Apryl

          Tremendous analysis Apryl!

          When I reviewed this hand after the "hair cutting" incident that followed, I thought Phil led Robert right to that spot...then made a terrible play --- he called. Of all the possible things he could have done leading to that point, he followed them with the worst possible thing....whether he read Robert perfectly or not.

          There is an interview of Phil on, where he discusses the hand a bit. I think you are right in that he "knows" he made a bad play, yet continues to claim that he outplayed Robert and that Robert got "lucky"......


          • #6
            Originally posted by thehazyone
            but AK, QQ, and JJ cause problems when faced with a decision - most players will push all their chips in the middle, and I know Noodles would probably say that 90% of the time this is the correct decision -
            No I wouldn't. You obviously mis-understand me.

            In general I wouldn't have called with AK or QQ in Helmuths spot in that hand. However, I do think helmuth's play in that spot was fine based on the psychology of prior play. I don't think phil gave a stuff about 20k for making the money. He is interested in the title. This hand is a good example of Phil getting pushed about because other players know he makes big laydowns. Prior to this Phil had raised, been re-raised, and folded the previous 10 times or so he entered a pot. varkyoni had also been very aggressive, bluffing a lot. Phil brings these situations upon himself.


            • #7

              That was a joke.



              • #8
                This is great stuff, Apryll. :roll: Good opinion you gave, too.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by thehazyone

                  That was a joke.


                  Only the first line was addressed to you hazy.

                  PS. You need a new script writer lol


                  • #10
                    AK and Noodles and Apryll


                    • #11
                      OK, here's where the "it depends" comes in.

                      I agree with Noodles, a shocker I know, that Phil is not looking to just make the money(even if it is 10K profit). Also, history comes into play, so situations can be discussed in forums like this in isolation but examples must be taken in context. If Phil has been pushed off hands previously(and most of us have seen him get in that mode), then he's looking to snap off an over-aggressive move. Normally, I think Phil would have raised more and taken the pot there. He was looking for either a call then move on a ragged flop or if he got and ace or king, or the re-raise bluff that he got. You don't like to make a call for a lot of chips in NLHE, but sometimes you have half-invited it and you're sure you are ahead so you don't mind calling. Phil was probably expecting a likely Ax or 2-paint hand(including those with a King) from most players (and a smaller pp would not likely re-raise all-in but instead just call or fold).
                      If Phil would have won this hand, he'd have been in confortable chip position to play the advantages of such a stack and not only make the money, but the final table. Phil would have not have had to get such lucky cards as Robert to win it either. So, I think this example of AK is more of a play-the-player hand than a play-the-cards hand.

                      That said, I probably would have played this hand differently(I could have re-raised as Phil did, just not most of the time). I would have just called (as rggator indicated), and seen the flop. I would like to commit a lot of chips post-flop, not pre-flop, with this depth of money. Top pair, top kicker vs. no pair or dominated pair with only 2 cards to come is such a more favorable position to be in. If my opponent flopped a set or 2-pair I'd have some trouble. You have to read the board to see how likely that would be(e.g. K-rag-rag = 2-pair very unlikely). Also, an early-position raise with a small pp is not a smart move, so the set with one of the rags is unlikely.

                      One advantage to Phil's re-raise is to eliminate the medium to small pp(at least a good player would lay those down).

                      Phil was upset with this hand because he played his counter-punching strategy to this aggressive player after the image was set up that Phil could be pushed off hands, and when he got the correct read and desired opponent response the guy got lucky(i.e. superior skill loses to out-played lucky guy).

                      If we get back to isolated strategy with cards AK in NLHE with deep money, I think that a pre-flop raise is to limit the number of opponents and their likely hands so that post-flop play is less perilous. You want know your opponent is unlikely to hold any medium or low cards, you want to try to get out medium and small pp, and hopefully be up against hands with 2 cards ten or higher. I think a big difference and a reason I like NLHE much more than limit is that you can stop someone from getting lucky post-flop, or make them pay a lot in the attempt. Post-flop is where you can be a huge favorite. That's what I like to be when the money is deep. Later in the tournament when shallow is where you push your advantages pre-flop(which are moslty not so great). Also, when antes kick in the pre-flop rewards are much greater.

                      Scott "DocH"

                      P.S. Thanks Jeff "Shane" for your compliments - just don't use my info. to get too good a read on me


                      • #12
                        Another great post from Doc H!!!!!


                        • #13
                          This is a terrific sequence of posts. Quite insightful. I read them all thinking I would add something to it, but when I reached the end I found there was nothing I could add at all, other than to say, "Great job, PSOers."


                          • #14
                            Another good post to bump


                            • #15
                              If Phil has induced a bluff from Varkoni knowing he will call the all in and be ahead, then it looks like great play to me, not good if 20k is a fortune to you, but for the likes of Phil this is how you get rich and get the really big pay packets.

                              So i disagree with Aprll's sumary here.

                              If it were me, and 15 spots from 20k I'd all in with the AK and hope to just take the money in the middle without messing around but Phil's high risk play is the way to hit it big.