Ghosts of the Final Table

While I was playing a tournament on Full Tilt, a player who sometimes railbirds me (sometimes complaining about how I play, sometimes about my opponents) told me there was a web site with a video about my online play. He sent me the YouTube link, which, unfortunately, wasn’t porn. It was, however, very critical of a play I made at a Full Tilt final table six weeks ago. The guy was completely wrong, and I promised in my comment on YouTube to explain why, so here goes.

First, the links. The guy who posted the video is named Marty Smith, who I have never met or heard of. Maybe he is a poker expert with qualifications far exceeding mine. (I’m not proclaiming myself any kind of expert but (a) I play a lot of tournaments online, (b) I win, and (c) I spent a year putting together a book on tournament poker with Andy Bloch, Chris Ferguson, Howard Lederer, Ted Forrest, and several other great players, so I learned a great deal. That said, I think one of my greatest strengths in poker analysis is that I’ll quickly admit when I get something wrong or miss part of the analysis. That comes from spending a lot of time reasoning and arguing this stuff through with Andy Bloch and Chris Ferguson.) Marty runs a site called The YouTube video is

If he engages me in a discussion and points out something I missed or got wrong – or one of you does so – I have no trouble crying “uncle!” I call that LEARNING and I don’t mind being wrong about this stuff at all. But I don’t think I am.

Second, the facts. This was at the final table of the Full Tilt $350,000 Guarantee on November 26, in which I finished fifth. As near as I can remember it, this was the situation:

Five players left, blinds at 25k-50k, antes at 10k. [Note the 20% ante as well as the short-handed table. They figure in my analysis, but not Marty's.]

I was fourth in chips, with about 500k. Another player had just lost a huge pot and had, I think, 42k. He would be forced all-in within a couple hands. The other three players were tightly bunched with 2.2M, 2M, and 1.9M.

Third, here’s how it went down. I was, I think, in the cut-off with A-Qs. It was folded to me. I went all in. The microstack on the button folded. The chip leader, in one of the blinds, called me with 4-4. I didn’t improve and was eliminated.

Marty Smith’s argument is that I should have folded everything but A-A and MAYBE K-K. But he says he would have thought hard before pushing in with K-K. There was a $6,500 difference between 5th and 4th place and I committed a “brain burp” by playing A-Qs. 

I know there is a principle out there that says, “Sometimes it’s a good idea to pass up a good bet when you can fold your way to more money.” But what are the limits on this principle? When does it apply or not apply? Does it have anything to do with later payouts? Stack sizes? According to Smith, fold everything but A-A.

That can’t conceivably be the right way to play. I will explain the reasoning, but if you think that way, you will find it impossible to succeed in tournament poker. You might make it through some satellites, or sneak into the low money occasionally, but then it’s extremely unlikely that you can win a big prize thinking this way.

Let’s first establish what happens if I fold my A-Qs. I’m down to 9 BBs. The micro-stack is probably going to be eliminated in a hand or two. It will cost me 115k every four hands. With the other stacks having 40 BB, my blind will be under attack every hand (which is 50% of the time when we’re four handed).

If I wait just two rounds and succeed in doubling up, I’m still in about the same position I am when I made the decision to move all-in.

And what if the short stack DOESN’T bust on the next hand. Marty mentions, as a reason I should fold everything, that the short stack will get 2-3 callers. That means if the guy wins, he has 150-200k. With me folding everything but A-A until that guy’s out, I don’t think his chances of passing me if he wins that all-in hand are all that unreasonable.

In the final analysis, if I played it Marty’s way, there’s almost no way I could finish higher than 4th. I have to concede 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place money (that’s $83,000, $51,000, and $33,000, by the way) to the bigger stacks and content myself with the extra $6,500 by finishing 4th instead of 5th.  The chances of me moving up, especially if the shortest stack lasts more than one hand, aren’t much greater than the chances I’ll follow his advice and STILL finish fifth.

NOW, what good and bad things happen if I do what I did, moving all-in with A-Qs?

First, what’s the chance I’m giving up $6,500 by moving all-in with A-Qs? If Marty’s analysis is correct and my opponents are thinking as smart as he is about this, everyone should fold to me unless they have A-A. After all, if I’m folding everything but A-A, what are they going to think when I move in and they have something like 4-4? Obviously, that guy who called with 4-4 didn’t think Marty’s way of thinking was correct.

Even assuming Marty is wrong, most people are going to fold. No one has a really huge stack here. Even the biggest stack, the guy who called with 4-4, was calling off more than 20% of his chips. With 3 of the 5 remaining players pretty close in chips, who wants to put in 20-40% of their chips calling someone who obviously has at least a pretty good hand?

Mike Matusow, who is an excellent tournament player, especially in the endgame, was apoplectic about that guy’s call. Think of all the hands I could reasonably have. Heck, think of the hands I could have that Marty Smith would tell me to fold: J-J? 8-8? 6-6?

I think the chances everyone folds are 80-90%. They need AT LEAST a top 10-20% hand to call me here, and it needs to be at the high end of that range because of the combination that they would respect that I must have a strong hand and they would either be a tiny favorite or a big dog.

If there’s just a 20% chance I’m going to get called, then 80% of the time I’m going to pick up 125,000 chips. An 80% chance of picking up 125,000 chips is HUGE. That gives me close to 650k, which increases the penalty to one of the bigger stacks (who all have the same amount of chips) of picking on me and being wrong. It also gives me enough chips to make a meaningful reraise, or conceivably make a raise and fold, or make a loose call when the micro-stack moves in to see five cards with the other players.

But I actually WANTED to get called. 3d paid $7k more than 4th. 2nd, another additional $18k. 1st added another $32k. If I get called and win, my 1.3 million in chips puts me right in the thick of things, and my equity in a four handed game where no one has over 2 million has to be far, far greater than the $6,500 if I fold my way to elimination.

A-Qs has a 49% chance against 4-4. If everyone folds 80% of the time, these are the results and their likelihood:

80% – they all fold, I have 650k. My chances of finishing better than 4th improve at least marginally.

10% – 4-4 calls and I win, giving me 1.3M. With the luck factor in a short-handed game (by the way, my understanding of short-handed play is one of the strengths of my game, mostly by virtue of most players having little experience or understanding of how the game changes – I was schooled by Chris Ferguson, Andy Bloch, and Andy Beal), my chances of winning aren’t worse than 20% and could be as high as 40%. I don’t know what value you put on that, but it’s got to be greater than $6,500 – four players with huge blinds and antes, fairly close in chips, splitting $192,000?

10% – 4-4 calls and I lose, eliminating me. I lose the $6,500 I’d make if I held out until the smallest stack busted.

This didn’t seem to be a close case. In fact, if I thought the players at that final table thought anything like Marty Smith, I’d have made the move with any two cards.

Final note: How good is A-Qs? If, instead of dealing out cards, you dealt out numbers between 1 and 100 and the goal was to have the highest number (A-A would be 100 and hands like 3-2o and 7-2o would be 1 or 2), how high is A-Qs?

A-Qs, to open a pot, would be about 97. Andy Bloch and Chris Ferguson have analyzed this carefully. Andy has shared his numbers with me (and they’ll be in THE FULL TILT POKER STRATEGY GUIDE – TOURNAMENT EDITION, coming out in June) and I understand that Chris’s aren’t too different. These rankings come from a simulation that, though unlike a lot of situations in poker, is very relevant to a short-handed all-in-or-fold game. In the simulation, the only hands better than A-Qs for open-raising are A-A, K-K, A-Ks, A-Ko, and Q-Q. Out of the 1,326 two-card combinations you can get, only 34 (about 3%) are better than A-Qs. And it’s not even 34 – it’s 24 because without the ace and queen of diamonds, there are only 3 A-A combos and 3 Q-Q combos. Instead of 16 A-K combos, there are just 12.

Let’s also note how unlikely I was to run into a small pocket pair as a caller. Put yourself in the position of the guy with 4-4. What’s he think I’m moving all-in with? Liberally, he might think I’ll move in with A-K, A-Q, A-J, or any pocket pair. That works out to 120 hands, about 10% of all my possible hands. For half of those hands (pocket pairs 5-5 and above), he is just 20% to win. For 10% of those hands, I moved with 3-3 or 2-2 and he is 80% to win. For the other 40% (A-K, A-Q, A-J), he is just slightly better than a coin flip, depending on whether I am suited.

If you add it up, I think 4-4 is 38% to win against all those hands. Is that worth calling off more than 20% of your chips? If you take Andy Bloch’s hand rankings and assume I raised with the best THIRD of my hands – which includes pocket pairs but also hands like 8-6s, K-5s, A-2o, K-5s – 4-4 is only 49.5% to win.


The rational aspect of my decision to move all-in with A-Qs is that it was one of the very best hands I could expect to get during the endgame and the overwhelming likelihood was that no one would call and I’d pick up the blinds and antes, which were substantial.

The emotional aspect was that I WANTED to get called – in fact, if I had known that player had 4-4, I would have pushed in anyway. A 50% shot at the bigger prize money, like $33k for 3rd, $51k for 2nd, and $83k for first was worth it for me. Between the luck factor and my relatively advanced understanding of the endgame, a coinflip to get myself to par for the last three spots was easily worth it.

I welcome Marty Smith’s explanation, and anyone else who wants to take a position. Like I said, I’m certainly capable of making mistakes in analysis or missing ideas or concepts that could tip the balance considerably.  But I know there’s more to it than “fold because someone else might bust.” There’s gotta be.

This entry was posted in My favourites: | 21 Comments

21 Responses to Ghosts of the Final Table

  1. Bob says:

    Calling with 4,4 is a terrible play here.

    Your play was 100% correct.

    This Marty guy doesn’t understand tournament poker.

  2. Falstaff says:

    It boils down to two different tournament strategies – playing to win or playing to move up the cash ladder.
    You have been taught by the best in the business. You’ve been ringside at the biggest cash games in history, and have talked tournament turkey with geniuses of the game. Even if you knew nothing about poker before that, their opinions would rub off on you, and those players universally advocate a "play to win" strategy. The push with AQ was the move of someone who was playing to win the tournament.
    Your friend Marty has not had the benefit of the consultations with poker luminaries that you’ve had (did I just describe Matusow as a candle in a bag? That’s a visual), so he’s looking at it from the standpoint of a guy who wants to make as much money ON THIS TOURNAMENT as possible. That’s the key. Your strategy will net you greater results in a longer view, while Marty’s strategy will net him greater results today.
    Obviously, the answer is, as it always is in poker, "it depends." Your move was right for your goals and view of poker. Marty’s move would have been right for a guy who desperately NEEDED the extra money that moving up one spot would grant. That’s at least my analysis of his comments and your moves, take them with the grains of salt that are inherent in any outsider’s opinion.

  3. Trevor says:

    So where did you finish in the 25,000 on FT last night? You were clicking long when i was busted.

  4. jack says:

    the guy’s an idiot. if you were playing in a sit-and-go, i could see perhaps making that fold if you were not yet in the money, since such a large percentage of the money is given to each player after passing the bubble. but in the cut-off with 10 bb’s in a full tournament? please…
    moving in is pretty automatic there if you have interest in winning the tournament. you can pick up probably near 20% of your current stack if everyone folds and you’re still in good shape against many hands that might call you, including the one that did.

  5. JBuzzo says:

    Falstaff is right on with his opinion, as are you Mr. Craig.

  6. Vegaas says:

    Your move was correct. I am from the school of thought that you always play to win. I am also a disicple of the Dan Harrington books, his books advocate pushing here. Your M was about 5, you are not going to get many better chances than that to double up at this point. The guy who put up the clip obviously does not believe in playing to win, just moving up a money spot. Weak.

  7. GWCGWC says:

    Marty’s strat wouldn’t have allowed him to get that deep in such a large MTT field in the first place. At what point does he go into the "fold everything to move up" strat? At the first money bubble? The only way he could FT using this flawed thinking is somehow getting a monster rush of cards at just the right moment.
    You are pushing with a HUGE range of hands in that position. The equity you gain from winning the blinds and ante’s far outweigh the risk of ruin you take by pushing. I’d push with almost any hand there depending on the other players tendencies at my table.
    The best the 44 could hope for is that you hold 33, 22, A3, A2. That’s it. However, he also knows that you have to win coin flips and amass chips to win the tourney so his call is simply a gamble. There is nothing wrong with gambling but I’d rather be betting than calling with that hand.
    I get people calling me with Q9os when it gets shorthanded simply because if they pay attention, they will see that I am willing to push first in vig with almost any two cards.
    It would be impossible to lose against an entire table full of Marty’s.

  8. bayne_s says:

    Not that my opinion is worth much compared to the analytical insights of Mr. Block and Mr. Ferguson but you play tournaments to Final Table 1st then to finish Top 3. Pushing with a hand like AQs puts you in position to move into top 3.
    Have to agree with Mike Matusow that calling with 44 is idiotic, even if you are pushing a mid suited connector he is a dog.
    How did Mr. 44 finish in tourney?

  9. Robert Dudek says:

    Your move was unequivocally correct. I think there can be no rational debate about that. I’m surprised anyone would find fault with it, frankly.
    You said 4-4 was in one of the blinds. If he was in the BB, he needs to put in 450k and the pot becomes 125+500+450= 1075k. So on a strictly mathematical basis, he needs only about 43.5% equity to break even on his decision. Perhaps he’s pegged you as a smart aggressive player who is playing to win. If he is a thinking player, he might estimate his equity at 40-48% in this precise situation (some players would push with literally any two cards in the situation you were in).
    Additionally, if he loses, he’s still in decent shape, but if he wins the pot he can eliminate an opponent, put himself in the chip lead and virtually guarantee a top 3 finish. All these factors argue for a call with 4-4.
    If he was in the SB, his odds are a little worse, but the underlying logic pointing to a call is unchanged.
    I don’t see how his call is "terrible".

  10. Paboo says:

    You’ve got more heart and the courage in your pickie that Marty has in his whole body.

    If you aren’t striving for Top3, you shouldn’t be playing tournaments.

    Very well played hand… very bad call by 44.

    You do have been rethinking how I usually feel in this situation though. I would like the 44 to fold, but don’t actually mind the call because of the fold equity I have invested in the hand. In the future I think I will root for them to call me with a coin flip hand. No better way to get right back into the thick of things.


  11. yancy says:

    The fact that someone who runs a poker site can’t recognize this as an auto-shove (given blinds, antes, stack sizes, payouts, etc.) is hilarious. Your detailed analysis is spot-on, but again, anyone with even a clue about NLHE tourney strategy should instantly "feel" that this is a shove without having to break out the math. Keep up the good play, Michael.

  12. Shkarpyan says:

    I have to agree with Robert Dudek. Your all-in was absolutely correct. I don’t know how can a sane person argue that. But, the 4-4 call was imho also correct. As mentioned by Robert, if he saw you as a good, aggresive player, who would (as you say) push every hand in this situation, then the choice to try to eliminate one player for a 25% of his chips was correct. But to argue your all-in is a stupidity. It’s the situation that occurs so often in the SNGs, when you get into the money, you play to win, not to be second…
    Ring games are for earning steady money. You play tournaments to win.

  13. jay g says:

    Interesting post, Michael. While watching the video, a question kept going through my mind: "who is this weak-tight bitch, and why does he think he’s qualified to make these sorts of judegments."
    I’m not a tournament strategy expert but I feel pretty confident in saying that anyone who’s advising you to play only AA and maybe KK here just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That’s simply ridiculous.
    The call with 44 is insane.

  14. Lou Krieger says:

    FWIW, I would have made the same play you did. But I don’t think this is so much a matter of right or wrong as it is a case of conflicting values.
    If one wants to limp onto the bottom rung of the pay ladder, then folding was the right play. If you’re playing to win, then raising all-in and anticipating that all your opponents will fold is the correct play.
    To me it boils down to the absolute money sums, not the relative worth of hand values. Suppose some life changing sum of money could have been won by folding your way to the pay ladder? Then I’d fold, because I’d begin to see that payoff not in terms of chips but in terms of real-world money. But when you’re talking about $6,500 (while it’s a nice bit of change) it’s not like a difference of a million dollars or something in that order.
    In my own personal life equation, if I’m in your shoes in this tournament, I’m going all-in as you did. If I can win $1,000,000 or some sum of that magnitude, I’m folding my way to a big payday.
    Lou Krieger

  15. mcfluppt says:

    Everyone’s saying calling with the 44 is bad, and I don’t disagree. But in the spirit of debate, here’s an attempt at defending the play. I’m not going to get my math on, but some basic numbers to consider…

    The pot has 50k in antes and 75k blinds, for a total of 125k.
    Michael Craig (hereafter MC) bets 500k, so the pot has a total of 625k.

    I’ll assume the Chip Leader (hereafter known as CL) is in the 50k BB just ‘cause it’s easier. CL must call 450k to win 625k. A call will bring the pot to 1.075m. For every chip CL puts in, he sees a return of 1.38 chips upon winning.

    There are two outcomes.
    1. Michael Craig (MC) wins 1.075m, CL now at ~1.8m
    2. CL wins, he’ll have ~2.6m, and MC out.

    If outcome 1., CL has made MC a better contender, though still about half of any other stack. Kind-of sucky, but all are still likely to outlast the 42k stack.

    If outcome 2., CL not only secures 4th place money, but most likely secures 3rd place money, as the short stack has to double up 4 times to even contend.
    The difference between 5th and 3rd place money is $13.5k.

    I’ll assume the CL believes MC to be a decent player. CL sees that MC is getting short. CL may put MC on any Ace or big King. Against such hands, or even a crappy bluff which in all likelihood will still contain an over to 44, CL is at best a coin-flip.

    Thing is, this hopeful coin-flip is worth $13.5k. Losing the coin-flip might cost CL 3rd place money, but it’s unlikely he’ll finish below 4th. And though it might not give him loads of chips over the other contenders, it extends his lead nonetheless.

    For the CL, it’s not the worst rationale in the world. Though if I were the CL in this position, I’d likely fold unless I had a REAL solid read on MC. Even then, my plan may still be to fold. Flame away.

    Oh, and MC practically has to make this move with Ace Queen if he intends to advance to the top 3. And I’d want a call from a hand like 44 were I in his place.

  16. Goat says:

    I really like Marty Smith’s mellow pedantic tone. I bet he listens to a lot of smooth jazz.
    Big heart on that one. Big, big heart.
    I’m pretty confident that your poker opinion is worth more than mine (to say nothing of Mssrs. Bloch and Ferguson), but why not jump on the bandwagon here?
    I’d push with AQ in that situation without blinking. Every time. The range of hands I’d push with in that situation goes significantly worse than that.
    He’d fold Kings there. KINGS.
    No wonder his training videos are free.

  17. A.J. says:

    This guy and his website are the same wanna-bes that Full Tilt shows in its commercials. If you tried to explain the gap principle to someone who can’t even produce a decent video, you’re just going to get a blank stare, similar to what your 44 caller would give.

  18. TheCinciKid says:

    I think Marty’s analysis is probably correct for someone who satellited into the tourney and probably has less than $6500 in their entire bankroll. However, if you have a big enough bankroll to play in this tourney in the first place, then you’re going to be playing to finish at least top 3 and try to win the whole thing. In that case, your play is almost certainly correct.

    Btw, I really liked your analysis of this hand and of some of the others you’ve posted. You seem to have a very good understanding of the game.

  19. Marty Smith is obviously a pompous blowhard with very little actual tournament poker knowledge. While I don’t think you *had* to move allin with the AQ, it was a more than defensible play, and the level of criticality in Marty’s commentary is obviously unjustified. Seriously, the more I listen to his coverage of this play, the more I find myself wishing I could play a final table with him at it. Only an abject moron when it comes to tournament poker would have his belief, let alone present it in such a pompous, matter-of-fact way.

    Congrats on the finish btw, Michael. I see you in the FTOPS events I satellited in to in February, so I look forward to playing with you there.

  20. Marty Smith says:

    Great information Michael. I suppose I have to apologize for the brain burp tone in my video. The sensationalism was more for marketing than anything else, and at the least you must admit a controversial play. It was made on the spur of the moment while covering the live action. But, of course, very good and justified analysis on your part.

    I was in fact watching the live action and feel that I have more connect with that table than some (all?) of the submitters to your analysis. In saying that, had you folded that hand or next, that player was going to be all in and likely eliminated that very hand, with 2 even 3 callers.

    Although I do agree with you about going for it (70+ final tables), your stack was still big enough to accomplish (going for it) all you mentioned you wanted to do, by folding this hand as well. It wouldn’t have changed much at all. Your M was 5 if you fold. Yuke, however was on life support.

    You may have noticed, (but failed to mention in your analysis) that several times in the video, I mentioned disclaimers about my criticism of your play based on you being an amateur with a small bankroll. I have a video series that instructs online players with limited rolls about these very topics. This advice is targeted for them, and correctly so. You also did not mention my understanding of your move if it was that of a well funded professional.

    You see, players that are learning tournament poker have heard many times the “go for it” axiom (theory), but not once, except for Lou Krieger above here, have I heard or read a pro write or mention the consideration of a player’s bankroll situation. This to me, is a fundamental flaw in the tournament theory which all those same writers (just like you and your friends writing that Full Tilt book – I bet it is NOT a consideration discussed) simply ignore or choose not to discuss with us amateurs.

    For a fresh player with a small bankroll getting in by qualifier, I stand by everything I said in that video. The thing is, and I apologize for this, I had no idea who you were, and that you were a pro at the time.

    I agreed in the video as well that the 44 was a weak call, but I also noticed that you moved in so fast, that my first inclination was rookie error, and you missed the critical stack size (M) of Yuke. I feel just as sure that had you folded, you could write a pretty good argument for that too, but either way, all of that analysis above could not run through your mind in the 3 seconds you decided to push, but just a glance over at Yuke’s stack could halt such a move for sure. I can’t really remember, but that could be a reason for my assuming you were inexperienced.

    As some of the submitters to your analysis mentioned they would like to play against me at a final table, I too would appreciate a $6,500 gift.

    Anyway all in good fun and good game. All the best Michael on Full Tilt and I hope I get to do commentary on you again as a way to make up for some harsh words. If you could email me and let me know when you are in a tournament, I’d be happy to rail and comment for a bit.

  21. Lee says:

    Hey Michael,
    I was also the victim of this clown’s analysis on the final table of the December $500K on Full Tilt. In some small way one feels like a celebrity who has been misrepresented and slandered in the press, but cannot fight back. Maybe I took myself too seriously, like who cares what this fish thinks, but i was really irritated by it and fired off some flaming emails to him. Your play was completely reasonable and good IMO. This character plays pretty much the lowest stakes and does just average if that. I actually registered to his silly site and watch his videos from time to time just to laugh at the rubbish he comes out with, it kind of makes me feel good in a bad way : ). Marty Smith is a fool, and i hope he reads this.