by George Epstein
Phil Hellmuth is admired by many poker players throughout the world for his accomplishments. In addition to his record 13 World Series of Poker bracelets, he won the Main Event of the 1989 World Series of Poker (WSOP) and the Main Event of the 2012 World Series of Poker Europe. He is a member of the WSOP’s Poker Hall of Fame, and is ranked among the top all-time money winners. (He has also earned a reputation for insulting other players).
Recently, a friend gave me a copy of Hellmuth’s book, Play Poker Like the Pros. I found several items that conflict with my teachings to my Seniors Poker Groups. For example, Hellmuth relates a hand he played at Foxwood’s Casino in Connecticut. It was a $2,500 buy-in limit Hold’em game during the “World Poker Finals.” Stakes were $300-$600. He was in the Big Blind holding 8-8. Three players called the blind ($300) preflop. He wrote, “because I had 8-8, I raised.” Note: In his book, Hellmuth lists 8-8 as one of his “Top Ten” Hands. He also recommends: “Always raise with these hands, no matter what it costs you to get involved.” With this, too, I disagree.
The three limpers called his preflop raise from the Big Blind. The flop was A-9-5, including two overcards to Hellmuth’s 8-8. He bet out ($300) – “and everyone folded!” Hellmuth then praised himself for winning the pot by making “the right bet on the flop and the right raise before the flop.”
In my Opinion. I have a much different slant on this hand. Hellmuth may have great skill, but that did not win it for him; he was just plain lucky. By all odds, his hand should have been a poor— and costly—second-best. I’ll explain...
Assuming it was a full table with nine or ten players, then according to probability theory the odds strongly favored at least one opponent holding an Ace or a 9. There was also the chance that an opponent might have held a pair higher than Hellmuth’s 8-8. But let’s just contend with the possibility that an opponent stayed to see the flop with an Ace or a nine in the hole...
Referring to Tom Green’s new book, Texas Hold’em Poker Textbook (for more information, visit: www.pokertextbook.info), with nine opponents in the game, at least one will hold an Ace in the hole 84% of the time. As a matter of practice, most players will call to see the flop with almost-any-Ace. The same 84% probability applies to a 9 in the hole. A player’s decision to pay to see the flop with a 9 in the hole usually depends on the value of his other holecard; on average, expect a call about half the time. All in all, unless it was a very short-handed table, at least one opponent probably held a matching overcard (A or 9) to Hellmuth’s 8-8, making him a big long-shot to take that pot. (With an opponent flopping a higher pair—A-A or 9-9—Hellmuth would have only two outs).
Certainly, an opponent holding an Ace would have called Hellmuth’s bet on the flop—possibly raising him with a good kicker. As for an opponent with a 9 in the hole, after flopping a pair of 9s— middle pair on the board, would he have folded to Hellmuth’s bet? Knowing that Hellmuth was prone to play somewhat deceptively, it is reasonable that this opponent also would have called (but folded to a raise by another player).
The Bottom Line. As the hand played out, Hellmuth would have realized the exact same result holding 7-2 offsuit, the worst starting hand in Hold’em. Think about it—In my opinion, it was sheer luck that Hellmuth took this pot. Epilogue. Reading Hellmuth’s book, I am encouraged to carefully examine his recommendations for playing poker “like the pros.” For the most part, they are reasonable.But, most significantly, I should note that, for many reasons, my Hold’em Algorithm—as described in Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision— provides a much better criteria for starting-hand selection than his “Top Ten” Hands.
I am willing to debate this with Phil Hellmuth... What do you think?
George Epstein is the author of The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners! and Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision. He teaches poker at senior citizen centers, West L.A. College, and the new CalVet facility. He has been elected to the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at firstname.lastname@example.org.