Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Trivial Pursuit at the 1997 WSOP

Stu Ungar rechecks his cards... or card... or part of a cardI was leafing through the latest issue of Card Player, the one with Eugene Katchalov on the cover (March 29, 2011), when Phil Hellmuth’s “Hand of the Week” column about the final hand of the 1997 World Series of Poker Main Event caught my eye. That was the one in which Stu Ungar incredibly won his third WSOP ME title, hitting a fortuitous river card to beat John Strzemp.

Like a lot of WSOP ME runner-ups, I suppose Strzemp has become the answer to a trivia question (perhaps a tad harder to spell than most). He’s also become a lot more, though, having served as an executive with several casinos before taking his current position as Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Wynn Resorts.

One reason I found myself stopping to read Hellmuth’s discussion was because I’d just heard Strzemp interviewed on the Two Plus Two Pokercast (episode 164, 3/15/11), and among other topics he talked about that final table, played in the heat and wind on Fremont Street, the only time the WSOP ME final table was ever held outdoors.

There Strzemp referred to playing that final table as “a pretty cool experience,” noting also how during the earlier days of the Main Event he’d seen them setting up the grandstand when taking his smoke breaks. He also pointed out how “you had to protect your cards more so than normal” at that final table, “because it was breezy.”

Hellmuth summarizes the action for that final hand in the third paragraph of his column, a summary that actually includes one small slip-up. Here’s the hand, by the way, as shown on ESPN with commentary by Gabe Kaplan and Jim Albrecht.



Hellmuth notes that the blinds were 10,000/20,000 with a 2,000 ante when Ungar opens with a raise from the button. Here Kaplan says “Stuey’s gonna raise... 40,000,” and then “it’ll cost 40,000 for John to call.” In other words, the raise was actually to 60,000 total, with Strzemp’s call making the pot 124,000 when the flop came 5dAc3h. (Later in the column, Hellmuth refers to “Ungar’s raise of 40,000,” echoing Kaplan.)

Strzemp is first to act and quickly puts out 120,000, nearly a pot-sized bet. Ungar then takes a while to respond. “He keeps looking back at that one card,” Albrecht observes, “as if he’s... maybe got an ace but doesn’t like the other... his kicker.” Finally Ungar raises to 800,000, enough to put Strzemp all in. I believe Strzemp has around a half million left -- it isn’t clear -- and he makes the call.

By the way, the ESPN footage says there is 1.85 million in the middle after the call, but it’s probably no more than 1.5 million. As Strzemp notes in that Two Plus Two interview, Ungar had about a 3-to-1 chip lead to begin the hand, which would be about 2.4 million to Strzemp’s 700,000-plus chip stack

Turns out Albrecht’s suspicions about Ungar’s hand were spot on as “The Kid” turns over Ah4c. Strzemp meanwhile tables As8c, meaning he is well ahead of Ungar. Hellmuth notes that “Ungar needed to catch a 4 or deuce to win,” then reports how the 3d came on the turn.

Here is where Hellmuth makes that small slip, writing that “The 3 on the turn meant that Ungar now needed to catch a deuce, and only a deuce to win.” The 2s then happily arrives for Ungar, giving him the straight and the title, but obviously a four would’ve still done it for him there, too.

In his analysis of the hand, Hellmuth questions Strzemp a little for just calling Ungar’s preflop raise, and criticizes him more directly for leading the flop rather than check-raising. Meanwhile, he likes Ungar’s post-flop shove.

Hellmuth additionally says how looking at the ESPN footage he believed Ungar was looking at only half of his card (see pic above), noting it was a “two-spotter” or “two across” (like lowball players sometimes do), something he says he later confirmed with Ungar. In other words, the suggestion here is that Ungar knew he had an ace and either a four or a five, meaning he knew he either had aces up or a pair of aces with a gutshot to a wheel, enough to encourage him to make the reraise.

I’m guessing the whole “two-spotter” observation was more than likely the reason why Hellmuth decided to write about the hand, though it has to be considered no more than interesting trivia here. Having paired his ace, Ungar’s probably pushing regardless. Indeed, Strzemp’s flat-call before the flop makes it much less likely he, too, has an ace in his hand.

(At the end of the column, Hellmuth corrects the earlier mistake by noting that either a four or deuce on fifth street would save Ungar.)

In the Two Plus Two interview, Strzemp is quick to point out that had he won that last hand he still wouldn’t necessarily have won the tournament. “The chips would have been even,” he says, “and who knows what would’ve happened from there.” Strzemp also adds, quite humbly, that had he won the event, “it probably would’ve screwed up my life a little bit,” a comment that resonates more strongly given Ungar’s sad fate.

I call the “two-spotter” observation “trivia.” Spotting a slip in Hellmuth’s summary, well, that’s certainly trivial, too.

But such is poker, in which a single hand can present a mass of minutiae, with the tiniest details potentially relevant, even crucial.

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