Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Luck and the Muck

Was up late last night with work, and thus ended up following a lot of that lengthy heads-up match between Matthew Waxman and Eric Baldwin that came at the conclusion of 2013 World Series of Poker Event No. 7, a $1,000 no-limit hold’em event. It took close to seven hours and numerous all-ins and survivals for the pair’s duel to reach an end, with Waxman ultimately prevailing to win the bracelet and $305,952 first prize.

It happens every year, it seems -- or really, multiple times per year -- that I am disappointed to find live streaming of WSOP-related content being reserved for those whose internet and/or cable arrangements allow them access to ESPN3. Neither of mine do, and so once I again I found out that I’m shut out from watching the “primary” live streams featuring hole cards and commentary. (Meanwhile, the “secondary” streams that are basically just cameras pointed at tables are available to all.)

So instead of watching I checked in from time to time to read the PokerNews updates. I was kind of curious to follow this one as I happened to have helped cover Baldwin’s first WSOP bracelet win back in 2009. PN has reverted back to hand-for-hand coverage at WSOP final tables this year, something that was done regularly in the past (including during my first couple of years helping cover events in ’08 and ’09). Thus we can say with specificity that Waxman and Baldwin played exactly 187 hands of heads-up before Waxman finally took the sucker down.

Interestingly, this morning I’m reading some references back to a hand Waxman played on the previous day when there were 16 players left. It was a three-way hand involving Waxman, Jason Koon (who’d go on to finish ninth) and the paradoxically-named Angel Pagan (who’d go out in 15th).

You might have heard about it, a hand involving a dealer mistake that ended up saving Waxman a lot of chips, and Koon some, too. After a Koon open, Pagan had reraised all in, then the dealer mistakenly mucked Pagan’s hand. The floor was called, and as we’ve seen happen before in these situations the ruling was that Pagan’s hand was dead, but he’d only lose the chips needed to call Koon’s raise, not his whole stack.

The hand continued with Waxman calling Koon from the blinds, then the pair playing it out with Koon winning a small pot. Post-hand conversation revealed Pagan had pocket queens (and would have won the hand), and also that Waxman had planned to reraise-shove from the blinds which would have squeezed out Koon and resulted in Waxman losing about half of his stack to fall down to the lower reaches of the counts with 16 left.

Lots of “what if” involved there, thereby encouraging some to suggest Waxman probably wouldn’t have made it as far as he did, let alone win the event, had not the dealer’s error taken place.

The heads-up battle with Baldwin provided lots of evidence of skillful play, and indeed just the fact of those two players making it to heads-up out of a field of 1,837 provides further evidence that skill matters in tournament poker. That said, the many instances between the pair in which the all-in player managed to win and survive, as well as the Waxman-Koon-Pagan hand from the day before, also remind us how much luck matters, too.

The role of luck in poker can seem overly conspicuous sometimes, but if you think about sports in which a bad call by an umpire or referee, an untimely injury, or other happenings fortunate or otherwise can affect outcomes, poker isn’t all that different.

Perhaps it’s the starkness of the contrast between a “lucky” event in poker (e.g., hitting a two-outer) and other events in which luck is less obviously apparent that so readily attracts our attention. In any case, as has been said many times before, such surprises are a big reason why the game can be so compelling both to play and watch.

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