An informal poll at European Poker Tour Grand Final revealed nothing surprising. Three of the final eight players were considered to be the best players at the table with the best chance at winning. Luca Pagano was the most consistent--a record nine cashes on the EPT, including three final tables. Antonio Esfandiari was the proven live tournament winner. Isaac Baron was the online tournament king--2007 CardPlayer online player of the year, and, to his credit, a guy who knew how to act like he'd been there before.
None of them won. In fact, none of them placed in the top 3.
Whether a telling statistic about tournament play or merely another anomoly to add to the constant debate about the validity of tournament poker as an indicator of skill, it failed to answer to the question I asked a day earlier. With the chip lead and three tables remaining, was Esfandiari right to limp with a big pair in early position?
The comments in the above-linked post were thoughtful and exactly what I'd hoped to see. For what it's worth, my opinion is below.
If you're just tuning in, see The Big Pair Limp Question for background.
Let me begin by acknowledging, there is no right answer to this question. Lee Jones' initial argument in favor of Esfandiari's move was convincing and sound in its foundation (maybe someday I'll convince him to guest post here and fully explain his reasoning).
It simply comes down to a "What would I do" question. The answer: I wouldn't limp with pocket queens under the gun in that particular situation.
With 20 or so players left, Esfandiari had the chip lead and double the chip average. I don't recall whether he'd played much with Stig Top-Rasmussen, but I know they had just recently been seated at the TV table together. Still, Stig had developed a reputation. He was a wild, celebratory, loose, hyper-aggressive Danish player who occasionally made moves that could politely be described as unconventional. I don't know if Esfandiari was specifically targetting Stig here or anyone who might raise. I do know, however, that Esfandiari was justified in believing in his big pairs. They'd been holding up for two days and played a large role in his chip lead.
Here, The Magcian had a choice. He could raise or limp. Limping wass sure to be suspect and opened him up to the possibility of playing queens against a wide variety of hands. Raising, though, would possibly kill his action. Which is worse?
Proponents of Esfandiari's move suggest that limping could serve to incite more action (as it obviously did), and, in the event everybody limps, Esfandiari could simply play his hand differently than he might otherwise. Again, a fine argument. In the event someone raises, he can re-raise and hopefully take down the pot right there. Thing is, that didn't happen.
So, what happens if he raises pre-flop? He might get a call, he might not. Stig might make the move in the big blind or he might not. There are other possibilities as well, and they are the reasons I think Esfandiari might have been smarter to take a more traditional line. Stig might have made a more conventional re-raise, at which point Esfandiari could've re-raised to announce the true strength of his hand. Or, Stig might have smooth called pre-flop, whiffed the flop, and given Esfandiari a chance to take down the pot then.
Again, none of those things happened. Here we saw a perfect storm of two gamblers' plays meeting over a massive pile of chips. Esfandiari was obviously the smarter of the two, but in the end it didn't matter.
I couldn't help but continuing to delve into the hyopthetical, however. It occurred to me, that Stig also makes that same move with Ace-King. In that case, Esfandiari has forced himself to play the biggest pot of the tournament on a coin flip when there is still a signficiant number of people left in event. Nobody likes to take a coin flip in that situation, but that would've been the result. The counter to that argument is valid as well...that it stood a greater chance of being a hand other than AK, and hence it was the right play.
The greatest argument in favor of Esfandiari's move is that he got his money in as a favorite. He gave him chance to have a gigantic chip lead (read: utility) with 20 players remaining. The fact that the result did not go the right way is irrelevant. Again, it's hard to argue that. We make decisions based the odds. Sometimes they don't go our way.
There is a counter to this arguement however. While the utility of having nearly 3 million chips when everybody else has under 1 million is immense, there is something to be said for having 1.6 million when everbody else has less than a million and the blinds are still at 5,000/10,000/1,000. It's a question of whether you want to risk giving up the only power you have for a chance at obtaining more power.
In the end, there is nothing wrong with Esfandiari's play. It was a gambler's move aimed at giving him a better shot at owning the tournament. It missed and so did he. Critics (I suppose this one included) would say that Esfandiari's attempt to give him a better chance at winning the tournament ended up in severely reducing his chance at winning the tournament. It's one thing to not go out like Broomcorn's uncle. It's another thing to have a chip lead and take a gamble for half your stack.
After I wrote the initial post, there came a time I was able to stand right over Stig's shoulder as his stack slowly dwindled back down to where it started before the hand with Esfandiari. I watched Stig clash with another unconventional line. This time it worked the way it was supposed to.
(From the PokerStars Blog): In one of the biggest pots yet, Henrik Gwinner came in for a raise and PokerStars qualifier Michael Martin called. Stig Top-Rasmussen re-raised from the big blind for an additional 190,000. Again, Martin called. The flop came out J92 and Rasmussen almost immediately pushed in. The only thing faster was Martin's call for his entire stack--516,000 more. Rasmussen shows pocket sevens to Martin's slow-played pocket aces. The board bricks out and Martin wins a massive pot, totalling around 1.5 million.
What's interesting, is that of all the guys involved in these big pots, none of them finished better than fifth place. As for the two involved in the hand in question, Stig finished in tenth place. Esfandiari ended up finishing in eighth.
I think this all goes to show two things. First, one hand does not always make a tournament. Second, I'm probably more conservative than the vast number of tournament players and that's probably why I finish second more than first.