Poker Hand of the Week: Why Phil Hellmuth is the Greatest

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Only Phil that can make this call?

Nobody can match the 14 bracelets of Phil Hellmuth, the most successful player in WSOP history by a mile.

Because of his personality, however - and his controversial playing style - he’s not popular with everybody.

Those who say he isn’t really that good (and there are lots of them) better have a look at this one.

In our Hand of the Week Hellmuth takes on JC Tran (not last week at the WPT final table but a few years ago) and finishes the hand with a call that is both brave and spectacular.

Flop to River

It’s one of the preliminary rounds of PartyPoker Premier League Season 3JC Tran – four years before he made the WSOP Main Event final table – is heads-up against the Poker Brat.

He’s leading with 388,000 in chips; Hellmuth sits with 212,000. Blinds are at 7000/15,000 (sic). 

Hellmuth is on the button and limps with    

Tran checks. There's 30,000 in the pot with effective stacks of 197,000. The flop is   8  

Tran checks, Hellmuth bets 15,000 and Tran doubles the bet to 30,000. Hellmuth calls and the pot now has 90,000. Effective stacks are at 167,000.

The turn is the   Tran now bets 35,000 and Hellmuth calls again. There's 160,000 in the pot and effective stacks are 132,000.

The river is the   Tran puts Hellmuth all-in and sends him into the tank. Hellmuth eventually decides to call with third pair and wins a huge pot.

Tran held    

Enjoy this amazing hand in the video below. By the way: you’ll also realize how much you miss Jesse May as a commentator.

Analysis

Phil surely didn’t have much in this hand but manages to make an astonishing call (just look at JC’s face) and doubles his stack.

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Too strong to fold.

Did he just feel it? Did he have the perfect read? Or was there method in this apparent madness? Let’s find out.

We start at the stack sizes. Hellmuth has just 14 big blinds left and is under quite a bit of pressure.

8-5s on the button, however, is too strong to fold. It doesn’t often make top pair but it’s semi-connected -- and at least it’s suited.

Tran checks the big blind, which gives Phil some information about his hand. Tran won’t have a strong ace or a big pair because then he would’ve certainly exerted more pressure with a raise.

With hands like K-Q and K-J, he would probably raise as well.

Mysterious Check-Raise on the Flop

As Tran’s range now doesn’t have many aces in it, the flop is pretty good for Hellmuth. He’s hit middle pair, which heads-up is a pretty strong hand.

Tran checks and Hellmuth goes for a classic value bet. He’s trying to get money from two low clubs, gut shots like 7-6, 7-5, or a 4. But he’s in for a surprise as Tran responds with the smallest of check-raises.

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What now, JC?

What do you make of a min check-raise that gives Hellmuth 5:1 odds to call? It’s a move that essentially polarizes Tran’s range on the flop.

As we said, there aren’t strong aces in his range but he could certainly play A-8 or A-4 two pair like this, which in this spot would be veritable monsters.

But the number of strong hands in Tran’s range is limited. He probably wouldn’t play A-7 or A-3 like that, as good players rarely turn their hands into bluffs if they don’t have to.

Easy Call

Obviously, Hellmuth continues in this hand. He isn’t getting pushed out that easily and Tran’s move smells very much like a semi-bluff.

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Every strong player knows a flop check-raise is often a semi-bluff

Every strong player knows that a check-raise on the flop often is a semi-bluff mainly used to get the initiative and this flop allows for quite a few draws – club flush draws and gutshots with 7-6, 7-5, 5-2, and 5-3.

Hellmuth makes the call and the turn is the K, which shouldn’t change much in this situation and thus doesn’t weaken Hellmuth’s hand.

If Hellmuth had the better hand on the flop, he still has it most of the time and this applies even more to Tran’s hand. As Tran bets he confirms that, because if Tran had a king he would probably check to take it to showdown.

So, it still looks like Tran has either a draw or a monster. But there are still so many draws in Tran’s hand that Hellmuth had almost no choice but to call with 3:1 pot odds.

All or Nothing on the River

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All or nothing time.

This is how Tran might be looking at the way this hand's gone down.

On the flop he took over the initiative, and with another bet on the turn he tried to make a good hand fold (if maybe not a very good hand).

At the same time he has to consider what Hellmuth is putting him on and in that range he must have the club flush draw among others.

Pushing all-in is one way Tran was planning to play his hand to the end. His check-raise on the flop gave him several options:

1) If he hits the straight on the turn, he has a very well-hidden monster

2) He might be able to make Hellmuth fold a mediocre hand on a later street

3) He might be able to credibly represent a hand on the river that he doesn’t have

Hellmuth on the other side of the table doesn’t like this river card as it fills up several of the draws he had put Tran on. But then Hellmuth still finds a call, showing that he’s difficult to intimidate even by a scare card on the river.

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Pretty good instincts.

Yes, Tran still has bluffs in his range as some gutshots haven’t come in. But it might have been the tournament situation that was the decisive factor.

If Hellmuth folds now he’s left with fewer than 10 big blinds, exposing him to even more pressure from an aggressive player like JC Tran. 

Yet it’s an amazing call because, let’s be honest, how many players would have even given it so much thought?

Conclusion

JC Tran pulls all the strings he has to drive Phil Hellmuth out of a pot where Hellmuth has a marginal holding.

But Hellmuth proves to be very stubborn and even stands his ground when a scary card on the river fills up some of the draws that are in Tran’s range.

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