Magnus Carlsen’s Counter-Intuitive Bluff With Pocket Aces

Magnus Carlsen’s Counter-Intuitive Bluff With Pocket Aces

Analytical thinking, creativity in exploiting opponents and the ability to perform under intense scrutiny are all vital parts of any elite chess or poker player’s toolkit. The history books have been littered with individuals performing at the highest level in both disciplines;

  • Eloi Relange: Chess GM at the age of 22 & the founder of Poker Academie (France’s biggest online poker training site - with over 100,000 members)
  • ‘Action’ Dan Harrington: 1971 Massachusetts Chess State Champion & 1995 WSOP Main Event champion, with $6.6m earnings on Hendon Mob
  • Alexander Grischuk: 3 time World Blitz Champion & recently cashed in 6 events across the WSOP online bracelet events
  • Dan Smith: Achieved a chess rating of 2100 by the age of 16. Decided to focus on poker and became one of the most decorated tournament players of all time, 7th on the all time money list with $38.2m earnings recorded on Hendon Mob

Therefore it was no surprise to see five-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen take to the felt like a duck to water in the recent Norwegian Poker Championships. One hand, in particular, has everyone talking, so let’s take a look at it: 

Preflop

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen

Magnus wakes up with A A in the hi-jack and makes a standard open to 2.2 big blinds (60bb total).

The first opponent he faces, Sjostrom on the button, elects to flat 5 4 (100bb stack). With the blinds being so deep I think 3-betting this combination might outperform the peel here, the flat invites overcalls which means the value of our draws postflop goes down rapidly. Three-betting allows us to have some coverage on lower boards and make disguised hands that could pay off handsomely, we also take the betting initiative to the flop and get a lot of better hands to fold.

Frigaard in the small blind (164bb stack) goes set mining with his 5 5 and Dagslott in the big blind flicks it in ambitiously with J 7 (60bb stack). The commentators even mention that he ‘gets a really nice price’ and this highlights a common misconception in big blind defense strategy that you see in live poker. His price does indeed seem attractive, however, the times his Jack or seven is dominated, he flops a bad straight draw and has to continue or his flush draw is dominated on a monotone diamond or spade flop far outweighs the minuscule amount of the time he out-flops someone to win a juicy pot. The hand has next to 0 playability and he plays the entirety of it out of position vs two strong ranges, Magnus’ especially. 

Flop

That being said, welcome to live poker, where every man and his dog fancies seeing a flop, so 4 ways we go! The dealer fans J 8 3 , giving Magnus a vulnerable overpair and Dagslott in the big blind top pair with a weak flush draw. Magnus elects to continue for a 40% sizing and Dagslott continues.

Carlsen’s hand likely favors checking here 4 ways. Versus 3 opponents he could easily be drawing thin already and is bloating the pot with a hand that struggles to improve. Non-spade hands such as ace-jack or pocket queens favor betting to deny overcard equity to the field. With 3 opponents he cannot justify 3 streets of value and might be better suited navigating a turn and reassessing from there. For Dagslott this flop is one of the best he could have hoped for, but the preflop mistake is being compounded as either his spade draw is likely dominated or his top pair could easily be behind versus Magnus betting into 3 players here at depth. He calls.

Turn

The 5 hits the felt and Dagslott is given the 100% checkmark. He checks and Magnus fires a third-pot sizing, which is fairly quickly called. Here I think Carlsen is trying to allow himself an easier river decision, he puts a Jx-type hand into a tough spot and controls the size of the pot in order to allow a river check-back and deny a large and uncomfortable river bet being thrust in his direction.

The issue is Dagslott’s range includes a tonne of improvements on the 4th spade which have no issue calling this size and AA has no potential to improve. Having said that Magnus’ range is more concentrated to the better spade holdings and having fired the flop multiway it becomes quite tricky to think of bluffs he can use. 

River

John Erik Dagslott
John Erik Dagslott

Dagslott, visibly squirming in his seat, leads for around a fifth-pot. Magnus takes a short pause to mull over his options and fights back with a raise of over 3 times his opponent’s bet, met with a quick fold. This part of the hand reminds me of some of my recent dabblings on Chess.com, blunder-filled escapades occasionally surrounding a ‘brilliant move’ to bail me out of jail vs a 10-year-old from India. Magnus made some questionable postflop decisions but managed to undo those with a remarkably counter-intuitive bluff raise to earn himself the pot.

Live poker players have a tendency to bet the strength of their hand, exactly what Dagslott has done here. He feels his hand might be ahead but doesn’t want to face a large sizing so goes for a block bet to try and force a call from worse or take down the pot. Magnus puts the pieces of the puzzle together nicely to identify that his opponent would be unlikely to take this line with a stronger spade holding, as those would likely go bigger, play previous streets more aggressively, or go to check-call/check-jam the river. Magnus has also perfectly-identified that he is the only player to remain ‘uncapped’ (the only player that could hold the nuts), facing this sized bet. It would take a very creative player to lead here for a fifth pot with the nut flush in order to induce raises from bluffs or worse value. 

Overall the hand is a testament to the intellect and creativity of a master in the craft of Chess, where the parallels in skillset allowed Carlsen to navigate his way out of a tricky situation. Whilst each decision may not have been perfect, Carlsen’s ability to think a few moves ahead of his opponent paid dividends. He went on to post a 25th place finish in the Norwegian Championships for around a €5,000 payday. 

What are your thoughts on Carlsen's play? Let us know in the comments below!

George Sandford

George is a professional 4/5 card PLO cash game player. He plays on GGPoker as Kacicka.

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