Hand of the Week: Hellmuth Trickery Baffles Jungleman

Poker Night in America has become a popular poker show over the past couple of years with a lot of interesting line-ups.

In its new King of the Hill Challenge Doug PolkDan CatesFrank Kassela and Phil Hellmuth squared off in a two round, heads-up, winner-take-all tournament.

In the end Hellmuth came out victorious and scooped the $200,000 by beating HU powerhouses Polk and Cates – and surviving several critical situations.

Flop to River

It's the final match of the best-of-three King of the Hill final between Cates and Hellmuth. The winner gets $200,000; the loser, nothing.

Cates has dominated Hellmuth in the early stages of the final. Of the 200,000 chips on the table Cates already has 165,100 in front of him. Hellmuth is left with 34,900 so Cates has an almost 5 to 1 chiplead.

The blinds are 800/1600 with Cates on the button with 10 clubs 10 5 clubs 5  

He raises to 3,200 and gets a call. There's 6,400 in the pot and Hellmuth has 31,700.

Flop 10 diamonds 10 3 diamonds 3 2 clubs 2 Hellmuth checks, Cates bets 2,200 and Hellmuth calls. There's now 10,800 in the pot and Hellmuth is down to 29,500.

The turn is the 10 spades 10 Hellmuth checks, Cates bets 7,600 and Hellmuth check-raises to 19,600.

Cates calls. There's exactly 50,000 in the pot now and Hellmuth has 9,900 chips behind.

The river is the 9 diamonds 9 Hellmuth quickly goes all-in and Cates just as quickly folds his hand with a disgusted look on his face.

Hellmuth held Q clubs Q J diamonds J for queen high, also known as the “complete air ball."

Had Cates made the call he would have stacked Hellmuth and won the $200,000. Instead, Hellmuth started a massive comeback with this hand and went on to win the match. Watch the hand again in the video below:

Hand Analysis

How is it possible that one of the best heads-up poker players in the world – Daniel jungleman Cates – folds such a strong hand in such a big pot?

Dan Cates
How is it possible?

Did he have a blackout? Was Hellmuth’s bluff so well-played that he just had to?  We need a closer look at this hand to answer that question.

Pre-flop, Cates takes a very mediocre (but at least suited) hand and tries to exert some pressure. Hellmuth holds a better-than-average Q-Jo and obviously calls.

From Cates’ point of view Hellmuth at this point has a very broad range. As they’re playing heads-up Hellmuth will defend his big blind with a lot of hands if he’s getting 3:1 pot odds -- even though he’s already getting short.

Cates flops top pair so when Hellmuth checks. he has no reason not to bet. He would usually have the best hand and will still get called by worse hands like diamonds, a three, a deuce, a middle pocket pair or even two overcards.

Hellmuth, on the other hand, only has to pay 2,200 to win 8,600. Meaning he gets 4:1 pot odds -- too good to give up here.

The Turn Paradox

The turn is another 10 and Hellmuth checks again to the raiser. Cates, of course, loves this turn.

It’s not an overcard and it has improved his hand so much that he's now even overtaken unlikely hands like slow-played overpairs J-J to A-A.

Obviously, Cates bets out again and he sizes his bet to 7,600 so if he gets a call he can put Hellmuth all-in on the river with a bet just under pot size (22,000 into a pot of 26,000).

But Hellmuth now finds a surprising move in his arsenal that’s probably born of desperation. He check-raises Cates but doesn’t go all-in, instead leaving himself with 9,900.

What’s the point of that?

Well, he’s trying to make his move look even stronger by not going all-in. An all-in, by the way, that Cates would have snap-called.

This is a check-raise that says “please call me here with your great pot odds so you can’t fold the river."

Cates now realizes he might be up against a monster like pocket threes, pocket deuces or against a better 10.

Then again, it’s possible that Hellmuth is simply trying to push Cates out of the hand because on that board Cates rarely has a good hand. Also, Hellmuth could be semi-bluffing -- a move you often see in cash games.

Hellmuth’s move does make Cates think. He was probably considering both an all-in and a fold. When he eventually decides to call that's certainly the best decision because if he goes all-in Hellmuth could still fold a bluff and then try to come back with a six BB stack.

Daniel Cates
Jungle jumps gun.

The River Execution

On the river Hellmuth completes his move by going all-in. This is a move reminiscent of short stack Sit-and-Go strategy where you’ll always go all-in in certain spots but you do it in two steps.

That gives your opponent the chance to still make an (incorrect) fold they couldn’t make (because of the pot odds) if you went all-in at once.

But back to Hellmuth and Cates. When Hellmuth goes all-in, Cates gets astronomical 6:1 pot odds. There's 60,000 in the pot and he only has to pay another 9,900.

Mathematically speaking that means Cates only has to win 14% of the time to make that call profitable. But Cates doesn’t even think about numbers here and almost insta-folds.

The diamond on the river certainly influenced his decision process as he apparently considered it impossible that Hellmuth could still be bluffing. Most notably, however, there’s exactly one good hand in Hellmuth’s hand that Cates is beating apart from bluffs.

So ... is it Correct?

Let’s see what Hellmuth’s range looks like:

  • Strong hands – 3-3, 2-2, 9-9, any ten, any two diamonds
  • Bluffs – all other hands

Of the strong hands Cates can beat T-4 only, which is negligible because of all the possible monster hands surrounding it.

So, is Cates’ fold correct? If Cates assumes that Hellmuth is incapable of a bluff like that, then he indeed has to fold his hand because he’s only beating one hand in Helmuth’s range.

Hellmuth wins king of the hill
The King!

The tournament situation is also of importance here. If Cates calls and wins, it’s over and he’s won it. If he doesn’t, Hellmuth doubles up to 69,800 and is still at a 2:1 chip disadvantage.

It’s a rather marginal difference to fold and leave Hellmuth with 59,900.


Hellmuth shows he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Here, he manages to outsmart Cates and force him to fold a big hand against what looks like an admittedly very strong range.

If Cates had taken a little more time on the river, though, he would have certainly found the call he needed to make

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