Tuesday's ESPN broadcast of the $2 million winner-take-all Tournament of Champions had a little something for everybody:
(1) An unusual and questionable play by poker legend Doyle Brunson.
(2) An unusual and questionable series of plays by Greg Raymer, the winner of this year's World Series of Poker (and $5 million).
(3) The usual -- but still highly entertaining -- display of strutting and whining by Phil Hellmuth, who obviously didn't like Mike Matusow trying to steal his Superbrat crown during the WSOP.
(4) One of the most painful moments in TV poker history -- Annie Duke knocking out her big brother, Howard Lederer, in the poker world equivalent to a Greek tragedy (think "Antigone"), and then breaking into tears.
(5) A shocking victory by Duke, almost certainly the least talented player in the 10-person field, the other nine competitors comprising a Who's Who of Poker from the last 50 years -- Brunson, Hellmuth, Lederer, Johnny Chan, Chip Reese, T. J. Cloutier, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey and Raymer.
(6) And, best of all, the usual assortment of paranoia-induced conspiracy theories.
For this column, I want to try something a little different -- a combination TV critique and mailbag, with some controversial hand analysis thrown in.
Before we get to the e-mails, let's take a short walk down memory lane and consider these moments, personal favorites all:
Early on, Brunson, who was sitting to the left of Hellmuth, began to make fun of Fulminatin' Phil for taking an inordinate amount of time for every decision, even obvious folds. "C'mon, Phil," he said at one point (or words to this effect), "how many tough decisions in a row can you have? Or is it just the TV camera?"
Later, during his exit interview with ESPN color analyst Norman Chad, Brunson said, "I love Phil, but he can be aggravating."
In fact, Hellmuth is a magnet for this kind of reaction. Lederer, normally the most reserved of players, actually ridiculed Hellmuth's play at one point (Hellmuth folded A-Q, while Lederer, in the next seat, called a big bet with an A-J); Johnny Chan, who usually maintains a Buddha-like calm while playing, drew laughs from the table when, in response to Hellmuth's assertion that he, Hellmuth, was there "only to win," said, "I just came to be on TV"; and Duke not only knocked Hellmuth out to win the $2 million, but so played with his head in the process that Superbrat put on one of his greatest exit displays ever of whining and complaining, which is really saying something.
If I had to guess, though, here's what I believe: Hellmuth could care less. Let his opponents make fun of him. Let Chad make fun of him. Let the readers of Jackpot Jay make fun of him. Hellmuth's plan is to promote himself as a TV "personality," and for all his claims of "trying to improve myself as a man," he knows which side his bread is buttered on.
In fact, one of the most entertainingly ridiculous parts of the broadcast was a short feature showing Hellmuth "practicing" Buddhism and explaining its salubrious effects on his personal evolution as a human being. As my colleague Bill Simmons might put it, this was high comedy. Without putting too fine a point on it, let's just say that Phil Hellmuth is not the kind of advertisement for the positive powers of Buddhism that the Buddha would have chosen if He had a say in the matter.
The final hand between Duke and her big brother was one of the most painful things I've seen in a long time. With three players left -- for once in his competitive life, Hellmuth got out of the way and left the stage to someone else -- Duke raised, pre-flop, with 6-6, and Lederer, the short stack, went all in with 7-7, making him a prohibitive 4-1 favorite ... until the flop came Q-Q-6, giving Duke a full house.
She was in exquisite conflict -- thrilled to be on the verge of legitimizing herself as belonging in this august company (her inclusion in the field was widely seen as an ESPN nod to political correctness and a blatant attempt to draw female viewers), horrified to be eliminating her beloved older brother, especially in a hand that she was fantastically lucky to win.
Afterward, she cried. It was tough to watch.
How good is Duke? And did she belong? The answer, most poker experts would agree, is no. She is definitely a solid pro -- she won a bracelet at this year's WSOP -- but I've never heard anybody describe her as inspired. In fact, she's not even considered the best woman player -- most people would nominate Jennifer Harman for that honor, with Kathy Liebert getting a few votes.
Because of this, I wasn't sure who I was rooting for when she and Hellmuth were the last two players standing. Still, I found myself smiling when she knocked out Hellmuth, as I expect the Buddha would have, too.
And now, on to the e-mail:
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I would like to take issue with Jay Lovinger's article on Greg Raymer. I cannot believe he would give away the winner of the Tournament of Champions the day before it aired on your network. What is especially aggravating is that he mentions in the article how he was chastised for revealing the winner of the World Series of Poker. Yet, incredibly, he decides to reveal the winner of the Tournament of Champions anyway. Can he not learn from his own stupid mistakes? Shouldn't someone over there stop him? Maybe in his next article he'll tell us who wins the NL wild card. This is your founding editor? I am a big fan of poker, but without the suspense of not knowing who will win, my interest fades quickly. Thank you for your time.
-- Greg, Philadelphia
As regular readers of this column know, I get a lot of critical e-mail. Up until this one from Greg of Philly, they have always been of one of three types:
(1) The polite pointing out of an error, or misjudgment, or lack of effort.
(2) The impolite and dismissive pointing out of an error, misjudgment, or lack of effort -- "you're an idiot" is a favorite, along with the ever-popular "you're a f---ing (fill in the noun)."
(3) The impolite and dismissive incorrect pointing out of an error, misjudgment, or lack of effort, often accompanied by an even more impolite suggestion of what I should do to myself. (I'm sure everyone remembers the guy who thought I should kill myself because I "misquoted" the lyrics from a Dire Straits song.)
Now, thanks to Greg, we have a fourth type -- the total hallucination.
Greg, since I never even mentioned Annie Duke's name in the Greg Raymer article, I will be anxiously awaiting your apology. Greg? Greg?
WHAT THE HECK WERE ALL THOSE GREAT PLAYERS THINKING?
This is a question for Jackpot Jay Lovinger: I watched the WSOP Tournament of Champions last night and had a strategy question on a specific hand. The game was about six- or seven-handed and one player went all-in pre-flop with J-J. Another player (I believe it was Chan) went all-in over the top with Q-Q. Lederer then folded A-K offsuit. I've always thought A-K was a hand you should always play pre-flop. Should Lederer have folded? What would you have done?
-- Colin, North Andover, Massachusetts
I probably would have called, Colin, since I'm not a very good player. However, folding was clearly the correct play. Given the betting, it was obvious that at least one of the bettors had a high pair. If that pair had been K-K or, worse, A-A, Lederer would have been a dominated underdog with his A-K. In fact, he was a slight underdog to any pair -- and, as it turned out, slightly more of an underdog to two different pairs, since, with two pairs out against him, there was a better chance that one of the two would wind up with a set, even if an ace or king hit the board. So, basically, from his vantage point, he knew he was going to be either a huge or, at best, a slight underdog if he called, making his fold the right move -- and an easy one at that for a player of Lederer's caliber.
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-- Rick, Hampton, Virginia
Not that the great Doyle Brunson needs me to defend him, but it was a perfectly sensible play. I don't remember all the relevant numbers exactly, but Brunson had about $100,000 left -- a relatively small stack, but still big enough to make Lederer think before calling him -- and the blinds and antes totaled somewhere between $38,000 and $50,000. When everybody folded to Brunson in the small blind, he knew he was going to try to steal the antes, no matter what he had, because he knew that, if he went all-in, Lederer would fold at least 75-80 percent of the time. (I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that the worst hands Lederer would have called with are something like A-9 or K-Q.) If so, Brunson was getting 3-1 or 4-1 pot odds on what was really a 2-1 or slightly worse bet -- and that was just on whether he would win the hand before the flop. Even if Lederer called, and Brunson had garbage (like the 8-3 he actually held), unless Lederer happened to be holding an overpair, Brunson would still only be a 2-1 underdog, which was close enough to the 3-2 pot odds he was getting. When you combine the two -- the probability of a fold before the flop with slightly taking the worst of it if Lederer called -- his bet makes perfect sense. (Plus, since he never looked at his cards, he might have held a good hand, further increasing his expectation of a positive result.)
As to why he bet in the blind ... well, why not? If he knew he was going to take a shot at the pot anyway, better not to know whether you are actually bluffing or not, since, if you don't know yourself, your opponent is less likely to be able to read you.
It has been suggested that Brunson deliberately dumped the hand in question, because he couldn't stomach sitting next to Hellmuth anymore. Although anything is possible in the weird world of poker, I tend to discount that possibility. In Brunson's 50 years at the top of the game, he's been shot at, robbed and forced to sit next to and across from lunatics for days at a time. I'm quite certain, for $2 million, he could have handled another hour or two of Phil.
Jay, after your comments about Raymer's poker skills, I was eager to see him playing at a table with all the great players at the Tournament of Champions. But what was up with pressing his luck, time after time, on 8-9 or 9-10? That doesn't sound like a guy who really believes it's all about the numbers. On his last hand, it seemed like he had almost given up.
-- Sam, Nashville
It's been said before, and it will be said many times again: When facing players of this quality, especially when the table is short-handed and the blinds are huge, you can't sit around waiting for premium hands. All the top players -- and Raymer is a top player -- will play those kinds of hands in those kinds of circumstances. It is possible that, because of the way the TV broadcast was edited, it appeared that Raymer was playing those hands too frequently.
On the first hand, he had made a large bet, so when Duke went all in, he was getting 3-1 or so on his call, and he only figured to be a 2-1 underdog (as it turned out, he was only a slight underdog before the flop, and was actually the favorite after the flop -- so, if anything, he was unlucky). On the second hand, he took a shot, and it didn't work. That happens in poker. Was he pushing too hard, perhaps on minor tilt? Who knows?
But, at the very least, you have to give him credit for going with what got him there in the first place -- a super-aggressive style of play that won him $5 million. Sam, if you won $5 million playing a certain way, wouldn't you continue to play that way? Wouldn't anybody?
DID THE COMPUTER BLOW A FUSE?
When Annie Duke was heads up with Phil Hellmuth with K-9 vs. K-6, the computer showed Phil with a 3 percent chance of survival. My roommate and I cannot think what possibly could have fallen for him to win. No flush or straight draws, and a king gives Annie a boat, while a 6 does him no good. Any idea, or was the computer on the fritz?
-- Dustin, Dayton, Ohio
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THE MAN WE LOVE TO HATE
I just wanted to express the utter joy that I felt while watching Annie Duke cause the absolute self-destruction of Phil Hellmuth. Annie outplayed him (although she did usually have the cards in the portion they broadcast on TV) and then got so far inside his head (i.e., showing him the 9 when she hit K-9 on the flop) that I'm not sure he'll ever recover. I wanted to hear your thoughts though on the question of whether it was mostly Annie Duke's brilliant play, or Phil Hellmuth's utter lack of focus that won it.
-- Ben, Middlebury, Vermont
Duke got better cards and played them well. There really wasn't much Hellmuth could do about it -- in fact, he made a couple of very good laydowns, including the K-9 hand you mentioned. In poker, most of the time, especially in the short term, the best cards are going to win.
It was the highlight of my week to watch Annie Duke take out Phil Hellmuth in the WSOP Tournament of Champions. Is it at all possible that Hellmuth actually believes the crap he says about himself? Does he really believe that every time he wins it's skill, and every time he gets beat it's luck? Annie had him so befuddled he was questioning the reality of the universe, and yet he still complained like a baby when he got beat. If you have any insight into whether it's all an act, or if Hellmuth needs someone to take him back behind the woodshed for a good ol' fashion beatin', please let us know.
-- Trevor, Seattle
I'm just guessing, of course, because I don't think anybody -- including Hellmuth himself -- really knows what makes Phil tick. But I believe, like many players, Hellmuth's a volatile mix of arrogance and insecurity. I also believe that he could act more maturely if he wanted to -- and I believe he actually thinks he's trying to -- but under the pressure of high-stakes poker, given that his sense of self is so tied up with being a winner, he tends to revert to his "natural" self. (In fact, he actually acknowledged that in so many words during one of show's interview segments.) Also, as I mentioned earlier in this column, Phil's behavior has contributed to making him a TV star, of sorts. That's a pretty valuable thing to give up, even assuming he's capable of doing so.
You absolutely MUST blast Hellmuth for the way he acted in the Tournament of Champions. YOU HAVE AN OBLIGATION. If I were The Professor, I'd kick his ass.
-- Phil T., Bronx, New York
Phil, as a fellow resident of the great borough of the Bronx, your wish is my command.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES 101
Your comments about Raymer selling shares of himself led me to wonder about players agreeing before a final table to split the pot in some way. This idea was really driven home for me during the Tourney of Champions. Brother and sister Howard and Annie at a big money table. What prevents them from saying, "No matter what, we split." Something happened when Howard went all-in and lost to her. When he said all-in, he looked up and gave her a look. It said, "What are you waiting for? Beat me." With his stack of chips, which she had already whittled down, she was the force at the table and carried that momentum to the end to win the $2 million. Any chance that happened? Anything to prevent it?
-- Brad Mudd, St. Louis, Missouri
Brad, Brad, Brad.
First of all, Howard looked at her the same way he looks at anybody while playing poker -- glum but unreadable. You've got to do something about that vivid imagination of yours, before it gets you in trouble.
Second, let's be serious. If big brother were trying to dump his chips to little sister, would he have called her with a better hand -- a hand that was, in fact, a 4-1 favorite to win the pot?
Third, and most compelling of all, if the two of them were conspiring to win the $2 million, wouldn't it make a lot more sense for her to dump her chips to him, since he is a much better player who would have had a much better chance to knock off Hellmuth?
So, in summation, there was nothing to prevent it, but no chance that is what happened.
It seems plausible to me that Raymer threw the match to Annie Duke. Think about it. He mentioned in your column that the idea of handicapping that field was ridiculous, and that nobody should have been a big underdog or favorite. Since I'm assuming Annie Duke was probably the longest shot, he probably thought that if a bet was to be placed, the most value for your money would be on Annie Duke. So let's say he places a substantial bet ($50,000) on her at about 12-1 odds. He also is smart enough to have realized that when it came down to him, Annie, Howard and Phil, and he either had an equal amount or lesser amount of chips to everybody there, he didn't stand much of a chance. So now he can take a small chance at $2M, or a better chance at $600k+ by shifting his money to Annie. Look at the two very large calls he made against her ... 8-9 and 10-9. He knew he would lose on those calls, and he proved in the main event that he wasn't an idiot.
-- Jeff, Kansas City, Missouri
Jeff, since you and Brad live in the same state, why don't the two of you get together sometime? It would be interesting to see what you could come up with if you put your imaginations together.
As for your scenario ... well, let's consider just a few of the many reasons why it makes zero sense:
(1) Why would Greg Raymer, a man who just won $5 million beating more than 2,500 people -- INCLUDING EVERY PLAYER IN THE TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS -- assume that he couldn't win?
(2) Even if somehow he believed he couldn't win, why would he, with $5 million in his pocket, risk his reputation as a poker player -- not to mention his future earnings -- for a relatively paltry $600,000?
(3) Even if he was crazy enough to take that risk -- and, as you yourself point out, he's not an idiot -- why bet on Annie Duke, the player who, before the tournament started, was probably a unanimous pick for Least Likely to Win?
And, by the way, how did he know, when he made the bet, that it would come down to him, Duke, Lederer, Hellmuth and Chan at one point? And how did he know, once he committed poker suicide to Annie, that somehow she would be able to outlast Hellmuth, Chan and her brother from that point on?
Nice try, Jeff. But it's time for a vacation, or at least a few good nights' sleep.
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.