In the nearly two decades since poker experienced a boom thanks to Chris Moneymaker’s historic World Series of Poker main event victory in 2003, the strategy surrounding the game has evolved at a pace never seen before.
With online poker, the game’s best players were able to see more hands quickly and develop more complex strategies to win. Bet sizing, aggression levels, and even something as basic as preflop hand selection has changed drastically since the game went mainstream.
Dylan Linde has been around for most of that evolution. The longtime high-stakes tournament pro racked up more than $4.2 million in live earnings over the course of his career and millions more online. Most notably, the Idaho native won the 2018 $10,000 World Poker Tour Five Diamond main event for more than $1.6 million. He also authored the instructional book Mastering Mixed Games, which was released in 2018.
Linde sat down with Card Player to break down a hand from the 2010 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star final table, which featured Matt Keikoan, Hasan Habib, Dan O’Brien, and Andy Seth, as well as Mclean Karr and Phil Hellmuth.
The Action: Phil Hellmuth raised to 46,000 from the cutoff, Andy Seth called on the button, and Mclean Karr called out of the big blind. On the flop, Karr checked, and Hellmuth bet 50,000. Seth folded and Karr called. On the turn, Karr checked and Hellmuth bet 90,000. Karr called. On the river, Karr checked and Hellmuth bet 190,000. Karr called.
Steve Schult: Phil’s preflop raise was a full three times the blind. This final table was in 2010. If I’m remembering the evolution of poker strategy correctly, this was about when players started trending towards smaller sizes. Why was strategy shifting in that direction?
Dylan Linde: People started trending towards smaller sizes because everybody was under-defending against it. You could really go small and people would still just fold anyway, even getting a good price.
The other reason is that some people started ramping up three-bet aggression. If you open smaller, you are going to be able to peel [more often], especially if you’re calling in position. And you’ll have deeper effective stacks post-flop, as far as stack-to-pot ratio goes.
SS: Is there any merit to raising larger if you’re maybe playing a tad bit too tight? In this example, Phil makes a much larger open and he gets two callers. Why not get the extra value if you’re generally going to be raising only premium hands?
DL: I think at those effective stack sizes, you’re going to want to go a little larger anyway. I think 2.5x would be the standard now. And then you would size down as you get shallower, because you still don’t want to give people an extremely good price.
In general, with a smaller ante, you are going to want to open smaller, but at the final table you kind of get this effect with ICM [Independent Chip Model] where you can put some additional pressure on the shorter stacks by making it larger preflop.
He is going to basically force them to put most, if not all, of their chips in preflop, if they choose to three-bet. Also, they won’t be able to defend as wide. I guess Phil might not be taking advantage of this, but my experience playing with Phil is that he opens pretty wide preflop, but he plays kind of tight post-flop.
SS: On the flop, Phil bets about a third of the pot when it’s checked to him. I thought down-betting became popular many years later. Was Phil ahead of the curve here?
DL: It’s definitely what he should be doing. If he’s going to bet there, it should be small. In my experience, people weren’t doing the small continuation-bets as much at this time. Half-pot or larger was kind of the standard back then.
SS: What are the merits to betting smaller? What prompted this shift?
DL: You can bet smaller because it widens your value range in that spot. If Phil bets half-pot or larger, he can’t really be betting with 7-7 or 8-8. Because when your opponent continues, you’re almost always beat. And at this size, he can bet small and make a bunch of hands continue, especially from the big blind, that he can get value from with the weaker portion of his flop-bet value range.
Mclean is going to have to continue with some K-J suited type of stuff against a small bet and Phil will be able to extract some additional value. And he can do it from a place of position. Here, three-ways, it’s a little odd because Andy is in position and covering, and can put some pressure on Phil if he chooses to. But it’s still a tough flop for him to do it with. He’s got to have the right hand.
SS: Mclean flopped trips and opted to check-call. I remember a lot of players taking the check-raise, barrel off line with big hands in this spot. Like Phil’s small continuation bet, was Mclean ahead of the curve by just calling?
DL: Mclean is definitely ahead of the curve by just calling. Because at this point in the poker metagame, people aren’t finding all the bluffs. If people are bluffing enough, that really weights the check-raise towards value. So it will be much harder for him to extract value, especially from a player like Phil, who is definitely capable of making some big folds. But he’ll also make some thin value bets if you give him a chance.
The other thing is that since Phil covers Mclean and we are at the final table, Mclean is incentivized to keep pots small in general. If Mclean didn’t three-bet with a middle pair of some sort, he is going to want to just be calling on the flop and he’ll want to balance that out with his Q-X holdings.
SS: Mclean checks the turn and Phil bets. According to the updates from the event, there was some banter between the two while Mclean was making his decision. I wanted to get your take on the absence of table talk in modern tournaments. I don’t want to turn this into a debate about live tells, but why aren’t there more little quips between players while they are in the hand?
DL: I think it’s because people just stopped responding. So many players play in a robotic fashion, at least at the higher stakes. They are much less comfortable with table talk and more worried about giving things away. I think it kind of dampened that in-game talking. Because once someone stops responding, you’re just firing off questions at a blank nothing. You’re just going to stop.
Someone like me, I enjoy talking at the table a lot, but I understand that I’m probably giving something up. I have a really difficult time doing those two things at once.
SS: In that sense, if you’re worried about giving something off, there definitely are tells. But the way that poker has evolved, it’s just become a game where players have become good at masking them.
DL: Exactly. Hence the Christoph Vogelsangs of the world. Wearing scarves and glasses, you know? It’s the extreme on the other side.
SS: Again, I wanted to ask about the turn sizing. I would’ve thought, from a modern theoretical standpoint, that Phil’s bet would be larger. Is this a unique hand for him to bet one-third on the flop and one-third on the turn?
DL: Yes. He is the covering player, so he wants to put Mclean in a spot where he is forced to leverage his stack all in on the river. And with a small bet, it’s just not as easy to do that. Unless he’s going to just overbet all in on the river. It’s not like he needs to bet huge, but I think it should be something around half-pot or something like that.
SS: Does the smaller bet size get anything to fold? Or is he basically going to the river against the same range that continued on the flop?
DL: He might get Mclean to fold a deuce. I’m not saying Mclean should fold a deuce. Maybe some ace-highs that would continue might fold. But otherwise no. There shouldn’t be a lot of things that fold.
SS: Mclean check-calls the turn and checks the river. Phil bets again. At this point, to raise preflop and triple barrel on this board, what value hands is he credibly representing?
DL: There’s a bunch of hands. Phil could value bet a hand as weak as a king here. It’s kind of weird because at this point, I don’t expect Mclean to have gotten through two barrels with some of his floats like K-J suited or K-10 suited, unless he turned a flush draw.
But Phil could have a king, aces, J-10, and obviously all of the super strong hands like trip queens, deuces full, and the rest of those. With that size, he’s got a few hands that can really put some pressure on Mclean.
SS: Mclean calls and Phil just announces he has nothing and ends up mucking his hand when Mclean shows trips. I don’t see many natural bluffs on this board, except maybe A X. So I’m going to make an assumption that Phil triple barreled with a no-equity hand, a la Vanessa Selbst circa 2008. Why don’t we see more of that anymore?
DL: We don’t really see it as much now because the trend was that mostly people are betting with equity. But in ICM situations especially, there are a lot of spots where guys will blast off with hands that have no equity, but that will use blockers in a certain way.
A hand like A-8 would be an okay bluff there because it isn’t going to showdown and win enough. And if Mclean found some floats that turned a flush draw, then Phil can bet and get auto-folds from those, which he does have some showdown value against. But the eight acts as somewhat of a blocker against the nine. You get some of these weird no-equity spots that come up, but they are just kind of hard to find and it’s really only the best players that use them correctly.
We’ll still see these spots in the World Series of Poker main event where there are random people blasting off for no reason. If you’re watching a World Poker Tour final table with a bunch of mid- and high-stakes regs, you probably won’t see that play much, but if you’re watching a $100,000 final table with some of the best players in the world playing against each other, you’ll definitely see some of that. Strategy kind of goes in circles.
SS: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the ICM situation that these players were in at the time. The payouts were $878,000 for first and $117,000 for sixth, while the runner-up would take home $521,000. How have the payouts changed over the years?
DL: I actually think it’s better the old way, but for sure it has shifted. It has shifted so that there is less up top for the most part. The year that I won the Five Diamond was a really good example. It was something like $1.6 million for first and it was the largest field of all-time. But the year before it was $2.1 million for first with a smaller field.
They did a giant shift in the payouts and that is the kind of thing that benefits operators, especially in online tournaments where they want people to keep liquidity online, and it also benefits satellite tournaments. So I think that’s why we are seeing that shift in the payout. They are saying that it is worth more for them to pay more people than it is to have this super sexy first-place prize.
SS: Overall, has there been an appropriate shift in the way players attack late-game ICM spots with the shift in the payouts?
DL: I think that Phil would still be less incentivized to [apply pressure]. For him, it’s not like he is looking at the difference between moving up one spot. He’s looking at the difference between sixth and first. It’s still a significant amount of buy-ins.
A good way to look at ICM isn’t necessarily the dollar amount, but the number of buy-ins it is. If fifth place is something like $200,000, that’s still about ten buy-ins which is pretty significant. That’s kind of the way you have to think about it, especially for people who are playing tournaments where the money up top isn’t as mind blowing and life changing. You still need to think about how many buy-ins it is.
The Result: Hellmuth was eliminated in sixth place, earning $117,000 after his pocket queens were cracked by Andy Seth’s A-J with an ace on the river. Karr used this early pot to build his stack, ultimately beating Seth heads-up to win the title and the $878,500 first-place prize. ♠