Many people have heard “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers in their lifetimes. But few have ever heeded the wisdom within it, articularly the line, “You’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.”
Amateur real money poker players often see folding as a sign of weakness, and occasionally, it can be. But you can’t go guns blazing into every single hand, or it will catch up with you sooner rather than later. Even though it can hurt to do so, there are times when laying the cards down and walking away is the best strategy. It’s that whole thing about living to fight another day.
Folding to Perfection
All of this came into play in the most recent edition of High Stakes Poker, the hugely entertaining online revival that hosted perhaps its most memorable hand yet on the recent edition. First of all, there were the two players involved who made it quite momentous.
On one side, there was Phil Hellmuth, arguably the most well-known player in the game over the past two decades whose mouth-running antics can sometimes overshadow his undeniable skill.
On the other side was Doug Polk, whose own profile has risen massively in a relatively short time period. Polk is the head of the new breed of poker stars, ones who know how to brand themselves and use social media to increase the stature of their play.
And the heat behind him is as high as its ever been thanks to his recent conquest over long-time rival Daniel Negreanu in the so-called “Grudge Match of the Century.”
The Cards on the Table
The drama unfolded this past week on the PokerGo Network with the unflappable Gabe Kaplan making his invaluable commentary.
It involved one of those hands that can only take place in Texas Hold’em, where community cards can sometimes jumble the picture for players in a way that can make it almost impossible to see all the angles. But to Polk’s everlasting credit, he managed to do so and prevent what could have been a massive loss.
At this point, both Polk and Hellmuth has already drawn straights with two cards left to come, with Hellmuth having the more favorable high card. Both initially looked like they wanted to slow-play it by checking, but Bord forced the action by raising with his lonely pair of deuces.
Polk check-raised to a $7,000 bet at this point, trying to suggest a good hand but not the monster he actually possessed.
That’s when Hellmuth went for the throat with an all-in raise of $97,200. That sent Bord scurrying for the hills and put Polk on the spot. It was a spot that he inhabited for about five minutes while trying to make a decision that most would have thought impossible.
Making the Right Call
Put yourself in Polk’s shoes at this point. The odds of flopping a straight, even when you have two hole cards that make that possible, sit at around 75 to 1. Knowing that, you have to believe that having made the straight puts you in charge of the hand.
Kaplan knew that as well, which is why he immediately started speculating that Polk had no choice but to call. The most common thought process would be to believe that Hellmuth had flopped three of a kind which, again, Kaplan quickly surmised.
A straight beats three of a kind, of course, so if Polk believed that’s where Hellmuth stood for sure, he would have called and taken his chances on Hellmuth not somehow drawing lucky into four of a kind or a full house.
But the size of Hellmuth’s bet immediately gave Polk major pause. Why would he be going all-in with only three of a kind? That’s the kind of move that somebody only makes when they know they can’t be beat.
It was at this point that Hellmuth appeared to hurt his cause by trying to talk Polk into calling. When Polk wondered aloud what Hellmuth might have to make such a bet, Hellmuth suggested he could have a nut-flush and straight draw or that he could have a pair of 10s as “blockers.”
With a pair of tens, it would be extremely difficult for Polk to draw a straight, if that what’s he needed to do, which, of course, he didn’t.
The other players at the table soon began speculating, even making side bets. Kaplan sounded audibly upset by this, as their actions discussing what was going on could have been seen as interfering with the thought process of the players involved. But Polk didn’t seem to be paying any attention, instead trying to stay focused on his brutal decision.
Listen to Kenny Rogers
Remember that line again: “You’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.” Put yourself in Polk’s shoes one more time. And now, imagine the courage it must have taken to fold his hand, which is what he did.
If he had folded, and Hellmuth was bluffing entirely, he would have been ridiculed for being outsmarted. It would have been worse yet if he had folded and Hellmuth was indeed going all-in with a set or a pair of blockers.
People would have lambasted him for his lack of faith in an all-but-unbeatable hand, and considering the high-profile nature of the situation, making a poker mistake like that could have stuck with Polk for years.
Hellmuth, on the other hand, decided to hide his cards once awarded the pot, which contained most of his own money anyway. This, he did, despite the protests of the players in the side bets who needed to know. One would guess those guys did make good once they watched the video online.
In any case, the hand gives you an indication of what a unique game poker can be. Praise is being showered on Polk for what ultimately turned out to be a losing hand. And Hellmuth is getting some criticism, not for how he played the hand but for his feeble attempts at Jedi mind-tricking Polk into calling, even as he took the pot.
In any case, you have to believe that Doug Polk not only heard the words of Kenny Rogers, but he also took them to heart. It made for about a 100-grand difference.
And for you, the amateur poker players, it’s a good lesson that might help you avoid the future heartache of losing a massive pot only because you didn’t have the courage to flick your cards away when the occasion called for it.