Success in the game of poker is entirely based upon the decisions that a player makes while they are on the table. There is that visual element – money won – that some would like to make the most dominant part of the game but the reality is if you don’t make the right decisions, you’re not going to be in the position of using that visual element. Thus, there are times when the decision you make – especially if it is wrong – can cost you.
One thing that can be especially costly is the “triple barrel bluff” that, in the testosterone fueled age that poker has become, is seen quite frequently. This tactic is usually used as the initial raiser in a hand – normally with something along the lines of Big Slick or some other Ace – powers through bluffs after whiffing on each street that are calmly called by the opponent. The three streets of action sometime end up with one or the other player all in, at which point the caller shows a hand that connected with the board and the bluffer is toast. We must ask ourselves if the bluffer ever said, “Why is my opponent calling?” Perhaps it was because he had a hand?
The most recent demonstration of this situation came at the 2016 “November Nine” play down earlier this month. After playing some outstanding poker on the first day of the final table, the Czech Republic’s Vojtech Ruzicka came into the second day and the tires blew out. After climbing as high as second place, Ruzicka came up against the veteran Cliff “JohnnyBax” Josephy and, by appearances, never even paused to consider what the wily Jersey pro might be sitting back on.
In the hand, Ruzicka raised to 2.5 million with a suited Ace (A♣ 10♣) and Josephy just called from the button with pocket eights. The Q♣ 8♠ 4♣ flop hit both players squarely and, with excellent reason, Ruzicka fired off another bet. Josephy, with the set, just made the call and, after a 3♦ came on the turn, Ruzicka shot off another salvo. Once again, Josephy just called with a board showing that only pocket Queens currently beat him. On a blank river, Ruzicka waved the white flag (this time) and, after Josephy popped a good bet out, Ruzicka let the hand go.
If the “double barrel bluff” wasn’t good enough, the “triple barrel bluff” that came next would eventually doom Ruzicka. Still sitting on a great stack, Ruzicka this time fired off with an off suit Big Slick and Gordon Vayo looked up his preflop raise with pocket eights in what was a “blind versus blind” battle. A Q-8-3 flop was a complete fan by Ruzicka, but he still opened the post-flop action with a six million chip bet. Vayo, on the same set Josephy had held, used Josephy’s action and just called Ruzicka’s bet.
A blank seven on the turn gave Vayo nothing to worry about, but Ruzicka shipped a 11 million chip bet to the center. A call again from Vayo saw a five on the river and, with only a 9-6, a 6-4 (neither raising hands) or pocket Queens beating him, Vayo was confident. Thus, when Ruzicka shipped the remainder of his stack to the center – 27.5 million into a 50 million-plus pot – Vayo immediately called and, when the results were seen, Ruzicka’s once mighty stack was down to virtually nothing; he would be out in fifth place a couple of hands later.
This wasn’t the first time that such a situation had arisen at the WSOP. In 2011 (and we have the video to show it), noted British poker professional JP Kelly found himself in a fight against Kenny Shih. After a Shih raise, Kelly three-bet the action and, after Shih called, a Q-Q-7 flop hit the baize. As the video shows – well, why don’t we let the video do the talking, shall we?
At a certain point – and probably WAY before the river even arrived – Ruzicka and Kelly both failed to think about why their opponent was staying with them in the hand. Just because you have a stack that is dominant, you can’t just fire off chips without considering two things. First is that thought regarding your opponent’s holdings. In this day and age of set mining, when your big Ace fans on the flop (and even if it hits), you must be aware of the potential for your opponent to be on a pocket pair (especially with position) and looking to hit against a non-made hand and an aggressive opponent. Then the set miner can sit back and let the aggressor do the betting and wait for a moment to strike.
The second part is that, for a bluff to work, it must tell a convincing story. In both Ruzicka and especially Kelly’s case, the board didn’t present any threat in that it was ragged enough there wasn’t any sneakiness that could occur. Shih’s hand is probably a bad example (as he held quads) but what if he had A-Q. Did he think that Kelly was three-betting with a 6-5 for the straight? Unlikely. Same with Ruzicka…when you’ve missed everything with your Ace, the board better present something to allow for your story to be told convincingly. In both cases, that story wasn’t there.
There are times when double and triple barrel bluffing can be successful. But there are also times when the bluffer must pause and consider that, per the old axiom, the “hunter” has become the “hunted.” By taking that moment to think, both Kelly and Ruzicka may have gotten out of their situations. In Ruzicka’s case (and especially with his chip stack when the meltdown occurred), it might have cost him a shot at poker’s World Championship.