WSOP 2017: Vanessa embraces the variance
It's the fifth day of a tournament that will ultimately take another 10 days to complete. Thousands upon thousands of hands have been played already, and many more will be needed to decide a champion.
But so far people are still talking about a hand from Day 1 -- from the first level of Day 1, in fact. And if you're reading this and have been following the coverage of the 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event thus far, you already know what hand we're talking about.
On Day 1B at the televised feature table, Gaelle Baumann knocked out Vanessa Selbst. Baumann, who just missed the 2013 WSOP Main Event final table (finishing 10th), made quad sevens to beat Selbst's full house, aces full of sevens.
If you didn't catch it, we get further into details of the hand below, including how it finished with Selbst having to make a difficult choice whether or not to risk her tournament life by calling Baumann's river shove.
Suffice it to say, it was one of those unusual circumstances that happen sometimes in poker tournaments, including at the WSOP.
Weirdness at the World Series
When I sat down with Selbst yesterday, though, I wanted to also to ask her about another highly unusual circumstance she'd been in before at the World Series of Poker -- one from way back in 2008 in a $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event, one the most memorable tournaments I've ever covered.
Anyone who happened to watch that final table -- not televised, by the way -- remembers it well. It featured one of the crazier heads-up finishes you'll ever see in poker. And Selbst was there.
"It was crazy," Selbst laughs.
"I wasn't really a tournament player at the time. I dabbled in tournaments for fun, but I didn't really understand what a WSOP bracelet meant in terms of the importance of it or the signficance."
"All I knew was I was in a tournament, I was at a final table, we get to heads-up and we're playing for a bunch of money and a title to win, which is great."
Up to that point, Selbst had more or less dominated the 759-player event, accumulating a big stack early and enjoying the chip lead to end both of the first two days. She had the lead almost all of Day 3, too, right up through most of the final table, only losing it briefly three-handed before having a 3-to-1 lead edge versus her lone remaining opponent, a nightclub owner from Australia named Jamie Pickering.
"He had been drinking pretty much at the final table, and was pretty drunk by this point," remembers Selbst. "We were on a side table in the Amazon... and there was this huge rail developing."
It was a raucous scene, with Pickering not the only one who was enjoying adult beverages. And the heads-up strategy he chose to pursue only helped make it all seem even more chaotic.
"Jamie was basically betting the pot blind every time," Selbst recalls.
Raising hell (and the pot)
I can confirm this was indeed the case, as can others who were there.
"RAISE POT!" Pickering would call with a grin, and the crowed roared each time in response. The first couple times an incredulous Selbst had to ask him if he'd even looked at his four cards -- and he had not.
"One time I think I had a wrap, like Q-T-9-2 or something and the flop came J-8-5, and I go all in. And he looks down and says, 'oh, I have a set... I call.' And I don't get there, so he doubles up that hand," says Selbst.
"Then another hand he bets it blind and I check-raise all in with top pair. He looks down and says "oh, I have aces... I call.' And I don't improve. He was playing blind, but he had a monster every time!"
It was quite a thing to witness. Even to the PLO novices observing from the rail, it was obvious Pickering's strategy had introduced a huge amount of variance into game.
After a curious admonition from a tournament director to Pickering that he ought to start looking at his hands, he did begin to check his hole cards and play a little less loosely. Then after hitting a few hands and building back up, Selbst managed to win the first of her three WSOP bracelets.
"I remember thinking when I got down to 4-to-1 outchipped, I was just like, you know, I'm not going to be upset, win or lose. Because I'm playing my best, and this is absolutely crazy, what's happening," says Selbst.
"Plus he was such a nice guy. It was a really fun atmosphere, and there wasn't all the pressure... to win bracelets. It was just playing poker and having fun, honestly... it was a great time. And winning was amazing."
It wasn't just Selbst's being less committed to tournaments or chasing bracelets that helped her avoid getting rattled by the situation. Another big reason why Selbst was relatively unfazed was her taking an approach to poker that values decision-making over results -- both then and now.
"Obviously a lot of people see me play and see how I react sometimes -- they see that I'm very emotional with respect to poker, which is sometimes true," says Selbst. "But for me, it's not about winning or losing, or that I hate losing so much. Losing is just part of the game and I get that."
"For me it's about making the right decisions. Whether it was the 2008 PLO final table or the WSOP Main Event this year, I feel like I made the right decisions at the right time. I'm not going to be upset by that at all."
Circling back to "the hand" from a few days ago, Selbst outlined both the math of the situation along with other factors pertinent to her decision.
To review, Selbst raised with A♠A♦ and got two callers, including Baumann on the button with 7♥7♦. After a A♣7♣5♣ flop Selbst continued and only Baumann called, then the turn brought the 7♠ -- aces full for Selbst, quads for Baumann.
Selbst checked, Baumann bet, and Selbst check-raised, getting another call. Then after the 4♦ river, Selbst bet 16,500 (just over the pot), and after sitting quietly for a while Baumann pushed all in. With about 20,000 behind and covered by Baumann, Selbst had to decide -- call or fold?
Pretty quickly she'd whittled Baumann down to just two possible hands -- A♥7♥ or 7♥7♦.
"Honestly, I really felt strongly for a few reasons that quads were more likely. Much more likely, actually."
"Number one, she doesn't always flat ace-seven suited preflop, [but] she usually does. Number two, she doesn't always shove ace-suited on the river, [but] she usually does. So [because of] both of those things, I discounted ace-seven suited a little bit."
"I also had a physical read, you know?" she continues.
"Sometimes you look at someone and you know that they're thinking about calling or folding. But I looked at her and I was like, 'She's not thinking. I think she's just waiting for enough time to pass. I think she's going to shove.' I just got that weird feeling like she was going to shove, and she was just not even thinking about the hand. And of course with ace-seven... you don't have the nuts, so you have to think about it. I mean you still probably shove, but you have to think about it."
All of that added up to Selbst leaning in the direction of 7♥7♦. But there were other factors to consider.
"The problem was, I was getting 3.3-to-1 one. [Between the two hands] it was 50-50, so you only have to get 1-to-1 -- if it's truly 50-50. But when you start to discount the ace-seven for various reasons, the odds need to be a little bit better in order to make the call."
"I think if I'd been getting 2-to-1, I think it's a very good argument for folding, just given all of the reasons. But with 3.3-to-1, I only need to be good about 22 percent of the time. So [if] mathematically [it's] 50-50, all of the other reasons maybe skew it to 40-60 or 35-65. They don't skew it [all of the way] to 22-78. So I just had to make the call for the math, and that was that, and that's the hand."
"I think people were kind of impressed, in a way? That I didn't lose my mind about the cooler. But it's just a cooler. Like, what are you doing to do? It's just poker. I had no control over that. I think I played it well. I think I reasoned through the hand really well, and at the end of the day that's it. That's all that I can ask of myself, and as poker pros we learn to embrace the variance, and that's part of the game."
A Fun Challenge
Talk of variance again recalls Pickering's pot-sized blind raises nearly a decade ago. I can't help but remark how Selbst had narrowed Baumann's range to just those two combos, but with Pickering he literally could have had any four cards (other than the ones Selbst had been dealt).
What do you do in the face of that?
"I love it," says Selbst. "It's a fun challenge. You don't often get to play people that are betting blind. Whether it's heads-up for a bracelet or another time in poker, it's always a fun challenge to have it be a different situation. And so it was just adjusting to the situation."
Against a truly random hand, Selbst explains how in the end it really was another "math question," though one "that you're not often faced with, because usually ranges are narrower and you kind of understand what the ranges are."
"It was good because it tested my intuition about playing against a much wider range of hands and figuring out, okay, what's my equity in this spot that I've never seen before?"
It's a great poker lesson, if you think about it. Not just to lose well and not just to embrace the variance of poker. But to be willing accept such challenges when they come, and to try to learn from the tests the game provides to us whenever unusual circumstances arise.
WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com.