To take nothing away from it, there’s no denying that to come back from a 97k-3k deficit in a heads-up match is quite a remarkable achievement. That fact will always be remembered. But what should not be forgotten is the quite bizarre strategy that Phil Hellmuth employed in order to achieve his victory.
This was always going to be an entertaining encounter, with two very chatty characters who have known each other for a long time battling it out. In the weigh-in, the presenter could hardly get a word in edgeways as Hellmuth and Negreanu engaged in a quite hysterical war of words, Hellmuth getting in first before an introduction had even been heard. They gave the impression that we definitely had something to look forward to. Hellmuth actually said he had no idea how he intended to play, but this, it turned out, was surely a total bluff on his part. This was because, for 90% of the match, Hellmuth then employed a strategy of limping from the button.
In I think just the third hand, Hellmuth three-bet with K/Q, Negreanu four-bet with aces, and Hellmuth made a cautious lay-down. Little did we know at this stage that caution would then be the key strategy throughout the match, as both players played as if their lives depended on it. We are given the impression that each is spectacularly wealthy so the prize of £50,000 should not be too much to concern either of them, particularly given that the option of a re-match was available.
In the early stages, it was all about Negreanu getting the good cards with Hellmuth not being able to offer a reply. He munched on food, and did not seem to care too much. It was only once he’d got down to around 20k that we saw his first blow-out and the match organisers must have considered they should have implemented rules to limit the amount of swearing.
Later on, there was what some have considered the key hand where Hellmuth had an overpair of nines versus Negreanu’s flopped trip fours, and Negreanu did not close out the match, instead leaving Hellmuth with a minute stack. Negreanu could also then be found at fault for not subsequently showing more aggression to finally see off Hellmuth.
But the key aspect of this match for me was just how frequently Hellmuth limped from the button. He would do this consistently, even with hands like k/10 or 8/8, where conventional wisdom would be to at least put in a raise to at least gauge the strength of your opponent’s hand. Perhaps earlier on, Negreanu was more inclined to raise, and then most commonly Hellmuth would just call. As the game ground on, Negreanu was more inclined to check back and see a cheap flop.
There are so many reasons why for me, limping is a poor strategy, particularly with moderate-good hands. The main reason, of course, is that post-flop, it really becomes a complete guessing game as to what your opponent might have, and you’re letting him in easily to potentially flop that unlikely two pair with something like 9/4. If you’ve limped with k/10 and it comes k/9/4, you really are in trouble. In addition of course, raising pre-flop with hands you hope to win with increases the pot-size and the amount you hope to win.
It occurred to me that perhaps the idea was to try and minimise risk, to almost take the gambling element out of the game, but like I say, I just don’t think in the long term this is an effective way of playing heads-up. In my experience, heads-up should be all about bet, bet, betting, not check, check, checking. It should be about using a fair bit of aggression to try and win both the big and small pots. Again, I understand that this was bigger stakes than I’m used to, but for these two players, surely it was fairly regular stakes?
It is of course relatively common for players in all formats to limp pre-flop with monsters in order to induce a raise. But for me, without meaning to state the obvious, it remains that limping should principally be done with weaker hands that you’re not too sure about playing, so that if your opponent does raise, you can re-evaluate, or of course, if you do think it’s likely your opponent will raise, you can consider limping with premium hands.
The only time in a heads-up game I would employ the strategy of flat-calling just about every time pre-flop would be against an ultra-aggressive player who was either shoving or massively over-betting just about every time pre-flop. In those very rare cases, all you need to do is fold just about every weak hand, and limp with every moderate-good hand. Then as soon as you pick up any half decent ace, any good king, or any moderately good pair, once you’ve flat called and your opponent sticks you all in as per usual, you can just call him off and you should win the match from there. But Negreanu was definitely no such opponent, not showing any particular aggression. I think Negreanu’s flaw, particularly as he went into a good lead early on, was imagining he was just going to waltz to victory without having to think too much about things.
Only towards the very end, once it was Negreanu who finally had the depleted stack did Hellmuth begin to correctly show a little more aggression. But even for the couple of hours while he had the lead, he was still prone to limping just about every time, making it painful viewing, particularly for someone like myself, watching in the UK, with the time getting on for 5am.
I do not actually quite recall how the final hand happened. Hellmuth had 9/9 and Negreanu was all-in with 6/7 suited. If Hellmuth had limped with the 9/9 and Negreanu had shoved with 7 high, one could say this showed that Hellmuth’s strategy of limping was finally vindicated. Negreanu actually flopped an open ended straight-flush draw, but did not improve, and it was finally over.
But really, I’m sorry, there was absolutely no need for the game to have dragged on for as long as it did. As I say, even if you argue that Hellmuth showed great patience to come back from such a huge deficit, the match could still have ended way, way sooner if Hellmuth had just raised far more often from the button as conventional wisdom would say, and as the commentators said frequently. I think the commentators had more or less given up on ways of expressing their incredulity at Hellmuth’s apparent strategy.
It was almost ironic that Hellmuth had criticised Daniel for going with trends in the weigh-in. Could limping pre in heads up really be a trend? There was talk of Polk employing limping pre quite a lot, particularly towards the later stages, in the cash game grudge match versus Negreanu that ended quite recently, in which Negreanu, over 25,000 hands, lost over $1M.
The only other reason for the unusual play might be that, perhaps via his friend, Mike Matusow who had apparently been keeping an eye on the Polk v Negreanu match, it might have been identified that Negreanu was tending to put in a lot of annoying 3-bets and so flat-calling might prevent this. Perhaps Team Hellmuth also figured they were more likely to win hands that got to the post-flop stage and limping ensured more hands got to this stage?
I’m sorry, and forgive me if I have not successfully put across the full case here, but limping with practically every hand, regardless of your hand’s strength, is just total lunacy, and also makes for quite tedious and frustrating viewing. As mentioned, there were various non-poker incidents to keep viewers entertained; some ridiculous product endorsements. I did almost wonder if Hellmuth had been instructed to limp so often in order to intentionally prolong the match, but I can’t really see if there would be too much benefit to that for anyone. All I can say is that I hope the employment of this woeful strategy was strictly a one-off, and we will see some more skilful, aggressive and entertaining play in the rematch.
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