Last month I wrote a follow up to my initial ‘Poker vs Chess’ article. I looked at some of the significant similarities and differences between the two games. 

If two articles in one day are too much text for you to chew, that’s cool.

Note that there are some major strategic crossovers between these two games. 

Given this synergy, it’s not surprising to stumble across the odd chess player at the poker tables. Chess enthusiast, Martin Staszko, described poker as ‘a piece of cake’ on his way to a second-place finish in the 2011 WSOP Main Event. 

With that said, chess isn’t exactly the sexiest game in the world. There aren’t a lot of a chess superstars kicking around. 

So, you can imagine the shock when I stumbled upon a video of Magnus Carsen firing a huge bluff at the Norwegian Poker Championship in April.

I couldn’t wait to see how much game this grandmaster has!

Magnus Who?

While there are sure to be more posters of Cristiano Ronaldo pinned up than Magnus Carlsen, Carlsen is as close to a superstar as chess has ever had. But here’s a quick lowdown of who he is.

Chess

Simply put, Carlsen is one of the greatest chess players of all time. Here are the results of a sim run on the Elo Win Probability Calculator to give you an idea of just how good he is. You can use players’ skill ratings to calculate their win percentage.

The results show the win probabilities of a best of 20 games between Carlsen and lireza Firouzja, the second-best player in the world. (I took their skill rating scores from Wikipedia.)

Outcome Probability
Carlsen Win 0.8383312233
Firouzja Win 0.091182413
Draw 0.070486364

As you can see, Carlson is a huge favourite, even against the second-best player in the world. 

It’s clear that Magnus is a strategic master, but how well can he apply this to the poker tables? 

Let’s take a look at ‘the bluff’ and find out.

The Hand Begins:

Carlsen gets Aces. The action folds to him in the hi-jack. He opens to 11k with the blinds at 2.5k/5k, which is pretty standard sizing for this stage of a tournament.

You might see inexperienced players making it bigger here, especially in a live MTT where sizings tend to be a little wilder. But smaller is typically the right way to go as you will often be opening in this spot in an attempt to steal the blinds.  

  • Strong hands are rare. So, this increased raising frequency means that you will be opening a lot of weak hands from this position, making you vulnerable to 3-bets.
     
  • Using this smaller size as a default is a good choice. It minimises your chip investment when you are 3bet and forced to fold. 

Granted, Magnus is begging to be 3bet this time. But it’s essential to consider the bigger picture with your standard sizings. 

Though the sizing is pretty standard, it does seem as if Magnus has at least some poker experience. He may be copying what he’s seen everyone else doing. (Many people do this when they are new to the game). But factors like how Carlsen sits and handles his chips suggest that he is very comfortable at the tables. This observation is something to consider as the hand progresses.

Anyway, the button calls and both blinds come along to a monotone flop. 

AA

The Flop Js8s3s

Both blinds elect to check, and the action reaches Magnus. He fires 21k into 51k, which is around 40% pot.  

There were some pretty harsh critics of this bet in a recent thread on a Facebook post. Many made arguments for checking and employing a little ‘pot control instead. 

This play undoubtedly has some merits. It’s a sensible route against very tight players. They will be less liberal with their calling both pre and post-flop (making it harder to extract value). Tighter opponents may let you get to showdown more easily.

Checking against good players or players who tend to play their draws very aggressively is an option. Aggro players may make things pretty tough for you.

But I’m a big fan of betting for value here vs weak or unknown opponents for several reasons. 

  • Worse Hands Will Call

    Firstly, there are a lot of worse hands that will want to continue here, especially with both blinds in the pot. The attractive preflop pot odds mean these opponents will likely call very wide preflop. They may have a whole host of pair, draw, and pair + draw type hands that want to call at least one bet. 

    Remember, people hate folding!
     
  • High-Equity Hands Will Fold

    Similarly, there are also a lot of high-equity hands that will fold pretty easily if we bet here. Hands like 4s4d, Ad2s or Ah9s, for example, shouldn't put up too much of a fight. They have between 30 and 40 per cent equity, so moving them off this is a great result. 

    We’re also less likely to get outdrawn when we bet and thin the field. 

    Don’t get me wrong. Not having the Ace of Spades makes a bet feel a little like speeding without insurance. There are a decent number of other unmade hands that have a slight equity edge (such as Jh9s, Ts9h and QsJh)

    But betting also makes it harder for them to realise this equity, especially if your opponents aren’t particularly aggressive with their draws.
     
  • Getting Value from Ace of Spades & Other Non-Spade  Hands

    Not having the Ace of Spades enables us to get value from it, and there are many other hands you can extract value from too. For example, we’re around an 80% favourite against a non-spade hand like KdJd, JcTc, QcJd. These hands aren’t going anywhere.

    Moreover, wider ranges come as a by-product of the blinds’ juicy preflop pot odds. So,  any spades those players hold are not necessarily going to be as strong as those held by the player in the button. (The button is far less likely to have poor unsuited hands like J8o, 9To or 79o.) 

    Say the players in the blinds were to call and improve. There is the potential to bluff them later down the line anyway. Oh, wait. Sorry! Spoiler alert!

    Anyway, checking here makes it harder to get these folds on future streets.
     
  • Easy Fold if We Get Raised

    Betting does allow our opponents to raise, of course. Though it sucks to get raised in this spot, we’ll have a pretty trivial decision to make if we face a raise. Yeah, it’s annoying to fold aces. But to get stacked here, you’d have to be pretty … erm… what’s a nice word for insane? Ambitious?

    A lot of this stems from the fact that the pot is multi-way. It’s way more likely that hands such as sets, two pairs, or non nut flushes will fast-play for protection. They will want to prevent the runout from killing their action and extract value (which is easier with more players in the pot).

    More players typically mean more calls. So, it’s way less likely that people will start firing crazy bluffs too. We can probably make a pretty easy fold if we face a lot of resistance.
     
  • Maintaining the Betting Initiative

    Betting also lets us maintain the initiative. The hand becomes more straightforward for us to navigate, especially if the button folds. We get to dictate the tempo of the turn and river. Unless the table is super passive, checking will make things way more difficult for us.

All in all, a lot of good things can happen when we bet:

  • We can get value
  • Deny equity
  • Set up future barrels (if we decide we want to bluff)
  • Protect our hand, and even add a little, ‘Hello, I’m Magnus Carlsen, and I’m a badass’ type of vibe

Most unknown opponents play pretty honestly in a multi-way pot like this - so  I’m a big fan of this flop bet.

Anyway, the button and SB fold. The BB comes along, and we go to the turn. 

The Turn: 5s

The turn is where things start to get fascinating. The BB checks and Magnus decides to go all Viking on his opponent. He tosses out a bluff of 30k, which is around 30% pot. 

...Get it? Norwegian poker tour, Scandinavia, Vikings? Meh, Forget it...

Anyway, if we look at this turn bet in isolation, it’s probably not going to seem that great: 

  • We give our opponent a great price to call
  • It's hard to get called by worse here
  • We already have enough showdown value to beat a lot of the hands that they will fold

With that said, let’s consider the bet in context. If we assume Carlsen made it with a plan, it’s palatable, especially against the big blind's Wesker range.

Remember, we’re dealing with one of the best strategists of all time here. It would be pretty ludicrous to suggest that a man capable of being ten moves ahead of himself in a game of chess is tossing chips around without a plan. 

The main reason I like the turn bet, though, is due to the smaller sizing. This bet size forces our opponent to call with more of his two pairs, sets, and flushes, which is great for us going into the river…

Yes, you heard that right. I’m saying it’s good that our opponent calls with better hands more when we’re bluffing.

Let me explain what I mean:

As was the case preflop, the wider a range of hands becomes, the weaker it gets. 

  1. When we bet the turn a little smaller, our opponent gets a better price to call with more hand combinations. Then we can attack those hands with a big bet on the river (precisely what happens here).
     
  2. Likewise, when we bet bigger, our opponent folds more of their weaker hands on the turn. So, any calls will make their river range stronger. A river bluff would be more expensive and less successful. 

And the sizing makes sense too. With such a scary turn card, it’s very credible that we would size down with our strong flushes. The bet size makes it tough for our opponent to bluff raise. Their flop check/call indicated a desire for showdown value. 

There’s nothing wrong with slowing down here. We’ll probably be able to check this down and beat a KJ type hand pretty often on the river.  But this option is only going to be viable against more passive opponents. 

Against tougher opposition, checking here increases the likelihood that they will turn a hand into a bluff with a big lead on the river. It’s unlikely we’d check back a good flush on this turn with such a high SPR. 

It also leaves us with a lot of guesswork and removes our option to bluff believably when we think we’re beat. 

All in all, I think the Magnus’ small turn sizing is great. It puts his opponent in a tough spot and sets up a good river situation. 

Villain check/calls, and we see a river. 

The River: Qc

The river is the Queen of Clubs, and our opponent checks to Magnus, who fires another…. wait, what? Villain leads for 30k, and Carlsen raises to 100k!

I don’t think there’s much merit to the BB’s bet here. Generally, I think it’s best to lead on cards that are better for your range. 

  • They make it more likely that your opponent will check back.
  • You will either miss value or lose at showdown.

But this river is a brick, given the board texture, so I’m not a fan. 

I’d be more on board with the lead (to induce) if the BB had the nut flush here since this significantly weakens Carlsen’s value range. But I still think it’s probably far more standard to let our opponent keep barrelling in this spot for the same reason.

Remember, Carlsen’s small turn sizing means that the BB still has lots of weaker showdown hands in his range here. So, keeping the stronger flushes in your check calling/raising range protects you when you check. This strategy will make you tougher to play against and stop people bluffing you so much.

Eventually, Magnus decides to raise to 100k, which is pretty unsurprising given the bizarreness of this lead. I remember trying a donk- lead like this against Davidi Kitai in the 2017 WSOPE Main Event - It got the same treatment. Man, I got crushed hard that day! 

Anyway, I like Carlsen’s sizing once again. Magnus’ range is already very polarised when he raises here. So, there’s no need to make it bigger. 

He simultaneously looks incredibly strong and gives himself a great price on a bluff. 

When it comes to bluffing, the art comes from finding the balance between the amount you risk and the frequency your opponent folds. The 70k raise represents such a sizeable chunk of his opponent’s remaining stack. So, I think he strikes a nice balance at 100k. 

Yes, a shove would probably get more folds. But it would also be way more expensive and far worse value for money.

Without much thought, the BB folds, and Magnus scoops a pot showing just how transferable a sharp chess mind is to a poker table

All in all, I like the way Magnus played this hand. A passive route would have been a viable option too. Many players would have (reasonably) waved the white flag on the flop or turn and ended up losing at showdown. 

The turn was a very pivotable street. It would have been a mistake to bet the turn and not the river. 

Thankfully for Carlsen, though, he had the stones to follow through.

Credit, sir. Take a bow.
 

About the Author
By
Dan O’Callaghan is a professional poker player who got his start in the online poker world as danshreddies. He has racked up over $290K in online earnings.
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