It was a stacked table for Stu Ungar on Day Two of the 1997 World Series or Poker Main Event. Playing poker with me were world champions Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, and Stu Ungar. Stu and I had been the chip leaders the entire tournament. I was eliminated on Day Three with only 27 players remaining. Stu Ungar, however, in search of his third World Series or Poker title, went on to battle John Strzemp for the $1 million first place prize.
In what turned out to be the final hand of the tournament. With blinds at $10,000/ $20,000 plus a $2,000 ante, Ungar, with more than $2 million in chips, opened for $60,000 on the button with A-4. Strzemp, with less than $1 million in chips, called with A-8. The flop came A-5-3. Strzemp bet out $120,000. Ungar seemed to study his cards for a long time before finally pushing in an $800,000 raise. Strzemp called instantly and was all-in.
Ungar needed a four or a deuce. Another three fell on the turn so he was still searching for one of those cards to hit on the river to win the title. And the last card was — a deuce!
Take a Closer Look at Stu Ungars Last Hand
Ungar's $40,000 pre-flop raise was pot-sized and was the standard raise for the era. Today's bet sizes are smaller so a raise closer to $25,000 would be considered the norm.
Strzemp's pre-flop call was questionable. Back then, the typical play would have been to re-raise with A-8 heads-up. If Strzemp actually thought he had the best hand at the time, that's just what he should have done. Incidentally, the new-school standard is to re-raise in this spot, too. Hey, A-8 heads-up is a pretty decent hand!
I could have gone either way in this situation depending on my opponent's skill level and my ability to get a solid read. If I thought I could have beaten my opponent but wasn't really sure if his $40,000 was weak or strong, I would have just called. Or, if I sensed my opponent was playing a weaker hand, I would have moved all-in.
Not Liking It
I don't like Strzemp's $120,000 pot-sized bet on the flop. Since he was willing to go all the way with his hand on the flop, why bet it then? Better to check-raise the flop and give Ungar the opportunity to bluff off some chips, or toss in a smaller bet to appear weak.
Now, I mentioned that Ungar seemed to study his hole cards after Strzemp's bet. Well, a few years later, after I had seen the hand on tape, I told Stu that I knew he had only seen one of his hole cards — the ace — before the flop, and further, that he only knew that he had a two-across to go with it.
By the way, two-across refers to the spots that are visible on the underside of a card when you peek at your hole cards. A two-across is a four or five. A three-across is a six, seven or eight. Finally a four-across is a nine or ten.
So, with an ace and a two-across, after the flop, Ungar must have known that he either had top two pair or an ace with a straight draw.
Stu Ungar Surprised
Ungar was surprised when I told him that but verified that I was correct. Wow, even Stu himself didn't know for sure what cards he was playing! I mean, it's a lot harder for your opponent to get a read on you when even you don't know if you're strong or weak!
Stu's all-in move was reasonable. He stands to win the pot if Strzemp is bluffing, or if Strzemp folds his A-8, or if he gets called and hits a lucky four or a deuce.
Strzemp's call was okay because he correctly surmised that he was indeed ahead on the flop. Once his chips were in the pot, he probably felt that he was committed to his hand. Furthermore he was prepared to risk it all if necessary.