The Hand Heard 'Round the Thunderdome: AA vs. KK vs. KK

10-handed at the 2018 WSOP Main Event

For the last week, the poker world has been buzzing about a stranger than fiction hand from the stone bubble of the 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event final table.

Just 10 players were left from the starting field of 7,874, and players had redrawn and were seated around a single table.

With the blinds at 300,000/600,000 with a 100,000 ante, Nicolas Manion raised under the gun to 1.5 million with {A-Spades}{A-Hearts}. Antoine Labat called in middle position with {K-Diamonds}{K-Clubs}. Then Yueqi Zhu, who also had two kings with {K-Spades}{K-Hearts}, moved all in for 24.7 million from the hijack.

Once the action was back on Manion, he announced he was all in as well, committing the just over 43 million he had to start the hand. Labat then asked for a count. Labat had about 52 million to start the hand, meaning he had both Manion and Zhu covered.

For the next minute, Labat shook his head and muttered to himself. Could he really fold a hand this strong?

The Hand Heard 'Round the Thunderdome: AA vs. KK vs. KK 101
Antoine Labat: dealt pocket kings and forced to make a tough decision

Assigning Accurate Ranges

Sharing his thoughts over Twitter, Ryan Daut, a poker veteran with over $1.8 million in live tournament cashes, advocates for a fold.

"I ran ICM numbers assuming Zhu had JJ-KK, AK and Manion QQ-AA. Calling with KK loses ~$350k equity. Surprising, but clear fold."

According to Daut, calling with kings is profitable only if Manion is shoving with not only aces, kings, and queens, but also every combination of ace-king and jacks. "If we add AKs to Manion's range," says Daut, "calling loses ~$80k. Adding AKo or JJ finally makes it +EV."

Labat's expected value depends on a few key questions. What is Manion's range? What is Zhu's range? And is either capable of committing all of his chips with ace-king or jacks?

In order to answer these questions, Labat might have considered his opponents' backgrounds. For simplicity, let's put Zhu aside for the moment.

The Hand Heard 'Round the Thunderdome: AA vs. KK vs. KK 102
Nicolas Manion: dealt pocket aces at a most opportune time

Manion is a small-stakes recreational player competing in his first Main Event. In general and in this particular situation — on the bubble of the biggest poker tournament in the world — players with less experience are unlikely to get out of line. His range, as a result, skews stronger.

Even if he didn't know Manion's background, Labat might paid attention to his opponent's playing style. Throughout the later stages of tournament, Manion had gained a reputation for playing tight, risk-averse poker.

In fact, just the day before, Manion had folded kings preflop himself!

It was the very last hand of Day 6, and after having opened Manion watched Alex Lynskey three-bet and then a short-stacked Barry Hutter move all in. Manion reraised again, then Lynskey jammed and Manion folded pocket kings face up. Lynskey had pocket aces and went on to knock out Hutter who had pocket treys.

Finally, Labat might also have recognized that, after Zhu's shove, Manion had acted quickly when action folded back to him: a telltale sign of strength.

All three of these factors suggest that Manion would not shove all-in with ace-king or jacks. Speaking of Manion, "His range is AA after watching him play," tweeted old-school grinder EmpireMaker2.

So did Labat make a mistake?

Not necessarily. Three-time WSOP bracelet winner Doug Polk came down on the other side of the call-versus-fold debate in his video analysis of the hand.

"I do think that a lot of the ICM robots who are saying, 'This is a clear fold,' are wrong," says Polk, referencing Two Plus Two poster Nerd e tron's thread "A Terrible Call with Kings on the WSOP Main Event FT Bubble... and here's why (SPOILERS)."

Preventing Exploitation

Instead of speculating about what your opponents would do — which risks making wildly flawed assumptions — Polk prefers to focus on what they should do from a theoretical perspective.

"If you know what people are actually doing, then exploits will make more money," Polk says. "But you don't get to see what they're doing all the time, with every hand in their range. So I almost always lean towards a theory-based approach."

To appreciate what Polk is saying, let's consider Zhu's perspective when he faces Manion's 1.5 million raise and Labat's call. If Zhu suspects that an all-in shove will force Manion to fold queens through nines and ace-king, and that Labat will fold everything except aces, then what should he do?

In that case, because his opponents are folding way too much, Zhu should shove all in with a bunch of bluffs. (In this scenario, "bluffs" would mean hands like {A-Diamonds}{J-Clubs} or {A-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds} or {10-}{10-}, not {7-Clubs}{2-Diamonds}.)

As a result, in order to prevent Zhu or Manion from printing money by aggressively shoving all-in, Labat needs to call with more hands than aces.

"I think [Manion's] range will end up being AK+ and QQ a lot," Polk says. "Against that range, you've gotta go with kings. It sucks. I understand. He could definitely have aces. He'd always play aces like this. But he also can have those other holdings."

The Result

After a harmless {J-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{4-Clubs}{3-Spades}{J-Clubs} runout, Manion's aces held. Here is the hand in full:

With that big pot, Manion rocketed to 112,775,000, surpassing the 109,175,000 of longtime chip leader Michael Dyer to enjoy the overnight lead. Zhu was eliminated in 10th place for $850,025.

The Hand Heard 'Round the Thunderdome: AA vs. KK vs. KK 103
Yueqi Zhu: dealt pocket kings and destined to finish 10th

Meanwhile Labat was left with 8,050,000 chips (the short stack with nine left) and plenty of questions.

"If I fold, it's going to look so crazy," Labat said afterwards. "But I had this feeling like, he has it."

Depending on whom you ask, Labat should've trusted his gut.

Ben Saxton is a teacher and a writer from upstate New York who has played small stakes poker, both live and online, since the early 2000s. Ben lives in New Orleans and covers poker on the Gulf Coast.

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