Liv Boeree and Allen Kessler star in the “Case of the Dubious Ducks”

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There’s some minor drama taking place between Liv Boeree, Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler, and their respective camps over what seems like it should be a relatively simple question. Are pocket deuces a standard shove or a standard fold from under the gun, at an eight player table, for 13 big blinds with antes in play?

Recently faced with this specific situation in WSOP Event #35, Boeree opted for the shove. She was called by Ace-King, lost the coin flip and was out. Witnessing this, Kessler expressed disapproval for her choice, saying the shove was “not Chainsaw approved,” and going on to state the obvious fact that you’re never going to be called by worse. Boeree fired back on Twitter, saying “lol, well Mr Nash disagrees!” suggesting that she believes the shove is part of an unexploitable range according to game theory.

The actual fact of the matter is that the spot is very close, and that both of them are being over-simplistic in their reasoning.

Kessler’s argument

Not knowing anything about the makeup of the table, Kessler’s opinion is probably the correct one, though just barely. With 10 big blinds and no ICM taken into account, 22 is just barely a shove with seven players left to act, so with a slightly deeper stack and any ICM at all, you would have to guess that the default move should be to fold.

His argument is weak, however; it assumes that when playing push-fold poker, the goal is to get called and double up. With a stack as deep as 13 BB, however, that’s not usually the case. Stealing the blinds and antes is the objective, and one’s main concern is not to be ahead when called, but not too far behind. Jack-Ten suited is usually a good shove, for instance, but always unlikely to be ahead if called – what makes it a good shove is it has blockers to two potential shove-calling hands (TT and JJ) and good equity against almost anything, because it is suited and connected.

Deuces, of course, do not block anything useful, and are utterly crushed by any other pocket pair. What they do have going for them is that they’re a coin-flip against a large part of an opponent’s calling range in most situations.

What Kessler should have said, to support his opinion, is not that they don’t beat anything, but that most people’s ranges to call an under-the-gun shove from a 13 BB stack are heavily weighted towards pocket pairs. Shoving shorter, or from later position, you’ll get called by a lot more broadway and Ax hands, so the deuces’ coin flip potential is a big plus. In Boeree’s case, however, the only hand she’d likely to be flipping against is the one she actually saw: Ace-King.

Boeree’s argument

For her part, Boeree is placing undue emphasis on game theory. For one thing, she may not even be correct once ICM is taken into account. But even if she’s right and 22 is part of an unexploitable shoving range in that situation, correcting for ICM, it’s just barely so. When you’re dealing with a borderline hand, what’s important isn’t whether it’s barely within the theoretically optimal range or just barely outside; what really matters is how the table is playing.

gop debateThe worst hands in an unexploitable range are always going to be neutral EV at best, and are included mostly to make opponents’ ideal calling ranges wider, thus earning more value for the better hands in the shover’s range. If the table is playing any looser than normal, then these hands will get called too often to break even on the blind steals and thus be loss-making. Conversely, if the table is a little too tight, then these marginal hands will actually turn a profit, and even some hands outside of the optimal range can be included.

Thus, rather than arguing about whether deuces are just inside or just outside an optimal range for that situation, Boeree would make her case much more convincingly if she simply said that she felt the table was tight and that her steal would go through often enough to be profitable.

The final verdict

In the end, all that can really be said about the spot is that it’s a close one. If the table is too tight, it’s a definite shove. If there are players who will make loose calls with Ax hands and broadways, it doesn’t matter too much, because coin flips are fine too. But if there are players who will call loose with small pocket pairs, it would be a mistake to shove. No matter what, though, neither shoving nor folding is ever going to be a huge mistake, as the margins are very thin either way. Both Boeree and Kessler, for all their skill as poker players, are making poor arguments in a fight about nothing.

Alex Weldon is a game designer by day and poker tournament wizard by night. You can read more from Alex at www.benefactum.ca and follow him on Twitter at @benefactumgames

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