Poker: How to win and lose a million

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David Spanier is the author of the classic Total Poker. His column will appear each Tuesday on the Miscellany page.

A THREE-HANDED duel in the saloon settled the 1993 world poker championships in Las Vegas.

At the final table at Binion's Horseshoe Casino, John Bonetti and Jim Bechtel each had around dollars 1m in chips in front of them. A third player, Glenn Cozen, had 'only' dollars 100,000.

The stakes go hysterically high in the final round, because they represent the sum of the stakes of the original 220 contestants, a total of dollars 2.2m, busted over the previous three days' play. First prize in the championships looks a tad cumbersome: an even million in hundred note bills is stacked up on the table.

What is the right strategy in this three-handed duel? Is the outcome going to be decided by luck, or a huge bluff, or by remorselessly grinding the opponents down? None of these. What decided the championship was a principle which underlines all poker games, of whatever size: money management. Obviously the two players with all the money should just wait for the third man to go broke, as he is bound to do with antes and openers costing about dollars 20,000 each deal. They can then square up to each other, head to head, for first place. But that is not what happened.

Bonetti was dealt ace-king off suit, which at Texas Hold 'em is a very strong hand. Hold 'em is a faster form of second card stud, now the most popular form of poker out West. Each player is dealt a hand of two cards, face down, followed by five cards face up in common, as follows:

----------------------------------------------------------------- xx xxx x x ----------------------------------------------------------------- hole the fourth fifth cards 'flop' card card opening bet bet bet bets -----------------------------------------------------------------

It looks a simple game, but in fact the play can be as subtle as chess (if rather more expensive). Playing on about dollars 800,000, Bechtel bet dollars 20,000 as an opener, which both Cozen and Bonetti called. Obviously all three have playable hands. The flop came king-6-4, with two spades. Bonetti and Cozen checked to Bechtel who bet dollars 70,000, and Bonetti then put in a check raise.

For Cozen to call this bet would take all his remaining chips. Far better for him to sit back and watch the action. If one of the two big money players knocks the other one out, Cozen will automatically take second place in the championship, despite being down to the last few chips. So he folded. Jim Bechtel merely called the raise.

----------------------------------------------------------------- S K S 6 H 4 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Bonetti Bechtel (Ah Kd) (? ?) -----------------------------------------------------------------

What can Bechtel have? A king with a lower kicker is no use. A 6 and a 4 is not creditable as a starting hand. A flush draw, or a draw to hit a low straight, would be prohibitively long odds at these stakes.

Fourth up-card, however, showed the jack of spades. And here, apparently with no thought at all, Bonetti, in a flashy gesture, shoved all his remaining chips - some dollars 500,000 - into the pot. The crowd roared. His huge 'all-in' bet signified he had hit a spade flush.

Bechtel, who is a cotton farmer fron Arizona when not playing cards, and a pretty steady fellow, thought for a minute, and called. 'I put him on two kings,' Bechtel said afterwards. 'I didn't want to lose him by raising him on the flop. The jack of spades was a danger card for me, but if he had made a flush, he would have just bet dollars 100,000 or so.'

Bechtel showed two sixes in the hole, giving him three sixes. No matter what the fifth and final up-card might be, his opponent is dead in the water. Another king, for instance, giving Bonetti trip kings, would make Bechtel a full house. The pot was worth dollars 1,387,000 in chips.

Bonetti is renowned as an old pro but his reckless bet was a terrible misjudgement of the money situation. If he thought Bechtel was weak, why push him out? The right play was to test him with a feeler bet of say, half the pot, and see what happens. This move cost him dollars 200,000 in cash, the difference between coming third in the championship, as he did, or taking at least second place.

As for Cozen, he couldn't believe his good fortune. Two minutes later, he was out. He had won dollars 400,000 by sitting tight at the crucial moment.

Bonetti's rush of blood, when he was so close to glory, and a first prize of dollars 1m, was described as the worst play in the world championships.