If you’ve heard one tournament poker player say it, you’ve probably heard dozens echo a similar refrain: If you’re going to win a multi-table poker tournament, you’re going to have to win coin flips along the way. Mitchell Towner, a 29-year-old college professor at the University of Arizona, is living proof after his surprise victory in the WSOP Monster Stack tournament.
The standard coin flip is a pocket pair vs. two over-cards in an all-in pre-flop situation. In most of those scenarios, the pocket pair is a slight favorite pre-flop. In the latter stages of large multi-table tournaments, coin flips become inevitable as most hands are won either pre-flop when all but one player folds, or when two (or more) players get it all-in pre-flop. Very few hands actually see betting beyond the flop.
Let’s look at the final table action of this tournament. It took 100 hands for the final nine players to be reduced to three players. Of those 100 hands, 67 were decided pre-flop, 13 were decided after the flop, five ended after the turn and 15 made it to the river. Of the 15 hands that made it to the river, eight were all-in pre-flop situations, meaning that on 75 of the 100 hands, all the betting occurred before the flop.
Cody Pack was the first player jettisoned even though he started the final table in second place with more than 20 million chips. A losing coin flip started him on the path to elimination. On the sixth hand, Towner shoved his 4,675,000 chips with pocket 10s. It folded to Pack in the BB, and he looked down at A-K. He was risking about 25 percent of his stack to call. Most poker analysts would probably say this is an easy call, but I don’t necessarily agree. Yes, it would be nice to knock a player out, but stack preservation is also important.
The big blind was 300,000, so Towner began the hand with 15 BBs. He had enough chips that he wouldn’t automatically be shoving with any ace, especially since he was Under the Gun. If you narrow his range down to, say, A-J or higher or any Broadway draw, that meant there were 33 different A-X combinations, 24 different K-Q or K-J combinations and 16 different Q-J combinations, giving Pack 73 possible hands for Towner, on which Pack would enjoy a significant advantage.
Given that there were 66 different combinations of pocket pairs of Queens or lower, and another six combinations of pocket aces or pocket kings, that meant there were 72 hands in which Towner could be either a slight favorite or have Pack dominated. In other words, it was a coin flip just to get into a coin flip. While there is no reason to fault Pack’s decision to call, I also think he could have easily justified folding in that spot.
Towner won two more coin flips where he made the decision to call. He had pocket 10s and called an all-in against Marshall White’s A-Q and eliminated White, and he called an all-in with pocket 9s against David Pham’s Q-J and won, eliminating Pham.
These coin flips vaulted Towner into the lead and set him on the way to the ultimate victory and a $1.1 million prize. Fittingly, the final hand was another all-in pre-flop coin flip, with Towner’s A-7 overcoming Dorian Rios’s pocket 3s to win.