Starting Wednesday, some of the world’s best heads-up No Limit Hold’em players will be battling it out at the 2018 World Series of Poker in one of the most prestigious events on the schedule. The $10,000 Heads-Up No Limit Hold’em Championship attracts nothing but the best of the best.
The eventual winner will have gone through seven heads-up matches and come out with a W. The Championship event is a minefield of tough spots. The toughest in the entire field isn’t ranked in the top 13,000 on the Global Poker Index. He’s never won a WSOP bracelet or a World Poker Tour title. The closest he’s ever gotten to Bobby’s Room would be playing in a smaller cash game at the Bellagio. And he’s probably never played online poker for super high stakes.
He’s 71-year-old war vet John Smith. And nobody wants to draw him in the first round of play.
Over the last two years, Smith has beaten 12 of the 14 players he’s played, losing in the final in 2016 and 2017. So just how should somebody prepare for a match with John Smith? Who could help his opponent’ this year understand what it takes to outlast the retiree?
Ryan Riess? Nope. Smith beat him in the semi-final last year.
Chance Kornuth? Nah. He was dispatched by Smith in the round of 32 last year.
Dietrich Fast? Second round victim last year.
Alex Luneau? Couldn’t beat Smith in the 2016 semi-final.
Antonio Esfandiari? Also had to shake Smith’s hand at the end of a match in 2016 after losing to him.
His success in this event goes back even further. In 2014, Smith finished 11th and put Leo Fernandez, Eric Froehlich and 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Ivey on his list of victims.
Smith’s history in this event is so dominant, that PokerShares opened Smith at 4.0 markup for those looking to buy pieces. No other player was above 1.6.
The only players who have managed to beat Smith over the last two years were 2017 winner Adrian Mateos and 2016 champion Alan Percal. In 2016, Percal finished his semi-final match against Olivier Busquet first and was asked afterward who he would rather play, Luneau or Smith.
“At the time, I said ‘I’ll play either one of them, it doesn’t matter’, but at the end of the day, obviously, there’s probably a slight bias in who I prefer to play,” admitted Percal. “At the time, I was just so excited to be there. I wasn’t thinking too much about who I wanted to play.”
Smith beat Riess and then on the very first hand of the finals, gave Percal a glimpse into what exactly had gotten him this deep.
With blinds of 40,000/80,000, Smith raised to 220,000 from the button and Percal called. The flop came [8d][8s][4d] and Percal check-called Smith’s bet of 305,000. The turn was the [9c] and this time Percal check-raised Smith’s 305,000 bet to 900,000. Smith called and the river was the [9s]. Percal check-called Smith’s bet of 1,050,000. Smith mucked and Percal took the pot without showdown.
The livestream showed that Smith had his bottom pair counterfeited by the turn and river.
“So that was the first hand in my introduction to John Smith, in addition to a little bit of the livestream that I watched after Olivier,” said Percal, who won’t be able to play the Heads Up event this year due to a scheduling conflict with his work. “I think that his ability or his willingness to make big plays and not be afraid is also something that I’d say is a real positive of his.”
“I would, I guess, classify him as loose-aggressive – not so much in a negative way. Typically when you classify someone as laggy, then it’s bad. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s loose-aggressive and bad. I think his style is very hard to figure out what he’s got and when he’s got it,” said Percal.
Percal believes that Smith’s age played a factor in how some of his other opponents viewed him before they played him.
“I think it’s a mix of the fact that he plays very unorthodox and the fact that you look at him, and he looks like an older gentleman. You wouldn’t be as surprised if you saw a 21-year-old online kid play that way he did if you take away a few of the other outlier plays that he made. I think it’s a mix of the fact that he’s older and plays very contradictory to the way you expect older people to play the game.”
Percal played the 2017 event as well but was bounced in the opening round. He found his way over to Aria to play some cash games a few days later and looked up at one of the TVs to find the livestream of the finals airing. Even though he hadn’t followed the event, he suddenly had a rooting interest.
“I was 100% rooting for him. Based on my short interaction with him, he seemed like an outstanding individual, just outside of the poker scene. He seemed like a very nice guy,” said Percal.
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing to lose to John Smith. Twelve people out of 14 lost to him over the last two years. I’m sure most of those, if not all of those players are professional poker players,” said Percal. “I’d love to see him play some of those other people, where he didn’t happen to lose a big pot in the first hand and see what he did to put those people in tough spots.”
“It can’t be all luck beating 12 out of 14 people. I don’t know how else to put it. That just seems like a few deviations too many above the means.”