Cowboy Chess Match

Yaacov Norowitz is one of the top chess players in the world. He is an International Master Chess player with a rating of 2435 (on the Elo chess rating system, a rating above 2400 indicates an International Master, and above 2500 is a Grandmaster).  According to the World Chess Federation’s website, Yaacov is ranked 65 among active U.S. players and 1516 in the world among active players. He’s good!  In his early 30’s, he plays in major chess tournaments and teaches chess to others, primarily online and using Skype, for a living.

Some of this I know from simple research on the World Chess Federation and Yaacov’s own websites. The rest I know because I played a bunch of hours of poker with him at the Aria poker room during my recent trip to Las Vegas.  Yaacov told me he came to Las Vegas to play in the 2nd Millionaire Chess Open, at Planet Hollywood (finishing in 17th place in the open division), then stayed to play poker for another week after the chess tournament ended.  If my interpretation of the prize money is correct, it appears that Yaacov won $23,500 playing chess for a few days, as the highest finisher not rated as a Grandmaster.

On the night of my arrival at the Aria, I lost my entire $200 initial buy-in at a $1/3 table to Yaacov over a span of 2 hands. First, I doubled him up when my Ks Ts < 77 on Qs 6h 3s – 8d – Qc board. I had open-raised pre-flop in the cutoff seat, he called from BB.  Yaacov then donked (i.e., led into the pre-flop raiser) $20 on flop, I raised to $55 (trying to represent an over pair), and after tanking a bit he shoved his shorter stack with pot odds that dictated a call with my flush draw + one over card.  A couple of hands later, his AKo > my TT when we got all-in pre-flop for my remaining $60 or so.  He turns out to be a friendly and funny fellow, and we played at the same table for several hours, again on the following day, and again the day after that.

On this 3rd day, Yaacov looked as if he hadn’t slept since I first met him, a fact he later confirmed.  He was spewing chips all over the place (I had yet to figure out how much $$ he had won in the chess tournament), re-buying probably a half-dozen times.  But now he’s won a few pots, so even though he is stuck well over $1,000, he does sit behind a formidable stack.  And he’s an aggressive player by nature.

Then this hand happens…

Yaacov limps into the pot from UTG+1, and I raise to $13 from the Hijack seat (two seats to the right of the button) with Ks Kc.  It is time for KKing David to announce himself.  This session has gone well for “the KKing” and I have about $600+ on the table. Yaacov has about $400.

The action folds back to Yaacov, and he limp-reraises to $39.  Uh-oh.

When someone limps from an early position, then re-raises on the way back around, this represents great strength.  Many players who do this, only do it with AA.  Having played perhaps 10 hours with Yaacov over these three days, I’ve noted his aggression and creativity (although his Fancy Play Syndrome has costs him dearly at times), and have to give him credit for a wider range than just AA.  But how wide?  AA, KK, QQ, JJ. AKs, AQs, AKo.  Maybe some strange bluffs, with suited Aces or other hands with decent backup equity?  Today I’ve seen him go all-in pre-flop with 55 (and a much shorter stack).  Two days earlier against me, he donked/3-bet shoved on a Q-high flop with 77.  It’s really hard to know where to draw the line.  So I call.

The flop is J87 rainbow. This doesn’t really hit his range, with the possible exception of JJ. He bets $65.

I’m on full alert. The number one sensation I’m having at this point is that I’ve seen this movie before – aggressive player limp/re-raises pre-flop from early position – and I know how it ends.  Badly.  Against an unknown player, I should be able to fold here.  Against Yaacov, I’m just nervous as hell, on full alert.  But wait, I’m KKing David, and here I am with KK, the 2nd nut hand pre-flop, and I want to play it.

I call.

The pot is now approx. $215. The turn card is a T, putting a 1-liner to a straight on the board.  In reality, while this looks scary, there are no 9’s in either of our ranges.  I feel confident about that.  Does he know that?  He’s a professional chess player, which is a game played with complete information, whereas no limit Texas Hold’em is a game played with incomplete information.  I wonder what’s going through his mind now.  What does he think I have?

Yaacov checks. If the board simply scares him just a little, he could be checking for pot control with his entire range.  On the other hand, if he’s concluded that I can’t have a 9 in my range, then he could be turning AA into a bluff catcher.  I consider betting, but decide pot control is a better idea and check behind.  I’m beating AK, AQ and QQ, but my hand is still just one pair, and betting now would bloat this pot way beyond the strength of my hand.

Then comes an Ace on the river, bringing to mind the eponymous title of Barry Greenstein’s excellent book.  This is my nightmare card.  Now AK and AQ beat me too.  DAMMIT!  (And other expletives not suitable for a public blog.)

Yaacov slides out a stack of red chips, a $100 bet.  My two black Kings are turning into milquetoast.


I replay this hand backwards and forwards, trying to find a clue that might help me solve this puzzle.  I’m having a good, winning session and don’t want to go back to square one.  There is $315 in the pot and it will cost me $100 to call.  I’m getting 3.15-to-1 pot odds, so I have to be good against his range 1 time out of 4.15 (24%) for calling to be mathematically correct.  Am I winning here 24% of the time against this set of facts?  Could Yaacov be turning QQ into a bluff?  Would he bet $100 on this board with AK?

Finally, I decide to call, just based on the pot size and the math. I don’t expect to win, but think his bluffing frequency is just high enough that I can rationalize the call. Besides that, I want to see what he has, that has played this hand in such an interesting way.  Part of this decision is based on feeling confident that I won’t tilt if I lose the pot.  I’m fully aware this is a rationalized call based on the math, and most of the time I’m going to lose, yet I find enough calm over this awareness to make the call.

Of course, the entire table is watching, as both of our moves and counter-moves have been slow, deliberate and intense throughout the hand. It has been a chess match at the poker table.

Yaacov turns over his cards first and all I can see is they are both red and both paint.  Two red queens???  I lean forward to see better, and it is actually the two red kings.  I flip over my two black kings, and there is a big “WOW!” all around.  He looks just as relieved over the chopped pot as I am, so I stand up and walk around to his end of the table to shake his hand and we have an awkward bro-hug.  He says he actually considered the possibility of us both having pocket KKs, although I really didn’t.

Whew!!!  My good session continues.


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