It will either go down as the greatest fold in poker history, or the worst tournament blunder of all time. It all depends on who you ask and what you believe.
Indeed the remarkable poker hand that took place during the late afternoon of the very first day of the $1 million buy-in “Big One for One Drop” was almost inconceivable. Yes, hands like this sometimes happen in the movies – where the hero busts the villain in the final climatic scene. And when it happens, serious poker players and fans always scoff at the screen and say, “that would never happen in real life.”
Well, it did.
Russian poker player Mikhail Smirnov -- a businessman and part-time poker player from Moscow -- was sitting in Seat 2. He had about 3,500,000 in his stack, which was slightly above average in chips. Smirnov was dealt . Smirnov was delighted to catch a third eight on the flop – good for trips. And this is where this hand goes from interesting to legendary.
Sitting to Smirnov’s immediate left in Seat 3 was the CEO of the Winmark Corporation – a man named John Morgan. Picture a 71-year-old white-haired businessman from Minneapolis, Minnesota wearing black horn-rimmed Barry Goldwater-esque eyeglasses, and that’s the sterling portrait of Morgan.
Morgan’s hand won’t be divulged, which leads to one of the most interesting speculative poker mysteries of all time. Here it goes:
As stated, Smirnov held pocket eights. He caught a third eight on the flop -- a board which showed . Smirnov bet out. Morgan called instantly.
The turn brought the . This time, Smirnov fired another bet into the pot. It was reported that Morgan took about five seconds to ponder his action, and then decided to call.
The river brought the . Now, a flush was possible. Full houses were possible. Quads were possible. And, a straight flush was possible. And here’s where the one-in-a-million poker hand goes from legendary to mythical.
With all five board cards exposed -- -- Smirnov fired a 700,000 bet. Morgan stalled for a few seconds, and then announced “all in” for about 3.4 million in chips. And here’s where this extraordinary hand goes from mythical to utterly unbelievable.
Smirnov tanked for a minute. Two minutes went by. During that time, Smirnov contemplated all the different possibilities. Could his opponent possibly have the for the straight flush? It would essentially cost a million dollars to find out. After a few more minutes, the Russian folded. Adding a flash of drama that never would have happened had the cards not been revealed, Smirnov folded his powerhouse hand face up, for the entire world to see. There they were – four eights.
And they were headed straight for the muck.
Poker pro Phil Galfond, who was sitting at the same table and watching in utter disbelief later called it, “the craziest hand I’ve ever seen,” and that's from a guy who has played millions of poker hands on his computer.
While the poker world lit up with commentary that lasted the better part of the rest of the night, discussion which shall no doubt continue for months and perhaps years to come, Smirnov casually dismissed his decision, confident that he had made the right play.
Later, Smirnov was asked about the remarkable hand and his decision to fold a monster (Writer’s Note: English is not Mr. Smirnov’s first language – his comments to Nolan Dalla are printed verbatim):
“It’s hard for me to explain. It seemed like a very difficult call to make. But for me -- I think that my read of the table and when you think about this hand and it’s very easy for me to fold. It was the right play. Sometimes it’s very difficult to fold top pair, but this time I don’t know what he should have. It’s impossible for him to have full house of Kings, impossible full house of Jacks, because he did not re-raise from button (pre-flop). He would have re-raised with Jacks and Kings (pre-flop). If he has full house of sevens, then he’d just call (the river bet). A bluff is impossible because he likes to play in the tournament and he is not a professional. I think I have no chance to win, plus he was so excited on the turn (when he made, what could be a straight flush).”
As a follow up, Smirnov was asked, “Will you be able to sleep tonight?”
“Easy,” Smirnov replied.
Mark it down. Whatever Mikhail Smirnov does the rest of his life in the game of poker, he’s always going to be known from this moment forward as, “the man who folded quads.”
As for John Morgan, he played the hand and the post-tournament situation perfectly, and with added class thrown in for good measure.
When pressed for an answer as to whether he actually had the stone-cold lock, a straight flush, Morgan smiled at first. Then, he paused. Then, he spoke.
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Morgan said softly. “And the reason I am not going to reveal it is totally out of respect for my opponent.”
Following the short inquiry, Morgan immediately returned to the table. He took his seat alongside Smirnov. And, another hand was dealt. Then, another. And, another.
The tournament continued.
A tournament that began at 1:11 pm with 48 players is now down to 37.
Biting the gold dust were Justin Smith, Jonathan Duhamel, Andrew Robl, Jens Kyllonen, Paul Phua, Erik Seidel, Bertrand Grospelier, Nick Schulman, Eugene Katchalov, Michael “the Grinder” Mizrachi and Giovanni Guarascio.
2. Phil Hellmuth - 8,395,000
3. Frederique Banjout - 7,070,000
4. Antonio Esfandiari - 6,880,000
5. Gus Hansen - 6,800,000
6. Sam Trickett - 6,700,000
7. Guy Laliberte - 6,550,000
8. Ben Lamb - 5,770,000
9. Mike Sexton - 5,740,000
10. Tom Dwan - 4,810,000
-- by Nolan Dalla