Each week, I take a look at a classic episode of Poker After Dark from the on-demand service exclusive to PokerGO. I love watching an individual hand and analyzing the nuance of play, the style of the time and the game in general back then. But as ever, the drama is in the margins of the game. This week’s episode features at its heart a hand involving Tom Dwan and Ilari Sahamies, two of the most attacking poker players of their generation. But even the hand itself takes a back seat to what’s happening in the margins, or more appropriately in this case, on the side.
Side action on poker hands has been part of the game since the Wild West. If you’ve ever seen the HBO series Deadwood, you’ll know that Wild Bill Hickock was after so much action it eventually cost him his life, and there have been plenty of ‘dead man’s hands’ in the saloon bars of yesteryear. There were also side bets. From picking who you think will win the hand to offering insurance for that one-outer that you get a hunch will arrive on the river, players have often exercised their option to bet between themselves.
The modern versions of the best side bets have made it to televised poker. Before Lodden Thinks, the off-topic question posed to players wishing to gamble on what Norwegian pro Johnny Lodden might think the answer to a question would be, there were nominated hands. Win a hand with 7-2 off-suit (the worst possible starting hand due to its inability to catch flush and straight draws, combined with its low hand strength) and you get a hundred bucks from every player. Win a hand with a pair of deuces, or snowmen in winter, and you get a drink from the player who you beat in the hand. All these side bets and more have been done.
When Tom Dwan is playing to win a hand with diamonds, and Ilari Sahamies is planning to do exactly the same, the only certainty you can count on the board bringing is excitement. Dwan, so often the poster-boy for noughties online poker aggression, had met his match in the Finnish player Sahamies. The Finn once played out an EPT Barcelona Main Event final three-handed having enjoyed one too many of the cold drinks on offer to him and fellow Finn Joni Jouhkimainen. Either Finnish player should probably have won, but neither did, Sahamies ending as runner-up.
Sahamies and Dwan going at it put me in mind of old stories about cowboys playing cards with one hand on their hole cards and the other on their six shooter under the table. Neither man prepared to blink, each player refusing to leave the pot. The nature of side bets is that there is something else going on under the surface of the hand, which, in poker, makes any action as multi-layered as a club sandwich.
The best side bet I ever saw play out was nothing of the sort. I was at The Hippodrome, a popular casino in central London. Just off Leicester Square, The Hippodrome is a huge, glittering casino in the heart of an area called the West End, which is crammed with theatres and cinemas. I, of course, was in the poker room, which was adorned with gigantic baubles that hung from the ceiling. With the overhead lights, it didn’t look unlike a disco ball had cast its shimmering light on the players underneath. At the tables, the $300-entry tournament in was halfway through Day 1, and with play fairly slow, a range of side bets had started to take place at one particular table.
From betting on the next suit to be drawn from the deck to nominating a particular hand that would cost players their free drink voucher, anything was up for grabs to the player willing to risk it. It looked like every player at the table was getting involved.
Almost every player.
One man, oblivious to what had been going on around him, was in late position at the table and decided to re-raise an already four-bet pot. He got a lot of action, and to cut a long story short, he was all-in, covering two players who had been instigating a lot of the side bet action. The man excitedly called his friends over, and one was playing on another table. It took some time. The dealer called for the cards to be turned over, with the man’s opponents both covered by his stack and therefore all-in and at risk of elimination.
‘You won’t believe this!’ he said to the other two men with chips in the now-huge pot. There was, of course, a side pot at stake too. So, they thought, was a side bet.
‘Turn your cards over please, sir.’ Asked the dealer politely.
‘No, wait a minute, you won’t believe this, really.’
His opponents having turned over suited paint cards and pocket tens respectively, played along, laughing. They assumed – as we all did – that the gentleman was playing with 7-2 off-suit, or another one of the side bet related hands that had been discussed.
After several minutes, both his friends had arrived at the table to witness the hilarious reveal and the entire table hanging on the tantalizing possibility of this man having the worst cards imaginable, the man turned over…
… pocket aces.
‘Can you believe it?’ he said exuberantly to his friends. ‘We were literally just saying how I never catch aces, and I finally got ‘em!’
When the gentleman’s aces duly ran out as the winning hand and he eliminated his two opponents form the game, you can imagine the kind of deathly silence that was the soundtrack to him stacking his chips. You could hear every awkward clack of chip on chip, his clueless, grinning face completely unaware that all the side bet action there had been at his table in Level 1, possibly on Day 1, was over in a heartbeat. He had ruined everyone’s good time and had no idea whatsoever.
There’s always one player who starts the side bet action, and in this famous hand featuring the legendary pair of Tom Dwan and Ilari Sahamies, there’s always one who ends it. You can watch every episode of Poker After Dark along with classic shows such as the World Series of Poker and up-to-the-minute live streams such as Friday night Poker only on PokerGO. Subscribe today and you can join in the fun.
It’s what Tom Dwan would do.