The Case of The Inexplicable Call

Do you love Sherlock Holmes? I love Sherlock Holmes. I have read the stories more times than I can count. Even though I know the ending of each mystery, I revel in the language, the milieu, all of it. I can remember on my first trip to London, seeing Charing Cross Station and thinking, “My god, this is where Holmes and Watson always went.”

Which brings me to a poker hand I saw on a live stream recently. I call it, “The Case of the Inexplicable Call.” Grab your hat and follow me out the door of 221B Baker Street, to a card house in Austin, Texas.

It’s a $5/$5 no-limit hold’em game. Jeffrey straddles to $100 under the gun. Yes, in a $5/5 game; that’s how Jeffrey (and Texas) roll. A couple of folds and Jack calls the $100 with the ace of diamonds and ten of clubs. It folds back around to Jeffrey, in the straddle. Jeffrey has the same hand as Jack: ace-ten offsuit (AcTs).

Jeffrey does not play fearful poker. He could just check and see a flop, but instead he raises another $250, more than doubling the pot size of $210. Jack calls quickly. Jeffrey’s $3,600 stack is the shorter of the two, so there is a bunch of money behind.

At the time, the live-stream commentators noted that both players have the same hand and it “… will be down to aggression, and position.”

Which is worth noting. When two players have the same hand, the player acting last will win more than their share of those pots. Let’s give the pre-race edge to Jack because he is acting last. But that edge is mitigated because Jeffrey has shown aggression, and he tends to keep his foot on the gas.

The flop comes a delicious (for the viewer) 8d-9h-Js. Both players have flopped an open-end straight draw and an overcard. There’s plenty of opportunity for aggressive play here.

Jeffrey bets $500 into the $700 pot, and Jack quickly calls. This is predictable; Jeffrey flopped well and is continuing his story, while Jack is never folding but raising could get him in trouble.

With $1700 in the pot, the turn is a meaningless 2c. Jeffrey bets $500 again. At first, I didn’t like that sizing; I felt he should have gone bigger. But then I looked at the stacks. After that $500 bet, Jeffrey has $2,300 in front of him, and the pot will be $2,700 if Jack calls. Jeffrey is setting up a river shove and Jack can see it.

On the other hand, the $500 bet gives Jack better than the 4:1 odds he needs to hit a queen or seven, and there’s a chance an ace would be good. So he calls. The river is another jack, pairing the top card on the board.

Jeffrey rips his remaining $2,300 into the middle.

Now Jack goes into the tank. But he shouldn’t need to stay there very long, right? He has ace-high; Jeffrey, being all-in, is bluff-proof. Furthermore, Jack doesn’t even have a very good ace-high. Some of Jeffrey’s most obvious bluffs would be AK and AQ. Those are no-pair hands, but the way our game works, those hands beat Jack’s AT. As does any pair Jeffrey might have.

Jack has an easy fold. Except he doesn’t fold. He sits there thinking, and looking at Jeffrey. To be fair, Jeffrey doesn’t look very comfortable. In fact, he looks quite uncomfortable.

Sherlock Holmes, watching the action, couldn’t have failed to notice Jeffrey’s body language. But all I can think as I watch the hand is, “I don’t care how uncomfortable Jeffrey looks. It’s difficult to think of any hand (value or bluff) AT beats, so how can Jack be contemplating a call?”

And this, my friends, is where Holmes, Watson, and the viewers are surprised.

After that long tank, Jack slides in $2,300, calling with his ace-high. Jeffrey turns his hand over, and they split the pot.

“Holmes! Did you see…” Sherlock puts a finger to his lips, and continues staring at both players.

“Back to the hotel suite, gentlemen. This may be a two-pipe problem.”

Upon learning the hotel was non-smoking, Holmes harrumphed, but quickly took his violin from its case and disappeared into his bedroom. The sounds of a Paganini sonata soon followed, and I fell asleep to an old Scottish fiddle tune.

The next morning, we awoke to find Holmes sitting in the living area of our suite. “I suggest we take a stroll across the Congress Avenue Bridge and find breakfast. It will also give me time to smoke a proper pipe.”

“But Holmes,” asked Watson, “did you solve the mystery of why Jack called the all-in on the river?”

“Oh, quite.”

In Sherlock’s world, once the mystery is solved, it is no longer of interest. It is merely a set of facts and conclusions to be stored away.

“But I suppose one of you will want to detail this little problem in those blog things of yours. Very well.”

“So, why did Jack call Jeffrey’s all-in, knowing he’d be lucky even to split the pot?”

Holmes’s eyes twinkled. “It was during a Bach chaconne when I realized Jack expected to win the entire pot. As I watched him, his face fell when Jeffrey turned over his hand. Not, mind you, when he saw Jeffrey’s cards.

“He, like most of us, was quite sure Jeffrey was bluffing. Jeffrey’s affect was that of a man who did not want to be called. Jack thought if he called, Jeffrey might be so embarrassed he would muck his hand face down, and Jack would, of course, win the pot.

“It was a high-risk maneuver to be sure, but it did have a spark of creativity.”

Our friend had solved another mystery. Jack is a top-notch poker player and would understand that even Jeffrey’s most likely bluffs beat him. He had hoped to shame Jeffrey into mucking a winner face-down. Jeffrey foiled his plot by tabling his hand face-up.

Holmes gazed out over the Colorado River. “Perhaps I shall write a short monograph on the importance of revealing one’s hand, even when one is caught bluffing. Now, I am in need of the fine coffee which this nation serves, and a bagel with smoked salmon. Shall we?”

Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years and a Sherlock Holmes fan for over 50 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at​