American Ninja Warrior

Ever seen this show? An athlete has to navigate 5-6 physically draining obstacles to make it to the finish line in the least amount of time. If he is tripped up on any one of these sections, then the run is over. In our article, “Accept All Gifts”, we break down our definition of the 6 phases of a poker hand (Setup, Pre-Flop, Flop, Turn, River, Showdown). Players must mentally navigate these phases in order to make it to the finish line. Let’s be clear that making it to the finish line does not always mean winning the hand or completing all 6 phases.  

In today’s hand, we’ll walk you through an example of the abstract obstacle course that is poker. In American Ninja Warrior, the slightest loss of balance, swing of a rope, or precipitation on the hands can cause years of training to become obsolete. In poker, a missed big blind calculation, a “feel” play with no parameters, or an overly aggressive all-in can make hours of perfect play worthless.


Phase #1:Setup… The blinds and antes of $60/$300/$600 have been collected and the Button is in the correct spot. I’m dealt 10s-10d which is a tier below a big starting hand. A big starting hand can be classified as J-J+ or A-Q+, depending on table position. I have a little over 45 big blinds which falls under the medium stack umbrella.

Now that I’ve confirmed my stack size, I glance around the table to view my opponent’s stacks. This is supremely important because 10-10 is a hand that is good enough to call potential all-ins from stacks of under 20 big blinds with the right table position. Skysthelimit86 and moneyhunting are directly to my left and both have under 20 big blinds. giimeyochipz is on the Button and has under 15 big blinds. Skysthelimit86, moneyhunting, and giimeyyochipz can all be considered short stacks because they have less than 20 big blinds which meets The Poker Model’s definition. kyjmbx is to my right and has about 33 big blinds while slywon3 is on my left with about 34 big blinds. These players are considered medium stacks because they have between 20-50 big blinds. nots has about 87 big blinds and gr8_1 has 120 big blinds, these are the large stacks with +50 big blinds.   

Notice how all of the above information is available to us during Phase #1:Setup. In each hand of poker that you play, it’s fully in your control to be aware of your table position, hand value, and stack size before any action occurs. At this point, we’ll want to wait for Phase #2:Pre-Flop before going any deeper because there are so many possibilities. For example, kyjmbxz raising vs. folding will change the entire hand for us.


Phase #2:Pre-Flop… kyjmbx folds and the action is on me. Because 10-10 qualifies as a playable hand under the any pocket pair segment, I min-raise to $1200. Much of the thinking has already been done during Phase #1:Setup about my opponent’s stack sizes so at this point in the hand I can think more about how I would play against each opponent.

If either of the two short stacks to my left move all-in and the action folds back to me, then I have a tough decision to make. While it’s possible that players can make any move with any two cards, these 18-19 big blind all-ins on top of my min-raise from middle table position typically have a range of 8-8+, A-J+. If we break this down, then I’d be a huge favorite (80/20) against 8-8 and 9-9. I’d be 50/50 against A-J, A-Q, and A-K. I’d be dominated by J-J, Q-Q, K-K, and A-A (20/80). Because The Poker Model values tournament life above all else, we’d make a tight fold here. There are more hands that are dominating us, then we are dominating.

For slywon3, the medium stack and nots, the large stack, we’d fold to a 3-bet. While 10-10 is a much better hand than something like 9c-8c, we’ll still be at the mercy of a continuation bet in Phase#3:Flop. If either of these players just call behind my min-raise, then we’ll need to see what comes in Phase#3:Flop, in order to make our next move for the same reasons that we didn’t get too deep into thinking about Phase #2:Pre-Flop while still in Phase #1:Setup.

giimeyochipz is also a short stack, but even shorter than skysthelimit86 and moneyhunting were. For this reason, an all-in by giimeyochipz will be a wider range of hands. The Poker Model gives a range of 6-6+, A-10+ in this situation. Now 10-10 is dominating 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, and A-10(70/30). 10-10 is 50/50 against A-J, A-Q, and A-K. 10-10 is dominated by J-J, Q-Q, K-K, and A-A. This will give 10-10 enough of an edge to make an all-in call from giimeyochipz.

We’d fold to a 3-bet from gr8_1 and play out the hand if he decides to call.


Phase #3:Flop…We thought long and hard about all of the potential action that could happen only to have everyone except the Big Blind fold! Don’t sweat it, working this poker muscle on the regular will make the previous exercise easy in the long run.

gr8_1, a large stack, calls from the Big Blind and the Flop comes 6h-5d-Jh. The first thing we should do when a Flop comes is analyze it. What do I have? Second Pair. What hands are likely and beating me now? Any Jack. What draws exist? Flush Draws and Straight Draws.

I expect gr8_1 to check because I was the initial raiser. If he bets out, then I’ll call because I have a mediocre hand. We’ll need to get more information (like the size of his bet) to look any further ahead.


Phase #3:Flop (cont)… g8_1 checks and the action is on me, still in Phase #3:Flop. This spot is standard for The Poker Model rules. We say to check behind with a mediocre hand because we do not want to be raised out of the Pot by a draw or bluff. For this reason, I check behind.


Phase #4:Turn…The Turn comes 6s and gr8_1 checks to me again. Just like on the Flop, the first thing we should do on the Turn is analyze it. What do I have? Second Pair. What hands are likely and beating me now? Any Jack. What draws exist? Turn Flush Draws and Straight Draws.

At this point, I’m beginning to think that I have the best hand. While a Jack is still likely and beating me, there are only three left in the deck and gr8_1 has checked twice. Most players would have made some bet at the Pot with a Jack at this point. I will be beat by gr8_1 if he now has a 6, but with the second one showing on the Turn, it is very unlikely. The second 6 also confirms that no Draws were filled.


Phase #4:Turn (cont)… I make a half pot bet. The purpose of this bet is to learn where gr8_1 is at in the hand. We’ll learn what we need based on his options. He can do one of three things while facing my bet:

  • Fold – If gr8_1 has no hand, then he will fold; we will win the Pot right now with 0 risk.
  • Call – If gr8_1 calls, then we can put him on a Jack that was played passively, a draw that has not been made full yet, or a pair lower than 10s played passively. We then expect a River check from g8_1 where we can check behind to the Showdown if we don’t improve. Our pair of tens should beat most hands in his range.
  • Raise – If gr8_1 raises, then we can put him on a big hand, like a 6 or on a bluff.

A good rule of thumb is that players don’t typically go from 0-100 with a bluff mid-way through the hand. So if we are raised here, then we will fold. The last thing we want to do is call and then face a huge bet in Phase #5: River.


gr8_1 folds and I win a small pot. With a call from the Big Blind, followed by checks on both the Flop and Turn, I think he may have had any two cards that didn’t connect on the Flop or Turn.

In today’s hand, we spent a bit more time breaking down our opponents stack sizes and potential all-in ranges because we had a hand that was good enough to potentially call. When none of those scenarios played out, we found ourselves playing 10-10 against a large stack from the Big Blind. We then flopped a mediocre hand and played according to Poker Model tactics to win the Pot on the Turn with a half pot bet.

When American Ninja Warrior athletes stand at the starting line and get ready to make their run at the course, they are in Phase #1:Setup. Each obstacle is a new phase that must be navigated with expert-like precision in order to be successful. As poker players, we must remain in this state of mind for hours in order to achieve our goals. Keep practicing, evaluating, and asking questions and you’ll be crossing the finish line soon.


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