When Liz Lieu and Erik Sagstrom agreed to face off in a series of three $200,000 heads-up matches, it was originally billed as "Beauty and the Beast." While Lieu is definitely a beauty, Sagstrom (a tall, blonde Swede) is certainly no beast. But the most intriguing aspect of this match had nothing to do with appearances — how would an online poker legend (Erik123) fare against a top cash game pro in a live game?
The idea was sparked online about a month ago, when Sagstrom and Lieu were playing heads up at MartinsPoker.com, where Lieu recently signed on as a sponsored team member. There was some trash talking between them, and it culminated when Sagstrom called Lieu a "fish" (although he said it in Swedish). Lieu challenged him to back up his words by playing in a live cash game, where she is more experienced. Sagstrom agreed, and they worked out the details when both were in Las Vegas for the WPT World Championship.
The format would be three separate heads-up matches at the Venetian Casino, with each player buying in for $200,000 each time. The game would be $2,000-$4,000 limit hold'em. If one of them swept all three matches (3-0), they would take $600,000. In the more likely scenario where one player took two out of three, the profit would be $200,000.
The month-old Venetian poker room was a gracious host, giving the players a roped-off area in the center of the room where fans had an excellent view of the match. And there were a few seats inside the rail for their closest friends, including Martin de Knijff, John Phan, and Claus Nielsen (who finished 4th in the WPT World Championship). Other big players that checked out the match over the weekend included Barry Greenstein, Johnny Chan, Minh Ly, Patrik Antonius, Jan Sorensen, and John D'Agostino.
Now, on to the action.
Friday, May 5: Match #1
The first match started at 5:00 pm on Friday, when each player started with ten stacks of 20 yellow ($1,000) chips — $200,000.
Lieu had the early advantage, getting Sagstrom down to just three stacks ($60,000) three different times, but she was never able to deliver a knockout blow. In one key hand, Lieu had pocket jacks on a flop of 9h-8c-6c. She correctly put Sagstrom on a flush draw, and figured she was still ahead when the last two cards fell 4d-9d. But Sagstrom had much more than a flush draw with his 10c-9c — he flopped top pair, a flush draw, and a gut-shot straight-flush draw. The nine on the river gave him trips to win the hand. According to Lieu, "There was maximum action on that hand."
Sagstrom proved so adept at getting out of trouble that Lieu called him "a cat with nine lives. He never dies and sticks out to survive every time."
Sagstrom had battled back into the lead by midnight, when they agreed to stop for the day. Sagstrom had $245,000 to Lieu's $155,000.
Saturday, May 6: Match #2
The two players decided to start fresh on Saturday, with a full $200,000 each. While Sagstrom proved lucky in the first match when the chips were down, Lady Luck was sitting with Lieu for Match #2.
Lieu quickly took the early lead after turning a full house in the second hand and getting action. She carried that momentum to a $300,000-to-$100,000 chip lead after just 15 minutes, and half an hour later, Sagstrom was already down to about $55,000.
About an hour later, Sagstrom was climbing out of the hole when he flopped top pair with K-J on a board of K-7-4 with two diamonds. The turn was the 5d, and the river was the Jd, giving him two pair on a four-diamond board. He bet it anyway, and Lieu called with pocket eights — but she had the 8d. Lieu won the hand with her flush, picking up a pot worth over $50,000, and Sagstrom was knocked back down to about $45,000.
It was a steady decline for Sagstrom from there, until he got his last $19,000 in the pot after a flop of J-7-6 with two hearts. Sagstrom showed J-5 (top pair) against Lieu's 9h-8h (flush draw, open-ended straight draw). There was no clear favorite in the hand, but the ace of hearts fell on the turn to clinch Match #2 for Lieu.
Lieu took the lead in the competition, claiming the first $200,000 victory. She stayed aggressive all day regardless of her cards, and it led to a very short match — a little over two hours.
Saturday, May 6: Match #1, cont'd
With the early finish to Match #2, they agreed to finish Match #1 after a few hours for rest and dinner. So Saturday night, they sat back down with $245,000 for Sagstrom and $155,000 for Lieu. Sagstrom was the aggressor this time, hitting two big pots early with A-A and A-Q to drop Lieu down to just $40,000.
Lieu was quickly against the ropes and all in for $12,000 after a flop of 9-8-6 with A-J. Sagstrom hid his cards until the river — when an ace spiked for Lieu. Sagstrom mucked in disgust, and Lieu doubled up. In the next half hour, Lieu would work her way all the way back to $165,000. That ace on the river must have nagged at Sagstrom somewhere in the back of his mind.
But Sagstrom got his groove back over the next two hours, picking up the bigger pots until Lieu was down just $6,000. The next hand, she flopped two pair with K-9 against J-3, doubling to $12,000. She won a few more pots to get as high as $33,000, but it proved to be a dead man's bounce. In her last hand, she was all in after a flop of J-10-9. She had a 8-7 (for a jack-high straight) against Sagstrom's K-10 (pair of tens, gut-shot straight draw). But a queen fell on the turn to give Sagstrom a higher straight, and Lieu had just three outs to chop the pot with a king on the river. The last card was a 6, and Sagstrom had claimed Match #1. (We still call it Match #1, even though it concluded after Match #2.)
The two players were now even with one match each, so it would all come down to a decisive third match. And what a match it would be.
Sunday, May 7: Match #3
The third match was a strong finale, with plenty of ups and downs for both players. It would start a little late (blame Vegas traffic), and it would run a little long, but there were plenty of fans who stuck it out to the end — 1:30 am.
Limit hold'em is a much faster game than no-limit, for a variety of reasons. There's no extra thought needed for the size of a bet, and no single mistake can cost you all your chips. With a ShuffleMaster machine assisting the dealer, they were able to play a lot of hands over the weekend — approximately 70 hands per hour.
The early action was not particularly exciting. Lieu would later comment that neither one of them seemed to be in the mood to play. Lieu climbed to $265,000 early, but the momentum shifted to Sagstrom until he had about $260,000. Then the pendulum swung back to Lieu, and after two and a half hours, they were right back where they started, with about $200,000 each.
Then Sagstrom went on a quick rush, winning a big pot with 8-5. (He flopped two pair and rivered a full house.) A few hands later, his 9-6 flopped three of a kind and filled up again on a board of K-6-6-5-9. Suddenly, Sagstrom had a $300,000-to-$100,000 lead.
But he didn't stop there. Lieu lost her aggressiveness, and Sagstrom capitalized as her stack dwindled down to less than $30,000. It was about that time that Martin de Knijff showed up.
de Knijff had a quick private chat with Lieu at the table between hands, and I wish I could tell you what he said — because it worked. Lieu started stealing small pots and winning bigger ones, and the next 40 minutes saw her steadily climbing back to even. Refreshed and resuscitated, Lieu had regained her focus that was lacking earlier. No player could climb out of a hole that deep without some luck on their side, but Lieu was making the most of every hand.
At 10:00 pm, they took a 45-minute dinner break with $219,000 for Lieu and $181,000 for Sagstrom. When they returned, the swings were small and went back and forth, and there was no end in sight. Sagstrom had a flight scheduled early the next morning, and it wasn't clear how late they would play if the match continued.
About an hour after the dinner break, Lieu flopped a set of threes for a big pot, and she went on a rush that took her up to $311,000. She had him down to about three stacks ($60,000) by midnight, but like Match #1, she couldn't finish him off. Sagstrom wasn't able to climb out of the hole, but he wasn't giving up.
At 12:45 am, Sagstrom hit his low of $36,000. Then they played a big pot on a board of 10-8-3-10-K. Sagstrom had K-8 (two pair, kings and eights), and Lieu showed A-8 (two pair, tens and eights). Lieu had him dominated the entire way, but Sagstrom hit a three-outer on the river to win the pot, taking him back up to $60,000. (If the river were a blank, Sagstrom would have been crippled with just $12,000.)
That gave him a second wind, building his stack to $114,000 by the time they took a short break 15 minutes later. In retrospect, he might have passed on the break. He won the first hand back to get as high as $132,000. It was all downhill from there for Sagstrom.
The next hand saw incredible action, with both players reraising on the turn until they each added seven big bets ($28,000) to the pot. The board showed Kh-Qs-9d-Ad, and Lieu was sitting on the temporary nuts with J-10. With this much action, she was clearly hoping for a blank on the river — but the last card was the Kd, pairing the board and completing a possible flush draw. But when Lieu showed her straight, Sagstrom mucked, and he was down to $86,000.
Sagstrom got a temporary reprieve on the next hand, when he rivered a set of jacks for a $16,000 pot, but Lieu quickly bounced back when she rivered a gut-shot straight with Q-J.
With just $44,000 in chips, Sagstrom held A-3 when the flop came A-5-4, giving him a pair of aces and a gut-shot straight draw. But the turn card put two clubs on the board, and Lieu reraised him after the Qc hit the river. Sagstrom took a long time to consider the call, but since Lieu seemed eager to get all the money in the pot on this hand, he felt he was beat. He couldn't afford to lose $4,000 just to see her hand, so he folded, showing the A-3. He was down to $24,000, but he was clearly ready to fight to the end.
He would survive for another ten minutes, getting as high as $62,000 at one point. But at 1:33 am, Sagstrom found pocket threes, and when the flop fell Q-8-4, he seemed determined not to fold. The turn card was a 5, and the last card was — a 3. Sagstrom rivered a set, and eagerly put his last $11,000 into the pot. He showed his set, but Lieu flipped over A-2.
Sagstrom didn't know it, but he was leading until the river. When the 3 fell, it must have looked like a great big life preserver, coming to his rescue. Instead, it drowned him.
Liz Lieu had won the third match, giving her a 2-out-of-3 victory in the heads-up challenge, and a profit of $200,000. The crowd of about two dozen spectators cheered for Lieu as she shook Sagstrom's hand after the match.
Looking Forward and Looking Back
Both players had their ups and downs over the weekend, and both had luck on their side at key moments. The heads-up challenge could have easily ended with either player on top, and both proved to be worthy players.
Heads-up matches aren't anything new with Andy Beal playing the Corporation in February, and Barry Greenstein accepting Daniel Negreanu's challenge last summer. But this match started out as a fun challenge, and ended up as a spectator event with media coverage. How long will it be before another player issues a heads-up challenge to be decided on a public battlefield?
And this new "trend" could take us all the way back to 1949, when Benny Binion set up a public heads-up match between Johnny Moss and Nick "the Greek" Dandalos. The format worked back then, and it still seems to work today.