Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
Tourney, tourney, tourney!
Everywhere you look, another poker tournament. Once tournaments were quite rare.
I remember back in the 1970s when there were hardly any poker tournaments at all, except for the first iterations of the World Series of Poker, which originally only attracted a handful of contestants to the main event. Now, if you follow the tournament trail, you can compete in over 300 events each year.
Today I’m going to continue this series of question and answer columns, giving me a chance to pose the questions that I really want to answer, rather than relying on reporters to ask the right stuff. And we’ll focus on poker tournaments. Here we go…
Question 46: When did you first play in a poker tournament?
It was in the mid-1970s. I had been playing almost exclusively in Gardena, California, but when a card room a couple hours away in Adelanto held a $100 buy-in tournament, I competed for the first time.
Question 47: And? How did you fare?
I won it. First place was only worth a couple thousand dollars, I think, but they gave me a huge trophy — which was what mattered to me at the time.
Question 48: Way to go! And when was the next time you played?
About a year later. It was also in Adelanto.
After winning the first tourney, I had decided never to play another one. I wanted to retire from poker tournament play undefeated.
But I’d driven a poker playing friend to the tournament and intended to observe. There was one empty seat at one table and the floorman kept pestering me to take it.
I said no, no, no! My conviction was so strong that I didn’t sit down until they began to shuffle the first hand.
Question 49: So that was the end of your undefeated tourney streak, right? How high did you finish?
I won it.
Question 50: Oh, well, way to go! You’ve pretty much avoided tournaments over the years. With the increasing popularity, have you changed your mind about participating more often?
Question 51: What fundamentally don’t you like about poker tournaments?
Mostly I don’t like the proportional payoff system where first place has to win all the chips and then give most of them away in prize money to players that have already been conquered. To me, that sucks.
The problem is that it fundamentally changes your strategy. Instead of playing to win the tournament by using your most skillful tactics and finesses, mathematically the best course becomes to play unimaginatively in order to advance into the money. And you’ll only take first place as a lucky bonus prize.
You’ll make the most money if you sacrifice many of your most aggressive finesse plays — the things that make you world class — and become meeker. These tournaments aren’t a test of your best poker abilities; they’re primarily a test of survival.
Yes, there are a few strong and creative plays you can make in tournaments, but many other possibilities are restricted. You need to decide if you’re going to play for profit, sacrificing your best chance of winning the first-place trophy, or play for first-place, sacrificing your best shot at profit. What kind of a tournament choice is that?
Question 52: Is gathering chips early in a poker tournament the best strategy?
Obviously you’re better off if you do it, but you shouldn’t go out of your way to attack chips early. It’s a misconception that you should.
Even in the earliest stages of the tournament, you should play to survive. Of course, you have a better chance of gathering chips early, if you get favorable cards, because the field tends to be weaker before the less sophisticated players get disproportionately eliminated.
Question 53: How often is the winner of a tournament the best player?
I’ve estimated that the very best player in a typical tournament has about three times as good a chance of winning as an average player. That means that in a field of 300 players, the best one wins once in 100 such events, whereas the average player wins just once in 300 events.
Since there are so many more mediocre players than world-class players competing, you can figure that the winners will routinely come from among the large pool of lesser skilled players, not from the small pool of top-tier players. And certainly the best player, whoever that happens to be, isn’t going to win very often.
Question 54: Is it bad sportsmanship not to try to eliminate an opponent if you have the chance?
You should only go out of your way to eliminate a player if doing so provides you personally with an expectancy of profit that outweighs the extra risk. The math is complex, but it boils down to this: You should often act to eliminate a player late in a tournament, but seldom early in a tournament.
Question 55: Are tourneys good promotions for casinos?
And tournaments have become so popular that in tightly competing markets, management would be unwise not to host them. Major tournaments, especially those that are televised, help to popularize poker and develop new players while, at the same time, showcase the casino.
Less-publicized tournaments are problematic for poker rooms cumulatively, because they tend to draw players from one casino to the next for a short time, thus limiting customer loyalty. At present, most poker rooms would probably be better off if there weren’t any tournaments, except for major televised ones. But the reality is that the tournament promotion war is raging, and you need to shoot or be shot.
Question 56: If the 500 top players played in a tournament that lasted 10 years, would the winner be the best?
If there were a significant difference between the best player and the others, the best player would probably win. Otherwise, if the skills were very close, 10 years wouldn’t be long enough to determine who’s best with a great degree of certainty.
Question 57: In a tournament among 500 players lasting 10 years, which well-known player would be most likely to win?
I would. — MC