Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
To succeed at poker, you need to survive. Today’s self-interview deals with bankroll survival, with tournament survival, and with the powerful truth that survival isn’t a factor at all when making decisions in regular non-tournament games.
I’ll explain it all. So, let’s get started.
Question 1: What does survival have to do with making poker decisions?
In everyday poker games, outside the tournament arena, you should never be thinking about survival when you make decisions. If you’re playing for uncomfortably high-stakes and worried about surviving a large pot, then you’re competing in a game too large for your bankroll. You shouldn’t be there.
You see, the nature of a winning poker strategy dictates that you must invite risk, not avoid it. If your personality is such that you crave reduced risk, poker probably isn’t the right game for you.
A primary goal of poker should be to put your money at risk. You should be eager to do that, as long as that risk offers a long-term advantage. You could play more safely by declining to exploit small advantages and waiting for really big edges before risking your money. But, then you’d be surrendering the sum of the profit from all those small edges. And those small edges added together often comprise the largest portion of your profit.
So, you should want to take risk. You should be looking for opportunities to put your chips in jeopardy. I know that sounds strange, but that’s really what successful poker strategy is about – finding ways to increase risk at an advantage.
Question 2: Can you give an example of how poker players make a mistake when playing to survive?
Sure. The concept of “limiting the field” is probably the best example of this mistake.
When you act to limit the field, you’re trying to chase opponents out of the pot by betting or raising. This is sometimes okay if you’re bluffing or hold a weak hand. But that’s not how the tactic is usually employed. It’s used, instead, with strong cards on the theory that you get protected by eliminating opponents who might get lucky and beat you.
What’s wrong with that? Plenty. First, if you hold a superior hand, usually you want to make it more vulnerable, not less vulnerable. You want to reduce your chances of winning the pot, not increase them.
Yes, of course, that’s counter-intuitive. But it’s the truth. The concept of protecting strong hands has almost no place in poker. You want that hand to be at risk. Why? It’s because strong hands have an advantage and players pursuing you with weaker hands do so at a disadvantage. That means profit for you, eventually. It also means more risk of losing a pot, but that’s a risk you want to take. If you succeed in limiting the field, you’re chasing away that profit.
Question 3: So, are you saying that you never want to limit the field in poker?
Not exactly. Actually, it turns out that there’s a precise number of opponents for each hand that’s the most profitable. Too many means less profit. Too few means less profit.
Fine. But it practice, with most really strong hands, it’s the more opponents, the merrier. Another key consideration is that if you bet or raise hoping to limit the field, you’re likely to chase away the opponents with the weakest hands and end up competing against just the strongest ones that supply less profit.
Most times when it’s profitable to bet or raise with strong hands, the value isn’t in limiting the field. The value is in being called. So sometimes players decide to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.
Remember, reducing risk isn’t something you should do in poker – at least in normal poker games. Invite risk. Risk is money.
Question 4: So, you said you’d talk about bankrolls and tournaments in terms of survival. Will you?
I will, yes, and it will be short and simple. Let’s start with bankrolls.
Decisions about bankroll survival make sense – unlike decisions about surviving hands during a poker game. In order to maximize bankroll survival, you need to know a few things.
First, you should treat your bankroll as a tool necessary to conduct business. That means, you shouldn’t spend parts of your bankroll on fun things, just because you think you have enough funds to weather a few days of stormy bad luck. Bad weather can last longer than you think in poker. Don’t spend your bankroll.
Second, once your bankroll has matured, you need to choose games that don’t put it in jeopardy. Keep reminding yourself that your bankroll was once young and growing and you had to nourish it to bring it to its current maturity. Now is the time when you want to take less risk, because it would be hard to start over again.
Third, when you’re first starting a poker career, it’s okay to take bigger risk with a small bankroll. If you lose, you can find ways to start over by gathering a little money to take another shot. But if that bankroll grows big, it’s worth preserving. That’s where survival comes into play.
Question 5: What do poker tournaments have to do with survival?
The most common form of poker tournaments are proportional payout. That’s where first place wins a portion of the prize pool, second place a smaller portion, third place a still-smaller portion, and so forth.
The problem with this type of tournament is that it often punishes excellent poker decisions. In normal games, you can take advantage of every edge, no matter how risky. As long as there’s a long-term expectation of profit, you should take chances.
But in proportional-payout tournaments, the winner must gather all the chips on the table, then give most of them back to other opponents already conquered – those who finished close, but didn’t win. That’s a penalty.
And the mathematical truth about this penalty is that the most profitable strategy is to play to survive, not to win first place. So, that makes for a silly tournament – one where the correct strategy is to avoid first place and hope to stumble into it.
Your profit comes from survival, by giving yourself the best chance of getting money from late finishes that are rewarded by taking prize money from the winner. So, you should take less risk. You should play to survive.
That means most of those risky, high-profit weapons should be thrown out of your poker arsenal in these tournaments. That’s not great poker, but it leads to bigger profit.
So, let’s sum up today’s word, “survival.” You should strive for survival with large bankrolls, but not so much with small ones. In typical tournaments, survival is the most important goal. And with regular poker decisions, survival doesn’t matter. — MC