My best rant against poker tournaments ever

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Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.


What the hell is going on with you people and poker tournaments? In my mind, the only truly interesting thing that happened recently is that Kathy Liebert won the Party Poker Million tournament. I thought that was cool. But, beyond that, if it weren’t for the fact that my friend Andy Glazer and a few other journalists have great talent for covering these events, I’d probably ignore them altogether.

I’ve already written one Poker Digest column detailing a few of the things I dislike about poker tournaments. Today, I’m going to put all my cards on the table.

  1. Poker tournaments aren’t even good promotions. Too much advertising budget is spent on tournaments and not enough on attracting day-in and day-out customers. Why? Well, most top managers wish they didn’t have to put so much emphasis on tournaments. But they must, they think. Otherwise, the competition will be luring away a big portion of their customers all the time, and they’ll never get a chance to lure them back. Hosting tournaments is a way to bring customers back once in a while. But today, there’s an endless tournament war. Casinos don’t think they can afford to opt out of this war. I think they can. But there has to be something terribly wrong with my thinking, because everyone is scurrying around to add tournaments.
  2. Ubiquitous tournaments have created poker nomads. And poker nomads are the worst kind of customers. Remember, many of these players once played day-in and day-out in regular games at casinos. I think they should be encouraged to return. But, this must be bad thinking, because no one’s doing it.
  3. If it were my casino, I would consider hosting only tournaments for my most loyal customers. The more hours customers play in a month, the more chips they receive in the tournament. The trick is to use your resources to corral your customers and reward them for sticking with you. Rather than let other casinos lure away your customers 50 weeks a year so that you can fight back by bringing them home for two weeks, encourage them to stick with you permanently. Of course, that’s merely what I would do if I owned a casino. It must not be right, because I don’t see it happening.
  4. Yes, tournaments have a purpose in popularizing poker. But just a few major tournaments a year do this best. You get more positive publicity when tournaments are special than when they’re common. The only other tournaments that make sense are for new or little-known casinos that are hoping to add to their base of regular customers. I must be mistaken, though, because tournaments are everywhere.
  5. For many years, I’ve explained how those typical percentage payoff poker tournaments (where you play down to one winner, but award lesser prize money to close finishers at the table) are fundamentally flawed. That’s because anyone who uses the best poker tactics to seek the championship gets punished.

    You see, the winner of the tournament has to conquer all the other players and win all the chips. Then, directly from those stacks of legitimately earned winnings, the champion must give back most of it to pay second place, third place … sometimes way down to 36th place or more! What this means, from a mathematical and logical perspective, is that the champion is punished. All other close finishers are rewarded.

    I’ve explained this problem in detail previously. What this means in terms of strategy is that, conceptually, if profit is your motivation for playing a tournament, you should often sacrifice your best, aggressive poker plays in quest of survival. You should try to be among the top finishers by avoiding many of the finesses you would use to win money at a regular poker table. If you stumble into first place, fine. But you should not use tactics that will provide your best chance of winning. You win, you get punished. Period.

    Not fair

    Does this seem fair to you? I think that a tournament should be mostly about crowning a champion. Most poker tournaments punish the champion. The purpose is not to win the trophy; it is simply to win money in the long run. The only legitimate rebuttal I’ve ever heard to my argument is that you should not treat the tournament as a single event. You should just try to win the most money possible over the long term. In other words, tournaments become a daily grind where the championship trophy becomes the booby prize. That trophy goes to the only player who had to give away money already won to other players.

    It’s stupid. Beyond stupid. Solutions? Well, we can have winner-take-all tournaments, but those would not be popular, because you’d have trouble attracting 300 and more players where 299 of them lose their buy-ins. Besides, there would certainly be deals made among the finalists, dividing the money, anyway. At the point a deal was made (or even prematurely in anticipation of a deal), you’d be faced with a situation where you shouldn’t play your best everyday strategy – you should play less to win and more to survive.

    I’ve proposed that all tournaments should be based on the “shoot-out” approach, first popularized by Craig Kaufman, where the winner of each table wins everything and advances to confront other winners under the same terms. Every time you conquered a table, you’d get a share of the prize pool. To pay out more diverse prize amounts, you could have the final tables set up for fewer opponents. Let’s say the two semi-final tables have four players each. That means all eight players at both tables have already won a significant share of the prize pool. Now, two of them will win a significantly bigger share. Those two will meet heads up, and the winner will get the biggest cash prize. In such tournaments, there is never significant advantage to sacrificing your best everyday poker strategy. Play your best poker and you can win both the most tournaments and the most money.

    Those are the types of tournaments I’d offer if I owned a casino. But, then, I must be wrong, because nobody’s doing it.

  6. Despite common impressions to the contrary, there’s not enough money to be made by serious players following the tournament circuit. The best players in the world are often capable of making much more money in regular poker games or by pursuing other careers. Most events cost from $100 to $300 to enter. I believe the best poker players can only expect to earn profit that is three times as much as average players. If you can do that, you’re truly world class. But what does it mean?

    It means that if you enter a $200 tournament, you can expect your average return to be three times that – assuming you’re among the best players in the world. That’s $600. Take away the $200 buy-in, the entry fee, tips when you finish in the money and figure that’s an average $350 profit for your day’s work. Out of that there will be significant travel expenses, food, and more. You will have to pay taxes. My guess is that the most skillful players on the “tour” can expect to average less than $200 per event in profit. Some will get lucky and do much better for a few years running. They’ll be perceived as stars, but their long-term expectation is really not as great as they assume.

    This means, simply, that skillful players with means to make big money outside of tournaments can’t afford the grind. It’s too big of a pay cut. And the fluctuations are monumental. Even the best player might enter 100 events without winning. That’s my take on what’s actually happening, but it must be wrong, because nobody shares this viewpoint.

  7. Tournaments are even worse for casinos for another reason. Cardrooms are most successful when there are fewer big winners. The best thing that can happen is that players’ stacks don’t fluctuate much, so non-professional players can afford to play every day. If you take all the money and put it in the hands of a few, players go broke, and it’s much harder to maintain games. And this is precisely what poker tournaments do. They take money from hundreds of players, money that is needed for the poker economy, and redistribute it so that the winners go out and buy refrigerators. As I’ve been saying for 20 years, there’s nothing sadder than to see perfectly good poker money spent on a refrigerator. But that’s just how I see it, and this must be wrong, because I haven’t heard these sentiments from many others.
  8. There are ridiculous rules in tournaments. One says you can’t tell the truth about your hand. I mix the truth with lies all the time when I’m playing poker. It’s psychological warfare. It makes poker poker. But if I can’t randomize and sometimes tell the truth, then everything I say must be a lie. Therefore you can gain real information about hands by knowing that whatever anyone says about a hand in a tournament is not true. The best solution is to sink to silence. And silence kills the spirit of poker.

    And how about this one. You’re not allowed to show your cards to a lone opponent. I agree that you should never expose your cards when there is more than one opponent against you, but heads up, it’s different. Heads up, in real poker games, I’ll frequently show my whole hand face-up on the table after an opponent has bet. I then ask, “What do you think I should do?” It’s easier for me to get a tell on an opponent this way, because he knows with absolute certainty whether he has the best hand. I’ve also been known to bet a medium  hand when I believe my opponent has missed his hand. I then show my complete hand on the table. Now he knows for sure whether he has me beat and whether he should fold or raise. What I’m trying to do is encourage him to bluff. I put my faith in my ability to read him when this happens. The question is: Why shouldn’t I be able to use every poker weapon I know to prove I’m the best player. Isn’t that what a poker tournament is about?

    But, obviously, my opinion about these matters is wrong, because these rules remain in tournaments.

  9. I’m not against poker tournaments. In fact, I’ve been promising to publish the ultimate poker tournament strategy book for 15 years. It will be in my forthcoming Pro Poker — Play by Play series. There really are powerful tactics you can use in tournaments, things that I’ve researched that have never been discussed before. Like all my projects, that book is long delayed, but it is coming, and I’m proud of it already. The fact that I’m planning to make that stuff public still doesn’t make me a fan of tournaments. And I still don’t plan to devote my life to playing on the so-called tournament circuit. But I must be wrong about that decision, because so many others are doing it.
  10. By the way, I’m an egomaniac and I already know who the best player is. And I know why. So, in I hereby – today and forever – declare that I am the grand champion of all poker tournaments. Having so declared, it is now clear to me that all tournaments are established to determine the second best player in the world.

    The very first World Series of Poker didn’t even have a tournament. The “champion,” Johnny Moss, was voted into the title by a handful of his “peers.” Fine. If you ask me, we should have just left it that way. Of course, I could be wrong about my poker abilities, because don’t play many tournaments and will never be high in the rankings.

In fact, theoretically, I could be wrong about anything. But historically it hasn’t happened yet. — MC


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Mike Caro

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mikecaro FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/caro.mike Known as the "Mad Genius of Poker," Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority of poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full biography at Poker1.com.

11 thoughts on “My best rant against poker tournaments ever”

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  1. I play in a lot of tournaments. Home base being Thunder valley. Same as others it’s top heavy. I never played down to the winner except in the big tournaments. and even then the top three make a deal. Most of the time it gets down to 5-6 players and a chop is made and the one with the most chips gets a little from everyone so he’s declared the winner. Personally I have played in only one cash game and after 5 hours I walked away with $600.00. So I guess you are right Mike. I am batting 1000 in cash table games. lol
    I have met and made friends with the regular tournament players we know who to watch but it still comes down to luck more then cash games were you can play your game. But also you have to be ready to put in the hours to be a cash winner. I think it’s right for me because if you sign up an hour late they let you in with a full buy-in and most of the fishes are gone. That’s a new thing that’s getting the attention of better players to go ahead and sign up late. I’m not a young gun, well 54 years old now a days is younger then my past relatives lived. they say. I don’t feel young. I will just let the young guns come out shooting both barrels when the tournament starts. just my opinions. Every one has one. Finish the book Mike. It would be interesting to read after nuking the tournaments. well off to my $100.00 buy-in

  2. Tournaments have had a notable diminutive effect on the cash games in the local casino. What used to be constantly packed 12 table room has given way to 3 satellites a week and two monthly multi-day tournaments. Previously I could play 27 days of cash games and 3 days of tournaments, but now its about half that. Players come in, play, bust, then leave. Players who do not play tournaments just avoid the casino all together, or opt to sin in on other table games rather than sit on a 3 hour waiting list for the two cash games that open up.
    It is not uncommon after a Saturday afternoon freeze-out to see only 4 or 5 games going, where normally there would be 10 games.
    I’ve read about this effect in Doyle’s writings, as well as in yours. Having observed a similar effect in what is otherwise an isolated environment, Argentina, it would seem that there is more evidence for this argument than against.

  3. Sorry, Mike, but I’m with Max on this one. I think he hit the nail on the head.

    1. Hi, Dan —

      I also agree with what Max said.

      It is wholly consistent with what I explained. However, it consists of a separate set of observations, unrelated to the issues I raised.

      First place is punished. That’s an irrefutable mathematical fact. Because of that fact, profitable strategy must be geared toward survival, sacrificing some exceptional poker skills. Also a fact.

      Think about it. Thanks for expressing your opinion at Poker1.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  4. I don’t like tournaments either primarily because the blinds go up. I just personally find that very annoying.

    However I don’t see any problem with the proportional payout structures.
    When you enter a tournament, it isn’t your chips you’re paying for. Your chips have NO CASH VALUE…none whatsoever…ever…at any point in the tournament, even if you win first place.
    The chips are merely “units” to facilitate the operation of the game.
    When you enter a tournament you’re paying for a SEAT. It’s your SEAT or “place” in the tournament that may at some point be worth a cash prize. Your cash prize will depend on how many other players still have a SEAT when you bust out…again, nothing to do with chips whatsoever.
    If you’re the last player in the tournament to still have a SEAT, you win the biggest prize…again, nothing to do with chips whatsoever.

    Now if it were the case that the chips themselves had cash value, I would agree with you…but then, once I had quadrupled my stack, I’d simply cash out and go home.

  5. Most good players can make more money playing cash games than tournaments. I think Mike misses the point for why players like playing tournaments. One word; LIKE. At least thats why I play them. I’m no tournament junkie but I LIKE playing tournaments every once in a while. Mike is also wrong again, in assuming that he is the best player in the world. I am. I got a bigger ego.
    jk Mike.

  6. Hello again Mike,

    Just wondering if you guys at Doyles Room or anyother online site has ever thought about running a winner-take-all style tournament. I think it would be an interesting change of pace if there were a couple of cheap $1-2 buy in tournaments that were winner take all, and I’m sure there would be other people who would get into them.

    Thanks, and once again, love the site!

    Alex in Indianapolis

  7. That fact is the best player often does not win, due to luck being such a big factor in poker, so it is right to reward 2nd, 3rd place, etc. However, I do agree that rewarding too many players is not good

    1. Hi, Pokerina Flash —

      Just to make it clear, I agree that 2nd, 3rd, and many more places should be paid in large-field poker tournaments. My point is that the way it’s done most frequently today, through proportional payouts, makes playing your best game less profitable. That runs contrary to the purpose of a tournament.

      I’ve proposed other methods.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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