Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2010) in Bluff magazine.
Okay, so I’m just sitting at my computer drinking Ovaltine and smoking a corncob pipe like everyone else. I’m running poker simulations and minding my own business.
In pops an unexpected friend. I hate when that happens, because my hermitage in the Ozarks is designed to be free of friends, poker players, and humans in general.
Anyway, Paul, for no apparent reason blurts, “I wish I could borrow your personality. Nothing ever bothers you about poker.” Well, that pissed me off.
“A lot of things bother me,” I countered.
“Like what?” he wanted to know.
WSOP tournament tips
Wait! Before I reveal my inner anger about poker, I just remembered – the 2010 World Series of Poker is about to start. Players often ask me for WSOP tournament tips.
Actually, you should treat WSOP events the same as any other tournaments. Just remember, you’re in a higher profile arena, and if you’re successful, your conquests will live with you forever. Sorry if I’m making you nervous.
Is the competition stronger at the WSOP then at other major tournaments? No way! Now I’m in trouble. I’m supposed to say that the WSOP attracts the most skillful players in the world. And it does.
Confused? Well, here’s the deal with that. There is a core group of super strong poker players who travel the country playing in almost all events.
Many of them are almost certain to register for today’s event. What dilutes the talent are additional entries, which tend to be weaker competitors than the core group. The more of them there are, the weaker the field becomes.
And the WSOP attracts an incredible number of players to most events. That’s the reason why WSOP competition, on average, is not especially fearsome.
Still, it’s a more difficult accomplishment to win a WSOP bracelet than to win a trophy at another tournament. Why? Well, despite the fact that the fields are weaker on average, you’ve still got to outlast all those top pros plus hundreds or even thousands of less-skillful opponents who might get lucky.
Now that you understand the reality, here are two tips.
TIP ONE: Play the tightest poker you’ve ever played in your life. Disregard what anyone told you about changing strategy depending on the stage of the tournament. You need to outlast your opponents. I have proven through millions of hands of computer simulation that tight is right at every stage of a proportional-payoff tournament, in which first place gets a percentage of the prize pool, second place a smaller percentage, and so on.
There are two exceptions. On the earliest rounds, if your table is populated with opponents who are particularly weak, it is arguably correct to go on a chip gathering mission.
Often this will fail and your increased risk will result in your early exit. Still, aggression might be worthwhile in some cases, because you can get a big head start in the chip race.
I recommend you only do this if opponents are especially loose, not if they’re just a little loose. The concept here is that as the tournament advances, a disproportionately large number of weak players will be eliminated, meaning the average field will grow stronger and stronger.
When that happens, you’ll find it more difficult to increase your stack. Despite this concession to tournament reality, I believe you’ll almost always have a higher profit expectation simply by playing tight and hoping to get lucky, both early and, of course, late – when it matters most.
The second exception to the play-tight rule centers on shootout and heads-up events in which only the winner advances. (Conceptually a heads-up match is just a two-player shootout.)
There are four such events scheduled: Event #6 ($5,000 no-limit hold ’em shootout on June 1), event #35 ($10,000 buy-in heads-up no-limit hold ’em on June 18), event #39 ($1,500 buy-in no-limit hold ’em shootout on June 21), and event #53 ($1,500 buy-in, limit hold ’em shootout on June 30).
Those are the only events that allow you to use all your sophisticated poker skills and take risks using your best finesses. That’s because there is no penalty for winning first place.
The penalty I’m talking about is that if you win a typical proportional-payout event, you have to give most of the chips away in prize money to opponents you’ve already conquered. This means that it’s better to play to survive and be awarded a portion of that penalty, stumbling into first place if you’re lucky, rather than pursuing it. So, play exceptionally tight if you want the highest profit expectation possible. It’s as simple as that.
TIP TWO: Don’t let your small stack discourage you. Please listen. If you buy into an event for $1,500 and your stack is still the same late in a proportional-payoff tournament, you’re in great shape, despite the mountains of chips that surround you.
The math is obvious, when you think about it. If the event pays $500,000 for first place, $250,000 for second, and $125,000 for third, wouldn’t you like to buy-in for $1,500 when only three players remain?
You’d be guaranteed at least $125,000. And although that’s an extreme example, it turns out that the longer you go in a tournament with the same amount of chips, the more you earn, on average. It doesn’t matter if opponents have 20 times more chips than you do; you’re still better off than when you started.
The point is, you shouldn’t squander a short stack in desperation. Hang in and hope to get lucky. As they say, “All it takes is a chip and a chair.” Of course, you’ll usually end up with just a chair, whether you play loose or tight. But tight is what I recommend.
Things that make me angry about poker
Back to Paul, who wrongly suggested nothing ever bothered me about poker.
Although it was a great honor, thanks to Oklahoma Johnny Hale, I secretly hated being inducted into the Seniors’ Poker Players Hall of Fame a few years ago during the World Series of Poker. I don’t feel “senior,” and I hope I don’t act that way.
As I told those gathered when I accepted the induction, “The day you get inducted into a seniors hall of fame is a day you don’t get laid.” It just doesn’t translate into a good pick-up line: “Come up to my room, baby, and help me celebrate my induction into the seniors’ hall of fame.”
Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.
Young player truth
What makes me livid is this whole young-players-are-superior attitude. The truth is that you see a lot of young players winning tournaments, simply because there are more of them.
It’s the same reason you see many more men than women winning. There are great young players, sure. But they aren’t the majority. And the young players who win tournaments often aren’t great. When I was 25, I thought I was an almost perfect player. But Mike Caro today would have destroyed Mike Caro at age 25.
Okay, here’s another thing about poker that offends me deeply. And this has to do with the World Series of Poker.
Why isn’t there a draw poker event? I mean, come on! Draw is the most recognized form of poker. It’s the one that’s in your favorite Western movies where players bet deeds to their ranches.
Until hold ’em hogged the spotlight recently, it was probably the most widely played type of poker. Sure, it was largely excluded from public casinos, because it has only two betting rounds, which reduces rake potential.
Doyle Brunson declared in his original Super/System that I was the best draw poker player in the world. Others said the same. So maybe the game was retired in my name, like a basketball jersey. Fine, I feel honored. But it seems silly to me that in 57 WSOP events for 2010, they couldn’t find room for a single draw poker championship.
Here’s the biggest gripe I have about poker. Serious players.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t play poker seriously; I’m saying that you shouldn’t appear to be serious.
Nothing irritates me more than being in a high-profit game, surrounded by giggling players throwing chips my way, than when a tough-as-nails player sits down and acts the part of a somber, studious poker pro.
Suddenly everyone thinks their play is being scrutinized and the party is over. These same would-be pros will talk endlessly about getting tiny extra edges. They don’t realize that their demeanor costs them (and us all) more money than they could possibly win back by improving their tactics in the ways they’re discussing.
Paul was wrong. It’s not that nothing bothers me. It’s that I only share what bothers me with you.— MC