Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2007) in Poker Player newspaper.
In poker, there are some misconceptions that are widely accepted as gospel. For instance, many serious players, even professionals, believe that cards come in unexplainable streaks – hot and cold. When you’re on a hot streak, they think, your fortunes are more likely to be favorable on the following hand. And when you’re on a cold streak, you should expect bad fortune to continue.
So, when they’re experiencing a good run, they take more chances and play more aggressively. When they’re experiencing a bad run, they play fewer hands.
That actually turns out to be a good tactic, but not for the reason they assume. You can, indeed, profit by playing more hands, more aggressively, when you’re getting good cards. But it has nothing to do with streaks or superstition. It has to do with the likelihood that your opponents will be more intimidated by you when they notice that you’ve been winning. In that state, they’re less likely to take full advantage of their own good cards. And that means you can make extra profit by pushing yours for maximum value without fearing retaliation.
So, let’s call that a harmless misconception. There are, unfortunately, poker misconceptions shared by both novice and experienced players that are costly. Today I’m going to talk about one that has to do with tournaments. Let’s revisit a lecture I gave over a decade ago. Here’s the transcript…
A poker tournament misconception
Even among professional poker tournament players – those who make the rounds from casino to casino across the world – playing in 300 or more events each year, you’ll hear an often-repeated tournament concept that’s absolutely screwy!
The bad advice is: You must always seek to eliminate players in a percentage-payoff tournament. Wanna know the truth? The truth is, unless you have a significant advantage, you should seldom go out of your way to eliminate players early in a tournament. Even if you have mountains of chips and your opponent has only a few, it is not your job to force an opponent all-in in hopes of eliminating him.
But this notion is so entrenched among some tournament players that they even swear that you’re required to make a “courtesy” call when you have a large stack and your opponent puts himself all-in for a small amount of chips. In truth, the later it is in the tournament, the more beneficial it is for you to do this – within reason. But, early in a tournament with, say, 201 players remaining, there is very little value in taking even slightly the worst of it to knock an opponent out of the competition. That’s the truth, and now I’ll tell you why their common advice to the contrary is bad…
Veering off course
When you’re thinking about veering off course to knock an opponent out of the tournament, you need to ask yourself this question: How much will this sacrifice cost me? Let’s say it will only cost $12 in tournament chips to try. Then ask yourself how much you will gain from eliminating an opponent. Wait! This is tricky. If there are 201 players left, you will actually gain, on average, about 1/200th of the value. That’s because the value of eliminating this one opponent is divided among the entire field of remaining players. In other words, whatever value eliminating this player adds to the expectations of all players, you — being only one of 200 players — will profit only the same as the others will. So, if it’s costing you $12 to try and you’re taking $5 the worst of it, then the value of eliminating this player right now needs to be at least $1,000 (200 players times $5). Otherwise, you usually shouldn’t go out of your way to eliminate that player. We’re talking about tournament chip money here. You might be a little more aggressive in trying to eliminate a strong opponent, but not by much.
Now it becomes clear why the advice to always try to eliminate opponents is terrible. Most players sacrifice too much in their attempt to eliminate opponents. The logic I’ve just presented is not pure, though. Who benefits most by the elimination of an opponent depends on the size of players’ stacks. Not everyone benefits equally, so I just used a crude example to show that the average benefit is shared among all players. By the way, it is not always clear who benefits more by the elimination of an opponent — a player with a large stack or the player with a small stack. At the last table, small stacks clearly benefit more, because they move up in money position when they might otherwise have been eliminated. In early stages, players with large stacks sometimes benefit more when a short stack tries to do the eliminating, because mathematically their stacks are chip-for-chip less valuable than stacks of opponents with fewer chips.
This is clear: One of the best things that can happen to all remaining players is for two opponents with huge stacks to collide and one be eliminated. You then face the same number of opposing chips, but you have fewer opponents to contend with and the chips become reduced in value, because they’re concentrated in a single stack. Contrary to the opinions of some, this concentration of chips does not make it harder for you to win a tournament. If everyone were playing primarily to win first place, your chances of winning first place are about the same with your $10,000 versus two opponents, each with $45,000, as your same $10,000 versus one player with $90,000.
In each case — ignoring other minor factors — your chance of winning are about 10 percent. That’s because in both cases, you control 10 percent of the chips and 90 percent are controlled by others. Ignoring the all-in factor, that makes it about 9-to-1 against you, no matter how you apportion the chips among your opponents. Of course, your chance of taking second are much greater against the single opponent. In fact, your chances of taking at least second are guaranteed — and that’s why you want big stacks to go to war, especially late in a tournament, so they eliminate each other, giving you a bigger payday without even playing a hand. It’s also why — when you have a lot of chips — you do not want to go to war at high risk against another big stack. That’s just gives the idle players an advantage.
The big argument players give for wanting to eliminate an opponent is: “They might come back to beat you.” So what? They might come back to beat somebody else, too. Besides, they’re more likely to beat you if you try to eliminate them and lose, because then they have more chips to build from and to beat you with. Why is it so much more tragic if a person you might have eliminated comes back to beat you than if someone else knocks you out of a tournament? There is no logic to this common wisdom. Think about it.
The only thing that matters is whether sacrificing normally profitable strategy in an effort to eliminate an opponent will add or subtract from your expected payoff. In the late stages of a tournament, where you share the benefit with fewer players when an opponent is eliminated, it’s often worth making a moderate sacrifice. In the early stages, it is not. That’s the simple truth. You may not like the sound of it, and it may run contrary to everything you’ve heard before. But it’s the truth, anyway.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC