Poker’s great tournament untruth

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

Some say that you should play differently at various stages of a poker tournament. I call this “the great tournament untruth.” At least, it’s an untruth in your typical proportional-payoff tournament.

Let’s be clear about what a “proportional-payoff” tournament is. The most common event in a poker tournament today pools all the buy-ins and pays about 10 percent of the final field.

The competition continues until just one player owns all the chips. First place gets the biggest share, but it’s usually a puny portion of the prize pool. The rest goes in diminishing shares to second place, third place, and so forth. With a large field of 1,000, you might get money for finishing 100th.


Let me ask you a question. If it weren’t declared to be a tournament and 1,000 players bought in for $1,000 each and eventually everyone went broke except you, how much would you expect to cash out? It’s $1 million, right?

You gathered $1 million worth of chips, and you should expect to be able to spend them. Few people remember, but originally the World Series of Poker events were winner take all.

That led to most events being privately decided by deals, where the close finishers would get some compensation. This secret practice became so prevalent that the promoters began to pre-announce a divided prize pool.

Same as regular games

That changed everything. When it’s winner-take-all, you can play your best brand of poker all the time, regardless of the risk. Mathematically, it’s almost always your most profitable play that makes you most likely to win the tournament. The value of a tactic is almost exactly what it is in a non-tournament game. These winner-take-all events were better tests of poker skill.

But when money is given to second-, third-, and fourth-places (and more), a phenomenal thing happens. First place is penalized! The winner must gather all those chips and then give most of them away to broke opponents who have already been conquered.

And here’s what that means strategically: You must abandon many of your sophisticated, but risky, profit-making tactics and play mostly for survival. Even if a play would add a few dollars to your everyday non-tournament expectation, if it increases your risk significantly, you shouldn’t choose it in a tournament. Play conservatively, instead.


Now, if you’re like me, you believe that proportional payoffs ruin tournaments by making them less a test of skill and more a tedious exercise in survival. That’s why you seldom see me playing tournaments. So called “shootouts” are different. In those, only the table winner advances, and it’s correct to use all your sophisticated tricks and finesses.

In typical tournaments with proportional payouts (excluding rebuy events), you should play to survive at all stages of play — until it becomes heads-up. The reason survival is no longer a factor heads-up is that both players have already secured second-place money and are playing winner-take-all for the remainder.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe large-field tournaments should be winner-take all. But I believe the most common method of payouts used now is wrong, because a tournament should be about trying to win first place and testing skills.

Proportional-payoff poker tournaments aren’t about that. Such a system works reasonably for golf and many other events, though. That’s because competitors aren’t being pruned one-by-one from a large field, making survival more important than mastery of play.

Primary quest

Sure, there are times in the tournament where an extra raise might limit the field and decrease your risk. And you can bluff those who are afraid of being knocked out. And to a small extent, you might take a little extra risk in an attempt to gather chips early in the event, when you’re apt to be against easier opponents. The exact amounts of payouts for each place, how many opponents remain, and which players control the biggest chip stacks are among other factors to consider.

There are other adjustments you should make to a pure survival strategy. For instance, you should be less or more aggressive depending on your chip-stack size and those of opponents. In that regard, you should take more risks when you have a large stack or are confronting a smaller one; you should take less risk when you have a small stack or are confronting a larger one.

So, I’m not saying you should eliminate sophisticated play altogether. But I am saying that your primary quest throughout the event is to survive. In order to do that, don’t be fancy. Sit and wait.

Conservative play gets you to the money more often. You’ll be rewarded by collecting some of the penalty that the winner pays. And you can sometimes accidentally take first place. Once more: Until just two players remain, focus on survival. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


17 thoughts on “Poker’s great tournament untruth”

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  1. now its 15-20 % , moving away from your ideal tournament and there are more players and more money to be won.

    1. And yet I’ve already explained that it DOES apply. It’s a fact. I hope you’re not confusing me with others who base conclusions such as this on opinions. Thanks for contributing your feedback, nonetheless, Noodletheriver. — Mike Caro

  2. Falacy by Caro, – TT beating AA after AA 4 or 5 bet is NOT the best player winning. Proportional payout reduces luck factor

    1. Hi, Nick — I’m greatly confused by your comment. What about the interaction between 10-10 and Ace-Ace that you cite makes what I’ve stated a fallacy? — Mike Caro

        1. agree 100%, the flatter the payout structure, the less like is a factor imo

  3. Am I right in thinking this ‘shootout’ structure has been used in the NAPT? I seem to remember one of the first televised poker tournaments I watched having the table winner advance to the next round.. quite like that structure, not found many online tourneys like it though!

  4. Hi Mike,
    Am enjoying reading your articles great work, however on this one I have to disagree with you about the payout system in tournaments. If every tournamnet I entered resulted in only one payout then the number of entrants would dwindle, why would I chance gambling against 1000 other players for one payout when there is easier money to be made elsewhere. In order for tournaments to survive and grow I reckon you need at least 50 payout positions for it to become attractive. 50 payout positions over 1 payout position seems alot more attractive to the average card player, at least they would feel they have a good chance of getting paid something…..just saying!!!!!!!
    Anyway great work am learning alot, keep it up!!!!

    1. Hi, Brendan —

      Thanks for sharing your opinion by making your first comment at Poker1 and joining our family.

      Part of what I wrote in the entry above is: “Just to be clear, I don’t believe large-field tournaments should be winner-take all. But I believe the most common method of payouts used now is wrong, because a tournament should be about trying to win first place and testing skills.”

      Specifically, I've offered a method to fix poker tournaments. It provides about the same number of payouts, but allows you to play your best poker. Here's a link:

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro

  5. Mr. Mike,

    I hope you made it through the storms fine.  I’ve always been a fan of yours and just now happened to stumble upon your writings. I dissected this article/blog looking to disagree with you, but I have to say I agree with you 100% about proportional-payout tournaments being all about survival. I’ve never thought of it as 1st place being “penalized,” but it’s so true. (I guess the reason I’ve never viewed it that way is because unfortunately in large field tournaments I finish 2nd, 3rd, etc. more often than I finish 1st — it’s then that I complain about 1st  getting too much! No longer will I think that way :)) Anything less than 1st is a gift.

    Again, I couldn’t find one sentence of yours I disagreed with (boring, I know) but job well done! Quick question…do you play much around the area (Downstream or any home games?)

    Squeez ’em out,

    “Success is when a man can wake up and go to bed, and in between do whatever it is he wants to do.” -Bob Dylan

    1. Hi, Servando —

      Thanks for making your first comment at Poker1 and joining our family. Also, thanks for saying kind things.

      No, I’ve don’t play home games in the Ozarks. And I haven’t been to Downstream yet, although I once heard from their manager about possibly doing seminars or linking up in other ways. But never heard back from them after that. I hear it’s an excellent place to play poker.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  6. In a different post, Mike C. explained how a big tournament with thousands of players buying in should work.

    (In brief, everyone plays at their own table until there is a winner. Winners of tables get small prizes and as they advance the prizes become larger. So if you had 6 rounds of a big $75 buy in shoot out tournament, the winners of the first 2 rounds might get $0, the winners of later rounds would get $100, $250, $1000, and the final champion getting $10,000 more.)

    My question is to Mike. Do you know of any casinos that have tried this sort of shoot out tournament?

    If you know of any that have, you might want to promote them and encourage your readers to try out that casino’s innovation.

    Warm regards, Rick.

    1. Hi, Rick —

      No tournaments that I know about have used my exact blueprint, but several managers have said they might in the future. There are many so-called “shootout” tournaments that would be okay mathematically, if they followed through to the final table. Shootouts are, at least, an improvement.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  7. I agree to a certain extent, that the winner of a tournament is punished. However I don’t think that theory is completely true. If there are 1000 people in a tournament, I will not play all 1000 of them. I may only play 20% of the field if I am lucky enough to make it to the final table. Plus tournament chips in an unskilled player’s possession are more or less chips up for grabs (then again that is true in a cash game)
    Sorry for any misspellings. I am writing this on a phone with auto correction for spelling.
    Mike, I have been following you on twitter for several weeks now and you helped improve my game.
    Thanks for the advice,

  8. what it is… is what it is. you adjust your strategy accordingly.
    you don’t complain because if the hindenberg was filled with helium it never would’ve burned.

    1. Hi, todaro —

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      To me, that point of view — while valid for many things — doesn’t quite fit this particular situation.

      There are many things we change or make better. We don’t always accept them as they are and remain silent.

      Additionally, as far as “adjusting your strategy accordingly,” I’ve provided much advice targeted at making money from tournaments under the conditions that exist now. That includes advice in the entry above.

      The reason I don’t like the current tournament payout method is because it rewards poor play (that which sacrifices your best, but risky, finesses) and punishes correct everyday decisions (those which you must sacrifice in order to survive).

      The bottom line is to make the most profit, you must avoid targeting first place. And, in my mind, that defeats the purpose of a tournament.

      I have proposed other solutions. Here’s an example:

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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