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.
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