McHaffie: MCU lesson 013 / Tournaments

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2003.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 13: Understanding tournament play

Tournaments are now one of the hottest things in poker. However, according to Mike, they have drawbacks. Mike has proven that disciplined and intelligent poker players can usually win consistently in regular games or in tournaments. But tournaments are time consuming and tedious.

Today I’m going to tell you why tournaments differ from regular poker games. You watch the tournaments on TV and you can almost feel the thrill and anticipation. You wish you were there, sitting in their place.

As I write, we are in Las Vegas on business while an 18-day tournament is unfolding at the Bellagio. Mike is taking advantage of the opportunity, playing in all the events, something he doesn’t do very often. When he plays, it’s normally in regular non-tournament games at limits that still make me uncomfortable.

For me, this has been a fantastic chance to see my teacher in live play, observing from the railing. The first three days, I’ve watched Mike patiently play, always outlasting 75% of the players, gathering the chips, and then suddenly being forced to put them into a pot that was so big, for just one hand. Placing in the money depended solely on whether he received good enough cards to advance when the limits rose so large that most players could be eliminated on a single hand.

The early rounds

Mike says, “Poker tournaments are about playing your best in the early rounds and corralling chips, just so you have a better shot at the lottery that follows when almost nobody has enough chips to survive a couple bad beats.”

Although being eliminated didn’t seem to affect Mike in the least, I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle the disappointment quite that well. After all, you sit there for all those hours, hoping and wishing for just the right hand to put you over, to gain you the spotlight, and then wham, that dream hand gets shot down.  Near the end, the stakes get so large you need luck just to keep going.

Mike says that skillful players shouldn’t expect to win tournaments often, but you should expect to win more than your fair share. Playing a tournament can be a very grueling and frustrating challenge, although apparently not for Mike, as he seems to take it all in stride and just giggles and has fun.

Fewer high-risk opportunities

According to Mike, poker tournaments are structured so that everyday skills can work against you. In regular games, you take advantage of high-risk opportunities that can add a considerable amount to your profit. You can’t do this in tournament play. There is actually a penalty that is placed upon the winner.

In poker tournaments a diminishing portion of the prize pool is awarded to 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, and so on. So, if you take first place, you’re going to win all the chips and then share most of the winnings. This is a penalty.

The winner has to collect all the chips on the table, but doesn’t get to cash them in. Instead, the winner must give most of those chips to the other players he just won them from, so that they can cash them in.

This means that in poker tournaments you should be sacrificing many of the advantages that you would have in everyday poker games, and just playing for survival. If your motive is profit, it is better to just try to finish high up in the money, instead of aiming for first place at higher risk. If you do win first place, that is a plus, but it shouldn’t be your main purpose.

Mike says that this necessary strategy seems to contradict the true purpose of the tournament, which is to crown a champion.

This gives us something to think about, doesn’t it? There are more tournaments every day for the next two weeks at the beautiful Bellagio. Next time, I’ll share some more thoughts about those tournaments. — DM

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