McHaffie: MCU lesson 014 / Tournament Play

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2004.

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 14: More on …Understanding tournament play

As we become better players, we feel the urge to experiment and meet the challenge of the tournament circuit. Many professionals play tournaments for profit Mike told me he seldom plays tournaments for two main reasons:

1. Championship victories can be few and far between with fields of 500 players, especially because luck remains a compelling factor.

Here’s how it usually works: The obviously fair share win rate for each of 500 players is once in 500 tournaments. The weaker players may only win once in 1,000 tournaments. The stronger players should usually win once in 250 tournaments, double their fair share.

Mike feels that a professional poker player will fare much better in everyday play than in tournaments.  He says that the long-range expected rewards for medium buy-ins simply don’t come often enough

2. In tournament play, the prize pool payoffs are proportional, with first place being allotted so much, second place getting less, third place less still, etc. First place needs to accumulate all the chips just so that he can reward opponents that competed against him at the end. Keep in mind, those players have already gone broke, yet the winner must reward them for that.

In these poker tournaments, to make the most profit, you need to survive, sacrificing sophisticated, but risky, opportunities that would give you a better chance of winning first place. So, the correct strategy is to sacrifice many of the advantages you would normally gain by pushing hands. Instead, you just struggle to survive.

Tournaments actually penalize the very best, aggressive, world class players, Mike says, and reward lesser players who have very little imagination and play too tight.

I’d like to discuss the atrocious way your finances can be victimized. If you’re one of the superior players who expect to place in the money twice your fair share, you are going to approximately double your buy-in each time you play. Have you stopped to think what expenses come out of this payoff?

Not good enough

The majority of tournaments, excluding some major ones, have a $200 to $300 buy-in, which means superior players in these events can be expected to earn about $250 for a day’s play. Out of this $250, you are going to pay for air fare, hotel bills, food and many other expenses, not to mention you will be expected to tip if you win any money. Of course, there is also the entry fee in addition to the buy-in. Add all that together and Mike says that although there are many players on the circuit who have actually been lucky enough to come out ahead over the last few years, most of them cannot expect to come out ahead in the future. They are better than most opponents, but not good enough to overcome the expenses.

Another bothersome fact about tournaments is that management continuously raises limits every hour or so, in order to eliminate players. You’d better use all your skills in those early hours to gather all chips possible, just so you can have a reasonable shot at the tournament in the later stages. Toward the end fate, more than skill, might determine the outcome.

I recently watched four tournaments in which Mike competed. He fought through eight grueling hours on each of these days, watching top players drop like flies, while he gathered his chips about him, only to lose them on one single pot when he had an advantage. While Mike just continued to giggle and have fun with the other players, I don’t know that I would have been able to handle the disappointment quite so admirably.

It seems that Mike and other top professionals in the field have developed the right temperament to handle the ups and downs of the poker life. That’s something we should try to mimic.

If you’re determined to play poker tournaments, you’ll make a lot of new friends and have a lot of fun along the way. There might even be a profit in it for you, if you’re good enough and you play to survive.

But, you’ll probably find that there will be more profit in regular poker games. In the meantime, play with skill, fight to survive and have fun. — DM

Next entry in Lessons from MCU series


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