Rules and nature of poker tournaments

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

I’m in a really bad mood today. People haven’t paid me, a major casino deal is falling through, my African Grey parrot won’t talk to me, I can’t get my bulletin board working on my web site, and nobody cares. But, I won’t let this affect my column. Let’s find something to write about…

You’re an idiot! You probably agree with Linda, don’t you? Silly question — of course you do. You and almost everyone I talk to agrees with HER, and you all need to be locked up together in a padded room somewhere. Go ahead, get your pens, typewriters, and keyboards ready. Send me lots of hate mail, ’cause I’m not changing my mind.

OK, I’ll calm down. Maybe you’re not an idiot. Maybe it’s just Linda, and you were simply misled. Let me take a deep breath and calmly tell you what this is all about. In the March 7 issue of Card Player, publisher Linda Johnson wrote something… something that makes me mad, something foreign to the Mad Genius school of thought, something almost everyone agrees with, ’cause they’re all idiots, too. You all wanna gang up on me, don’t you? Beat up on the mad genius, huh? You’re all on her side, don’t deny it. You brainless, squiggly little … Hang on, the stupid phone’s ringing.

Wow! Just got three calls in a row. Looks like everyone’s going to pay me, the casino deal is still live, my parrot said, “I love you,” with feeling, I can figure out the bulletin board problem later, and suddenly everyone seems to care again. Where was I?

Oh, as I was saying, on March 7 my friend Linda Johnson wrote eloquently about several topics of concern to poker players — particularly tournament players. I found her arguments powerful and persuasive, but, if you would please permit me, I’d like to present a slightly different slant on one of the very insightful points she made. Oh-oh, there goes the phone again. Be right back.

God, damn it, now another guy can’t pay me, and the stupid parrot won’t stop screeching. Where was I? Now, I remember. So, Linda Johnson wrote this ridiculous editorial about how tournament finalists were unethically abusing the rules.

Let me quote from her ill-conceived and horribly flawed reasoning. Now, this is a direct quote, I’m not making it up: “…at a recent final table, I witnessed a player bet, and his opponent (a friend) was thinking a long time about whether or not to call (which would have put him all in), he said, ‘Don’t call, I have the nut straight and a good low.’ His opponent folded and the bettor showed his hand, which contained exactly what he had stated. This is grossly unfair to every other player in the tournament. While a hand is in progress, there should be no discussion of any player’s holding, regardless of whether or not the player is telling the truth.”

Give me a break, Linda. Probably the situation you described DID include unethical conduct, an implied partnership among friends. But do you believe somewhere in your muddled mind that partners won’t be able to take unfair advantage of tournament situations if we stop them from talking? Do you think the most dangerous of partners are going to just blurt out their strategy at the table? Of course not, woman! They’re just going to sit there and silently signal to each other.

Take the talk out of poker? Can’t comment on a hand? Can’t lie about what I hold? Can’t tell the truth, either? That kind of talk is such an integral part of poker that I can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. There is no poker without talk. If I can’t ask my opponent what he has, trusting my ability to determine whether or not he’s telling me the truth, there goes 30 percent of my poker arsenal right there. And if I can’t lie randomly, occasionally telling the truth, there goes another 30 percent. So, what do you want, Linda? Take the psychology and conversation out of poker. Have tournaments just for statistical nerds, where we keep our mouths shut and analyze every play like chess. How about no talk, no body language, and no acting on body language if we happen to see it, scout’s honor — like bridge.

What’s wrong with that? Because we’re not talking about chess, and we’re not talking about bridge. We’re talking about poker, and people like you want to legislate away the fundamental characteristic that makes poker poker. How did you ever get a magazine, anyway? All I need today is for some ignorant broad trying to tell me… Hang on — I’m going to pound the damn phone with a sledgehammer if it doesn’t stop ringing.

Good news! Two guys I put in games won money. Small games, but it’s money. Oh, and a whole bunch of other great things just happened all at once. I’m on a roll. All right, where were we?

So, anyway, Linda pointed out in her excellent March 7 column that we must always be alert for unethical behavior. In tournaments, it’s possible that players don’t even realize how profoundly their actions affect others, and we must be certain that everyone is acting in his or her own self interest only. I’m sure Linda and I will agree that the real problem is in the nature of percentage-payoff tournaments themselves. By percentage payoff tournaments, I mean ones where the prize pool is awarded in a predetermined manner, such as 40 percent going to first place, 25 percent to second, 15 percent to third, and so forth.

What’s the problem? Well, from a mathematical and strategic standpoint, the trouble is that the goals of winning the first-place championship and making the most money are at conflict. Although it goes beyond the scope of today’s column, trust me when I say that if you want to win first place as often as possible, then you do NOT want to use the most profitable strategy. Instead, you should usually pursue small edges, ONLY forgoing them if you think certain opponents are so weak that you’ll get BETTER opportunities later on. But if you want to maximize your earnings instead of your number of first-place finishes, then you should usually decline small edges in the interest of survival.

That practical effect of this surprising percentage-payoff tournament truth is twofold:

1. The most successful money-making players probably should expect to take first place a little less often than equally capable players who don’t know this secret.

2. You should play more hands and bet more aggressively in a live-action game than in a percentage-payoff tournament.

All this leads us to the point Linda was so persuasively penning. In a winner-take-all tournament, it usually wouldn’t matter much if you knock an opponent out or feel sympathy and left him live. If you have a guaranteed winning hand, then the only person you’ll be harming is yourself by not capitalizing. That’s because, in a winner-take-all event, your chances of winning are pretty well determined by the value of chips that you control versus the value of chips that others control.

Therefore, if you have $1,000 in chips, and all your opponents combined have $9,000 in chips, then you’re about a 9-to-1 underdog to win the tournament, whether the $9,000 is divided among 18 opponents with only $500 each or is owned by a single opponent with all $9,000. If opponents are equally skilled, your odds against winning reflect the money against you versus the money you have. There are a couple twists, though. There is sometimes an advantage to being all in, which can favor short money, and blinds and position come into play in calculating the exact odds.

Anyway, we can see that some types of collusion are a much worse threat in percentage-payoff tournaments, than in winner-take-all tournaments. That’s at the core of Linda Johnson’s fine argument. In spite of this, I think it would be a mistake to impose rules that forbid participants from commenting about their hands in poker. Linda Johnson argues they should not be allowed to so speak, but since we all have the good of poker in our hearts, I’m going to sit down with her and do my best to convince her otherwise.

I better go, my phone is ringing…

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.


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