Note: A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
Today’s word is “Repair”
I know. I’ve talked about today’s topic before. It’s World Series of Poker time, so maybe it’s the season to think about repairing poker tournaments.
Why repair them? Because, they’re a disaster. Yes, I realize that they’re more popular than ever. I realize that most are competently managed and unfold smoothly. So, maybe “disaster” wasn’t the right word. Let me think. Wait…
OK, I’ve thought and I’ve thought. And I’ve decided that “disaster” fits. Look, I’ve sort of slithered away from my long-standing policy of not playing many poker tournaments, now that there’s so much exposure. And beyond some recent regular entries, I’ve also appeared on three invitational-tournament telecasts in the past few months — the World Poker Tour’s special pitting me, Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, David Sklansky (the winner), T. J. Cloutier, and Mike Sexton against each other as authors, Poker Superstars II, and the National Heads-up Championship. So, it’s not that I don’t play tournaments, it’s just that my objection to the way most of them are structured is profound. And it’s hurting my head worse everyday.
Please help me.
A powerful problem
I’ve told you before, there’s a great problem with the current payout system used in the vast majority of poker tournaments. It isn’t just a little, tiny, trivial thing – and it isn’t just my personal pet peeve. It’s a powerful problem.
Once again, it goes like this. Because the winner of a typical proportional-payout poker tournament must win all the chips and then give away most of the money to players already conquered, the correct strategy is to avoid taking first place!
There’s a penalty for winning first place – a big one! I’ve said this so often and so loudly that even many top players and tournament directors now agree with me. But, it’s time to go beyond just nodding and saying, “you’re right, Mad Genius” or “I agree with you, the correct strategy is to play to survive and not to win the trophy.” It’s time to do something about it.
First the problem in a nutshell: One thousand players put up $2,000 each to enter a tournament. That tournament goes on and on until one player ends up with all $2 million in chips. Now, if it were winner-take-all, no problem. We could assume all players were able to employ their best, most refined, poker strategies in pursuit of all pots. They had the opportunity to show off their skills and take their chances.
Along the way, there may have been a few variations from everyday winning strategy, taking into consideration the strengths of remaining opponents, whether a better opportunity were likely to come later, and more. After all, you can’t buy in again if you go broke (at least in pure non-rebuy poker tournaments), so you have to find the best opportunities for the chips you control. Fine. But, in general, if it were winner-take-all, you would play pretty much the same way you would in a regular non-tournament game. That means, most times you’d have an advantage, you’d take it. You’d even use your best strategic and psychological weapons to extract every extra penny’s worth of profit from each hand.
You can’t do it!
But, in a proportional payoff tournament, you often can’t do that. If you win first place in our example tournament, you don’t get to keep the $2 million in front of you. In fact, you’ll probably only get to keep, say, $500,000. You’ll have to give away $1.5 million! And that, my friends, is a penalty – a penalty for winning.
And what it means is that your strategy must change. Sadly, the test becomes about something far removed from everyday poker skills. It’s about modifying those poker skills and in many cases sacrificing them. That means many of the techniques that show off your talents and lead to extra lifetime profit must be abandoned. Why? Because a great many of those sophisticated tactics add risk, while paying off in the long-run. In a proportional-payoff poker tournament, the correct strategy is to avoid much risk in the interest of survival. You want to survive to claim some of that free money that first place will be forced to give away.
Remember, first place wins, and first place gives away. (There is also, oddly, a similar penalty that goes with other high-place finishers. But that’s harder to explain without math, and we’ll stick to just dealing with the first-place penalty, because the conceptual truth about sacrificing best strategy to survive remains compelling.) Because of this first-place penalty, you want part of the free money. You should place a priority on outlasting opponents, not on aggressively conquering them.
To put it simply, you often should play extra tight in a proportional-payoff tournament, compared to the way you would play in a non-tournament game. Sure, if you have great skills, you should try to gather chips, bluff, and use finesse. But you can’t use all of your sophisticated tactics. Remember, this common type of tournament is more about choosing your most powerful payoff strategy than about choosing your most powerful poker strategy.
And I think that isn’t what a tournament should be about. A tournament should be about winning first place. Of course, you hope to win first place, even in these common tournaments, but to pursue maximum profit, you really want to stumble into first, not target it. That’s sad.
There’s a solution
Fine, but there’s a solution. I’ve given it before and now it’s time for our poker community to stop merely agreeing and implement. It is an extension of the shoot-out concept.
This will fix the problem. All tournaments should be such that the table winners advance. You can put whatever number of players you’d like at the first table. If you want to pay 11 percent of the field, make the first tables all nine-handed. The winners earn something and advance. Since only the winners get paid, everyday poker skills are rewarded. You try to win first place, not avoid it. In the second round, all the tables are composed of previous table champs who have already been paid. If you want more payoffs, you make these six-handed. Or you can keep them nine-handed and have fewer second-tier winners. Whatever. I don’t care. It’s the concept that matters.
We keep having table winners until there’s a final table. But we probably want meaningful second- and third-place payoffs, so here’s what we do. We engineer the table counts in advance, so we have only four late-stage tables of whatever numbers of contestants needed. There will be four winners securing additional winnings and then we have two heads-up matches. These can occur simultaneously — or consecutively for added drama in major events. The two losers share third-place prize money. The two winners fight over who gets first place money and who gets second.
Details and advantages
One objection I’ve heard is from managers who believe that it will take more dealer resources to conduct a tournament this way. It won’t. Although it’s true that you won’t be able to consolidate tables and you’ll be using dealers for a small number of players later in the rounds, remember, eight out of nine players will be gone soon. If structured rationally, you’ll need less dealer resources, not more.
A big advantage of this type of tournament is that it gives players at every table a chance to experience the skills required to be a champion. In traditional tournaments, only the final table becomes short handed, then heads-up. The finalists have never been tested in these key skills – the very skills that will determine who wins. Instead, they’ve been stuck at full-handed tables until the very end. Now, full-handed may be fun, but it’s a vastly different game than short-handed and heads-up. Since those latter two conditions are what’s encountered when the money really matters, why not give players an opportunity to experience them along the way?
Plunderers of payoffs
And there you have it. Problem resolved. Again, I believe it’s simply a disaster that proportional-payoff tournaments dictate that you can’t play your best everyday game and that you have to sacrifice poker skill in pursuit of the payoffs. And I believe it’s a disaster that tournaments don’t reward the best players of poker, but the best plunderers of payoffs. Those plunderers must sacrifice the pride of putting the first-place trophy at the highest premium. They must go after profit, instead.
But, you know, whether to go after profit or try to win a tournament shouldn’t be a choice we need to make. It’s unconscionable to make players wrestle with that decision when there’s a solution.
And I’ve given you a solution for this disaster. I believe the solution should become the norm. If it doesn’t, then, well, gosh darn it. — MC