This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
It shares the anatomy of Mike Caro’s final hand at a World Series of Poker main event in 1998. He seldom plays any poker tournaments, and that was the first time he’d ever entered this one.
In a few minutes, I’m going to share a hand with you. It is an actual hand I played in the main event at this year’s World Series of Poker. You need to know that poker tournaments are not my favorite things. I don’t play many. My reasons are these:
Tournament complaint one
There are just too many people to beat. The popularity of tournaments in recent years has meant that a great many have fields of competitors exceeding 300. Some have fields exceeding 500. [Note: This was written in 1998. Since then, the final tournament WSOP field has grown and has exceeded 8,000 entrants.]
What does this mean to us? If you’re much better than your typical opponents, aren’t you going to win often regardless of the number of competitors? That depends on what you mean by often.
First, let’s get something out of the way. I’m an egomaniac. I know it and you know it. I think I’m the best player in the world, but you’re welcome to doubt, snicker, or scoff and assert that it’s really someone else. Maybe it’s you. Fine. The point is this: A good estimate is that against a typical field of mostly experienced opponents, the BPITW will win no more than three times his or her “fair share” of tournaments, through infinity.
Don’t panic. I’m going to explain what I mean. If there are 300 players in a tournament and everyone is equally skilled, then pure dumb luck will determine the winner. Skill is not a factor, because everyone has the same skill, so it all cancels out. In that case, each player would have exactly one chance in 300 of winning. But I’m saying that, in reality, skill does matter in a tournament. It matters a lot, and the very best players can expect to win three times that one-in-300 share. That’s a genuine Mad Genius estimate, and it means one win in 100 tournaments.
That’s profitable, and it suggests – assuming other factors break down equally, for simplicity – that you will have a 300 percent return on investment. In other words, if you enter a no-rebuy tournament for $500, your theoretical cash-out value is $1,500, and you’ve earned a $1,000 profit.
What’s wrong with that? I didn’t say anything actually was wrong with it, and I enjoy tournaments. That’s why I play them occasionally. It’s just that, even if I entered 10 times as many tournaments in a year as I do now, I wouldn’t be able to prove my skills to anyone’s satisfaction. I would need to be very lucky to win enough tournaments to sound any alarms in the heads of opponents.
Some players enter 250 events a year. Depending on the size of the fields, an experienced player of average skills, devoting full time to tournaments and forsaking all else, can expect to win anywhere from zero to four times in a year. The average will be about one win, but many years could pass without a single trophy. Think about that.
Yet, we know somebody is going to get lucky, and you’ll see that name much more often than you’d expect to over a period of a year or two, or even longer. Because poker is a game of skill, those stand-out names are much more likely to belong to the better players. But sometimes, due to random luck fluctuations, the repeat winners are just average players, or sometimes worse than average.
Put simply, if you’re planning to compete on the tournament circuit, willing to forego all else in your travels and in your pursuit of trophies, hope to get lucky. Otherwise, the drought may seem like forever.
Tournament complaint two
But here’s the real reason I am unhappy with tournaments. In a winner-take-all tournament, your strategy is pretty simple: Play your best regular game. That’s the very same game you’d play if you were not in a tournament. While there may be a few minor adjustments you’ll make, most of these will be because of how your opponent’s play tournaments. No adjustments will be monumental, and playing your best regular game gives you the greatest chance at the trophy.
OK, but what about proportional prize pools? These are the norm in tournaments today, and this means that first place will earn a certain percent of all the buy-ins, typically 40 percent or less. Second place may get 20 or 25 percent, and so on.
Well, a semi-terrible thing happens in these proportional-payoff tournaments. Namely, a strategy designed to take first place is not the most profitable. This amazes folks who haven’t thought about, but is obvious upon examination. In order to win the tournament, you need to gather everyone’s chips. You need to win them all.
Fine. But then what? Then you have to give most of them back so that the close finishers who you just conquered can be happy. Of course, you don’t really give them the chips, but you do give them the largest share of the prize pool. Same thing.
When this happens, your best strategy is to decline to play some of your profitable, but risky, hands and opt not to make some of your profitable, but risky, raises. That’s because that stretch-it-to-the-limit “profit” isn’t really worth the risk, when you have to give most of it back if you win first place.
OK, so we’ve determined that the best tournament strategy is not to play your best everyday game in a proportional payoff tournament. But, it’s still fair to everyone, right? Wrong! It’s not fair to the people who prize winning first place more than anything else. After all, originally tournaments were about winning the trophy. And the best strategy designed to win the trophy is often a losing strategy in terms of long-range tournament profits. That’s why I have mixed feelings about most tournaments. I want the trophy; and I want to play for it. Why should I have to take the worst of it financially to pursue the trophy?
Tournament complaint three
Rebuy tournaments. I don’t like that whole concept. I won’t revisit the reasons today, but it comes down to the inequality of opportunity between those who can afford to rebuy and those who can’t. Furthermore, those – like myself – who are interested primarily in winning the first-place trophy will usually rebuy or add-on, given the opportunity, even when the decision is not merited in terms of profit.
I believe that in a tournament, anything you do correctly to increase your chances of winning first place should not be punished. But that’s not the case with poker tournaments today. The ones that work, in my mind, are winner-take-all in which the table champion gets immediate compensation and advances to the next winner-take-all table. Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said before, I have nothing against “rebuy events,” just don’t call them “tournaments.”
Having now sounded my tournament dissent, I’ll tell you that this year I entered the main event at Binion’s World Series of Poker for the first time. Before this year I was content to say that, although I’d never won the event, I’d never lost it, either. Now I can’t say that anymore.
Those of you who follow this column and take an interest in the Internet know that I frequently recommend the discussion group rec.gambling.poker. You’ll need a newsreader to access it. Anyway, in May, I left a message about how I got eliminated from the tournament. I’d like to share it with you now. Then, next column, I provide some of the responses and my subsequent comments. Here it is (although it has been edited slightly to conform to my follow-up post revising the seating positions)…
Subject: How Mike Caro got eliminated — an interesting hand From: [old email address deleted] (Mike Caro) Date: 1998/05/12 Newsgroup: rec.gambling.poker
How would y’all have played this hand? I got eliminated with it, and possibly should have played it differently. Here’s the situation…
We are three hours into the final $10,000 buy-in event at the World Series of Poker. I’m at table two, which is outside the main room in the satellite area. My table consists of no players that I am very familiar with, but five of my eight opponents have talked about my books and introduced themselves. Surrealistically, there are two separate discussions about my philosophy of tells while the action is going on — neither of which I participate in. Everyone is friendly. Opponents all seem experienced and capable, but no super stars that I can spot. All male. Action is marginally loose compared to what I expected in this main event at the early stages (I’ve never entered before).
After about three hours, I’ve built to $13,500 in chips. I have A♦-Q♦ two seats to the right of the button (dealer position), nine handed. Blinds are $50 and $100. Everyone passes to the player on my right (6th position). He makes a routine attack raise of $300 ($400 total). He has far fewer chips than I do, probably about $7,000. Here’s my first decision.
I can pass, call, raise marginally, or raise big. You could make an argument for any of those four tactics, since nobody behind me has more chips than I do, although the button has almost as many.
I call. Button also calls. Time for the flop.
It’s K♦-K♣-6♦ giving me an ace-high flush draw with my A♦-Q♦. Sixth seat bets $1,400. I debate. A good argument can be made for throwing the hand away here. Actually, I would if the off card were a nine or higher, because this would greatly increase the chances of a full house. Pot is now $2,750 and it costs me $1,400 to call. In a ring game, I would occasionally raise here (not usually, though) — perhaps $3,000 or $4,000 more.
Again, there are valid arguments for passing, calling, and raising. I decide to call, but I think I would have folded a good percent of the time in similar situations. Button also calls.
Turn card is 7♦. I make my flush. Check to me. There is danger here, but I need to weigh the chances of an opponent holding K-K, 6-6, K-6, or K-7 (not likely to be 7-7) to beat me against the chances of an opponent holding K-anything else — or even, less likely, two diamonds or another pair to lose to me. If I bet big, K-J, K-10, K-9 or K-smaller (except K-7 or K-6) may fold. If those hands call, I’m not as happy (because of the tournament danger), but I have the best of it.
There are valid arguments for checking along, making a small bet, or making a large bet. I move all-in.
Player on the button calls instantly with 6-6 (a full house), leaving me with only $300 in chips that last another 10 minutes.
I thought that since this was a hand with so many options, it would be fitting for r.g.p discussion. Of course, some readers will look at it and conclude that it is obvious that the hand should be played a particular way. But I don’t think so. Let me know what you think.
Straight Flushes, Mike Caro
Note: This final comment was at the bottom of the column. It is repeated here for historical reference. “In my next column, I’m going to show you some of the rec.gambling.poker newsgroup responses to the way I played the hand. And I’ll also share my follow-up messages to them. Meanwhile, you’ve got two weeks to think about it.”