Poker tournaments make me mad; here’s a proposal

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

You’re right. I don’t play in many poker tournaments. I seldom enter major events. Today I’m going to tell you why, and I’m going to show you how poker tournaments could be a lot better.
Before I do, however, you should know that I’m pretty proud of my tournament performance, beginning with two wins in the first two events I ever played in the 1970s. I’ve experienced victory, near victory, and all of those thrills and disappointments of formal tournaments. I’ve hosted and organized my own tournaments – even a major one. I’ve even established rules and pay structures. So, I have no quarrel with poker tournaments as entertainment or as a path to profit. They’re just fine for most folks – but not for me.

Let’s talk about last-longer bets. These are friendly wagers you make with other entrants. Whoever gets eliminated from the tournament first pays. Whoever lasts longer in the tournament collects. These bets can bring up conflicts of interest in tournaments, so I have mixed feelings about whether they should even be allowed. Players with last-longer bets confess to sometimes sitting out a hand they otherwise would have played. This happens when an opponent is short on chips and may be eliminated on the next hand played. So, in this and other ways, last-longer bets change the action in a tournament.

Should all bets among players be outlawed? What about trading pieces – John takes 5 percent of Bill and Bill takes 5 percent of John? What about buying a competitor¹s entry into the event – a competitor who cannot afford the buy-in on his own? What if the person buying the competitor¹s entry is entered in the same event and agrees to take half the winnings and let the sponsored player keep half? Well, clearly, these are all potential conflicts of interest – last longer bets, side bets, trading pieces, having any share of an opponent’s success.

But, you know what, all of these things have mixed into the tournament atmosphere, and today they are an accepted part of the game. They aren’t secrets. They are a temptation to alter strategy and possibly, in the case of owning a share of an opponent, a temptation to cheat, but they aren’t cheating by themselves. My guess is that on balance, it’s better to let these traditional practices continue as long as the majority of players accept them. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few tournaments with explicit rules forbidding any kind of deals or side bets. It would be interesting to see whether that had a significant effect on attendance.

You Must Sacrifice to Win
But now see what’s happened? You got me talking about a tournament issue that isn’t even part of the point I’m making today. Sidetracked again, dammit. Let me just say that I have long advocated a rule that all deals and bets made in a tournament must be registered with the director and the information should be available to all of the participants. This policy helps greatly in policing games and maintaining the integrity of tournaments.

As I was saying, I often make last-longer bets. I’ve been very successful with them. I sometimes even lay odds. These bets bring me extra profit. But sometimes I refuse to make any last-longer bets at all. Why? It’s because I realize that I must make last-longer bets only if my goal is to last a long time. Shouldn’t my goal always be to last as long as possible? Well, no, actually. It shouldn’t. If I want to make the most profit possible in a proportional payout tournament, I should try to last a long time. My goal should be to survive and to sacrifice some risky, long-range profitable plays in order not to be eliminated.

The complete explanation for this is complex and mathematical. The concept is simple, though. Whoever finishes first wins all the chips. If it’s you, that’s a happy thing, but then it gets sad, really sad. In a proportional payout tournament, the winner gets, say, 40 percent of the prize pool, second place gets 25 percent, third place gets 15 percent, and so on.

The Sorrow in Winning
What’s sad is that you have to return most of those chips that you’ve rightfully won to the players you’ve already conquered – you know, the ones who went broke toward the end of the tournament. Now, think about it. They have no chips, but they’re going to get paid. You’re going to pay them. OK, so what does this mean?

It means that there’s a penalty for winning the championship. Think about it. It also means that there’s a reward for finishing close behind that must be paid by the first-place winner. And strategically, this means that it’s worth sacrificing some plays that would make money in a regular poker game in the interest of tournament survival. Specifically, you should tend to be more selective about the hands with which you enter pots, and you should often choose to just call rather than raise. There are some strategic exceptions when raising actually makes your risk less by eliminating opponents from the pot, but usually the correct strategy is to enter fewer pots and to raise less often. Fine. There, I’ve said it. The effect of this strategy will be that you will make more money over all of the tournament events that you play, but it also will lead to fewer first-place championship wins than you would likely have if you played your best everyday poker room strategy.

So, that’s the secret. As silly as it sounds, the object of playing these tournaments for profit is to avoid winning first place. First place is what’s penalized the most. Of course, you want to win first place if it happens. It’s better than taking second place. But winning first place shouldn’t be your goal if you want to make the most money. Survival should be.

Now I’m Really Mad
And that’s what makes me mad about these tournaments. That’s why I play them so seldom. I’m a guy who believes that the whole object of a poker tournament should be to win the championship. I want to take home that trophy. I want all of the delivery people, my friends, and even repairmen to walk through my living room, see that trophy, and say, ‘Wowee!’ That’s what a tournament is all about in my mind – wowee. And because of this, I sometimes play to win, sacrificing profit. And when I do that, I usually don¹t make last-longer bets. My ambition is to win, not to last longer and get nearer or into the money. When winning the whole thing is my goal, I might get eliminated quite quickly, although I’m increasing my chances of taking home the trophy.

So, why am I mad? It’s because we shouldn’t have to make that decision. We shouldn’t have to decide whether we want to play to win glory or win the most money. There should be a mathematically solid way for us to play for the most money and the glory. Of course, we could make it a winner-take-all tournament, but that’s not a very popular option. So, how about this…..

I posted this proposal to the Internet newsgroup a couple of weeks ago. It’s based on the shootout method, first made popular at the Bicycle Club Casino by Craig Kaufman years ago. That concept, whereby you need to beat everyone at your table to advance, has been somewhat diluted in recent tournaments. Often, the table winners advance to play in a one-table or sometimes multi-table final that works like any other tournament, with so much to first, so much to second, and so on. Survival again becomes more important than seeking the championship. To me, that’s sad.

So, here’s my r.g.p. post. I’m calling this the MCU-Style tournament, because it’s the only one currently recommended by Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy.

The Tournament Solution: MCU Style
A straight ‘shootout’ structure with only the winner of each table being rewarded and only the winner of each subsequent table, including the final table, being rewarded works for me. It¹s ‘real poker.’ You don’t have to decide whether to pursue profit or the trophy. If you want more big prizes for a 16-table field, make the finals include 16 winning players at four short-handed tables, with either …
… the four winners playing at a final four-handed table and only that winner getting more money or (my preference)
…..two heads-up matchups with the winners getting more prize money and advancing to the final heads-up matchup, with that final winner getting still more prize money.

Not only does this test true poker skills without asking players to sacrifice chances of winning in pursuit of profit, it makes sure that champions are tested for full-handed, short-handed, and heads-up skills. The main negative is that it’s somewhat more labor intensive for casinos to deal, since tables aren’t as quickly consolidated – but that’s not a major issue.

Here’s a simple example (my preference, with three final heads-up matches): 160 players start at 16 10-handed tables, buying in for $200. 25 percent of the $32,000 prize pool is allotted for round No. 1 table winners. That’s $8,000.
One-tenth of the field – 16 players – collects $500 each and advances. 75 percent of the $24,000 remaining prize pool is awarded to the next level – 16 players at four four-handed tables. That’s $18,000. Each winner gets $4,500.
50 percent of the remaining $6,000 goes to the winners of two heads-up semifinal matches. Each winner collects $1,500 in extra prize money and a shot at the championship.
The remaining $3,000 in the prize pool goes to the winner of the final heads-up match.
Here are the payouts for such a tournament, in which pure tournament strategy dictates your decisions:
First place: $9,500 ($3,000 + $1,500 + $4,500 + $500)
Second place: $6,500 ($1,500 + $4,500 + $500)
Third and fourth places: $5,000 each ($4,500 + $500)
Other 12 table winners: $500 each ($6,000 total)
Here’s another simple example (alternative, with one final four-handed table):
160 players start at 16 10-handed tables, buying in for $200.
25 percent of the $32,000 prize pool is allotted for round No. 1 table winners. That’s $8,000.
One-tenth of the field – 16 players – collects $500 each and advances. 85 percent of the $24,000 remaining prize pool is awarded to the next level – 16 players at four four-handed tables. That’s $20,400. Each winner gets $5,100.
Then there’s a final four-handed table, with the winner receiving $3,600.
Champion: $9,200 + trophy ($3,600 + $5,100 + $500)
Second, third, and fourth places: $5,600 ($5,100 + $500)
Other 12 table winners: $500 each ($6,000 total)

Straight Flushes,
Mike Caro

That was my publicly posted message. Also, I think you might try starting with eight-handed or nine-handed tables rather than 10-handed. This slightly increases the number of money winners. MCU-Style tournaments are freely available to any casino that wants to try them.

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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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  1. Dear Mike,
    I agree that shootout tournaments are a better test of poker skills, and fairer to the winners, than ordinary multitable tournaments. I have a proposal for the shootout format:
    the players receive an amount of chips equal (or proportional) to
    the buy-in, minus the casino fee. At the end of the first stage, the winners of each table can decide to cash part of the chips they won, and enter the next stage with the remaining chips (and possibly to cash all of the chips and go home). The final winner cashes all the chips that were left in play. This would lead to varying strategies depending on the risk propensity of each player. One could also inquire which percentage of cashout maximizes the expected revenue for player 1, given
    that players 2,3,… cashed out a percent p2,p3,… of the chips won in the first stage.

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