Universal truths about making money in poker tournaments

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2012) in Bluff magazine under the same title.

Maybe you should question my credentials before taking my advice about poker tournaments. My lifetime tournament winnings are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions. I have no gold bracelets for first-place finishes at the World Series of Poker.

But before you ignore my advice, consider this:

• I’ve never pursued poker tournaments, and some major players have entered at least 50 times as many events as I have.

• Many successful top pros still seek my advice on tournament strategy.

• I won the first two tournaments I ever played (but that was many decades ago).

• Most importantly, I believe I’m the most-capable poker player alive. You get to decide whether I’m bragging without merit or simply delusional. It must be one or the other, right?

Now let’s discover some truth about poker tournaments.

Poker tournament truth #1. If players are equally skilled, then the ones who make the most-profitable everyday poker decisions will lose money in tournaments!

That’s true in traditional “proportional payout” tournaments, as most are structured today. And I’m assuming that opponents who don’t make the most-profitable “ring game” decisions are, instead, making the most-profitable tournament decisions.

The reason for this strange truth is that proportional-payout tournaments (where first place gets a percentage of the prize pool, second place a smaller percentage, and so forth) require survival strategy. That means folding many hands that would be profitable in a non-tournament setting. It also means sometimes choosing tactics that reduce risk, rather than investing large sums of money at small advantages.

Poker tournament truth #2. The winner is penalized.

This truth underscores why I don’t play many tournament events. To me, a tournament should be about winning first place. Why else have a tournament?

But most tournaments have payouts that prevent pure poker greatness from being tested. Greatness is punished!

In a regular game, your small edges add up. But in tournaments, many advantages and finesses that make you a potential poker master must be sacrificed. You often should avoid using many of your most skillful higher-risk plays.

How come? It’s because the eventual winner is penalized. Think about it. The winner must corral all the chips in the tournament. That player has earned each of those chips by conquering all opponents. But now what happens? Usually about 70 percent of them are taken away to pay players who have already gone broke.

And there’s the horrible flaw with those tournament structures. The winner is penalized, while other late finishers are rewarded.

You can argue that it’s fair to everyone, because all players faced the same rules. Fine. But I’m saying that, even though it’s fair, it changes the object of a poker tournament from testing poker greatness to figuring out mathematically how to play worse-than-great to survive into the money.

Essentially, the object of a proportional-payout poker tournament is to avoid taking first place! Sure, you want to survive as late as possible. And you hope to stumble into winning all the chips. But to play most profitably, you must never target first place until you’re playing heads-up.

Maybe you’re wondering why survival tactics don’t matter two-handed. It’s because if first place pays $300,000 and second place pays $150,000, then each player has already won $150,000. Now it’s winner-take-all for the remaining $150,000. At that point first place will no longer be punished and second place will no longer be rewarded.

Poker tournament truth #3. Don’t advertise as much.

In regular poker, it sometimes pays to “advertise” by playing weak hands in order to make opponents think you play poorly. This invites extra calls later.

You should reduce your advertising budget dramatically in tournaments, because you aren’t likely to stay with the same players for many hours. In particular, don’t advertise if your table is about to break or if the game is temporarily short handed.

Poker tournament truth #4. Attack near the bubble.

The last player eliminated before reaching the prize money is said to be “on the bubble.” Typically, players try hard not to be eliminated in the bubble position. Too hard.

Unless they have abundant chips, they play almost no hands, hoping someone else will be eliminated first. Often, this is your opportunity to temporarily abandon survival strategy and attack. You can win many pots without a fight.

Poker tournament truth #5. Conservative play is rewarded throughout.

A lot of advice has been given about which stages of the tournament to play aggressively and which to play conservatively. These tight-vs.-loose arguments are somewhat bogus.

Yes, you can play more aggressively with a tall stack against a short one. That’s because chip-for-chip short stacks are more precious in terms of survival, and it theoretically costs less potential profit to bet with abundant chips than to call with meager chips.

You should also take into consideration opponents’ traits and current moods. Often in the beginning of an event, many players are playing extra tight and can be bluffed. They fear being wounded or killed early.

But chip differences and player traits aside, you should choose a conservative, survival strategy throughout the tournament. That’s the simplest tournament truth to remember. Why complicate it?

Poker tournament truth #6. Tournament simulations don’t require cards!

Much of my poker tournament simulation by computer doesn’t involve poker – or even cards.

Actually cards just make the results less reliable and error prone. The key is to determine the appropriate degree of tightness beyond normal everyday play. This can be best done by assigning random numbers to hands and not dealing with the intricacies of poker.

After determining how much extra tightness is profitable for the payout structure, then I find the everyday-winning hands that should be excluded to make the most tournament profit.

It’s a weird method, but it works. And it proves conclusively that tight is right throughout proportional-payout tournaments.

Poker tournament truth #7. The players who win the most tournaments are probably not the best tournament players!

In typical tournaments, you profit by surviving and taking advantage of the first-place penalty. In doing so, you won’t win as many events as those who target first place.

More money means winning fewer events! And that’s why I think today’s poker tournaments suck. There are ways to structure tournaments to reward playing your best poker, while still providing many players prize money. And I’ve offered some proposals.

But you can’t do that magic by using proportional-payoffs when tables are continuously filled in as players are eliminated. It just won’t work. And, so, usually, I won’t play.

Poker tournament truth #8. The best tournament players seldom win.

In typical tournaments, world-class players have about three times as good a chance of winning money as average players.

That’s admirable. But if we continuously held 600-player, winner-take-all tournaments, any average player would win about once in 600 events. Any top player would win once in 200 events. Poor players would win fewer events to balance the chances.

Playing 200 events to win once is scary, even for top poker pros. You could go many years without a victory – or you could get lucky and win five times in a year (and be famous).

Remember: The winner of a poker tournament always got lucky. Usually, the winner won’t rank among the best players.

It’s just one more tournament truth that isn’t pleasant. — MC

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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