Bad tournament advice — here’s why

This article first appeared in Poker Digest magazine.

Last time, we talked about something weird in poker—something you might call a tournament paradox. We discussed the most common type of championship tournaments: events that continue until one player has all the chips. That part is fine, but then it gets complicated. Instead of being able to cash out all those chips, the winner of the tournament only gets to keep a portion of their value. A winner might win 35 percent of the prize pool; second place, 25 percent; third place, 15 percent; and so forth.

We discovered a conceptual problem with that system. In proportional payout poker tournaments, the most common kind of championship event today, you have do decide whether you’re playing for the pride of the championship or for the most profit. The two goals dictate significantly different strategy.

Sacrificing Your Poker Skills to Make Money
If you’re playing for the championship, you can usually exploit each tiny edge, the same way you do in regular poker games beyond the tournament. With only occasional exceptions, that will give you your best chance of winning the event and taking the trophy home with you. But if, instead, you’re interested in the most profit over hundreds of events, you should sacrifice some chance of winning the tournament and play to survive.

That’s because, as we discovered two weeks ago, there’s a penalty for winning the tournament. Yes, a penalty! The winner has to conquer all those opponents, win all those chips, climb the highest of anyone—and then that champion is “rewarded” by having to give most of what is won back to the players already conquered.

We looked at this logically and determined that this means you must sacrifice some chance of being champion to give yourself a better chance of ending up in a position that gets rewarded—and not penalized. Specifically, the close finishers are rewarded. So, the trick is to sacrifice many of your small edges, sacrifice many of your best poker plays, in order to play a staid and steady game of survival. There are new skills involving tailoring decisions to the pursuit of profit—assuming that’s how you choose to play—but these usually don’t represent a true test of traditional poker talent.

To me, that sucked, and I said so. And I proposed a fairer method for paying prize money in tournaments—a method that allowed players to capitalize on their best poker talents, have their best chance at winning the first-place trophy, and still have their best shot at maximizing profit. But, it’s another day, and its time to move on.

One of Tournament Poker’s Worst Pieces of Advice Revealed
Today, I want to talk about a very important tournament concept regarding those common percentage-payout poker tournaments. It’s about one of the most consistently promoted pieces of advice in these events—and it’s flat-out wrong! The following is taken from the text of my latest lecture at Mark and Tina Napolitano’s Poker School Online, the same people who founded PokerPages—the leading poker portal on the Internet. It’s intended for advanced students. You might even want to follow along while listening to the audio—just to see how it sounds.

Here goes…

Even among professional poker tournament players—those who make the rounds from casino to casino across the world—playing in 300 or more events each year, you’ll hear an often-repeated tournament concept that’s absolutely screwy!

The bad advice is: You must always seek to eliminate players in a percentage-payoff tournament.

Wanna know the truth? The truth is, unless you have a significant advantage, you should seldom go out of your way to eliminate players early in a tournament. Even if you have mountains of chips and your opponent has only a few, it is not your job to force an opponent all in in hopes of eliminating him.

But this notion is so entrenched among some tournament players that they even swear that you’re required to make a “courtesy” call when you have a large stack and your opponent puts himself all in for a small amount of chips. In truth, the later it is in the tournament, the more beneficial it is for you to do this—within reason. But, early in a tournament with, say, 201 players remaining, there is very little value in taking even slightly the worst of it to knock an opponent out of the competition. That’s the truth, and now I’ll tell you why their common advice to the contrary is bad…

How Much Does it Cost?
When you’re thinking about veering off course to knock an opponent out of the tournament, you need to ask yourself this question: How much will this sacrifice cost me? Let’s say it will only cost $12 in tournament chips to try.

Then ask yourself how much you will gain from eliminating an opponent.

Wait! This is tricky. If there are 201 players left, you will actually gain, on average, about 1/200th of the value. That’s because the value of eliminating this one opponent is divided among the entire field of remaining players. In other words, whatever value eliminating this player adds to the expectations of all players, you—being only one of 200 players—will profit only the same as the others will. So, if it’s costing you $12 to try and you’re taking $5 the worst of it, then the value of eliminating this player right now needs to be at least $1,000 (200 players times $5). Otherwise, you usually shouldn’t go out of your way to eliminate that player. We’re talking about tournament chip money here. You might be a little more aggressive in trying to eliminate a strong opponent, but not by much.

Now it becomes clear why the advice to always try to eliminate opponents is terrible. Most players sacrifice too much in their attempt to eliminate opponents. The logic I’ve just presented is not pure, though. Who benefits most by the elimination of an opponent depends on the size of players’ stacks. Not everyone benefits equally, so I just used a crude example to show that the average benefit is shared among all players.

By the way, it is not always clear who benefits more by the elimination of an opponent—a player with a large stack or the player with a small stack. At the last table, small stacks clearly benefit more, because they move up in money position when they might otherwise have been eliminated. In early stages, players with large stacks sometimes benefit more when a short stack tries to do the eliminating, because mathematically, their stacks are chip-for-chip less valuable than stacks of opponents with fewer chips.

When Big Stacks Collide
This is clear: One of the best things that can happen to all remaining players is for two opponents with huge stacks to collide and one be eliminated. You then face the same number of opposing chips, but you have fewer opponents to contend with and the chips become reduced in value, because they’re concentrated in a single stack. Contrary to the opinions of some, this concentration of chips does not make it harder for you to win a tournament. If everyone were playing primarily to win first place, your chances of winning first place are about the same with your $10,000 versus two opponents, each with $45,000, as your same $10,000 versus one player with $90,000.

In each case—ignoring other minor factors—your chances of winning are about 10 percent. That’s because in both cases, you control 10 percent of the chips and 90 percent are controlled by others. Ignoring the all-in factor, that makes it about 9-to-1 against you, no matter how you apportion the chips among your opponents. Of course, your chances of taking second are much greater against the single opponent. In fact, your chances of taking at least second are guaranteed—and that’s why you want big stacks to go to war, especially late in a tournament, so they eliminate each other, giving you a bigger payday without even playing a hand. It’s also why—when you have a lot of chips—you do not want to go to war at high risk against another big stack. That’s just gives the idle players an advantage.

The big argument players give for wanting to eliminate an opponent is: “They might come back to beat you.” So what? They might come back to beat somebody else, too. Besides, they’re more likely to beat you if you try to eliminate them and lose, because then they have more chips to build from and to beat you with. Why is it so much more tragic if a person you might have eliminated comes back to beat you than if someone else knocks you out of a tournament? There is no logic to this common wisdom. Think about it.

The only thing that matters is whether sacrificing normally profitable strategy in an effort to eliminate an opponent will add or subtract from your expected payoff. In the late stages of a tournament, where you share the benefit with fewer players when an opponent is eliminated, it’s often worth making a moderate sacrifice. In the early stages, it is not. That’s the simple truth. You may not like the sound of it, and it may run contrary to everything you’ve heard before. But it’s the truth, anyway.

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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.


4 thoughts on “Bad tournament advice — here’s why”

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  1. All of this makes me remember why I hate re-buy tournaments. Invariably some player that I knocked out early comes back to knock me out just after the re-buy period has expired.

  2. I have read this advice several times.  There are several parts of it that drive me crazy, but there is a fundamental difference between tournaments and cash play.  In Tournaments you have a limited, and short bankroll. 
    As does everyone else.  But that shortness makes it a bad strategy to play for small edges.  Because the edge that you will go broke, is HUGE.   Almost the the point of certainty.
    In cash games you need to be bankrolled enough to play for the small edges, because if you don't you are simply giving money away to your opponents.  The amount of the edge doesn't nearly mean as much, because if your bankrolled enough, the variance should even out, and your profit will be the sum of those edges.  You're not going broke, your playing a bigger bankroll than is on the table.
    In a tournament game, your opponents are working for you.  Patience and allowing them to work gains you money.  You do have to play, but every time you do, you risk everything.  So your spots have to be AMAZING, and the better you do that then your opponents, the more you will win.  In a cash game patience will simply cost you money.   You burning a 100 bill is an incredible statement of that lack of patience.  What can be less patient than literally burning money.   YOU have to be in there.  YOU have to be mixing it.  YOU have to find the small edges and exploit them.  Because it really doesn't matter if the guy next to you is busting somebody.  They probably busted the easiest guy at the table, and you needed to be in there to try and get the money.  YOU can't go broke.   That is the biggest mistake to make in a cash game you can beat.

  3. Mike, I have a question:

    I get that you shouldn’t risk eliminating a player with a shorter stack for the sake of “advantage” or because you’re afraid they might come back to beat you, but shouldn’t you focus on attacking those with shorter stacks during a tournament because it’s a safer way to collect more chips and not get yourself eliminated if you fail in your attempt?


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