Very bad poker tournament advice — here’s why

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. Originally published (2001) in Poker Digest.

Previously, 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 pay-out 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.

Here’s the entry referred to above

Poker tournaments are broken — How to fix them

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 exposed

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. (Of course, in so-called “bounty tournaments,” in which you’re awarded a bonus for each designated player that you eliminate, there is added incentive to expel some opponents. A few tournaments designate all players as bounties.)

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 chance 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 chance 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. – MC

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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.


24 thoughts on “Very bad poker tournament advice — here’s why”

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  1. 1 you ignore fact they want more players for more house rake and now 15% cash.
    2 AA on button calling shove by A2 offsuit in small blind
    and losing to flop 2 and river 2 is not a case of theA2 player conquering.

  2. I have to agree with you Mike, so many times I have gone after small chip stacks to only double them up…I was chip leader at the table commanding… called 5 all ins (different hands) from small stacks…I had a commanding lead pre flop and lost all 5… I found myself to be the small stack after the 5 losses…

  3. Hello Mike. I was wondering if you think your example of sacrificing to eliminate a short stacked opponent is over simplified? It doesn’t factor in pot odds at all. Sometimes you still call knowing you are taking the worst of it, purely because of the odds at hand. Also, is this example for a winner-take-all tournament? It seems like you are not sacrificing as much the closer you get to the money, not first place if this is indeed a proportional payoff tournament.

  4. Another thing to consider with that short-stack is, where is he sitting? That seat is going to get filled. If he’s that short the odds are long that the next guy wont have a much bigger stack, and probably that bigger stack will be playing it better, too. Go ahead, little 5bb guy 2 to my left; take the antes and the blinds with my compliments.

  5. The way u sign off is funny, because the last 5-7 times I got a straight flush online, I folded pre flop!
    The funny part is, I love suited connectors!

  6. The funny thing is that they have allowed online rummy (different from gin rummy), which they have declared a “game of skill” with a 15% rake, and rummy can be played ideally, unlike poker.

  7. Dear sir,
    I need some help, I am a mathematically talented person, I have a genius level IQ, and I know advanced poker tournament systems, using which I figured out how to kill many pro’s. You would expect me to be living in a mansion right? WRONG, I live in India, where it’s illegal to play online poker. Can you please ask the PPA or something to help countries other than the USA? It’s very important, since many Indians are very good at maths and they can help create the next poker boom. I still play online under certain pseudonyms, but this may help thousands, pehaps millions of my countrymen join the industry.

    1. We’re doing what we can, Anmol. Unfortunately, legislation threatens to keep United States players, too, from participating in poker online.

      I think it’s great when players from all over the world converge at a single table. Maybe sanity will return to governments someday soon.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  8. Also, what do you think about the phil hellmuth laydown, sometimes I feel those plays are a bit bad, but I only have online experience. Is there a live counter argument?

  9. I’m actually a huge fan of the psychological warfare, I combine your tehnique with negreanu’s to give myself a wilder table image than you can ever imagine. In my home game, if I bluff 1 time out of 10, to keep the myth alive, my opponents always pay me off because I’m “always bluffing. I made my adversary put in a 100BB stack with q hi on the river! I am aware of the burning 100 dollar bills story, and I laughed out loud. I also am a fan of your root for your opponent strategy, though I still get angry when faced with bad beats.

    This may be a bit off topic, but I came up with an idea for major tournaments that you’d appreciate. I’d keep Caro’s book of tells in front of me, and when I get aa, I say “I guess I have to play this hand”,then I’d say “that’s what the book told me to do”, yeah I’m a maniac. I’ve always wondered if live pro’s like yourself balance your hand ranges, because if you don’t you’re open to exploitation. When did they finally figure out accurate preflop odds (famous brunson 22 v ak prop bet)?

    Back to topic: Another reason why first seems to be important is because a tournament would get very boring if it goes fold-fold-fold it seems quite mechanical. I personally believe that it is possible to create a robot that is better at nlhe than all the top pro’s are right now. I also was wondering about the difference between rebuy’s and freeze-outs. For example, they say it’s always good to take the initial rebuy and double your stack. Wouldn’t that be like taking a coin-flip to double up in a live tournament? It would have the same effect. Also, why is rebuying so essential? Isn’t it just like playing in another freeze-out tournament? People like Negreanu are famous for applying the block concept to rebuy tourneys (I think it’s a horrible idea) by pushing every hand and taking like 40 rebuys. Wouldn’t that be the same as playing 40 freeze-outs and shoving every hand? Also, in a rebuy tournament if you don’t “gamble” as conventional wisdom states, and instead you chose to play tight, aren’t you still +ev on your buy in. 1. you look for some great spots for double ups, because of all the donk shoving and you will anyway be a decent stack by the end of the rebuy period. 2, you are investing significantly less than your opponents in the tourney making for a much better risk vs reward ratio (1R,1A may give you 2:1 on a minimum cash, whereas negreanu needs to make the final table to break even). 3. Even though you may be forced to gamble with a relatively short stacks, blinds and antes will be higher at that stage, so stealing them will make a much greater difference to your stack than it would at the beginning. Also, you may need only 1 double up to make the money, so even if you always min cash, if you get 2:1 odds on your money, it should be good enough to break even, and you will almost certainly get better odds, and you may run deep. Rebuys are also a way of upping the stakes of a tournament, for example if its a $1k rebuy and you start of with $1k, assuming you gamble to break even, you try to get $10k for $10k. You certainly won’t, so its a -ev sattelite in a way.

    I believe that rebuy tournaments are 1 place where risk:reward is sacrificed by thirst for victory. I have always felt this way, but every video I saw had only 1 theme: Victory, Victory, Victory!!!!!!! I was waiting for a post like this where I could pose a question of this nature. Thank you for the opportunity. Also, I think you should check out double or nothing sit n go’s on pokerstars. The ICM behind it should interest you, as it has interested me and we share our maniacal nature. Also, are you a fan of pushing all in preflop on steals and resteals.

    Would love to hear about your opinons on these topics,

    as usual, a mail would be convenient.

    1. I like the idea of keeping Book of Tells in plain view. Many years ago, I had a book cover specially printed and wrapped around blank pages. I often brought it to the tables and put it where people could see it. The title was, “How to Bluff Constantly and Win.” Then, of course, I didn’t bluff. That ploy is primitive and I wouldn’t use it today, but I believe it earned extra calls, despite the fact that most opponents probably suspected they were being conned.

      To answer another of your questions: As far as I can tell, I was the first to publish accurate pre-flop odds for hold ’em (circa 1977).

      In rebuy tournaments, you should usually use your option to rebuy if you’ve run out of chips, but seldom before. About rebuying as a last-chance add-on, I use triple my stack as a guideline. If adding the chips won’t at least triple my stack, I don’t rebuy. The reason rebuys make sense if you’ve lost all your chips is because many opponents don’t rebuy. So your next buy-in, if you need it, has a better chance than your first, with more chips and fewer opponents. You have equity anytime you have at least the stack you started with and others have been eliminated. Of course, the strength of the remaining opponents matters, and they tend to be stronger later on when you rebuy. But rebuying is still usually correct.

      And in a rebuy tournament, the advice I give about playing to survive is invalid, as I’ve explained many times. Once the rebuy period closes, then you should go into survival mode, not before. I agree that some pros overdo this and play too recklessly in rebuy events, though.

      I’m not a fan of pushing all-in for any given situation. I’m an advocate of pricing a hand correctly, and if that happens to be moving all-in, so be it.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. “I often brought it to the tables and put it where people could see it. The title was, “How to Bluff Constantly and Win”. Then, of course, I didn’t bluff. That ploy is primitive and I wouldn’t use it today, but I believe it earned extra calls, despite the fact that most opponents probably suspected they were being conned”.

        So you were the one who did that. I heard that story many years ago, but no names were mentioned. The way I heard it was that “someone” brought a blank book entitled “How to Bluff Constantly and Win” into a game and really cleaned up. While leaving the game, that “someone” left the book behind with the comment: “You guys need this more than I do”, and the remaining players almost fought each other to be the first to mine it for its “wisdom”. The book, of course, had nothing but blank pages in it, demonstrating that it’s not possible to bluff constantly and win.

        1. Yes, I did that a long time ago in Gardena, California — then known as “the poker Capital of the World.” The story you heard seems a bit embellished. Oh, well.

          Straight Flushes,
          Mike Caro

  10. ps mail me when u reply to the previous comment, then i can be alerted instantly.

  11. With all due respect,
    tight is right doesn’t apply nowadays, due to the speed of education, there aren’t enough people who will be dumb enough to donk of their chips with kjo against someone who hasn’t played a hand for two and a half hours. As you can tell, I belong to the new school of poker.
    On a side note, thanks for replying, you are the first pro to actually discuss my crazy theories of poker with me (I’m a maniac). Also, to make your calculation more accurate, you can factor in the cash value of the bracelet, and the sponsorships, etc. the winner receives. Also, as Allen Cunningham says, it depends on the structure. If 800 cash, and 800th gets $20, but 100th gets $40, its better to squeak into the money, but if 800 cash, and 800th gets $20, but 700th gets $40, exploit the bubble. Another fairly important factor is structure, If 1/3rd of all players cash, it may be optimal fold every hand of the tournament, but if only 5% cash like the WSOP tournament of champions, it is best to exploit many edges. Generally, when fewer people cash it’s a top heavy structure. However, if you notice that others are folding their way into the money, you may exploit that, by going for the win, and near the bubble of the 5% tournament, players may be extremely tight, as they may not want the hard work to reach that stage to amount to nothing.

    I believe that in this case, as opposed to other cases, it’s best to play the opposite of your opponents, while adjusting to the structure. If your opponents are the survival type, or the small pot type (Phil Hellmuth claims to have qq in the 2004 WSOP knowing that he was 4.5 to 1 favorite) , it’s best to go after them, whereas if they’re going for the glory, it may be best to play tight. With regards to the block theory, it may not be optimal to play tight against big-stacks, but in large live tournaments, people tend to stay out of their way out of fear of busting, I believe that you should play looser with larger stacks, so that they don’t get the better of you, and they don’t expect a timid medium stack like you to play loose. In your words, “you should disappoint them”.

    I only play ev while I’m a medium stack, and not on the bubble/ the final table. At these stages, tournaments turn into cash games due to the large number of chips needed to cash, after cashing, you require a large number of chips to reach the final table. As a tight player, it is extremely hard to make it to the final table, and the top 3, where most of the money is, since people will not give you much action since you are tight, and other players will frequently steal your blinds and blind you out of the tournament. Tight is right applies to deepstack, ante-less cashgames at low-medium levels. With a medium-short stack, you risk being blinded out, whereas if you try it at high levels, you are virtually turning your hand face-up, so the good players can easily exploit you. This is probably just a live vs. online clash of ideology.

    Hope to hear your thoughts soon

    1. Hi, anmol —

      Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking post.

      You say you belong to the new school of poker. Well, this IS the new school of poker. All my advice is based on current research, as well as older analysis. As such, it isn’t just guesswork or homespun wisdom.

      Often players have the illusion that a certain style of play works, based on short-term results. “Short term” in the tournament world can mean years.

      When you say I’m the first pro to actually discuss your “crazy theories of poker” and that you’re a maniac, you need to study my general theories more closely. I arguably invented the “wild image,” and my personal play is based on aggressive, psychological poker warfare to the extreme. This is why I get so much criticism from more strategy-only minded experts who don’t understand the psychology of poker.

      Despite this, proportional-payoff tournaments are different from everyday games, where I’ve been known to burn $100 bills at the table for advertisement. Even if all contestants in a tournament play perfectly, tight is still correct. The reason remains: First place is penalized by having to surrender most of its final winnings. This makes the quest for survival and ending up in the non-first-place payoff positions mathematically correct.

      That’s a fact. You can make a credible argument that many opponents are playing so tight today that you have a better chance of gather chips and, thus, surviving through aggression. I’ve encountered a few instances where this is true, but it isn’t the norm.

      You’re right in saying that the more “top heavy” the payoff is, the less important it is to play purely to survive. I treat the “bubble” as just another payoff spot paying zero dollars. The fear of being knocked out in the bubble is irrational.

      I personally very rarely play tournaments, because I don’t believe proportional-payoff events represent a true test of poker skill. But when I do, I’m conscience of what you’ve written, as I’ve previously publicly disclosed — namely, I usually pay the penalty and go for the trophy or bracelet. That’s because there is intangible extra profit for me (publicity and sales) in winning, rather than targeting the most profit.

      You’re also right in saying that you need to adjust your style to opponents’ play. You’ll find a lot of material I’ve written about that. In brief, you should play more liberally whenever opponents stray far from correct strategy — whether they’re too tight OR too loose. If they’re too tight, you bluff more; if they’re too loose, you play more hands, but not as many as they do.

      Hope this helps explain my entry above.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  12. Please send me an e-mail reply if you disagree, but in the 1st part, you forgot about something called the block theory/concept. This states that the big stack is +ev to play, so it may be ok to sacrifice some ev to obtain this. I use this theory to counteract the payout% theory, and I play tourneys almost purely on ev, unless my big stack is at risk. So, maybe playing to win is playing to win money.

    1. Hi, anmol —

      Thanks for contributing to Poker1.

      I didn’t forget that concept. I just didn’t include it. There are many instances in which I show that short stacks are more precious chip for chip in proportional-payout tournaments. This can easily be seen by simply asking, “What are my chips worth if I win the tournament?”

      Clearly, they’re worth much less than face value, adjusted to real money, because you only get a percentage of the prize pool. Theoretically, this allows large stacks to use aggression against short stacks, even with sub-marginal hands. Occasionally, betting can be correct for the large stack, while, at the same time, folding can be correct for the short stack.

      So, yes, you can play looser with large stacks, but the adjustments should be made within the reality that “tight is right,” and that you need to survive to profit.

      This is why I said, “If everyone were playing to win first place,” in the example given in the entry above. If they’re, instead, pursuing profit by sacrificing first-place opportunity, then the mathematics are less clear — but the concept still reigns.

      Perhaps it’s best to think of “first place being punished” as the dominating concept and “big and small stacks have values different from their appearance” as a secondary concept.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    2. dont be so long winded – be consise – and click the box, you will know when reply comes

      game theory is NOT new nor will be supplanted – so Hint – dont be exploitable!

  13. Thank you, MC, for these writings, and for letting us know about them via Twitter. I’m in the process of catching up with my reading and I find your pieces interesting and informative. I look forward to reading more.

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