Poker Tournaments — Too-great expectations

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.

A couple columns back, I told you what I didn’t like about poker tournaments as they’re implemented today. This drew a mix of responses, some agreeing, some sayingI was being irresponsible for not heralding the tournament cause.

But, the fact remains that the tournament wars are not profitable for most casinos in general, despite what we may want to believe in our hearts. And the fact remains that the typical “proportional-payout” tournaments do make you choose between playing all-out for the first-place trophy and sacrificing poker skills in order to survive and have a greater chance at profit. That’s not a fair choice in my mind, but that’s another issue, and I’ve already dealt with it.

I recommended ways to correct the problem. Just to be clear, I like poker tournaments – just not those common ones where the winner has to conquer all the opponents, win all the chips, and then give most of them back. I prefer small single-table tournaments, shoot-outs where the winner of each table advances, or match-play (heads-up elimination) events.

But I’m not done with the topic of poker tournaments. There’s something else that bugs me. In a minute, I’m going to turn this column over to a guest writer that will drive a point home in a powerful and creative way. First, here’s a post I made to the newsgroup a few weeks ago…

My message

“You’re observing something that some of us have pointed out many times. There is a great deal of luck in tournaments. There is probably no one who would win in a typical 300 hundred player field more that one in 100 to 150 times. That’s two to three times “fair share” and very impressive, but it means that top players can go a long time between wins — or being in the money.

“Why isn’t this generally accepted as true? It’s because there will always be some players whose names are currently listed again and again, because they’re lucky (and skillful, too,  most likely). But they won’t be the same players year after year. The ones who put together a lot of hits for two, three, or even four years will be assumed to be doing so because they naturally should be. But they shouldn’t.”

Tom Weideman’s message

Then Tom Weideman, a physicist who earned his PhD in 1990 and has since stormed on the poker scene, including many superior posts to the same newsgroup, shared an abbreviated version of a message he’d made public years earlier. This covers my point, and says it eloquently…

Poker was introduced on Zog several years ago, and it was an instant hit.

Unlike earth, Zog’s intelligent inhabitants are not so widely-varied in their talents.  In fact, when poker tournaments were first introduced, every tournament saw the same 300 players show up every time, and every one of these players played with EXACTLY the same ability!

Much to the surprise of Zoggians everywhere, there was one player who had actually won more than one tournament of the mere 15 that were played in the entire history of poker on that planet.  Everyone thought, “Wow, the odds against a single player winning more than 1 tournament out of only 15 when there are so many participants must be astronomical!  This player really must know more about the game than anyone else!”

[Math note: The probability that some player will win more than once out of 15 tries with a 1/300 shot of winning each tournament is actually better than 1/3, so it’s not such an amazing event after all.  Unfortunately, the Zoggians evolved to be no better at intuitively understanding the mathematics of seemingly unsual events than humans.]

The Zoggian who achieved this feat of course also believed that he must be a great player, so he wrote a book that everyone immediately bought.  Now because of the tournament success and the book, this player became a celebrity among poker players, and immediately commanded respect at poker tables everywhere.  The plays that he made at the table that worked out well were heralded as more signs of his genius, while his failures were soon forgotten, or more likely, were deemed to have been “too deep” for mere mortals to understand.  The selective memory syndrome built him into a legend.  In addition to this, the confidence he acquired from his early success (and his opponents’ concomitant collective fear) served to actually (for the first time) cause him to play slightly better than his opponents, making him slightly more likely to win events than his counterparts.

As the fame of the Zoggian poker author continued to grow unchecked, another player won multiple tournaments in a short time, and it was not long before he was proclaimed the newest Zoggian poker genius.  Like his predecessor, this fellow wrote a book, and he also began collecting financial backers for future events.  His backing allowed him to play more fearlessly than before, and this, along with his notoriety, helped him to gain a slight edge on his opponents.

This same story played over and over, with new “heroes” emerging every so often by winning multiple tournaments in a short time.  Before long, there was a whole pantheon of “superstar” players, that everyone on Zog agreed were the elite.  These superstars were just as susceptible to selective memory as the rest of the planet, so they believed that their fellow superstars really were “the players to beat”.  Many of them split action with each other in tournaments, figuring that their group was a shoo-in to get most of the money at every event they played.  Every once in awhile, an “outsider” won a tournament who, for whatever reason, was quickly praised by one of the established elite.  The effect of this was to effectively extend the period of time allowed (from 15 tournaments to 30) for that person to win a second tournament such that he would be admitted into the elite.  This had the effect of greatly improving the probability of these connected newcomers hitting it big, AND it served to make the uppercrust even an more tightly-knit group.

All this happened without a single player having any greater understanding of the game of poker than anyone else.  Many of the superstars played marginally better because they played aggressively thanks to their misplaced confidence, but this adjustment was by no means a deliberate conscious decision based on a strategic understanding of the value of aggression.

After their original hot streaks, any occasional win (however rare it might actually be) by a superstar player only served to reinforce his stardom.

Typically this person credited his win with some adjustment he made that “put him back on track”.  When a superstar failed to win a tournament, no one took the slightest note, possibly because there was almost always some other big name player to watch at the time.  When a player fell on hard times and lost a backer, he simply shopped around until another came along.

One day, a small group of inhabitants from the nearby planet of Bamf arrived on Zog in a spaceship, and they were amazed to discover how truly awful the Zoggians played the game of poker.  With their superior analytical skills and their centuries of experience, the Bamfites possessed a much deeper understanding of the game than the Zoggians could ever imagine.  After speaking with and reading the books written by the star Zoggian players and after sitting at the tables with them a few times, the Bamfites concluded that even the Zoggian “elite” were clueless about the game.  For a variety of reasons, most of the Bamfites decided that tournaments are not the smartest or fastest way to win money, and only a few even bothered to participate in these events.  Those few that did take part only did so occasionally, and expected to win maybe one out of every 150 or 200 tournaments.  Although this was a much better probability that their Zoggian counterparts, these Bamfites never got admitted into the group of “elite” players, because their limited participation made it extremely unlikely that they would manage to win multiple tournaments in a short time.  When a Bamfite occasionally let it slip in public that the Zoggian star players were actually not very good, they were dismissed as “jealous”, or were told that they simply did not understand the game well enough to see how deep the plays of these Zoggian superstars really were.

[All the characters in this story are fictional.  Any similarities of these characters with real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.  No animals were harmed in the writing of this story, nor were any harmed to produce the snack eaten by the author during the writing of this story.]

Now I’m not so cynical that I think that the above fiction is actually going on here today.  But I wrote it to point out how blown out of proportion tournament success can get, even in the most extreme case of players who are all equally matched.  I do think that a great many of today’s successful tournament players are stronger players than hundreds of the numbskulls that participate in these events.  But I’m also quite certain that many of these high profile players get way more credit than they deserve (eg. I think that players in the 75th percentile that enjoy a flash of tournament success are now regularly given credit for being in the 99th percentile).

I’m trying here to demonstrate that even a seemingly long run of apparent poker success in tournaments does not say as much about the poker understanding of a player as most of us think it does, for two reasons:
1. Selective memory about the results of renowned players makes their successes seem more consistent than they really are, and 2. Even mediocre players can enjoy a great deal more success than most people would expect.

Thanks, Tom. — 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.


3 thoughts on “Poker Tournaments — Too-great expectations”

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  1. Ha ha. I was thinking something similar, and we should ask the question. How many tournaments has PHjr busted out of, where a bracelet was up for grabs? Seriously is it more than 1,000?
    Quoting Tom Weideman: “Selective memory about the results of renowned players makes their successes seem more consistent than they really are”

    1. Hi, Bruce —

      Thanks for making your first comment at Poker1.

      Phil Hellmuth asked me not to reveal his home address or continent. Sorry. But I get your point.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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