Poker stuff that annoys me

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.

It’s time for us to talk soul to soul. If we’re going to be lifelong friends, then I need to care about you and you need to know what I feel in my heart. Well, my heart hurts. Here are two of many reasons why: (1) My beloved United States government has suffered a mental breakdown; and (2) After all these years, nobody has repaired poker tournaments the way I’ve advised.

Why my heart hurts 1. The mental breakdown of U.S. government

If there were only three of us in the whole world, would we need any government at all? Nope. We’d work things out among ourselves. Sometimes one of us may demand more than a fair share of attention or property, but we’d just quibble lovingly and work it out. We’d cheer for each other sometimes, argue sometimes, and mostly we’d just get by.

But with a bigger world it’s harder to care about everyone and to keep track of people’s likes, dislikes, and activities. And a few folks may start to abuse the situation, because they have no emotional bonds to others. And others may need protection — and so there become laws and government. And government has its mindset, its mission. And that is to make things better.

Good government is the collective voice and power of the people, designed to ensure individuals maintain control of their own destinies, as long as they don’t prevent others from doing the same. Bad government separates itself from the people and has a different mindset. Bad government thinks it is above the people, knows better than the people, and should control the people. Good government acts as our servants. Bad government acts as our parents.

Denying online poker

Why, then, should the United States government deny me the right to join the rest of the world in playing poker online? When the House of Representative passed a bill that promotes that evil end, it hurt my heart. Isn’t poker our traditional American card game? It may have its roots elsewhere, but it’s ours. Haven’t we glamorized it for more than a century? Isn’t its worldwide popularity something that makes others around the globe feel — at least subconsciously — a little better about America? Aren’t cultures bonding around the poker table?

The Senate still needs to weigh in on the bill that the House passed, but why should citizens even need to wonder what will happen to them next regarding poker? The way I see it, those who voted for the bill are most likely poker players themselves, and therefore hypocrites, or they’ve never played poker, in which case they don’t understand what they’re voting on and need to dummy up.

Our own leaders, many who voted for this bill, have criticized China for repressing its citizens by blocking access to certain Internet sites. Their criticism is correct. No government should deny its citizens the right to participate freely in the greatest marketplace of activities and ideas ever invented. That’s what the Internet is. It can bond the world. And our U.S. government has decided to keep the poker world from bonding.

I choose to play poker online with friends around the world. Telling me I can’t isn’t the function of good government. It is the function of a government that has lost its way and lost its mind. And to all those in the House of Representative who voted for this bill, remember, I still love you. But in this case, you need to reconsider what you’ve done. Poker is our game. The world is reaching out to us. We are not China.

Why my heart hurts 2. Nobody has repaired poker tournaments

OK, so Mike Matusow, known affectionately in poker as “the Mouth,” approaches me at the World Series of Poker and says, “I looked you up on the Internet and you only have $6,000 in wins!”

“Well,” I pointed out, “I’m surprised I have any amount of money in wins, since I hardly ever play.” And that’s the truth. I’ve only attended the WSOP six times and only played in the main event three times. On the years I have attended, I’ve only entered one, or sometimes two, events a year. I wish I hadn’t sat out 20 years of the WSOP, especially in the earlier years when you sometimes had fields of 30 or so players. Maybe I could have been lucky enough to win some gold bracelets back then. But today, it’s hard with fields up to 3,000 for preliminary events and an expected 8,000 or more for the main event. You need to get really lucky. So, I’ve resolved to just declare that I’M the best in the world, rather than to kill myself traveling today’s hectic tournament circuit.

But the WSOP is special, so I’ve decided to play over half the events this year. So far, I’ve been in the money twice and at the final table once, so if things continue to go well, Mr. Matusow will have to find a new way to heckle me next year. But that’s not the main point. The point is, there’s a key reason I avoid poker tournaments. It’s because they don’t make sense as a test of poker skills.

I’m talking about the proportional-payout poker tournaments where first place is achieved by winning all the chips and conquering all the players. Then the prize money — completely corralled by the one winner — is distributed mostly to the players that champion has already eliminated. If it were a real-world competition, the single winner would go home with all the money. But in this socialistic poker tournament environment, he must give away most of his newly acquired fortune.

So, clearly, there’s a penalty for taking first place. And, unfortunately, the solution is to play substandard poker. If you’re interested in profit, you must play to survive, sacrificing most of those aggressive plays and finesse tactics that, though risky, add enormously to your everyday profit. In the typical proportional-payoff tournaments, these sophisticated skills are usually unprofitable. You must, in a real sense, play to avoid taking first place! You’d like to stumble into the championship, but you should avoid targeting it. Survival is simply the overwhelming key to winning money.

And that’s wrong. A poker tournament should be about winning the trophy or the bracelet, not about how to use a mathematical non-poker-related formula to maximize your chances of winning a percent of the prize pool.

The solution

So, yes, I’ve proposed a solution. You can probably find it online. In a nutshell, it involves starting with full-handed tables and having only the winners advance, then having those winners compete at shorter-handed tables as they continue to conquer and advance. Typically the semi-finals will be two heads-up matches with the winners going on to meet each other for the grand championship.

Doing it my way, you pay just as many places as before. It’s not winner take all, but there’s no benefit in playing merely to survive. You need to play your best poker always in an attempt to be table champion. In that sense, it’s similar to a “shootout” tournament, but it takes the idea much further. One benefit is that players get to compete full-handed (or as full as the table starts), short-handed, and heads-up at every stage of the event — not just at the final table, as it is now. Remember, the way it is now, the winner is determined by testing short-handed skills only at the final table, skills that didn’t come into play until the conclusion.

And those managers are wrong who say that running this type of tournament is too labor intensive, because it consumes extra dealers and tables. Their reasoning is that you will need a dealer to remain right down to the heads-up sessions to determine a winner for each table. Intuitively this seems like a lot of dealers, but that doesn’t compute. Actually, since at least 88 percent of players are eliminated after the first-table round, dealers and tables are soon freed up and the tax on those resources is actually less than in standard tournaments.

Also, I submit that such Caro-style tournaments are much better for television. There’s suspense at every table throughout the event, because only one seated player will advance. Drama everywhere.

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Could we finally try it, please? — 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.


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  1. Hi Mike!
    I have to agree with your proposal. Testing short-handed skills is almost totally neglected in the way tournaments are now played. Add the drama of winner-take-all at every table and you have a very interesting concept. It would be nice to see a tournament being played that way. Maybe Doyle’s Room could try it out so the big public could fall in love with your concept?

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