Mike Caro poker word is Survive

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.

You’re about to read the truth about poker tournaments. If you’re a poker tournament fan, you may not like it, so here’s a trick for times like these. It’s the Mike Caro secret to avoiding all printed truth: Close your eyes until you’re done reading.

Anyway, this column combines one of my favorite audio lectures with extensive new comments. Here goes…

It began

At first, people played poker either for fun or for money – mostly for money, I suppose. And then came poker tournaments. The strange thing is, if you’re a world-class poker player making a million dollars a year, and if you go into a tournament playing the same way, you’re going to lose in the long run.

That’s important and I’ll repeat it. If you’re a great poker player and you use that same greatness in most tournaments, don’t expect to win money. Now I’ll tell you why.

The reason is that in most tournaments, the money is paid out in pre-determined proportions in accordance with how high you finished. For instance, first place might get 35 percent, second place might get 20 percent, third place 15 percent, fourth place 10 percent, as so forth. Fine.

But most poker tournaments continue until one player has all the chips. That’s the champion – the winner of all those chips. First place. Now, the player who loses all his chips and is eliminated on the hand that first place wins is second place. The player eliminated before that is third place, and right down the line. That’s how it works.

But let’s think about this together. Most people have a hard time understanding the concept I’m about to teach you, but I’m going to make it so clear, you’ll never forget it.


Just stop for a second and imagine this – you win all the chips at the table at a regular poker game. What are you going to do? You’re going to take them right to the cage and cash out. Excellent answer.

But, wait! If you’re in a poker tournament and you win all the chips, you don’t get to take them right to the cage and cash out. You only get to keep 35 percent for winning first place, which – in a very real sense – means you only get to cash out a little more than a third of those chips.

Bummer. Now what does this mean conceptually. Well, in scientific terms, it means the winner of the tournament always gets screwed. The winner beat everyone out of every dollar on the table and now that winner has to give away almost two-thirds of that hard-earned money to the players already conquered.

Life’s not fair!

But this means something else about those common proportional payout poker tournaments. Something very profound. Here it comes. Listen. The winner of the poker tournament gets punished for winning.

That’s right. First place pays a penalty. And while first place is penalized, the other close finishers are rewarded. It’s the winner’s money that they’re receiving for second, third, fourth places, and so on. The champion won it; the losers are taking it home.

Why it matters

Now let me explain why this is important. First of all, there’s nothing unfair about this procedure, because all the players knew about it in advance. Most of them wanted it that way. So, this isn’t an issue about fairness. But it is an issue about strategy.

You see, because first place is penalized, it doesn’t make as much sense to target all the chips on the table – the way you should in a regular poker game outside the tournament. In these types of tournaments, you are punished for winning first place and rewarded for coming close. This means you should be willing to sacrifice some of your chance of winning first place in order to increase your chance of coming close.

This also means that your primary objective in these tournaments should be to survive. Now I’ll whisper it: Your primary objective should be to survive. Please remember that.

What I’m telling you is that most of those aggressive bets and raises, aimed at getting every penny’s worth of value, are not profitable in a proportional-payout tournament. You’re better playing much more conservatively. You should also be considerably more selective about the hands you enter pots with than you would be in a regular poker game.

I guess I’m annoyed that poker tournaments have evolved to where playing to win the first-place championship is an unprofitable choice. I believe a tournament should be about that championship – otherwise why have a tournament. When there are tournaments, such as the ubiquitous proportional-payoff ones, where making the most profit and having the best chance to win the trophy are different goals, I see a problem. That’s why I dislike and seldom play this type of event. But, I’ve had my say, so let’s move on…

The gotcha

So, that’s the secret – playing to survive. But, there’s a gotcha. What if it isn’t a proportional payout tournament? What if it’s one of those single-table satellites where the winner takes all the chips? Or what if it’s one of those shoot-out tournaments, where the winner of each table advances. In those cases, you should pretty much play your best regular-game strategy. Go after each and every edge. Don’t sacrifice to survive.

Of course, there are some considerations you should make in deference to even these winner-take-all or table-winners-advance tournaments. For instance, you might sacrifice a small advantage on a specific hand, because you don’t want to take the risk of being eliminated or damaged.

But, why not take the risk if there’s an advantage? Good question. It’s because you might get bigger advantages later on against weaker opponents. So why risk your money with good when you expect better?

And you might consider that others are playing to survive, even though that makes little sense in a winner-take-all or table-winners advance style tournament. So, you could find occasions where these opponents are more easily bluffed than in a real-world game. But, putting these exceptions and others aside, these tournaments differ from the more-common proportional prize pool events in that you can play your everyday best poker all the time. You don’t have to sacrifice profitable situations in order to survive.

This means, to me, that winner-take-all or table-winners-advance events are a truer test of traditional poker skills than the proportional-payoff events. Sadly, proportional payoff events are what’s commonplace.

About heads-up and stack size

But, even if you’re in a proportional-payoff tournament, there comes a time when you no longer need to play for survival to expect the most profit. Here it is…

When it gets down to heads-up, survival no longer matters. That’s because there is not first and second place money at stake anymore! Think about it. If first place is worth $10,000 and second place is worth $5,000, then you’ve both won $5,000 already. You’re fighting over the remaining $5,000, winner take all. So, when it’s down to two handed, survival doesn’t matter and you can play as aggressively as you would normally.

Also, keep in mind that when you have a short stack, those few chips should be especially protected. On a chip-to-chip scale, each one is worth more than it would be if mixed into a large stack. In fact, you can take more chances and be more aggressive when you have a larger-than-average stack. The bigger your stack, the more risks you can afford to take. You can even bluff more against short stacks, knowing that the opponents should be more conservative in their decisions, because they need to hang on to their chips and maximize their limited chances of making it to the money. That’s a mathematical fact, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Survival is the most important consideration, no matter how large your stack is — until it’s heads-up.

So, remember, there’s a penalty for taking first place in those common proportional payout tournaments. In order to play profitably, you need to be conservative and try to survive. Also, remember that playing to survive makes no sense in winner-take-all tournaments, such as singe-table satellites and shoot-outs. And finally, remember that when it gets down to heads up, you should never sacrifice anything just to survive. — 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.


7 thoughts on “Mike Caro poker word is Survive”

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  1. It’s been a while since we talked, Mike, and I just wanted to stop by and thank you for all you bring to poker. Your mind never ceased to amaze me.
    “the BigGirl of Poker”

  2. I agree all the way with you Mike. I heard from a pro once that he views thse as 2 tournies in the one. The fisrt is to survive to the money, then the second is to finish as high as possible. I have won a few times in these tournaments, albiet on-line tournaments. You also need patience and not to go beserk when you finally get a good hand. Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

    1. Hi, John —

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our new Poker1 family.

      I see the pro’s point, but to maximize profit, you need to continue to play to survive, even after you reach the money. I can understand how you might want to treat that as a second type of tournament, though.

      I don’t practice that, but you could design special tactics to target your opponents’ expected reactions once they reach the money and to accommodate the quickly changing pay-out levels.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  3. O.K. Mike, I give up. You win. I learned long time ago to never argue with a genius or a fool because you can’t win against either. By the way Mike, do you sell pieces of yourself? In the WSOP, I mean. If you do I got a thousand bucks burning a hole in my pocket. Or maybe we can make a little prop bet before you go out there. Maybe a last longest bet or something. I won’t be there but I can pick a pro for you to last longest against and no one will know but you and I.

  4. Oops, I didn’t mean I disagree with your strategy of playing to survive. I agree completely with that. I disagree that the winner is penalized.

  5. Mike, this is about the only thing that I disagree with you about. I do not think the winner of tournaments are penalized. It’s like you said, everyone wants it the way it is. So everyone knows going in what’s at stake. It’s the same at a cash game. You would like to win all the money from the other players but more than likely win (if you win)only some of the money. I’m very very sorry to have to disagree with the Mad Genius.

    1. Hi, Stan –

      This reply addresses your main comment above and your clarifying comment below, which is: “Oops, I didn’t mean I disagree with your strategy of playing to survive. I agree completely with that. I disagree that the winner is penalized.”

      If there is anything arguable about my assertion, it’s whether the 2nd place through last-paid-place prize money coming from the 1st place winner’s stack should be called a “penalty.” You could apply many other terms, instead. “Gift,” “fine,” “fee,” “gratuity,” “tax,” “forfeiture,” and “H.R. 16051401122025, Universal Poker Justice and Fair Distribution of Chips Act” immediately come to mind as alternatives.

      It’s not my opinion, but a fact, that the winner pays a penalty — or whatever you choose to call it.

      Because of that fact, overall strategy and in-game tactics are much different from standard poker when trying to make the most profit in a tournament. The object is to combine some poker skills with an overpowering concession to a mathematical formula based on trying to place as high as possible without jeopardizing your chips needlessly.

      In reality, this often means sacrificing many of your most skillful poker plays and simply acting conservatively. Another distortion is that the size of your stack versus your opponents’ stacks always matters, and players can be betting the same amount of chips, but risking different amounts of potential prize-money.

      Put it all together and a proportional-payoff poker tournament isn’t entirely a test of poker skill. Arguably, it isn’t even mainly a test of poker skill.

      However, such a tournament is perfectly fair. As you point out, everyone agrees to the system of payment when entering. I have proposed alternatives that provide the same number of prizes without diluting poker skill. I think that kind of tournament would be superior.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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