Mike Caro poker word is Proportional

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.

Televised poker has brought big changes. The two most conspicuous are (1) hold ’em is now the game of choice almost everywhere; and (2) poker tournaments are much more popular.

You’ve heard me talk quite a bit about poker tournaments – how they should be modified, why I don’t play many, simple strategy for profit, and more. Let’s go beyond that. Here’s advice specific to your tournament chips and how you should use them to control your fate.

I think you’ll be surprised. Let’s listen to a strategy lecture I delivered long ago…

Tournaments: Your chips, your chances

Previously, we’ve learned the truth about proportional payoff tournaments. I’ll refresh your memory and then I’ll add some selected poker tournament tips about chips to your arsenal. These are chip-tips I’ve chosen because they have great impact on your profit.

We learned that there are several types of poker tournaments. The most common type is proportional payoff where you start with hundreds of players at many tables spread across the room. Whenever enough players lose their chips and are eliminated, tables are combined, so as the tournament goes on, there are fewer players and fewer tables. It’s sad to see so many players go broke, but what the hell – it’s a tournament.

Strange part

In order to make sure players are eliminated quickly enough, so the tournament doesn’t drag on for years before someone wins all the chips, the betting limits are periodically raised. Fine. Now, here’s where the strange part comes in. The tournament doesn’t end until one player wins all the money. That OK. But, guess what? The winner doesn’t get to keep all the money. He has to pay most of it back to the players he’s already conquered. He gets to keep, say, 35 percent for winning first place, but 2nd place gets some, 3rd place gets some, 4th place gets some, and maybe even 40th place gets some. What this all means is there’s a penalty for winning the tournament. All the close finishers are rewarded.

When we discussed this previously, we learned that this phenomenon had strategic consequences. It turns out that survival means more than taking advantage of every little edge through aggressive play. You want to last long enough to get as high as you can into the money. If profit is your motive for playing this type of poker tournament, then you should abandon some of your profitable, but risky, plays that you use in non-tournament games everyday. Survive. Survive. Survive. If you accidentally win first place, well, congratulations, you’re the champion. But that shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should be to survive while others are eliminated, move up the ladder, and make money.

What a tournament should be

What do I think about that? I think it sucks! I don’t think a player should have to decide whether to play for the money or for the championship. The championship, after all, is what a tournament is supposed to be about. So, I’ve proposed other tournament structures. But unless these are implemented, you need to know that when you’re in a traditional percentage-payoff tournament, you should play for survival if you’re interested in the money.

OK, let’s move on. Here are some quick tips and concepts about chips that I want you to add to your understanding of tournaments.

Did you know that, with the same amount of chips, you’re always better off later in the tournament than early? Most players see it wrong. They think they need to gather chips as the tournament progresses to keep pace. Gathering chips is good if you can do it, but actually if you started with $500 in chips and have $500 in chips after three-quarters of the field is eliminated, you’re in better shape than when you began, not worse, as many players falsely believe.

It should be obvious, when you think about it. The number of chips against you are the same as when the tournament started, they’re just in fewer players’ stacks. Now some people believe that big stacks have an advantage. This is completely false. Tall stacks of chips are better than short ones, of course, but not as much better as you might think.

No magic leverage

In a winner take all tournament among equally skilled opponents, a player with three times as many chips has about three times as great a chance of winning the tournament. Period. There’s no magic leverage that makes those chips worth more than their face value. In fact, the shorter stack will win slightly more often than the chips suggest. That’s because the player can go all-in and survive to get lucky on the showdown with hands that a larger stack might have thrown away.

But let’s forget that annoying little concept. Let’s deal with the bigger truth. That truth is that even in a winner-take-all tournament, you have just as good a chance of winning with your $500 when a single opponent has $49,500 as when the tournament starts with 100 players having $500 each. You still control $500 in chips and your opponents collectively control the other $49,500. It doesn’t much matter whether that $49,500 is in one stack or many.

But in percentage payout tournaments, it’s even better if you have just as many chips as you started with. This is easy to prove by asking if you’d rather be starting the tournament all over again with those chips or if you’d like to be down to two handed with them. Obviously, two-handed is better, because you’re already guaranteed at least second-place money and a big profit. The fact is, the longer you last with the same amount of chips, the better you are, so don’t panic. Just survive, survive, survive. If you can gather chips, that’s fine, but if you just hold on to the chips you have while others are eliminated, you’re improving your situation. Never forget that.


OK, that brings us to rebuys. At some point somebody decided that we should mess up the purity of tournaments even more. Someone decided that once you were eliminated from a tournament, hey, you weren’t really eliminated. If you could afford it, you could just buy-in again. This is just another thing that irritates me about modern tournaments. But if we’re going to play them, we might as well get used to it.

Many tournament events allow you to rebuy if you go broke. So, the question is, should you? Well, I’ve already pretty much answered the question. If some players have already left the tournament, after deciding not to rebuy, then you’re usually in a situation pretty much like I already described. Would you rather have $500 in chips right now against fewer opponents? The answer is usually yes. Mathematically, it isn’t quite the same, because your $500 gets added to the prize pool and others can also rebuy.

But, in general, you should rebuy. It’s a bargain – as long as not everyone’s doing it, and the cost of the rebuy is small. Of course, you obviously wouldn’t want to rebuy if it cost you $1 million – even if you got $1 million in chips. You’d be pretty sure to win the tournament, but you’d have to surrender most of your own $1 million dollars to second and third places and more. You would be guaranteed to lose money. So, whether to rebuy or not depends on many things – even the skill of the remaining opponents. But, usually, you should do it.

Tough concept

Another thing we need to discuss is that you’re seldom going to be cheated by somebody dumping off chips to a big stack, because equalized stacks make the most money. It’s a tough mathematical concept, but trust me. Two same-size stacks are more profitable for unscrupulous partners than a big one and a small one. So, the common fear of someone passing off chips to a larger stack is irrational. What you need to worry about – if you need to worry at all, which you usually don’t – is partners trying to equalize their stacks.

Finally, since we’re talking about concepts dealing with tournament chips, remember this. Late in the tournament, it’s essential that you seldom take big chances against players with larger stacks that could put you all-in if you played the hand to the river. Attack short stacks that you can put all-in. Remember, at the end of a tournament, the object is to move up in the money. You want to do this by surviving and playing fewer hands, or by attacking players who are least likely to eliminate you from the tournament. Those are the short stacks. Attack them. It’s even more important in no-limit tournaments.

Big advantages

When you attack a short stack, you have two big advantages. One, you can’t be eliminated, so even if you lose the pot, you’ll still have hope. Two, if you win and eliminate the short-stack opponent, you move up in the prize money. When you go to war against big stacks, the opposite is true. You can be eliminated and you won’t automatically move up in the prize money, even if you win the pot. With the percentage payoff in effect, one of the keys to poker tournament profit is to mostly attack players with fewer chips than you have.

So, we learned that your main objective in percentage payoff tournaments is to survive. We learned that you’re always better off later in the tournament with the same amount of chips you started with. We learned that you should usually rebuy if you go broke. We learned that you should seldom worry about being cheated by someone dumping chips to a big stack, only by partners equalizing stacks. And we learned why you want to attack short stacks and not tall ones. Put it all together and you’re on the road to poker tournament profit.

This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — 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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