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Conceptual Problems With Poker Tournaments And How To Fix Them

This article first appeared in Poker Digest magazine.

What I’m about to say will be controversial among regular tournament players, but I can’t help myself. Here goes. Lots of poker players have enormous egos and probably 10,000 of them sincerely believe they’re the best player in the world. I’m one of those.

So, you would think I’d play in a lot of poker tournaments and try to prove it. But, in fact, I hardly ever play in any poker tournaments. If you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll explain why.

Benny Binion had the right idea when he founded the World Series of Poker with each event being winner take all. That made sense. But then sometime around the late 1970s, a terrible thing happened to poker tournaments. Someone got the idea that the prize pool should be divided and the winner of the tournament wouldn’t get to keep all the money. There would be proportional payouts based on how high you finished.

Huh? The winners of the tournaments won all the chips, so why shouldn’t they keep all the money? Can you imagine playing in a regular poker game, winning all the chips on the table and not being to cash them out without giving most of them back to the players you won them from? Well, that’s what happens at the most common form of poker tournament today – the kind where first place gets to keep only 40 percent or less.

What It Means

Conceptually, this means that first place is punished and all other close finishers are rewarded. Think about it. And here’s what it means in terms of strategy. It means that if you play to win first place, because you think you’re the best poker player alive, you’ll probably lose money in the long run. You might win lots of tournaments, but you’ll lose money!

In order to make the most profit along a many-tournament stretch, you’ve got to be conservative. You’ve got to be inordinately selective about the hands you play. You shouldn’t bet or raise with the same small edges you profited from in regular poker games. (You can, however, bluff often if your opponents are timid and afraid of being knocked out of the tournament.)

The way to make a profit in these tournaments is to survive. Simply survive. If in trying to survive, you accidentally win first place, that’s fine. But, mostly, you should not go out of your way to win the first-place trophy, because the winner of the tournament is penalized. What?

You heard me. Your strategy should be a conservative one of survival, because close finishers are rewarded and the winner is punished. No matter what others tell you about playing aggressively and gathering chips early, ignore them. Unless… Ignore them unless there’s a rebuy. In rebuy tournaments, where you can go broke and buy again, you should not be unusually conservative until after the opportunity to rebuy ends.

Another Gripe

But that brings us to another gripe of mine. I hate rebuy tournaments. The whole object of a tournament is find a champion. Sure, there’s luck involved, so the champion has to be lucky to outrun 200 other contestants on a given day. But if he’s skillful and plays for first place, he’ll win far more than his share of tournaments. Instead of winning one in 200, which is about typical, he may win one in 100. That means (excluding the entry fee which is often added to the buy-in) that he’s doubling his money in winner-take-all tournaments, or earning a 100 percent return on investments. The very best players would probably win about three times their “fair share.”

I said “would” win not “do” win. That’s because players have to decide whether they want to sacrifice profit and play for the first-place trophy or go for full profit and lean more toward survival and finishing close to first place. Tough choice, especially if you’re an egomaniac like I am, interested in proving that he’s the best. The only way to do that in proportional payout tournaments is to sacrifice and lose money!

Amazing. But, I was talking about rebuys. That’s the other thing that ruins the purity of tournaments, besides proportional payouts. First, not everyone can afford the same number of rebuys. Second, players have to decide whether to rebuy on the basis of whether it’s profitable to do so. While that may add an element of skill, it isn’t an element that’s consistent with the primary objective of a tournament – winning. The rebuy decision is about whether it’s cost effective, considering the amount of money you still have in front of you (assuming you haven’t gone broke and been “forced” to rebuy), the number of chips in play, the skill of opponents, whose stacks are biggest, and more.

But weighing against this skill factor, based on estimating the profitability of a rebuy, is the simple cold fact that rebuying will automatically increase your chances of winning the tournament. I think it’s semi-ridiculous that in our most common poker tournaments, you have to decide whether to play for profit or play to win the trophy. Why have a tournament if you’re punished for pursuing first place?

Well, that’s how I think, but my mind works weirdly and not everyone agrees with me. And, to be fair, perhaps it wouldn’t be reasonable to have a winner-take-all tournament with 500 players, only one taking home the money and second place getting nothing. So, is there a solution?

How To Fix The Problem

As it turns out, I’m not just here to complain. I have an answer. The first part of the answer is simple. Kill rebuys. We don’t need them. They dilute the purity of poker tournaments. They’re also bad for casinos, because – although they build bigger prize pools that are promotionally worth bragging about – they attract fewer players. (You’re surprised, but it’s true.) Worse, they keep players in tournaments longer, defeating the main benefit of a tournament to a casino, which is to fill regular games as players are eliminated.

By the way, if you think tournaments are a good thing for established casinos, think again. A tournament truce would be great for management. There are just too many tournaments right now. Tournaments are mostly a promotional weapon, used to pull players from one cardroom to the next. Rather than build loyal clientele, the poker tournament wars are destabilizing and expensive. From a tournament player’s point of view, the events are great and growing. But from a non-tournament player’s point of view, these events really suck. They decimate local games by drawing players away for a week to a month at a time. The only way to fight back is for your casino to host lavish tournaments, too, perhaps with bigger incentives.

Some people argue that tournaments are responsible for a surge in poker popularity. I think that’s true of the biggest, occasional, most conspicuous tournaments. The others are actually detracting from poker’s growth (although increasing poker tournament growth).

Now, I realize those words won’t be popular, but they needed to be said. But, having said them, I also realize that tournaments will not die. So, let’s make them as fair to everyone as possible. Here’s how.

Shootouts Everywhere

As far as I know, Craig Kaufman was the first to spread a shootout tournament. It happened at the Bicycle Club in the mid 1980s. It was a brilliant idea. Instead of consolidating tables as players were eliminated, each table stuck with the same competitors until just one had all the chips. That table winner would then advance to a newtable of all winners. If the original field were 512 in seven-card stud, you could begin with 64 tables of eight players each. You’d get 64 winners filling eight remaining tables. They would all get some prize money. The winners of these eight tables would then advance to a final table and that winner would be champion.

The main problem with shootouts from a management perspective is that they’re more resource intensive. Specifically, that means you need to use more dealers, because tables aren’t consolidated as players go broke. You need to keep a dealer at each table until there’s a single winner.

And, of course, you still have the same conceptual problem at the last table – assuming you pay more than one place. So, I say, simply forget about paying more than one place. Give very large payments to everyone who arrives at the final table. Then let them play for one big championship prize. If you want to further stagger the prizes, you can divide the final eight players (or 10) into two tables. Each one of those short-table winners gets big prize money and then the two winners play each other heads-up for even more.

What I like about shootouts is that you get to test your skills with full tables, short-handed, heads-up, and everything between. It’s a much truer test of poker skill than playing mostly full-handed, conservative poker until the end of the tournament when there aren’t enough remaining players to fill seats.

So, that’s my recommendation. You want poker tournaments to be consistent with the purpose of a championship and not punish those who pursue first place? Then you need to go to pure shootout tournaments where only the winner of a table is rewarded and nobody else.

In that way, real-world poker skills will be meaningful in tournaments, and you won’t have to sacrifice your best plays just to survive. You see, survival doesn’t matter when it’s winner-take-all, and a shootout is winner-take-all. There are just lots of tables and lots of single-table winners who win the right to advance. You don’t need to sacrifice good strategy in pursuit of survival, because the correct strategy is to play your very best poker game. That’s what gives you the best opportunity to conquer your table. And that’s how a poker tournament should be.

I can hear you grumbling, but I’ve said what I came here to say. We’ll talk again soon.

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