Which of the following statements is true?

There is a readily-available casino promotion that returns three to four dollars on every dollar invested.

It is possible to play rake-free poker in casino card rooms.

It turns out that, in a sense, both are true thanks to the little slot on the left of the poker dealer through which the promotional drop is deposited. Specifically, I recently pooled my own data with those of a couple of Vegas grinders whose records I trust, and confirmed that through playing freerolls it’s relatively trivial to get three to four bucks back on every dollar we contribute to the promo fund. It turns out this profit is about the same as the rake we pay in $1/2 and $1/3 NLHE cash games.

So how can this possibly work? The promo fund is provided by the players, so that the maximum that can be paid out is the same as the amount the players pay in. How can we generate an advantage in a zero-sum game?

The critical point to understand is that certain promotions naturally benefit local grinders at the expense of recreational players and tourists. In fact this is the very reason poker rooms offer such promotions: they generate a relatively stable player pool that acts as a nucleus around which additional players can be accreted. And the favorite promotion (for the rooms) and most favorable (for the grinders) in Vegas and beyond is the freeroll.

While freeroll promotions vary in detail, all share some common characteristics. By playing a certain number of cash-game hours in a specified amount of time, the player is qualified to play in a freeroll tournament, the prize-pool for which comes from the promo fund.

The basic source of profit stems from the fact that the promo fund is being swollen by players who are unable or unwilling to participate in the freeroll. This in itself generates a significant overlay. However, an additional source of profit for those who are prepared to put in a little work is simply becoming good at freerolls; that is, developing the necessary skills to beat fast-structured tournaments.

I suspect one reason that playing freerolls is sometimes scoffed at is that the tournaments are invariably turbos which become shove-fests within four or five short levels. Indeed even some people who regularly play freerolls describe them as nothing more than bingo in which skill plays no part. The funny thing about the individuals making such statements is that they tend to be terrible at tournaments.

My results over roughly two hundred freerolls indicate that my return is better than a factor of two above average. Tournament ROIs are notoriously unstable and I cannot rule out the possibility I’ve been running great for five years, but my results are mirrored by those of other regular freerollers who are experienced in live tournaments or online sit-n-goes.

What this all boils down to is that it is possible to greatly increase your cash-game hourly rate by carefully selecting good freerolls and learning how to beat them.

What is a good freeroll? In Vegas in particular where tourists make up a significant portion of cash games, you want to find a freeroll that makes it difficult for those tourists to participate. Look for promotions in which the qualification period is long (a week at least). For weeklies it also helps if the freeroll is held Friday through Monday. Those on a limited budget tend to leave town on Friday and weekend vacationers and conventioneers who are either well-heeled or who have generous expense accounts will have insufficient time to qualify.

Since many Vegas freerolls (by design) meet this criterion, it’s also useful to directly assess their monetary value. Let me illustrate this with a real-world example.

I recently played a weekly freeroll with a prize pool of $6,000 and twelve hours cash-game qualification that had 80 entrants. We can calculate how much this freeroll adds to the cash-game hourly rate for the average player. It’s simply $6,000 divided by twelve divided by 80 or $6.25 per person per hour.

However, that’s not the full story. The twelve hours I put in to qualify also counted towards a monthly freeroll requiring sixty hours of cash-game play. It turns out that in this instance it was possible to align the sixty monthly hours with five blocks of twelve that got me into five weeklies and the monthly. The latter had a prize pool of $14,000 and sixty entrants for an average cash-game hourly of just under four bucks.

Thus the sixty cash-game hours played in this room generated an expectation of just over ten bucks an hour through the combined weekly and monthly freerolls. In this specific case I made $15/hour through cashing in multiple freerolls. This is below my projection based on my average return over the last five years. The number drops by about 15% when one factors in the time required to play the freerolls themselves.

Now admittedly this was a particularly grinder-friendly combination of promotions, but at least outside of the period of the WSOP it’s possible to find multiple rooms offering freeroll promotions with an expected return in this ballpark. Based on standard estimates of attainable win-rates at $1/2, the typical hourly offered by freerolls is a significant addition to even a good grinder’s bottom line.

As far as I’m concerned, the amount I make from freerolls makes it a trivial decision to play them. Despite the financial benefits, however, there are low-limit grinders who avoid them, while some more advanced players occasionally treat them with borderline derision. Since there are objections to playing freerolls that have a legitimate basis, I’ll wind up this article by addressing them.

The most common reason given to avoid freerolls is that they compel players to play in bad cash games, either because of an over-abundance of other grinders chasing the promo, or because playing to complete a specified number of hours is less than optimal.

In Vegas, at least, my experience is that this problem is vastly overstated, largely because we have a robust and rotating population of tourists who are not very good at poker. However, it is certainly true that there is a sub-species of promo-chasing regulars who are ultra-nitty and frequently bad-tempered. Thus they are simultaneously bad for the mood of the game and an unlikely source of profit.

There are multiple factors that mitigate this problem. First, many nits are sufficiently weak that they prefer to chase aces-cracked and high-hand promos and as such most are mercifully moved off the strip to other rooms. Second, there are enough freeroll promos that regulars get dispersed across multiple rooms. (One interesting phenomenon is the week-to-week variation in the number of entrants to freerolls at different rooms that tends to stabilize, such that the expected return from each converges to a similar dollar amount.) Third, and this one is kind of awkward and unlikely to make me popular, but… Most Vegas regulars playing $1/2 are easy to exploit.

Playing in a bad $1/2 game in Vegas is borderline unforgivable given that there is bound to be a good game within a short walk. Some argue that playing to a fixed number of hours in a specific room inevitably leads to freerollers ending up in bad games as they complete their time. Yes, it happens. I’ve certainly found myself in such spots. But this is really a result of bad planning and not a flaw in the system. Get your hours in early, and if the game gets bad, leave. The only rooms with consistently bad games are those offering direct cash-back for hours played.

The bottom line is that unless you insist on playing day shift and are inflexible about quitting a bad game, the financial return from freerolls overcomes these potential problems. I am aware of grinders who do so well in non-freeroll rooms they prefer to play there, some who have a pathological distaste for being compelled to be at a certain place at a certain time, and others who find more value in the double tier credits and comps in the one CET Vegas room that does not take a promo drop. But I’m convinced that most $1/2 grinders who are also competent tournament players can generate significant income by playing freerolls.

One final point. In pooling my data with colleagues we noticed a trend that does suggest some caution is required when chasing freeroll promos. In the rooms with the highest monetary return from freerolls our hourly rates in cash games were the lowest. In other words, by playing the best promos it appears you give up a little in profit from the cash games. However, while I’m wary of over-splicing limited data, it also appears that the sum of cash-game plus freeroll hourly return is roughly constant from room to room. If I ever get confined to bed with bronchitis again, I plan to clear up this question by developing a general theory of the thermodynamics of Vegas promo-chasers. Until then, rely on your own empirical data, but strongly consider using freerolls as a source of poker profit.

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  • persuadeo

    This is a great series of articles that aspiring mediocre players need to read.

  • Kat Martin

    I realize passing through mediocrity on the way to greatness isn’t the only path, but it’s a common one. It’s hard to live in a world in which everyone is above average.

  • persuadeo

    For sure. If it’s not clear, I really mean it that this is a great series of articles. You are one of the best voices in poker writing.

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