This is the first article in a series aimed at cash game players looking to get into tournaments. Like my $1/$2 series this is designed as entry-level information. For those wanting to take their tournament game to a higher level, our PRO and CORE subscriptions provide plenty of great information created by RCP tournament pros.
A few weeks ago I was having no fun at all in a center Strip $1/$2 game, so I picked up my chips and used some of them to buy into a daily tournament that was just getting started. Every dealer who pushed in over the next three hours said the same thing:
“What are you doing here?”
The question was not unreasonable. Most Vegas grinders simply do not play tournaments very often if at all (the notable exception being freerolls that I have discussed elsewhere). This is somewhat puzzling given that most of these cash game players regard typical tournament players as less-skilled than themselves. In this series of articles I’ll investigate this conventional wisdom, make the case that cash game players should be playing more tournaments, and finally address the adjustments cash game players need to make in order to transition successfully.
The Rake Problem
Assuming that your goal is to make money from playing poker tournaments, there is a non-poker stumbling block you first have to negotiate. Consider a typical low buy-in daily tournament in one of the smaller rooms in Vegas. It starts with a couple of tables. After two hours and half a dozen late entries it combines down to a single table. An hour later a three-way chop is agreed and the beaming winners shake hands.
The five table-hours taken up by the tournament would ordinarily generate about $500 in cash game rake. If the tournament is to generate this sort of income, each entrant needs to be charged about $20. Add to this the fact that tournament tips tend to be less lucrative than cash game tips, so that many rooms add some sort of staff fee, and a representative total juice for one of these tournaments is about $25.
It might be argued that outside of the WSOP most rooms have a surplus of tables so that a tournament isn’t eliminating the drop from cash games, but equally dealers still need to be scheduled and paid in order for the tournament to happen. Besides, however much you might want to argue it, most poker room managers have clearly determined en masse that their dailies are going to generate comparable income to their cash games and have set the rake accordingly.
If you’re familiar with online tournaments you might be saying at this point “$25 rake is okay for a $250 buy-in.” Agreed. Unfortunately a typical daily tournament in many Vegas rooms has a buy-in around $80. We’re dealing with crippling juice.
You can ameliorate the situation somewhat by playing higher buy-in tournaments, but even this is a palliative rather than a panacea. It’s true that in such tournaments the blind levels are longer (which is good for skilled players), thereby increasing the number of table-hours required (which is bad for the room’s costs thereby boosting the rake). Moreover, if you’re primarily a cash game player you likely assess your bottom line in terms of an hourly rate, so while slower blind increases reward skill, the additional time spent playing inevitably depresses your hourly.
What all this means in practical terms is that, in Vegas at least, many tournaments below about $150 buy-in have such high rake that it is doubtful that a tourney superstar could turn a positive ROI. Happily there are exceptions. And to avoid being accused of working as a shill for a particular room, I suggest that if it is your intention to play tournaments for profit, do some research on the rake and pay particular attention to any staff fees; these can take a beatable rake into the realm of “entertainment only” in a single sentence of ultra-fine print.
Play The Structure
As many of you will be aware, the title of Ed Miller’s book “The Course” is a non-smutty double entendre. The book is both a course on how to play NLHE cash, but one of the central themes in the book is that we should approach poker in an analogous way as successful golfers approach their game. A PGA pro focuses on beating the course, not every other player. So rather than trying to beat every other player at the poker table, develop a strategy that beats the game.
This idea resonated strongly with me, partly because a decade prior to the publication of “The Course,” this approach is precisely the way I learned how to play tournament poker from Eric “sheets” Haber and others. Except that I feel the concept works even better in the context of tournament poker. The tournament course (or, more accurately, the structure) is dynamic and varies from one tournament to another. Not only is it the thing you’re trying to master, it also has a profound effect on your detailed strategy throughout the tournament.
To expand on this, note that a given tournament actually has two structures that influence how we play them. Our initial stack-to-blind ratio and the speed with which the blinds increase is what we’re commonly referring to when we talk about “fast” and “slow” structures. Speed here refers both to the length of each level and the size of the blind increases from one level to the next. One simplified way of thinking about this is that the faster the structure the fewer the number of hands we see before we reach the “push-fold” regime; a topic I’ll return to in detail in a future article.
The second structure, and the one for which many players fail to make adequate adjustments, is the pay-out structure. This includes what fraction of the starting field gets paid at all, and how top-heavy the prize distribution is. The size of the field has a secondary relevance in that larger fields and slow structures tend to produce a greater stack-to-stack variation. The greatest effects of the pay-out structure on our strategy occur near the bubble, particularly in pathological cases such as satellite/survivor tournaments in which everyone who cashes gets the same prize.
Two of the better books on tournament poker (by Harrington and Little) are both trilogies, so you’ll appreciate that in a single article even scratching the surface of some of these issues has to be done cursorily. The point I want to get home to cash game players is simply that both these structures matter. And given that, in many tournament fields, a good cash game player is likely to have a skill edge when stacks are deep, slow tournament structures should be the most appealing.
Beyond that, a faster structure tends to favor a looser, more aggressive style, simply because you’re going to see fewer hands and need to accumulate chips at some point. However, this is less marked in satellite/survivor pay-out structures where even with rapidly increasing blinds one can sit back a bit. Part of the reason for this is that you will have greater fold equity in the mid-to-late stages of these tournaments as the bubble gets closer and your opponents start tightening up.
The Mindset Problem
You’ve found a tournament that has a beatable rake and an attractive structure. Now what?
I’ll deal with the technical details in future articles. Here I want to restrict attention to observations about the mental-game side of the equation, largely because I feel this is critical yet often overlooked. I know many successful cash game players who under-perform in tournaments partly because they get tilted. Specifically, they notice in the early stages that their opponents are making poor decisions given the relatively deep stacks. They decide, possibly correctly, that they are in the bread-and-butter situation of being the most skilled player at the table. Thus they conclude, far more dubiously, that this tournament thing is going to be a cake walk.
As a result they’re primed to unravel when reality refuses to conform to their expectations.
It’s certainly true that many tournament regulars, particularly in the lower buy-ins, play deep stacks poorly. Or more accurately, they play 100bb deep in a manner more suitable to a 30bb stack. This leads to a couple of issues for a cash-game specialist. First, they may under-estimate the tournament skill of their opposition; and second, they may over-estimate their own ability once stacks are shorter.
And there’s another subtlety that tournament regulars may have learned either through systematic study or through trial and error. Playing a 30bb stack in a tournament is not the same as short-stacking a cash game. For example, ICM considerations apply at all stages of a tournament and get more critical the closer we get to the money. Optimal cash game play involves getting stacked, particularly when playing short. Clearly getting stacked in a given tournament happens to everyone except the winner, but correct strategy demands we be much more averse to it. In other words, we need both a mindset and strategy adjustment from our regular cash game approach.
Perhaps the easiest way to address the mindset issue (beyond the usual recommendations from specialists like our own Dr. Tricia Cardner) is to focus on this idea of beating the course. As the blinds increase, technical aspects of your play change. Sure, as in any form of poker, you should be looking for soft spots to exploit by profiling your opponents. But if you understand how to beat the structure, beating the other players will take care of itself. Future articles will explore how to accomplish this goal.