Getting the Best Of It

Poker Odds and when the best of it isn't the best

Poker Odds“The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.” -- The Ronettes

Poker is an endless series of confrontations. Sometimes we are big favorites to win, like when we play KK against 72o. Sometimes we are big underdogs, like when we play KK against AA. We can’t always know -– in fact, we usually don’t know -– when we have the best of it and when we don’t. But, winning poker is the art, science and craft of trying to get the best of it when we bet our money.

That’s straightforward enough, but it also happens to be true that sometimes you should not take the best of it when it is offered. Sometimes you should turn down advantage, or edge, or the best of it. This sometimes comes up in tournaments, and illustrates one very key difference between tournament and ring game play.

Some people argue that in the early stages of a tournament you should play your basic ring game strategy. This is mostly correct, but flawed a little. In later stages of a tournament though, you should definitely not play your basic ring game strategy. Your ring game strategy should be based on the foundation that you are adequately bankrolled to play the game you are playing. But how often do you have thousands of dollars in chips when you are playing 10-20 in a tournament? Pretty much never.

Most people are familiar with the concept of “Gambler’s Ruin.” In a poker context, if you are a winning player, you can’t make any money if you are broke. Losing your bankroll is not just a loss of the money you lose, but a loss of the money you could have earned if you had that bankroll. Gambler’s Ruin comes into play when you overbet your bankroll. There is a point where you should not bet, even if you have the best of it, because it affects your ability to make further bets down the line if you lose. Turning down bets where you have the best of it sometimes can be the more profitable action to take. (In fact, you are taking the real “best of it” by turning down the bet, but we’ll ignore that idea for now.)

In a tournament, you don’t have Gambler’s Ruin exactly, but you do have a definite point where you are “broke.” When you lose your chips, you are done -– over and out, kaput. This “death sentence” should alter your play considerably. You should turn down many instances of having the best of it. Suppose you are two or three people out of the money in a No Limit tournament and have a somewhat above average stack in the big blind. You hold 22, and as the big chip leader moves all his chips in from the small blind, his AK accidentally flips over. You know you are a tiny favorite. What should you do? The answer is clearly to muck your hand. The death sentence of losing 49% of the time more than compensates for the benefits of winning 51% of the time. Just because you have the best of it doesn’t mean you should take it.

Here’s a non-tournament example: Suppose Greg has a total net worth of $450,000 -– and by that I mean the $450,000 includes the clothes on his back right down to his shoelaces. Now along comes Bill Gates. He says to Greg: "I feel like gambling. On a coin flip, I’ll put up $550,000 to your $450,000."

If Greg wins, he has a million dollars. If he loses, he is buck-naked on a street corner. He could get $100,000 the best of it on a coin flip -- and he should definitely turn down the bet! He should turn it down not just because of the 50% probability of being naked on a street corner, but because of the enormous difference in his implied earning power. How much money can a person with $1,000,000 earn? How much money can a person with $450,000 earn? How much can a dead-busted naked guy (looking like Greg) earn?

This is not even a close comparison. Using their assets, a guy with a million and a guy with $450,000 are able to earn an amount of money in the same ballpark. A dead-busted guy is not going to be in the same ballpark as the $450,000 guy. In fact, he’s not even going to be able to buy a TV to see the ballpark!

Of course, if Bill Gates made this offer to Warren Buffet, Buffet should take it, because he is adequately bankrolled for it.

In poker tournaments, sometimes out of desperation you have to play hands where you are taking the worst of it. And, on the other hand, sometimes when you are not adequately bankrolled, you should happily turn down situations where you have the best of it.

See also Poker Variance and Good Variance vs. Bad Risk