'Man at the Top'

Winning Poker Tournaments

Win Poker Tournaments"The man at the top says it's lonely up there
If it is, man, I don't care...
Rich man, poor man, beggerman, thief
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
One thing in common they all got:
Everybody wants to be the man at the top."
-- Man at the Top by Bruce Springsteen

A great thing about poker, especially tournament poker, is it is possible for any person to compete at the highest level, as long as they can get the entry money. And then, it is possible for David to defeat Goliath, even if just for one hand rather than a whole tournament or for "life".

Poker is at once a game of longterm skill, but every individual instant is substantially defined by random luck. Great players will use skill to win over the course of their lives, but watching as you find out whether the river card is a spade or not is an exercise in chance (as long as there is at least one spade left in the deck).

Thus we have the allure of poker tournaments. Everybody wants to be the person at the top of the heap. But "lifetime best" isn't good enough. Everybody wants to be at the top, and they want it today, or soon, rather than decades from now. Tournaments offer a daily victor, someone at the top of the pile, someone who hears their national anthem as they ascend the platform to have a gold medal placed around their neck.

Winning is always fun, at least compared to losing, but in ring game poker winning is not hard at all, in terms of one day. Anyone can have a winning day, and, hundreds or thousands of others are winning at the same time. Snore. Doing the same thing as thousands of others is not like being Edmund Hillary or Neil Armstrong.

In contrast, if you win a tournament, no matter how small, no one else will accomplish that specific feat this same day -- only one winner, one person at the top. Someone else may win tomorrow, but leave tomorrow to tomorrow.

The allure to humans of being the single soul at the top is undeniable.

But just because something is fun or naturally desirable to a human does not mean single-minded pursuit of this is a good idea. We keep score in poker via money, not endorphins. Playing tournaments to experience the high of winning is like dragging a plough through a field just to get to the other side. While it may not be as sexy to think this way, the "man at the top" in poker is the person who plays, or has played, in the most mathematically optimal way.

If you are a multibillionaire, getting the endorphin rush of coming in first could be a higher priority, but for most people, the money they spend on poker is not trivial. If they dropped it in the street, they would pick it up. Poker skill is not in accumulating endorphins. Poker skill is manipulating people and situations so you get the best of it on your money.

It's not a coincidence that getting the endorphin rush of winning will often go hand in hand with having played skillfully, but they are NOT joined at the hip. Some people who win tournaments are simply awful at the overall game of poker. They won't even manage to get out of the casino with the money they made. No matter how talented they may be, or how much they win, they suck as poker players. Making a bunch of money and then pissing it away is to suck as a poker player. By winning, they basically were loaned some money that they squander. Poker is an object game. Money is the tool you use to get more money. A century or two from now, if it ever became possible to actually bet, win and lose endorphin poker chips that would make for quite a different game.

There is a television show running these days called the Amazing Race. Twelve pairs of players race literally around the world against each other, performing all kinds of exhilarating and painful tasks along the way. The winning team gets a million bucks. By its nature, this is an endorphin experience -- hang gliding, sky diving, eating two pounds of fish eggs, loading a dozen goats into a boat... intense experience on top of intense experience all crammed into less than a month. Now suppose as you approached the finish line, in fourth place, a half mile behind three other teams, suddenly a sinkhole opens and swallows up the three teams in front of you. You run around the hole and "win". You made a million bucks, but you were outplayed and won by luck. You may be happy to get the money, but will you have that "man at the top" feeling? Not likely. True satisfaction comes from winning the prize by skill, not bizarre fluke.

So, go ahead and aim to be the person at the top, the king of the hill, but just remember what real success is. The man behind the curtain is where the game is really being played. The endorphin rush of actually being at the top will dwarf the pseudo-rush of fluke or smoke and mirrors success.

Also: Winning a Poker Tournament and Fast Enough to Win, Slow Enough to Finish