Winning a Tournament

The Key Goal to Focus On

Winning Poker Tournaments"Of all of the people that I used to know
Most never adjusted to the great big world"
-- Randy Newman, It's Money That Matters

I once played a tournament that started with twelve tables of players. An incident occurred when there were eight tables left that made me realize how tournaments offer up mental "tricks" or false promised that distract most players from the job at hand: winning. More precisely the goal that should be in your mind as a player is maximizing your own financial expectation.

I played an Omaha High Low hand against two opponents. We were playing 150/300. The first player limped. I raised with AQ42. The big blind called. The original limper made it three bets. I looked over and saw he had 100 in chips left. Since 100 is more than half I bet I knew I could raise him on the flop and make it more difficult for the big blind to call, so I didn't cap the betting pre-flop. At the same time I was quite sure the limper did not have AAxx or even another large pair since he limped preflop (and was not one of those weak players who limps with everything) .

The flop came about as bad as it could for my hand: JJ9. The limper bet all-in, and I raised to 250. The big blind showed T8 (presumably also holding and ace and an unknown card) and folded.

The limper turned over AK73, a better hand than I expected, but still that didn't matter. My principal goal was to get the big blind out of the hand. When the big blind player (a very experienced player) saw my hand he commented that I had just made the strangest play he had ever seen me make. I was surprised by that since I would have thought my play to isolate against an all-in player is straightforward. But then he went on to say: "I thought you knew the object here is to eliminate players."

I was flabbergasted so much that my mouth moved faster than my brain and I proceeded to "teach" at the table. I said, "That sure isn't my object. My object is to win the tournament!" As I mention above, the real object is to maximize your financial expectation, but at this point, with 8 of 13 tables still in action and me holding average chips, my focus is simply on winning.

With 18 being paid, going from 72 to 71 players was just about the last thing on my mind. I was thinking about how we started with 2000 in chips, how 1/3 of the players were out, how an average stack was 3000, how I started the hand with 2800, and how there was 1425 in this pot before the flop (450x3, plus a 75 small blind). Then I was also thinking about how I wanted to only have to beat one player instead of two to win this pot, and how I could probably do that by raising the limper's 100 all-in bet. After the limper went all-in there was 1525 in the pot. I was gleefully happy to be able to play against him for only 100, getting better than 15-1 on my money for an amount of chips equal to about 72% of my current stack (2800-550=2250 while the pot was 1625 after my 100 matched his all-in bet).

Additionally, I assumed the limper would bet all-in regardless of what he had, so I thought there was a good chance my AQ was good at that point against his hand. As it turns out he had the best of it with AK, but I still could win by catching a Q, 4 or 2, or making a Broadway straight. As it happens, even though I was an underdog instead of a favorite, I had about a 30% chance of winning the pot... meaning I was getting 15 to 1 on my money but was only a 3.33 to 1 underdog! Now those are great pot odds.

Also note that my opponent laid down ten-eight. If I let him stay in, if it came a queen I would have lost, leaving my best outs to be catching a 4 or a 2 and then a non King, ten, eight, seven (or a three in the case of it coming deuce), plus the big blind's other card assuming one of his cards was an ace. So, in other words, if I would have allowed the big blind in, instead of getting great pot odds, my chances of winning this nice pot would have been tiny (especially if the big blind's unknown card was a 4 or a 2, in which I would have to split the pot sometimes).

Now considering all this, the big blind should have said, "wow, nice raise to get yourself better pot equity and increase your chance of winning the tournament." But instead he focused on the utterly trivial point of increasing the chances of eliminating the 72nd player.

When playing a tournament there are times when eliminating a player becomes so important you should check down almost any hand to the river. The two most common times this would happen is when you are one out of the money, or when you are three handed. (Typically second gets paid double what third gets so any pot equity is less important than that large jump in real money.)

Eliminating players in a tournament is important. To win, everyone else must be eliminated. But it is not the most important consideration, and at some times it is an utterly trivial one. Your tournament actions should be dictated by one consistent goal -- maximizing your financial expectation. Sometimes this even means NOT trying to eliminate players (like when a tournament is one or two players out of the money and you have a big stack and are able to steal the blinds virtually every hand... the longer this situation sustains itself, the better for you.)

Surprisingly, most people play without positive expectation being their primary motivator, and that is great for those playing to win. The challenge of a poker tournament is to always play in whatever way is in your best financial interest. That's it. Often this will mean trying to eliminate opponents, while sometimes that consideration is irrelevant. Remember, it's the money that matters.

See also Making Money From Tournament Poker, Win Tournaments, Not Hands, and Man at the Top