Thursday, July 23, 2009

To Win or To Survive...

You can't win the tournament on the first day but you sure can lose it
- Every Poker Player

You've no doubt heard that phrase or something similar if you play big time tournament poker. It's a popular phrase mainly because it's true. In a big tournament like the WSOP Main Event it can take up to 100 hours if you are lucky enough to win the tournament. On the flip side you could be knocked out on the very first hand.

So, the question then becomes - when do you quit trying to just survive and when do you go for the win? It's an odd question with no real answer but I think it's worth discussing now as the November Nine may be asking themselves the same thing.

Many of you may be thinking, "I always play to win." To an extent that's probably true. No one plays the World Series Main Event without dreaming of winning the first place prize money and bracelet (not to mention the fame). But, the fact remains that survival is vital in tournaments with huge fields like the Main Event.

From personal experience I'd say that usually once I made the final table of a tournament my mind set changed. This isn't always the case - I've played to win with 15-25 players left and in one tournament I waited until we were heads up before going for the kill. There are a lot of factors to take into account when deciding whether to lay back or to pounce.

* Prize Money - Some would argue that strategically this shouldn't matter. Those people are wrong. Players should always be aware of pay increases especially in tournaments like the Main Event where the money can potentially change your life. Even if you don't pay attention to the prize money you should know that your opponents likely will. As a general rule, players probably play tighter when the prize money gets larger. But, as we saw at this year's Main Event, when amateur players get to a certain pay level they often play with 'nothing to lose' and loosen up a bit.

* Stucture - The blinds and antes will obviously influence everything you do at the poker table. The structures of WSOP Final Tables are usually slower than those of WPT Final Tables. Players usually play faster and with more gamble when the structure is faster. Again, this isn't a hard and fast rule but it helps to think of extreme conditions. If you have 10,000 BBs at a final table you would be dumb to get all in without the nuts. Conversly, if you only have one round before you go broke you should look to get your chips in the middle quickly before blinding out.

* Your Opponents - You're fooling yourself if you think all eyes won't be on Phil Ivey when the Main Event resumes in November despite the fact that he's only 7th in chips. Again, thinking of extreme examples, if you are at a final table with 8 chimps you should probably wait until you have an absolute lock hand before committing your chips. If you are at a final table with 8 pros you may figure that they are waiting for you to go broke. Gambling it up could prove to be your best option in that scenario. The fact that pros would rather not gamble with unpredictable players was encapsulated in David Sklansky's fabulous book Tournament Poker for Advanced Players.

There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to just survive or to go for the kill. Of course, this may be a gradual progression. Rarely does a specific event cause a player to immediately flip the switch. Also, there are some players who probably disagree with most of what I just said. Michael Mizrachi is one player who plays to win from the first hand of a tournament. He likes to attack the big stacks hoping they will make big mistakes.

I am intrigued by this subject because I've had my fair share of disappointing final tables. I often wonder if it's my decision to flip the switch which has doomed me at final tables. Truth be told if I never showed up at my 7 final tables I'd almost certainly have more career prize money than I do right now. Sometimes you see the light at the end of the tunnel and it temporarily blinds you.

1 comment:

Aggie Doug said...

Nice topic. I've been fairly successful at 9-10 person sit & go's, but I've never finished 1st in any sizeable tournament. I've gotten 2nd, 3rd, … many other high finishes, but never 1st.

In fairness, I mainly compete with players who aren’t “pros” in the smaller buy-in events (under $400 mostly). That being said, my strategy in a bigger tournament is similar to what you’ve mention. I do a lot of waiting for good hands and playing them aggressively. Of course I mix it up at certain points so I get action when I need it.

I don’t mind being at the low end heading into a final table… one or two good hands and you can be the chip leader. However, I always keep the 10 X the big blind “short stack mentality” in the back of my mind. When I reach it, or near it, I’m always looking to pick up a pot – even if it’s just a pre-flop shove for the blinds (normally in late position).

I’m always looking at the payout structure as well. After all, the goal of playing poker is to maximize your profits. It shouldn’t define your play, but you should be aware of what each decision means…. And as you said, what the payout means to others.