Poker Essays, Volume II
Author Mason Malmuth
Excerpt from the book Poker Essays, Volume II: Should You Play Too Many Hands Early in a Tournament?
A lot has been written recently on "how to play" in poker tournaments. There is one area of the debate that I would like to address. It has to do with whether you should play tight or loose early in a tournament. First, there is no question that in a regular poker game you should play reasonably tight. Of course there are exceptions, but those of you who insist on playing hand after hand usually discover that even though you may have your moments, you won't do very well.
There are some players who have very good tournament records who do play fairly loose, particularly in the early going. However, most of these players don't do well in side games when they apply this same style. Is it possible that they are playing correctly when playing for a (money) prize and this is when conventional poker strategy is not the correct strategy? I believe that this is the case, and this essay will explain the reasons why I favor this type of strategy. We will discuss three concepts that should play an important role in your tournament decisions.
However, before I get into the concepts, I do want to point out that playing loosely will frequently cause you to "bust out" early. The tight players tend to linger on for a longer period of time, but when one of these loose players makes it to the final table, he tends to get there with a lot of chips. (I am also assuming that the tournament does not allow rebuys.) Now, let's discuss the concepts.
Concept No. 1: The chips change value. This idea is discussed at length in my book Gambling Theory and Other Topics. what happens is that in a tournament "the more chips you have the less each individual chip is worth and the less chips you have the more each individual chip is worth." If you have trouble seeing this, just imagine that you have won the World Series of Poker. You will have accumulated well over $2 million in chips, yet your prize will only be $1 million. Somehow your chips will not be worth what they once were. (This is why some of us have jokingly referred to winning a tournament as a bad beat.)
This creates many unusual betting situations, especially late in a tournament. For instance, I can imagine a situation where one player who has more chips than his opponent bets the equivalent of $100 but his opponent is forced to call with the equivalent of $200. This happens when they each put the same amount of chips in the pot. Obviously this creates many strategic advantages for the person with a lot of chips. I won't go into what they are, but if you think about it, you should have no trouble coming up with some.
Concept No. 2: Take advantage of tight play. Normally, when playing poker, if you lose all of your chips, you can reach into your pocket (assuming you have something left) and buy some more -- and we all do this at one time or another. But in a tournament you are gone, and this has the effect of making many players play too tight, especially those who are not experienced poker players. what this means is that you can often run over players who are short-stacked or at least who perceive the size of the bets as a threat to their stack, as long as the betting limit is not a threat to your chip position. Some empirical evidence for this is that many of the top tournament players are considered fearless by their opposition. This is clearly one of the reasons why.
Concept No. 3: Try to reduce the luck factor late in a tournament. I only know of one place where this idea is discussed, and it appears in Poker Essays. However, the chapter where it arises addresses "winner take all tournaments," particularly one table satellites. But I believe that it also plays an important role in conventional percentage payback tournaments.
The idea is very simple. Because of the escalating stakes that all tournaments employ, the short-term luck factor tends to go up towards the end of the tournament If you are a good player, or even a mediocre player for that matter, you would prefer to reduce the luck factor so that your skills could determine the outcome as opposed to the turn of a card. You accomplish this by having more chips towards the end of the tournament.
But how do you get more chips? Well it turns out that there is a way to attain this goal. All you have to do is increase your luck factor early, and get lucky. It's sort of a trade-off, you can increase your luck factor early on by playing too many hands and if you manage to hit a few you will be in a good chip position and you won't be so concerned about short term luck later on.
Notice that we have discussed three concepts which all indicate that you should try to accumulate a lot of chips early in a tournament Of course, you would like to accumulate a lot of chips in any poker game, tournament or otherwise. But these concepts seem to say that the strategic advantages of trying to gain extra chips for use later are well worth the additional risk that they might cause you early in a tournament. (At least this is the way that I interpret them.)
There is no question, as I have written many times before, that you should try to survive when low on chips -- especially late in a tournament -- because of the fact that the chips change value, and your small number of chips can be worth a lot. In fact, this is one of the keys to being a successful tournament player. There are many times in a tournament where being conservative is without a doubt the correct path to be on.
But on the other hand, there are so many additional advantages to having more chips than most of your opponents (in tournament play) that I believe that you should "play too many hands early in a tournament," especially when you are holding a hand that has the potential to win a big pot. And if you do bust out a lot sooner than you had hoped, there are always some great side games to play in. In fact, if you get lucky, you might earn a buy-in for the next event.