The ins and outs of tournament grinding
Thursday, 1 December 2011
A quick exercise to begin this piece. Picture in your mind’s eye a successful winning poker player.
My crystal ball and tea leaves are telling me that you are viewing a young man, perhaps even yourself, shaking hands with a devastated opponent after the river card that just sealed a tournament. He’s jumping for joy and laughing and screaming with his friends, posing with the tournament staff before a huge pile of chips and money, proudly displaying his winning hole cards to the myriad of flashing cameras.
Am I close? Likely.
Poker success comes in many different formats but the way poker culture has developed means that the biggest winners and the most famous players are those who regularly win or final-table major tournaments. It’s arguable that the person who plays small stakes online for 50 hours a week to put food on his family’s table for years is the more successful poker player than another who wins a satellite entry and manages to catch enough cards to win the tournament and effectively win a lottery.
Despite this, tournament poker is the benchmark for success in the poker world. While players such as Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius and Phil Galfond are revered online for their internet cash poker success, when they appear on TV they are still introduced as having “over one million dollars in tournament winnings” rather than mentioning the seven or eight figures they won playing online.
It was a tournament that sparked the poker boom and it is tournaments that recreational players flock to now. In cash games, it seems more and more winning players are making money from exploiting worse winning players than they are from finding a whale. In tournaments online, thousands of people make up the fields and few of them are more than gamblers or casual aficionados. The message that recreational players receive is that the world’s best – like Phil Hellmuth – win tournaments. Therefore, they play tournaments.
Therefore, poker players aiming to make money should be playing tournaments, right? Tell that to a 16-tabling mid-stakes cash game grinder online and you won’t find much support. Tournaments involve a lot of luck and a lot of long run compared to the slow and steady upward grind of cash games. But whereas you can sit down for a cash game session knowing you’ll win or lose a few buy-ins; you will never have that one big score that every tournament player – and every poker player, at heart – is chasing.
It seems silly to ask if tournament poker is a viable living when there is so much money involved and you see so many players at final tables again and again, but I’m not talking about whether or not it’s a viable living for Jason Mercier, who runs like God and is bankrolled for life and has a probably pretty good deal with PokerStars. I’m talking about you and me, and making a living from tournaments in the $20 to $50 range. If you can make a good wage playing small stakes cash, can you do it with tournaments?
For this answer, you need only turn to the 180-seat SnG’s that run on PokerStars, where dozens of players can make thousands a month playing levels as low as the $11 buy-in. Though restricted to 20 tables, they are effectively tournaments rather than SnG’s and give you not only a potential income, but also a solid foundation for tournament play. Of course, when you zoom in from the overall graph of tens of thousands of 180s then you see the immediate disadvantage of playing tournament poker for a living: the swings.
It is not uncommon for even the biggest winning regulars in these games to go 50 to a 100 games without as much as a min-cash. Downswings of more than a hundred or even two hundred buy-ins are routine. Whereas a cash game graph becomes a straight line in the long run, even with a significant sample, a tournament players graph will go gradually up, then a big spike upwards, then gradually down until another big spike and repeat. When you’re playing to win a tournament, you’re either going to go deep in the event and make a big score or bust out before the money. The latter happens more often. Thus, you would need a bankroll of at least 250 buy-ins to feel comfortable playing tournaments. Some players are even more conservative and have bankrolls of more than $5k for $11 180s; a 125 buy-in downswing stings a lot less that way.
Fortunately, to manage the variance in tournament poker, you have a lot of options open to you. Satellite events mean that even if you are bankrolled to play a £300 GUKPT side event, you can qualify for a tenner and significantly smooth out your graph. Furthermore, you can sell pieces of your action – for example, selling 10% of your £550 UKIPT event for £55 and giving a tenth of your profits to the buyer. A combination of satellites and selling seats means that you can be in profit in a big tournament before you even sit down!
Of course, going back to the beginning of this article, we saw that the image of success wasn’t the online grinder 24-tabling tournaments for a 60% ROI but the live player taking down a major event. While sheer volume allows you to play tournaments profitably online, is the variance too much live? In one year, you’re going to be able to play as many tournaments as you could online in one week.
However, the potential payday is usually much greater and the fields are often softer.
My advice to those looking to build a career as a successful live tournament player, perhaps in the ever-popular $500 to $2,000 mid-stakes buy-in range, would be to use selling shares/a backer in combination with satellite fields – notoriously fishy in the live arena – to reduce your variance. Also, get to the point where you can beat small stakes cash online. It will improve your early stage tournament game and give you a reason to stay in the poker room when you bust out after losing a coinflip. Again.