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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, November 21, 2005

Pros & Cons: A Strategy for Poker Tournaments

[Pros & Cons is a (sporadically released) series on my con-going experiences, and I am using the term "con" very loosely here, including private "gatherings" such as Oasis of Fun.]

Note that I use basic poker terminology (flop/turn/river; loose/tight; semi-bluff; etc.) throughout this article, usually without defining it. Might I suggest a poker glossary?

It is common these days for boardgaming cons to run Texas No-Limit Hold’em poker tournaments. Usually there is a small buy-in with a cash payout for the top 10% or so finishers; at BGG.CON, there was no buy-in, but there were donated prizes to be won (the value of the prizes matched a ~$5 buy-in). These tournaments typically run 3-4 hours for those who last until the end. After playing in a few, I have noticed some trends, especially in the early rounds:

1) There are many inexperienced players, and, perhaps because of the low buy-in, they tend to play very loose, especially when it comes to calling to see the flop.
2) After the flop, these inexperienced players make a lot of poor bets, usually involving staying in hands that they should be folding.
3) There is so much socializing that even the experienced players don’t pay attention to how other players are playing. Usually you cannot afford to play tight without bluffing occasionally, otherwise you don’t get much action when you do play a hand; in this environment, you will get as much action as any other player, so this strategy can be very profitable.

When the books teach you how to play against very loose players, they usually assume that you are in a poker room atmosphere (i.e., you have buy-ins that allow you to absorb a few bad beats, as you will get outdrawn on occasion). There, the “perfect” strategy works in the long run; after a few hours sitting down with the same group of loose players, you will profit handsomely. However, in a sit-and-go format, when a lot of players are calling bets, the odds of getting outdrawn increase significantly, and you cannot afford a big loss without the ability to buy-in. This means that you can get easily burned playing second-tier hands (e.g., J-J) aggressively.

Example: You and one opponent are through the turn with you holding the better hand (say, three 9s), and your opponent's only out is drawing to a flush (~25% chance of success). You bet an amount equal to the pot (say, $100), giving your opponent 2:1 odds to call. A good opponent will rarely call (he will occasionally as a semi-bluff), but at a tourney like this, you will often get called. Against the good player, you will win the $100 almost every time; against the bad player, you will win $200 75% of the time, but lose your $100 25% of the time. In a sit-and-go, if the bets get really high, an early string of bad luck will do someone in more often than in a more competitive game, where folding is more common.

I use a conservative strategy, with the goal to avoid going out early on a bad beat. I play extremely tight – folding all but the best of hands – for most of the night – and pull in easy money when my good hands come up (see #3 above). Now, it may seem silly to play 4.5 hours and sit out most hands, especially if the prizes are relatively modest, but I just like to see how far this strategy can go.

In the first hour, the most inexperienced players play very loose; they rarely bet, but are unafraid to call an aggressive player. I simply play really tight (top 10 or so hands), and pull in a decent hunk of cash when I make my hand. With all of the pre-flop action, it is tempting to play hands that do well in big pots (like 9-8 suited), even in an early or middle position because of the implied odds being higher than usual. However, so many players at this stage are unwilling to fold once they have committed to a hand, you have to account for the fact that you won't be able to execute semi-bluffs to steal the occasional pot.

You will hear a lot of stories from folks who went out on bad beats in the first two hours, followed by grumbling about how poker is all about luck of the draw. However, this is really more of an issue of what boardgamers like to call “player chaos”: an opponent's unreasonable play impacted one's chance at success. At Atlanta this year, I went out late in the first hour on Ad-As. I made one other player pay modestly to see the flop, which came out 2c-2s-3s. I called their all-in bet, thinking that the only thing that would beat me was an A-2, which was improbable given the cards visible to me (plus I could beat it with a flush or tie it with a straight). It turned out that the player had something really weak like non-suited J-2. (The turn was 4s, but the river was junk.)

By the second hour, the casual players have had enough (120 minutes is typically the upper limit for most Eurogamers unless they really like the game), and will start to go all-in on mediocre hands more regularly. I continue to play extremely tight, but, in the late position, I will play more so-so hands if (1) there are few callers, and (2) those that do call have much fewer chips than I do (say, less than 50%). At this point, it is important to assess which players are in it for the long haul, as you can expect their played hands to be better than others. If you get your fair share of decent hands, there is lots of money to be had. This is the phase in which I did remarkably well at BGG.CON, pulling in lots of chips from loose players with fantastic hands like A-A and suited A-K.

In the third hour, most of the inexperienced/loose players are gone. Also, there is a better chance you’ll be playing at a smaller table (6-8 players) for a longer time. Combining these two, it means it is time to loosen up a bit and get more aggressive, returning to the style that you have been trained to use. I’ve made it this far twice in cons. The first time, my stack of chips was so small that I was forced to wait for good hands. At BGG.CON, I had the money, but I got crap hands the whole time; I was aggressive enough to steal a couple of pots which allowed me to last until the final table.

In the fourth hour onward (this should be at or close to the final table), continue to play as trained. Even these players are inexperienced enough that they will play very tight, trying to outlast each other in order to qualify for prizes; you can take advantage of this by being more aggressive than usual (although I tend to play the earlier rounds so passively that I risk not having enough chips at this stage). At BGG.CON, I was so far behind in chips that I had to be extremely tight (my single semi-bluff at the final table was met with a re-raise!); despite being ninth coming into the last table, I got some good hands and was able to hang on to place sixth.

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