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Playing The Percentages in Tournament

Stop losing sleep over the near-misses, and find other ways to win

By Kevin Blackwood



By trying different formats, you might find some hidden gems. For example, I primarily play Multi-Table Tournaments, but a while back I started adding some Sit And Go tournaments to my schedule and I’ve had great results.

Let’s suppose that every night after work, you enter a tournament with 365 players that pays money to the top 36 places. If you’re an average player you will cash 10% of the time, which is only about three days a month. That means you’re losing almost every day. You only finish on a triumphant note once a year, when you win the tournament. On the other 364 days you will have lost your last hand at some point, and failed to win the whole thing.

Even if you had a high finish and made some good money, it’s still frustrating to go deep in a tournament only to crash out just short of the top spot. Often you will have busted out due to a bad beat, which can make sleep a bit difficult that night.

Having so many losing days can be mentally draining, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of going to bed a winner. The smartest solution is to become a better-than-average player. If you’re a competent pro at the tables, your chance of cashing in a tournament roughly jumps from 10% to 15%.

Multi Table Poker Tournament

One other option is to play conservatively and try to squeak into the money more often. A super tight player might be able to cash about 20% of the time. However, this style of play comes with a high price tag, since anyone who is only concerned with making money will rarely win a tournament. Such a strategy is only worth considering if you are playing in a tournament way over your normal comfort level, such as the $10,000 entry for the World Series of Poker. In that case, just cashing might be worth giving up a little equity.

Another alternative is to branch out and try the popular Sit And Go (SNG) tournaments. These are much shorter than a regular multi-table tournament (MTT) and pay a higher percentage of the participants. Unlike MTTs, which have a fixed starting time, SNGs start whenever all the seats are filled up. These tournaments are not only more flexible for your schedule, but they’re also a great training ground to learn the principles of short-handed and bubble play. The original SNG format is a one table tourney, although now there are many larger SNG tournaments—such as 18 player, 45 player, 90 player, and 180 player events.

The classic one table SNG will pay the top three spots, which means an average player will cash 33% of the time at a nine-seated table. And if that’s not a high enough percentage to finish in the money, you can try the double or nothing SNG tournaments. These are typically ten player tournaments where the top five double their entry fee. In this format, an average player will cash 50% of the time, although you will still be a slight loser because of the house vigorish on each tournament.

The main drawback with SNG tournaments is that you never have the potential of a really big payday like you do in MTT events, but the variance is much less and playing SNG tournaments greatly increases your chance of ending the day on a high note.

My best recommendation is to do a mix of these different tournament formats and find out what is best for your style of play. Your overall dollar per hour return probably won’t vary much between SNG and MTT (assuming you are playing identical stakes), but some people maintain their sanity better when they have fewer losing days.

By trying different formats, you might find some hidden gems. For example, I primarily play MTT, but a while back I started adding some SNG tournaments to my schedule and I’ve had great results. I’m not sure if it’s the faster blind structure that has contributed to my success, but only by testing the waters in new areas are you likely to find your true niche at poker.


One dynamic that can make first-place finishes even more elusive is the winner-take-all tournament format. These are common in satellites, where only one person will win a seat to a big event.

Although the variance can be high with this format, the payoff can be astronomical. Several players like Chris Moneymaker and Jerry Yang have turned small entry fees into $10,000 WSOP Main Event seats. And for those two lucky gentlemen, their small initial outlay eventually won them millions of dollars and the world championship.

Watching Your Wallet

An important fact to keep in mind is that all rakes are not the same—and I’m not talking about my vegetable garden. The rake is the amount the casino scoops out of each pot, and it’s the price you pay for playing poker in that establishment. In cash games it’s typically 10% of the pot, up to a maximum (which is normally capped at no more than $5).

However, on my last cruise the rake was capped at $25! This made the games they spread virtually unbeatable. So always pay attention to the details before you sit down at a table.

Free Money!

In a recent column I profiled the spectacular new poker room at the Aria Casino (part of the CityCenter complex on the Vegas Strip) and mentioned they would be offering some major tournaments in the future. The first of these will take place just before the start of the 2010 World Series and will offer an extra $100,000 to anyone who knocks Phil Ivey out of their $1,000,000 tournament.

This will be in conjunction with Aria opening their new high stakes area for poker players, which will be called the “Ivey room.” This glassed-in area in the back of the poker room will be the new home for poker superstar Phil Ivey. By signing him on as their host, it’s certain many big-name players will soon be frequenting the Aria Casino.

Kevin Blackwood has written three books, including Legends of Blackjack and Casino Gambling For Dummies. More information about his books can be found at

Playing The Percentages in Tournament.

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