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Tournament Winners Shouldn't be Punished!

by Thomas Keller |  Published: Mar 22, 2005


In most major tournaments, a third or less of the total prize pool goes to the winner of the tournament. As a result, the player who wins the tournament goes home with only a small portion (in my opinion) of the total prize pool. Many players who go broke late in a tournament still win a considerable amount of money, particularly the last person to go broke, whom I affectionately like to call the first loser. In Mike Caro's classic words, "First place is punished and all other close finishers are rewarded." Unsurprisingly, Caro is not a fan of major tournament prize structures, and neither am I. I dislike the prize structure of major tournaments because it often rewards a cautious, tight strategy, and simply put, that is not how I want to play! I want to play to win, not to come in second. Even worse than that, I cannot seem to force myself to play cautiously in tournaments, at least not when I have a decent amount of chips in front of me. I play tournaments solely to win, and I believe that in order to win tournaments, one often has to take big risks and gamble a lot. Yet, the prize structure punishes the winner by making him share his bounty. I do not want the prize structure of the tournament to be a big influence on how the players play, yet I believe it often is.

A perfect example of this concept is the first major tournament I ever won, the $2,500 no-limit hold'em event at the annual Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic in December 2003. I came to the final table on a huge rush and a tremendous chip position. I had about half of the chips in play when we got down to ninehanded. I had accumulated most of my chips late in the tournament by taking big risks and gambling furiously, busting many players in the process. I had no plans of adjusting my play at the final table, nor would it have been correct to do so. Since I had so many chips relative to my competition, I could justifiably play almost every hand if it was not raised to me, since no one's stack could really hurt me, even if they doubled through me once. I knew that even if my opponents thought I was gambling, they would still likely fold unless they held a premium hand, since playing a pot with me meant risking their tournament life.

I continued to catch cards and went on to win the tournament in about an hour, personally busting out every player at the final table. Allen Cunningham played well and finished second. He avoided playing any big pots with me until we were heads up. He commented that he was very happy with a second-place finish, given that I did all the work at the final table and he was out-chipped 9-1 when we got down to heads-up play. Basically, he was rewarded with second-place money of about $131,000 for being a spectator at the final table, while I received about double that but took many more risks than he did throughout the tournament, particularly with several tables left. I am very happy I won the tournament and am by no means complaining that I did not win enough money, but I am providing this fairly extreme example to illustrate how the graded prize structure can often dictate how players will, or at least should, play. Allen eased into second place without playing a big pot at the final table, and he let me do all the gambling. If the prize structure were winner-take-all, Allen would have been forced to gamble more, since his second-place finish would have earned him nothing. And I likely would not have cruised to the win so easily, since I would not have been able to run over the table like I did, but it would have made for much better poker.

My favorite types of tournaments are winner-take-all events, like single-table tournament satellites or premier invitational events like last year's $2 million ESPN freeroll. I love these events because instead of punishing the risk takers, they reward them; being the first loser doesn't earn you anything but a sob story. I also think that these events are more exciting to watch, as the players seem to play more creatively and artistically because they are not concerned about anything other than winning the tournament. I think nothing is more boring than watching a bunch of players playing very cautiously, all trying to improve their final tournament position by waiting for the shortest stack at the table to be eliminated. If tournament play was dictated by nothing other than trying to win the tournament, players would exhibit increased creativity and be able to take advantage of more marginal situations that they would otherwise not be able to play.

I am not suggesting that we make all major tournaments winner-take-all events, as I think that would be pretty absurd, especially given the ever-growing size of the fields of many major tournaments. Can you imagine Greg Raymer taking home $22 million for winning the 2004 World Series of Poker, or second-place finisher David Williams getting nothing? Big shootout tournaments would solve this problem. Shootout tournaments would be defined as those in which each table initially acts as a single-table satellite, and then all of the individual table winners get prize money and are grouped together to play another single-table satellite, with only first place receiving additional, much larger prize money. The problem with single-table shootouts is that they are a logistical nightmare, for several reasons that I need not get into here. I would personally love to play big shootout tournaments, but I do not see it happening. Casinos don't have much incentive to take on the additional burden of running shootout tournaments when traditional tournaments are so popular.

NBC Sports is about to run a poker tournament that doesn't fall prey to the problems of a graded tournament prize structure. It is debuting a 64-person invitational heads-up tournament. This sounds like it will be a great tournament, and I'm sure the head-up matches featuring many of poker's premier players will be very exciting to watch.

One set of tournaments that I definitely could see being winner-take-all events are invitational freerolls like the Professional Poker Tour events sponsored by the World Poker Tour. Since these events have smaller fields of around 180 players and are invitational freerolls, I think that the players involved wouldn't mind having most or all of the prize money go to first place. The "first loser" in a Professional Poker Tour event would not have too much to gripe about, since the tournaments are freerolls to begin with.

To learn more about the NBC Sports 2005 National Heads-Up Poker Championship, go to, or to learn more about the Professional Poker Tour, check out spades

Thomas "Thunder" Keller is a 23-year-old professional poker player and one of poker's young and rising stars. He can often be found playing at under the name gummybear. To learn more about him, go to his website at