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Who is the Best?

Measuring tournament performance

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Apr 29, 2011


I am frequently asked who I think is the best tournament player, but no one ever really says what he means by “the best.” No matter what is meant, I feel safe in answering, Phil Ivey. He is certainly the best all-around player right now; he plays all variations. He can win in both tournaments and cash games, and he wins both live and online. But how do you measure who is the best live-tournament player? Most lists rank players by the amount of money “won.” The reason that I use “won” and not won is that they really sum up the total returned to a player over all of the tournaments that he has played. Recently, my good friend Erik Seidel pulled ahead of Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu to become the leading tournament money winner. The three of them are clearly among the best tournament players in the history of the game, so that must mean that the money “won” number is a good indicator of how good a tournament player is. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

There are lots of problems with it. First, it doesn’t give any indication of ROI — return on investment. This means that someone who pays $1 million in buy-ins and gets a total return of $800,000 is rated higher than someone who pays $300,000 in buy-ins and gets back $500,000. Clearly, someone who has lost $200,000, or 20 percent of his buy-ins, is a much worse player than someone who has won $200,000, or 67 percent of his buy-ins.

A second problem is that it rewards players who have been playing for a long time. If there are two players who each spend $200,000 in tournament buy-ins a year and break even — that is, they each cash for $200,000 — it seems reasonable to assume that both play about equally well. But if one of them has been playing for 10 years and one for two years, the former will have five times as much in cashes, and will rank much higher.

Another problem with this type of list is that it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that a relatively weak player has had one big lucky win. One often hears complaints that pros haven’t won the main event at the World Series of Poker in recent years. Yet, the players who have made that one huge cash automatically have moved to a high position on the list. Now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t good players, but their one lucky win doesn’t prove that they are.

ROI is a better measure in many ways. It doesn’t reward players for having invested a lot in tournaments or for having played a number of years. But there are problems with ROI, also. Since it compares return to investment, it doesn’t give any indication of the actual amount returned. Someone who plays in 50 tournaments with $10,000 buy-ins and has a 50 percent ROI has made $250,000. Most people can live a few years on that. Someone who plays 50 tournaments with $10 buy-ins and has a 100 percent ROI has made $500. He would have made more money working at McDonald’s for the minimum wage.

ROI also doesn’t do anything to reduce the importance of one big win. It also doesn’t factor in the quality of the opposition. An ROI of 20 percent in tough fields is a lot more indicative of poker skills than one of 60 percent against weak players. The biggest problem with attempting to use ROI to evaluate players is that while you can know what their return has been, you have no idea how much they’ve invested.
I have always advocated careful record-keeping. These records will prove quite useful when you wish to evaluate your own performance. You should be able to calculate your total cashes, your ROI, and some other important statistics. A very important thing to know is how much you make (or lose) per hour. Dollars per hour won or lost can help you make decisions as to what games to play, whether to play tournaments or cash games, and most importantly, whether or not it makes financial sense for you to choose poker over some other career. Another important thing is to see how much worse your tournament results would have been if you eliminated your largest cash. This can be seen as a rough approximation of how you would do during a bad streak. Do you cash fairly regularly or are your cashes few and far between? Tournaments typically pay around 10 percent of the entrants. If you cash less than 10 percent of the time, it is fairly likely that you are doing something wrong. Yes, your goal should be to win, not just to cash, but you should still be cashing more than the average player. Also, if you seldom cash, you can anticipate some long dry spells, which means that you need a big bankroll.

The last factor you should look at is your expenses. Players on the tournament circuit usually have substantial expenses. Airfare, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and other expenses of traveling can easily wipe out your profits. Also, traveling
takes up your time, and may disrupt your life. After factoring in travel time and expenses, you may be earning a really minimal hourly wage. Not only that, but your family may not like the fact that you are frequently away from home. Perhaps you’re better off sticking to local tournaments or playing online.
In summary, it is virtually impossible to evaluate someone else’s tournament performance. However, you should be able to learn a lot about your own performance by keeping good records and periodically studying them. ♠

Steve “Zee” Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful games player. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at many major tournaments and playing on Full Tilt, as one of its pros. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A — Nice Guy Eddie’s at Houston and Doc Holliday’s at 9th Street — in New York City.