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How Much is “a Chip and a Chair” Worth?

by Ben Yu |  Published: Jun 26, 2013

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I never imagined I would write professionally. My interests have always been elsewhere, so with some surprise, yet a great deal of enthusiasm, I begin writing for Card Player. I hope my background as a mixed-game player with experience in tournaments such as the World Series of Poker $50,000 buy-in Players’ Championship provides readers with some unique insights. If not, I at least plan to tell some fun stories.

One of the most overused cliches publicized by televised tournament poker is the phrase “a chip and a chair,” — used when someone bled down to their last chip wins an all-in to become a contender in the tournament again.

When you blind down to one ante, how much is that actually worth? My answer — significantly more than people treat it as.

When you have a single ante, you put it in the pot before the cards are dealt, and are no longer a part of the betting action. Assuming a nine-handed table, each of the eight other players also contribute an ante. Oftentimes, one other person enters the pot, everyone else folds and you are all-in against them.

With a random hand, all-in against a top 20 percent hand, you still have 36 percent equity and the pot you are contending for is nine antes. In this situation, you can expect to return 3.24 antes after the cards have been dealt and the pot awarded. All of the value comes from unplayable hands other players fold, an option an all-in player does not even have.

This is a oversimplification — in reality, the situation is more convoluted, as pots are contested multiway, and in these scenarios a lone ante is not worth quite as much.

If we repeat the above exercise where we are all-in with an ante, except against two opponents with top 20 percent hands, we only have a 24 percent chance to push the pot. In this scenario, our ante is only worth 2.18 antes. Even in this situation, one player sometimes bluffs out the other remaining player postflop, increasing our equity.

Just by having one ante in the tournament, your chips are worth roughly three times that amount. When you have 100 in chips, your equity is actually 300.

Why does any of this matter? How should this change your tournament game?

Many skilled tournament players navigate the crippled stack suboptimally, but meanwhile will also lament the miseries of short-stacked tournament poker in ironic fashion. They complain there are no opportunities to utilize their decision-making prowess and shove any remaining chips in the pot without thinking.

Admittedly, options are constrained while short-stacked and taken to the extreme, there are zero technical poker decisions to make with a single ante. However, there are times when preserving that last ante is under a player’s control and a profitable decision.

Scott Abrams is most known for finishing 12th-place in the 2012 World Series Of Poker main event. However, he had a number of other good results over the summer, including a final table showing at the $1,500 seven-card stud event. En route to that finish, he encountered a scenario where it was correct to save his last ante.

It is the last level of day 2 in the $1,500 WSOP seven-card stud event. There are 12 people left. The blinds are 5,000-10,000 (1,000 ante). Abrams begins the hand with 41,000 in chips, enough for four big bets with one additional ante.

In this simplified stud hand history, Abrams raised on third street, was called by Caroline Hermesh, who he read for having a pair of split tens or a similar wired pair smaller than queens making up the majority of her range. He bet on every street before the river, and was called.

Scott Abrams (QSpade Suit 3Heart Suit) QClub Suit 4Diamond Suit 5Heart Suit 9Club Suit 2Diamond Suit
Caroline Hermesh (x x) 10Spade Suit 8Spade Suit KHeart Suit 6Spade Suit x

Abrams also bet the river for his last ante. Hermersh thinks for several seconds before calling with a pair of tens and Abrams wins the pot to double up.

After the hand, Abrams found me and exclaimed, “GAHHH! That was such a bad river bet, she can definitely check an overpair or two pair, and I would have saved my last ante those times.” Abrams realized the value of his last ante, albeit a little late. Some of my friends have a motto — “Play bad, get there, never learn,” but I would expect Abrams to not bet again there in the future.

Removing the pot already in the center from this equation, if Abrams bets his last ante and is called, he either wins the pot and one extra ante from betting the river, or loses and is evicted from the tournament. If Abrams checks, he is left with one ante when he loses — an ante we have concluded is worth 3 antes because it is his last one.

By betting there, he is effectively laying 3-to-1 on his last ante. When Hermesh calls, he would need to have the best hand greater than 75 percent of the time for his bet to be profitable. This is not a good price, especially because we spend the majority of tournament durations getting 1-to-1 on our money. We bet one chip, we expect to win one chip. However, because this is our last ante, we are essentially betting three chips, to still only win one.

Deep in a tournament, one ante can be worth a fortune in dollar amounts. Opponents can be eliminated from the tournament and hand us a pay jump if they get involved in a cooler or are oblivious to our stack depth. In Abrams’ scenario, those three antes, 3,000 tournament chips, are worth approximately $800 in real money. (With $98,300 of the prize pool paid out and $390,006 remaining to be played for, each chip has about 80 percent of its value compared to when the tournament started, and at the WSOP each dollar you use to enter the event with gets you three starting chips.)

This trick won’t help you win tournaments on its own, but it is a tool that will help you stay in them. Instead of doubling your stack up, you get to nonuple it. I cannot tell you how many times I have been bled down to a few antes, sneaked up a pay jump, won a single all-in that multiplies my stack five-fold, and come back to be a force to be reckoned with. I respect the power of my last chip — though I could do without the chair.

I would like to conclude this article with another look at the 2012 World Series of Poker. It is day 2 of the $2,500 Razz event. There are 22 rounders left — each remaining player is only guaranteed $5,904. As reported by the official event live updates:

Brandon Cantu started Level 17 with 4,000 chips. At the time, that was four antes, Now, a level and a half later, he’s our chip leader. Incredible.

He finished in third place for $74,269. ♠

Ben Yu attended Stanford University but knew even before finishing that he wanted to embark on a journey to become a one of the finest professional mixed-game players. He made his debut onto the tournament scene in 2010 with a second-place finish in the World Series of Poker $1,500 limit hold’em shootout and followed it up in 2011 by leading the WSOP with seven cashes across six different games.  In 2012, he moved to Rosarito, Mexico in order to continue playing online and was enthralled to perform well at the World Championship of Online Poker, including a final table appearance at the $10,300 poker 8-Game High Roller, and a cash in the main event.