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Don’t Throw Your Tournaments Away

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 01, 2013


Ed MillerWhen I first began my poker career, someone asked me an important question. The answer, once I understood it, started me along my path to success.

Say you’re playing in an eight-handed $20-$40 stud game with a $5 ante. Except in this game, you’re allowed to buy in for any amount of money, and between hands you can take as much money off the table as you’d like. Under these conditions, how much you should buy in for?

If you haven’t heard the question before, think about it for a while before you read the answer below.

The optimal buy-in would be $5. Just the ante. Why?

In an eight-handed game, each player should win approximately one-eighth of all the hands dealt. All things being equal, everyone wins roughly the same number of pots.

If you anted for $5 and you won one-eighth of the time, then after eight hands, on average, you would have committed $40 in antes and won a single $40 pot (ignoring rake). That’s breakeven.

But now consider how stud plays. Let’s assume that everyone has a stack large enough to play a full hand to the end, except for you. You ante for $5, and you’re all-in. Then the hand proceeds as normal. Most of the time, by showdown you will have either a single opponent or two opponents.

That is, instead of beating seven other players, you need beat only one or two. Of course, these hands you’re up against will have been the most promising hands out there to start. But it’s quite easy for a one-pair hand to brick out and you to make a higher pair or two pair to win.

I’d expect someone all-in for the ante to win at least 20 percent of the time and possibly as much as 35 percent of the time depending on how tight or loose the other players played.

This is, therefore, incredibly profitable. If you win just 25 percent of the time, for example, then after eight hands you commit $40 in antes, but win two $40 pots for a profit of $40. That’s $5 per hand in profit, which is more than any fully-stacked stud player could hope to make in nearly any $20-$40 stud game on the planet.

Getting all-in for the ante is likely more profitable than being Phil Ivey with a full stack.

In practice, you will never be all-in for an ante in a cash game. But in a tournament, it’s definitely possible. What are the implications?

Say you’re playing a tournament. The level is 4000-8000 with a 1,000 ante. You’re down to a single 1,000 chip. How much is that chip worth?

Given the reasoning above, it’s worth a lot more than 1,000. It’s probably worth close to 2,000. Being all-in for the ante, after all, is the optimal buy-in for any given hand. The chip gains value merely from the fact that, on the next hand, you will be guaranteed an excellent gambling opportunity.

The more general observation is that, chip for chip, short stacks in tournaments are worth quite a bit. These stacks are worth a lot partially because simply existing in the tournament gives you potential access to the prizes. But they’re also worth a lot because the structure of the game makes it relatively easy to triple, quadruple, or even 10x your stack on one hand.

No More Shove And Pray

Short stacks have significant value in tournaments, but many players fritter much of that value away by choosing poor situations to get their money in.

Here’s a typical example: It’s the 400-800 (100 ante) level of a no-limit hold’em tournament. You’ve got 4,300, or a little more than five big blinds. There’s one other short stack at the table, but for the most part everyone else has at least 15,000.

The player under the gun (UTG) opens for 1,900. Two players fold, and you’re next to act with A-10 offsuit. You should fold, fold, fold. But many times I’ve seen the player here shove instead. Or shove with 4-4. Or shove with K-10 suited.

These are all terrible shoves. You have no fold equity, and with those hands you’re guaranteed to be a dog to the UTG player’s range. Also, throw in the fact that someone behind you could wake up with Q-Q or better.

Many players rationalize shoves like these by thinking that the short stack will just be worth less and less as time goes on. “I had to make a move some time,” I have heard too many times to count. Furthermore, players remember all the times that they went cold for thirty hands and figure that this hand — A-10 or 4-4 or K-10 suited — will likely be the best hand they’ll see before all their money is anted away.

When you make shoves like these, however, you’re just throwing your tournaments away. Indeed, the fact that amateur players can be counted on to light their last few big blinds on fire is one thing that really adds to the pro players’ edge. It would cut significantly into any professional’s return on investment (ROI) numbers if amateurs started to hang tough with their last few chips.

I’ll quickly debunk the classic rationalizations for this move. “I had to make a move some time,” is just plain bogus. You don’t. In fact, you can allow yourself to be blinded all the way down to your very last chip, at which point it will instantly double in value because you’ll be permitted to get all-in for the ante. It’s easy to feel like your stack is becoming worthless as you are forced to fold ante after ante, but that feeling is wrong. Short stacks have value, even as they get to be very short indeed.

You’ve crossed a threshold with your stack once you no longer have fold equity. If your stack is so short that no one will be folding to your reshove, then your window to “make a move” has slammed shut. But, again, this is not the end of the world. Yes, you will have to gamble at some point. But no, you don’t have to be in a ridiculous rush to do so.

In practice, if you’re playing a short stack well, you will very rarely get blinded down all the way to a single ante. You likely will get another playable hand before all your money is gone. In other words, A-10 offsuit in middle position against an UTG raise is likely not the best hand you will see.

Context is important. Are you better off reshoving over an UTG raise with A-10 offsuit or calling out of the big blind (BB) with Q-8 suited against a button shove? The latter will work out better for you in the long run, even though Q-8 suited isn’t necessarily a “better” hand than A-10 offsuit.

When you get short in a tournament, don’t panic. Remember that short stacks have value. The value lasts to the final chip. Be patient and wait for a genuinely good opportunity. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.