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‘Miami’ John Cernuto On Reasons To Make A Deal

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Oct 06, 2021


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Many tournaments end with deals, and timing is critically important. If you negotiate too soon or too late, you’ll lose money. The situation, your EV, and your power can change very quickly. The general principles are:

Negotiate when…

• You can probably get a better deal than your playing EV.
• Your EV will probably go down soon.
Don’t negotiate when…
• Your EV is higher if you keep playing.
• Your EV will probably go up soon.

Think carefully before deciding.

Keep in mind that “keep playing” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll play until there’s only one player left. You may wait just one more hand before a deal becomes more attractive.

Some recommendations are so obvious that you may ask, “Doesn’t everyone do that?” No, many players don’t seriously think about timing, and even the greats have made mistakes from time to time.

'Miami' John Cernuto Credit: PokerStars‘Miami’ John Cernuto, the co-author of my book about final table deals, has made some costly timing errors over his long poker career. John has cashed in more tournaments than any player in history, so if he’s made expensive mistakes, so can you.

You can’t make good timing decisions unless you’re brutally honest about yourself and your opponents.

Relative Skills — Nearly everybody overestimates their own skills and underestimates their opponents.

Stamina — If you’re exhausted, you can’t play you’re A-Game. Many players overestimate their stamina.

Emotional Stability — Many players are even less realistic about their emotions than their skills and stamina. Even when it’s obvious, they deny that they’re off-balance.

Desire to finish — The more you want a deal, the weaker you are. If you have a headache, must catch a plane, or just want to quit, you won’t play your best.

Although you should analyze all these factors, don’t say or do anything that weakens your position. For example, don’t make the first offer, or tell people you have to be somewhere else. John often says, “Never let them see you sweat.”

Be Willing To Negotiate

Please note that I didn’t say that you should always negotiate, just that you should be willing to discuss or listen to an offer. Players who say they never chop are either so wealthy that the money doesn’t matter to them, or haven’t been offered a deal too good to pass up.

Your Opponents Are Better Than You

How important are your opponents’ playing skills when you’re making a deal?

“I’m more likely to accept a deal from a good player, one with strength and skills such as mine or better than mine, as opposed to a poor player who has the chip lead,” John explained.

You probably don’t want to admit that there are better or equal players, but you should learn from John. Despite his extreme success, he recognizes and admits that some opponents are better players. If you aren’t realistic, you will keep playing when you should make a deal, and it can cost you lots of money.

You’re Short-Stacked

The shorter your stack, the weaker you are. If you have only a few chips, your skill advantage is negated and you’ll probably be knocked out soon, especially when you become the big blind. If you can get some extra dollars by negotiating, do it.

The Blinds Are Too Big

At many final tables the blinds are so big that (almost) everybody is short-stacked. Your own and their tournament lives are constantly at risk. Even if you’re a much better player, you don’t have a large edge. It’s a crap shoot.

You’re Under The Gun

If the blinds are huge, be most willing to deal just before you post the big blind. It will reduce your stack, EV, and power. It could also cost you a bunch in ICM deals. You will then face the dilemma of defending your blind with a weak hand, or just folding and seeing your stack shrink.

Somebody REALLY Wants The Trophy

If you don’t care much about that prize, you can trade it for cash, perhaps lots of it. Don’t trade away a prize you really want. But, if it’s more valuable to an opponent than it is to you, make a value-adding trade. You’ll both be better off.

“On several occasions, I have been out-chipped and people have wanted the trophy,’ John recalled. “The trophy doesn’t matter to me, I have enough of them. I’ve probably given away more trophies than most people have.”

“Once or twice they wanted their first Remington. (The trophy given to winners of LAPC events.) I would never give away a WSOP bracelet, but I can give up a Remington. They agreed to chop the money or give me almost an even split, which was a 10-20% increase of the money without having to play a hand and being behind in the tournament.”

“Another man wanted the title and trophy to get into Mike Sexton’s Tournament of Champions. It was about 10-12 years ago, and he had to win a title. Since I already qualified for the TOC, I gave up the title, and he gave me almost first place money for it. Because he was a good player, he could have beaten me straight up, but he really wanted to lock up the seat. Titles and trophies are very good leverage to make a deal.”

You Suspect Collusion

When players collude against you, your EV goes way down, even if you’re a much better player. Collusion happens more often than you may think.

In small daily, weekly, and monthly tournaments many players are friends and have agreed to share their prizes. Or they may just soft play each other from friendliness.

They may also collude in other ways. When the buy-ins are large, players collude to reduce their risks and variance. Since many pros and semi-pros have small bankrolls, they may be backed by someone else, especially in the most expensive events.

“I was watching a four-handed final table,” John remembered. “Jack Keller, a Hall of Famer, was against three other excellent players. Jack was the chip leader, and he suddenly said he wanted to make a deal.”

“I was astonished. After they made a deal, I asked Jack, ‘Why did you want a deal?’ Jack replied, ‘Because all three of them were backed by the same guy.’”

If Jack hadn’t known about the backer, he would have kept playing in a nearly hopeless situation.

What’s Next?

My next column will tell you when you shouldn’t make a deal. Be on the lookout for our book, soon out on Amazon. ♠

Alan SchoonmakerAfter publishing five expensive poker books, Dr. Al,, now writes inexpensive eBooks. How to Beat Small Poker Games, Stay Young; Play Poker, How to Beat Killed Hold’em Games, and Business is a Poker Game cost only $2.99 at Please comment on my new website,