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The Value Of Survival

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Mar 23, 2022

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Greg Raymer Please let me encourage you to reach out to me with article ideas and questions for future columns. You can tweet to me at @FossilMan, or send me a message at info@fossilmanpoker.com.

You are in a tournament, with more than half the field remaining, and you have about 100,000 in chips. A player in early position min-raises to 4,000, and you three-bet from middle position to 10,000 with AHeart Suit KDiamond Suit.

It folds back to the original raiser, who now four-bets all-in for 60,000. What do you do?

Let’s do some math. The pot is now 75,000, and it costs you 50,000 to call. It is too early for ICM (Independent ChipModel) to play a big factor. This means you should call if you think you will win over 40% of the time.

Why 40%? If you fold, you will have a stack of 90,000. If you call, you will either lose (and thus have 40,000 chips), or if you will win this pot you’ll have 165,000. If you win exactly 40% of the time, your average stack when you call is 90,000, the same amount as when you fold.

But if you are going to win more than 40% of the time, you will have, on average, more than 90,000 chips. Thus, it is profitable to call as long as you believe you will win more than 40% of the time.

How do we determine if we are going to win 40% of the time, or more? We have to guess. However, we are going to make an educated guess. What range of hands is this opponent likely to hold, that they would four-bet all-in? That will obviously depend upon this player, and what we know about them. The tighter the player, the tighter and stronger their range. If they are a loose player, or you know they are looking to gamble right now, the wider and weaker their range.

What if we estimate they would only do this with a top 5% hand? In that case, we will win about 46% of the time, and a call is nicely profitable. So, we should call.

Here is where it gets wonky. I have heard many players who would do this kind of analysis, and agree that the math says calling is profitable. However, if instead it was the other player who had 100,000, and they had only 60,000, now they would fold.
The logic is, since making this call could lead to their elimination, it is a mistake to call.

But that makes no sense! We just did the math and determined that it was profitable to call. Because there is no ICM to worry about, it is a profitable call regardless of who is actually all-in.

Survival has no value!

There, I said it. And I expect to get a lot of negative feedback.

There are multitudes of tournament players, maybe even the majority of them, who believe the number one priority is to protect your tournament life. Yet, they are all wrong. Yes, all of them.

The number one priority, in every hand of poker, in every decision you make, should be to maximize your equity. That is, every time you make a choice, to check, bet, fold, call, or raise, you should strive to make the choice that will, on average, put the most money in your pocket. Any other goal is counterproductive.

If you fold here, you will survive. Goal accomplished. But, if you keep folding in one profitable spot after another, to ensure your survival, how are you ever going to accumulate enough chips to make the money? How are you going to maximize your equity, and win as much as possible?

Survival is not enough. It is also about the terms on which you survive. You can just fold everything but the nuts, and by doing so you can probably outlast a majority of the field. This strategy of playing massively risk-averse poker will keep you alive in the tournament for a good while. But, unless you hit a massive rush of cards, you will never accumulate enough chips to go all the way.

You won’t even make the money without getting lucky, because it is going to require a lot of luck to get so many good hands and good boards. And you’ll never get to those last few spots this way. You would need the sun-run of a lifetime to do that.

Remember, survival is meaningless. “Tournament life” is a null concept. Equity. That is the key. It is all about equity.

Make each decision to maximize your equity. That is all there is to being a great poker player, whether in cash games or tournaments. Of course, learning how to correctly determine which choice will maximize your equity is the hard part. But it is going to be much harder if you are correctly determining the best choice, and then not making it, just because your tournament life is on the line.

This is a game. You’re not really going to die when you run out of chips. Just do your best figure out the highest equity choice, and make it.

If you want to read more about this, check out Chapter 18 in my book, FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies. (The other 41 chapters have some good stuff as well.)

Have fun, and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.