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Stalling In Tournaments

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Sep 21, 2022


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This is the first column in a series that will be loosely based on thoughts and hands that occurred during the recent World Series of Poker.

I prefer cash games to tournaments for many reasons. These include the fact that in a cash game you can quit or take breaks whenever you want. In busy casinos, you can change tables when you don’t like your table. You can add money to your stack when you think that is advantageous. An opponent may lose an unlucky hand and go on tilt, throwing his money away.

On the other hand, I also enjoy tournaments. There is a great feeling of building excitement when the money bubble or the final table bubble is approaching. They also provide a way to ‘turn a matchstick into a lumber yard.’ That is, start with a small bankroll and end with a big one.

There is one thing about tournaments that I (and most other players) hate, which is stalling.

That being said, when I am close to the bubble with a short stack, I stall. Sometimes unmercifully.

Now, why would I do something I hate? Because stalling close to bubbles increases my equity!

If we are a few places away from the money, and several of us have stacks that might last three orbits if we never play a hand, the slowest player at the slowest table has the best chance to survive.

The fact that I’m avoiding confrontations also means I have to fold some hands I’d like to play. Do I really want to go broke with A-9 suited or 2-2 two places out of the money? Even in small WSOP tournaments, a min-cash is worth around 1.5 buy-ins. In a $1,000 tournament, just making the money gets me $1,500. If stalling means I will make the money 50% more often, then it is worth $700.

Other than doing something I’d rather not do and annoying my tablemates, there is currently no downside to stalling. Given that stalling benefits the staller and hurts the tournament, what can be done?

Below is a list of methods that are used to eliminate stalling. I have added some ‘tweaks’ that might be beneficial. Lastly, I have added a way to reduce the benefit of stalling, but it does require more work from the staff.

Hand-for-hand: When the tournament is close to the money, usually one or two players away, hand-for-hand play is initiated. All tables must finish a hand before the next one is dealt.

Downside: Slows the tournament down, usually only used very close to the money bubble.

Tweak: With one to two tables left, initiate orbit-for-orbit. Play at each table proceeds normally until the button returns to the starting position, then pauses till all tables have completed an orbit. (Also fairer to players at short tables, who are the blinds more often than those at full tables.) Then switch to hand-for-hand when two away from money.

Shot Clock: Each player has a fixed amount of time for each decision, usually 30 seconds and some number of extensions.

Downside: This requires clocks on every table and creates extra work for dealers. It also allows players to mini-stall by taking 29 seconds before folding.

Tweak: Preflop in an unraised pot, the decision time should be reduced to 10 seconds.

Calling The Clock: One player asks for clock, dealer calls floorman, who gives the staller a fixed time to act then counts them down to dead hand.

Downside: The staller is rewarded when no one calls for clock and even then it is a very slow, cumbersome procedure and creates a lot of work for over-burdened floor personnel.

Tweak: Change the payout structures. It is quite easy (especially for computers) to change payout structures to eliminate the big money bubble. To take the example from above: the last three players eliminated before the bubble get 0 and the next 2 get $1,500. Instead, those five players receive payouts of $200, $400, $600, $800, and $1,000. I have arbitrarily selected round numbers that result in the same $3,000 being paid, but stalling would be a lot less valuable. While this might create a little more work for organizers, it would also lead to more people getting money back, which allows them to enter more tournaments. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow aka The Bald Eagle or Zebra is a very successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 40 years. With two WSOP bracelets, over 60 cashes, and a few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his Vegas gaming time to poker, and can be found in cash games at Aria and Bellagio and at tournaments during the WSOP. When escaping from poker, he spends the spring and the fall in New York City where he hangs out at his bars: Doc Holliday’s, The Library, and DBA.