Friday, March 24, 2006

The Future of Tournament Poker

I have wanted to tackle this subject for a long time. I have put it off, however, due to a few issues that are deeper than I wanted to explore.

One of the issues I have with talking about the future of tournament poker is that if I predict something, and things change, I get that whole "Nanny nanny boo boo, you were wrong" string of e-mails. Maybe I should call it the "Mason Backlash."

Those who aren't new to poker know that Mason Malmuth often predicts the future of certain things within the poker world. He is pretty much always right. But he is mocked and flamed for being "wrong" all the time. One of his predictions was that No-Limit Hold'em as a cash game would die out. Now, many of you are saying, "Boy, he couldn't have been more wrong!" but you are forgetting what the poker world was like before online poker and the poker boom.

NLHE had been dying out little by little for 20 years or more. It was a rare phenomenon to find it spread in any poker room. It was sometimes played privately or during big festivals. Even those occurences were becoming more rare. I would challenge anyone to find even one cardroom, anywhere in the world, which normally spread NLHE as a cash game around the year 2000. I am almost certain that no one can produce on this challenge.

So Mason said that NLHE was dying out way before it did, and that LHE would take it's place as the mainstay of most cardrooms. This came to fruition. He also said that NLHE would be the main tourney game played at festivals. It is.

Now, for those of you who still think Mason screwed up, let's write down plain and simple what happened to bring back NLHE as a cash game:

1) Online poker was invented, and NLHE was tried out as a cash game, with a CAPPED buy-in, or a min/max
2) Moneymaker won the WSOP and suddenly NLHE was introduced to the world, at large, as synonymous with "Poker"
3) B&M cardrooms started spreading NLHE with a min/max or CAPPED buy-in

Why does the terminology "min/max" and "capped" change things? Well, it changes everything, because this is NOT No-Limit Hold'em, in the traditional sense. Those of you who go to an online site, or a B&M room with a min/max of $50 to play NLHE aren't really playing NLHE as we truly know it. Sure, go ahead and flame me, but it's the truth. Losing $50 is NOT playing NLHE, sorry to burst your bubble there.

It's a game, surely, and a good one. It's beatable and easy. It's a no-brainer and a gimme. But don't truly think you are playing NLHE. It's a whole different game than the traditional one.

I'm not putting down this game. I like it, I play it, and I'm not looking a gifthorse in the mouth. I'm just trying to illustrate the difference between this game, and true NLHE, with NO max buy-in.

Mason was right. Had things kept to their present course (no online poker, no weekly TV poker and Moneymaker), NLHE would have been as dormant as Lowball Draw or Five Card Stud.

Making the games small, keeping the maximum buy-in low and capped, lets the fish come in cheap, lose less, and the games last longer. It is no longer a "dying" game. But it's not true no-limit, it's FIXED no-limit, if you get my point (I've certainly illustrated it enough).

This game is the bread and butter of many a "pro" poker player. I hope it is here to stay, although I have my doubts sometimes.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with the future of tournament poker? Well, tournament poker is traditionally played as NLHE. Players also traditionally ride out the variance of tournament play by playing cash games. The transition from tournaments to cash games comes most easily if one plays a game he is familiar with. Thus NLHE=NLHE.

The tournament craze is already beginning to lose it's shine. If we look at the number of entrants to each event, we can see that they are steadily descending. Actually, more players are entering events, it's just that the sheer number of NLHE tournaments in a day has vastly increased. Therefore, the events are spread thin.

We used to have just a few big festivals per year. Everyone went to Australia in January, Foxwoods in March, WSOP in April, etc. Now, on any given day, there are many big festivals to choose from. Someone in Las Vegas, for example, wouldn't even have to leave the state to play in events $500 and up every week.

No matter how many new players come into this arena, it doesn't seem to keep up anymore with the number of big tourneys being spread. So whereas a 1k event might have gotten 600 players a year ago, it is getting more like 200 today, because there are 1k events closer to home for those players.

Another problem I see with the current trend, is that a good tourney player can go much, much longer without a score. I remember a long time ago David Sklansky said something about giving oneself a year to make it in the tourney world. If one went a whole year without a big score to cover the cost of entries and expenses, he should go back to the drawing board and analyze if he really has what it takes to be a tourney pro.

Someone mentioned this to David about a year or two ago on Two Plus Two. David said, "Heck, these days it could take two years or more!" Oy, vey. That is a long time without a score! And a LOT of money!

So what is my advice to the aspiring tourney pro? Well, you're going to have to cut down that variance by playing cash games. Take a ride on that baby NLHE that is everywhere right now, and don't get off until you have to. These capped NLHE games that abound right now are the easiest games to beat in the world. They make LHE look like rocket science.

But many tourney players don't know how to play cash games, and don't even want to. Well, all I can say is, you aren't going to last very long if you maintain this attitude. Not many of you have what it takes to ride out the variance of tourneys for years. You don't have the bankroll, you don't have the attitude.

So many players I have met over the past three years are "gone" now. Simply vanished. They couldn't take it. Lots of guys who were going to be the "next big thing" are kaput. Tourney life is a hard one. It takes a lot of discipline, skill and patience. It takes a will of steel.

If your mantra is, "All Hold'em, All the time" and you also refuse to play cash games, you are going into the ring with Evander Holyfield and agreeing to have one hand tied behind your back and a patch over one eye.

A great, professional, mature tourney player is extremely adaptable. He doesn't fool himself into thinking that he is always going to be able to score, always going to find an easy event, always going to be able to survive on tourneys alone. He knows that a golden goose egg has been laid in front of him, and he should definitely take advantage of it today, but it won't always be there, so he prepares himself.

One way to stay afloat playing lots of tournaments, is by playing satellites. Far from just finding one, sitting down and plunking out money, a real pro is going to find the BEST satellite.

I remember back in April 2004. Binion's was spreading sats as fast as they could get a dealer into the box. At the same time, Golden Nugget had just re-opened their poker room, and wanted to compete with Binion's. So what did they do? They offered one table SNG's with cash being paid rather than lammers. They were new and wanted the business, so they cut the juice into about half of what Binion's was charging.

So what did I do? Yeah, I hopped my butt over to GN just as fast as I could get there.

A great tournament pro is not just going to play ANY satellite, he is going to play the BEST satellite. That doesn't mean just paying lower juice, either. He takes into account the structure, the pay-out (some sats are multi-table; some single-table pay more than one player, etc), the opposition and the time factor.

A real pro is going to take everything into consideration. He is going to play the satellite which best matches his skill set, and which has the best value. In live venues, you will often see a great player sit down and wait for his table to fill, and then get up when the TD comes around to collect the buy-in's, because that table is too tough. He doesn't see any value in it, so he goes to wait until the next one. Just because you sit down at a table, doesn't mean you HAVE to play. If you see several world-class players and yourself, GET UP. There is no shame in admitting that it is a waste of your time and money. Go look for greener pastures. Hit up the Internet. Find a multi-table with an overlay.

A top player who is running bad could save himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees by simply being prudent and wise. Just because you're stuck 250k doesn't mean you have to be stuck for 500k!!! Think about what you're doing, don't just let the heat of the moment force you to make bad decisions.

Another way that tourney pros can make their nut is by playing cash games. This may not seem very important in this day and time, with event on top of event day after day, but it will become important in the future, and when you start to run bad.

I think that the only way I kept my sanity over the two years that I played mostly tourneys, was by cutting my expenses via cash games. Sure, I finally realized that I'm not a tournament player, and it took me way too long to figure that out, but at least I didn't come out of the experience horribly scarred, with six or seven figure debts that would take a lifetime to pay off.

I was very fortunate in the fact that I was a cash game player first, and a decently well-rounded one at that. I could play virtually any game, and keep my head above water as long as the game was soft enough.

I always cringe when I see a very good tourney pro decline to play a mixed game, or a game he is not familiar with, just because he has been stubborn and refused to learn any new games. I have seen some awesome talent, some really top players, turn down games as low as 10/20, just because they don't know how to play one game in the line-up.

While it is wise for them to refuse to play, it is unwise of them to refuse to learn. Why limit yourself to certain games and/or limits, just because right now the golden goose has laid a NLHE egg in front of you? Any time you limit yourself to just one or two options, you are hurting your bottom line. If you have to say no to a super juicy game, and play a tougher game because of lack of knowledge, you are hurting yourself.

Try to be adaptable, try to learn everything. Becoming proficient at another form of poker will only make your A game stronger.

Often, at the sidelines of big festivals like the WSOP, you will see some super soft cash games. Players will sit down at 50/100 Stud on a whim, or steaming from a tourney bust-out. Players who should never play these games will take a shot. You want to be there when it happens. You don't want to be the guy who says he "doesn't know how to play Stud."

Some rich guys follow the tourney trail just because they know they can get a Chinese game going easily. They will agree to play for $50 a point just to get into the action. Believe me, you WANT to be the guy who takes advantage of these great situations. You don't want to be the guy on the rail who can't get a juicy game because he "never bothered to learn anything except NLHE."

In mixed games, sometimes there is a live one who will make a proposal that is too juicy to pass up. I have been on the receiving end of these offers, and if I'd not been well rounded enough to make it worth my while, I'd be the only one to blame. Maybe a fish will ask to take a Stud game out of the rotation (Stud High, Stud 8, Razz) and substitute TDL. If you're not a well rounded player, it might not be worth your time. Then what? Back to a bad game? Make enemies at the table by refusing to play one of the games and either taking a walk or breaking up the table? Believe me, you don't want to be "that guy."

So what does this have to do with the future? Well, my theory is, tournament poker will remain strong. And it will remain strong for a long, long time. But players are going to have to learn how to adapt, or they will sink. In order to swim, one must have a variety of talents, and must be extremely adaptable.

When you enter a cardroom, whether you wish to play live or a tourney, whether you are a cash game player or a tournament pro, whether you have other, outside income or are taking a shot at professional poker, you need to keep alert and aware at all times.

Seek out the BEST satellites. Find the BEST cash games.

Don't just sit down in the first seat available, hungry for action, action, action. No matter how long it's been since you've played in a cardroom, take your time. In fact, the longer it's been since you've played, the more you should be aware of what is going on first, anyway!

Look at the promotions. Make sure you know what the rake is. Do they take a bad beat jackpot drop? If so, how much is it? What is required to make the BBJ? Are you paying time or rake? What is the satellite buy-in? How much is going to the house? Are the dealers being automatically given a cut? Are lammers resalable? How many players are being paid? What is the structure? Is it a single table tourney or multi-table?

Don't become such a specialist that you put blinders over your eyes and shut out the real world. Learn every game. Listen to every pro who gives you advice. Remain humble! Don't lend money. Don't offer to back a player if you don't know what you are doing. Keep your head above water by playing satellites and cash games. Don't limit yourself to just one game, just tournaments. You will thank me later.


Felicia :)