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De-Lucking SNGs

I want to make a quick post inspired by a late night conversation with DP from WiredPairs last night.

DP and I were talking about all things poker, and eventually he made a comment akin to this: "If you win a lot of tournaments, it's because you get lucky a lot."

Now, DP is a cash game player. He likes to focus on the big games, $2K NL and such. He and I are practically diametrically opposed in our philosophies. Whereas I would like to work my way up to the big stakes by slowly climbing up from the low stakes, DP feels that he is more successful at the high stakes, and therefore he should not waste his bankroll on the lower stakes. I don't suppose that this has much to do with the eventual topic to be discussed, but it provides a little bit of background on DP.

When DP made the comment regarding tournaments, I immediately felt defensive. Is my MTT SNG success due to me being lucky? I suppose to some extent, luck helps. But then I realized the answer: "When I play SNGs, I do well because I don't LET luck be a factor."

That is right, folks. I can control luck and make it negligible in many situations. I won't say MOST situations. You can play super tight and then push with KK and run into AA, and that's the breaks. Vice versa, you can push with AA and get called by KK and still lose. You are not going to escape that aspect of the game. But you can minimize luck's role in tournaments, and, in fact, I consider it probably the #1 reason for my recent SNG/MTT success.

If you are dominating a hand, you may have a 65%-35% advantage over your opponent. But that is not enough. If your opponent folds, suddenly you have a 100% advantage. That is what you want.

As an example, which is illustrative of my recent mentality early in tournaments: You have KK in mid-position. There are a couple of limpers before you. Should you: (a) Limp and try to slowplay, (b) raise modestly and try to narrow the field, or (c) raise heavy. No one in their right mind would do (a), because you don't want KK against 6 other random hands. Choice (b) seems like an obvious route, so that you can maybe get 2 callers, some decent scratch, and then make some post flop moves. Choice (c), however, is the move of choice if you want to minimize luck. Raise heavy. Make that AJ think twice. Scare away the 99. Yes, you have those hands dominated. BUT if you are playing a long tournament, you are going to be playing a lot of hands. If you are going to win 4 out of 5 times (watch this!) and you are in that situation 5 times in the tournament, you are going to lose statistically at least once! That once might be when you are all-in. You'll be sitting thier slack jawed, wondering how Ad9d called your preflop raise from 50 to 200 and then hit his flush (or his ace, of a set of 9s, or a 4-card straight), but you have ignored something. You've done this already on several occassions, and statistically, you are going to lose. Now, raise it from 50 to 500 and watch him fold. Tada! You've eliminated luck.

Okay, so some players will call your bet to 500 with Ad9d. Good! At least they are paying big money, and when they miss, you'll get a big chunk of change. But you'd rather have them fold and pick up their blinds.

Okay, okay. If the blinds are tiny, like 10/20 with stacks of 1500, those meager blinds might not be enough to make you feel that you got value for your KK. I'll give you that, cowpoke. You can make a raise from 20 to 200 and hope to get callers (its equivalent in proportion to your 50 to 500 raise). But even in the early stages, taking in the blinds will do a lot to build table image (which matters more in tourneys than in cash games).

The other side of the coin is folding marginal hands. I know it is tempting to play those suited A-rags, and other marginal hands, but don't. Don't especially in the early rounds. Simply put, any time you are in a hand, you give someone an opportunity to make you unlucky. As an example, you have 1425, with blinds of 15/30, in late position with KJd and decide to limp after 4 other players limped before you. Now the BB minimum raises, and everyone calls. You decide to call because its a mere 30 into a 300+ pot and you have decent odds. You flop a KJ4. You are in great shape! That is, unless someone else had 44. Or, maybe someone has AK and the next card is an Ace. Or, maybe someone has K4, and the next card is a 4. Or, maybe someone has AJs and runner runner flushes you. Or, maybe someone has TT and turns a ten. See also QT hitting a straight on the turn. Now, if I am in this position, I would bet or raise big, hoping to get an idea of where I am at if it comes to me for relatively cheap. You have to play the cards, and you have to like what you see with top two-pair and try to take it down. But wouldn't it have been easier just to fold in the first place? The answer is yes. And now you wouldn't be in a position to let luck screw you.

Final thoughts: This really applies to online tournaments moreso than live tournaments, because live you may pick up tells or know things that allow you to outplay your competitors post-flop. But online, most of those tells are negated. Finally, I don't know much. This is just a theory and I know that a lot of people might not agree with it, and some other people might think that it is all very obvious. Those people can feel free to leave comments. For the rest of you, consider how you can reduce the opportunities to be unlucky. It will change poker from a game of chance to a game of semi-controlled outcomes. Enjoy!

posted by Jordan @ 1:51 PM,


At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Garthmeister J. said...

I play SnGs and MTTs a bit differently - if I look down and see K-K I want to try and get maximum value while minimising risk. I have amped up the aggression factor in my game, but that doesn't mean I get married to hands either. If I have K-K pre-flop, re-raise big, and someone re-raises back it's extremely unlikely I fold. The only hand I fear is A-A, and if the other guy has it, so be it. Same if I manage to flop a set - if someone else has a bigger set, they probably have me.

By the same token, if I do have a big hand, and all I get is the blinds, I try and remind myself that that's better than losing. This can be difficult sometimes - like last night, when it was 4-handed in a SnG, I have K-K in the BB, and it was folded around to me. That sucked.

I am also willing to get into pots that I am priced into (taking into account my position, stack size and blind size) no matter whether I am playing an MTT, an SnG, or a cash game. This means I might see a lot of play post-flop, but for my game that is where the money is made.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I agree and disagree. If you win a lot of large MTTs than I think you are lucky, but the odds are you are also probably a damn fine player. And part of being a damn fine player is minimising risk while maximising reward.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Jordan from HighOnPoker said...

I think we are in agreement. I just think that this particular post focused on one aspect of my MTT play. In the end, you have to call when you have odds and such. I just think that you also must MINIMIZE the opportunities to get "unlucky." Mostly, it's through folding preflop. Otherwise its through not overplaying crappy cards, and/or taking down smaller pots by getting others to fold.

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous mowenumdown said...

Great stuff Jordan, I couldn't agree with you more. I use the phylosophy that I read years ago, that is

"I would rather win a small pot than lose a large one".

The SNGs are full of folks who love to go all in. That allows me to be very picky about what hands to play as well as how to play them. My strategy is very similar to yours and I have monied in 9 of my last 14 SNGs (including a 5th place in a 180 player SNG last night $240) Great post.


At 6:45 PM, Anonymous fairnbalncd said...

mowenumdown, that's ironic as I would rather win the large pots and let the small ones go.

Poker is a mathematical game with a healthy dose of intuitivism. The ability to read players, hands and boards with no luck involved.

Luck is hogwash.

All you need is a troll doll sitting on your monitor and to be wearing the unwashed shorts you wore on your last huge win and luck will have nothing to do with it.

At 1:18 AM, Anonymous sirfwalgman said...

I think the larger the field the more luck is involved. However, you can not say LUCK is not a factor in any poker. In any one game, cash, MTT, SNG, etc.. luck is going to be a factor. It is not more so in a ten table SNG or a small field MTT.. the more people you add to the mix I think the luckier you need to get.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Wifey Kim said...

Happy 1st birthday to HighonPoker's blog!

May you have many more and hope all your wishes come true!


Wifey (former finance) Kim

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous DP said...

I believe people that win a lot of MTTs but don't play them often are lucky. No matter how good you are, you're skill will not mitigate the luck involved in big tournaments in the short term.

I wasn't referring to single table SnGs. I'm specifically talking about MTTs with large fields. I believe there's more luck than skill involved through the course of any given MTT you play.

Like Barry Greenstein said, "Tournaments are like the lottery with an element of skill." He was referring to live MTTs.

At 2:09 AM, Blogger abigail said...

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