Gambling Related Essays and Reports by Andrew W Scott

Keeping Sane on the Tournament Circuit (The Long Run - Part 4)

January 27th 2009

Reprinted courtesy Bluff Australasia and Andrew W Scott

I played and taught high stakes professional BlackJack all over the world for twenty years before switching to poker. I'm often asked about the differences between BJ and poker. One major difference concerns the way in which you win. With BJ, your all-time history result wanders along what statisticians call a "random walk with an upward drift". That's a fancy way of saying you win slightly bigger and slightly more often than you lose.

Skilled tournament poker is very different, because in most tournaments you don't cash. A lot of your winnings come from the rare and beautiful times you finish in the top three. So you have a straight line going down as you lose, and then occasionally a huge spike when you win a big prize.

Another major difference between the games is that the right answers in BJ are all known. When you have soft 18 and the dealer has a 9, it's right to hit. So you hit. Now you don't really care whether you win or lose, because you know you did the right thing. But poker decisions are much fuzzier than BJ decisions. How does a tournament pro keep a level head during the constant downward swings? Well, for me (and trust me this is how all professionals think), I simply don't sweat winning or losing. I only care whether the decisions I make are correct. If I keep making correct decisions, at the end of the day I must win. So if I know I'm making correct decisions, I can relax and feel quite ok through a downward swing.

But, with poker decisions often being fuzzy, how do you know that you're playing correctly? Well, at least some decisions can be analysed quite mathematically. Here's an example from the six handed event at this year's Aussie Millions. Online phenomenon Jonathon "xMonsterxDongx" Karamalikis was sitting on my immediate right. My stack was 3,600 chips. Blinds were 50/100, with no ante. It was folded around to Johnathon in the small blind. He completed. I had 42 offsuit so I just checked my option. 200 chips in the pot. The flop came 235, giving me bottom pair and an open-ended straight draw. He bet 200 chips. If he has a pair he has me beat, but I have 13 outs - any Ace or 6 gives me a straight, any 2 gives me trips and any 4 gives me two pair. With all those possible outs and two cards to come I'm about a 50 per cent chance to hit so I raise to 600 chips. He calls. 1,400 chips in the pot. The turn is a brick, and he leads out again for 1,250 chips. Now I still have a 28 per cent chance to hit two-pair, trips, or a straight. I decided to shove all-in for my last 2,900 chips, on a semi-bluff. In the heat of the moment at the table I guess it's a positive EV play and I really need to get some chips. He tanks, and says, "that'll teach me for limping with Jacks, won't it?" Unfortunately for me, Jonathon shrugged his shoulders, made the call and I didn't hit. His Jacks held up and I was out of the tournament.

Now some people would have ended their tournament right there, but I wasn't quite done yet. I went home, opened an excel spreadsheet and worked out what percentage of the time he needed to fold in order to make this a profitable play. It turns out to be only 24.6 per cent. For those interested in numbers (and who isn't), here's how I calculated it: Let f = his chance of folding. Chance of winning if he calls my shove = 13/46 (13 outs, 46 unseen cards) = 28.3 per cent. If he folds I win 2,650 chips (his 1,250 chip initial bet on the turn plus the 1,400 chips already in the pot from the pre-flop and flop bets). If he calls and I win, I win 4,300 chips (his 2,900 chips in total plus the 1,400 chips already in the middle). If he calls and I lose, I lose my remaining stack of 2,900 chips. So the EV of my move = (f * 2,650) + [ (1-f) * { (13/46 * 4,300) + (33/46 * -2,900) } ] It works out the EV of my move equals zero at an f value of 24.6 per cent. If f = 30 per cent, the EV is +189 chips. If f = 40 per cent, the EV is +541 chips. If f = 50 per cent, the EV is +1,325 chips. Now, here's the interesting bit! The very next day, I was playing the teams event, and who should arrive at my table but Jonathon! I couldn't resist myself. I had to ask. Me: "Hey Johnathon, when I shoved on you yesterday, and you had those Jacks, were you more than a 24.6 per cent chance of folding?" Jonathon: "Hmm, yes, I think I was." All of a sudden, I wasn't worried about my shove anymore. I had made the right move. The fact that I didn't win didn't worry me, and I slept well that night. Well, apart from the fact we made it to the eleventh level in the teams event and didn't cash - but that's another story! So when you're playing poker try to do what's right in the Long Run. Let the short run take care of itself.

2009 Andrew W Scott




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