This is another question I got after my Mathematical Poker talk: Why don't you play tournaments?
I think tournaments are actually full of opportunities to apply mathematical principles. Any situation where your opponents' decisions are relatively unimportant is likely to be solvable mathematically, because you don't need to get bogged down in much game theory. For example, there are situations where you should go all in with any hand, and it is very useful to know when you are in such a situation. I used to play tournaments quite a bit back in Las Vegas. I even had some success. However, I stopped playing nearly as much once I got to Los Angeles.
The first reason I gave during the talk was that tournaments and cash games have slightly different skill sets. I was doing both for a while, but once I was hired by the casino to play cash games for 40 hours a week, I rarely felt like playing more in my free time. After a year or two of that, my tournament skills became very rusty. For example I do not know when exactly I should be pushing all-in with specific hands. Meanwhile, new frontiers seem to have been explored in tournament poker research. The top players seem to have integrated a knowledge of the implications of ICM into their strategies. It seems like it would take quite a bit of work to get back up to speed and make myself a solid winning tournament player again.
The second reason I gave during the talk is that there seems to be a culture of cheating in tournaments, and I think cheating works better in tournaments. Specifically, collusion is more effective in tournaments because knocking another player out helps all the other players left. I actually think I overstated this point, because it is rather hard to ensure you end up at a table with one of your cronies.
In restrospect, I think the main reason I stopped playing so many tournaments was that the fees just seemed too high (I forgot to mention this during the talk). It was harder to find big tournaments in LA, and the smaller tournaments would take as much as 30% fee plus 1-5% for the staff... and then you are supposed to tip, as well. It's tough to overcome that.
Some other factors I neglected to mention:
Tournaments just don't fit into a schedule very well. You might play for five minutes or twelve hours. I don't like playing longer than eight hours at a time. If it seemed like the tournament might take longer than ten hours to win, I wouldn't join it.
I don't like the deal-making at the end of tournaments. This is actually a bigger problem than it seems. When everyone else at a final table wants to make a deal and I am the last holdout, I become a target to get knocked out. This lowers my EV (actually increases the EV of tournament chips, but also increases my volatility, which lowers my payout EV) and is socially uncomfortable, too.
The bigger tournaments, especially the main event of the WSOP probably yield the best win rates. So, these are the most likely to be worthwhile. However, if I get to the money I will be playing for tens of thousands or even millions of dollars. At these levels, my utility curve will really start to bend, meaning my overall expected utility may be less than what $EV would suggest. Although I generally assume that maximizing the EV of my winnings is the "right" way to play poker, in truth this depends on large sample theory and the idea that we are playing for the long run. This breaks down in situations where you might get fewer than ten really big payouts over a career as a tournament player. Furthermore, I just have a constitutional preference for not having to think about money while I'm playing. This is something I could probably overcome if I wanted to.
Very similar to the previous point: Tournament winnings probably have a much higher volatility than cash games. I haven't verified this, but it is conventional wisdom, and it seems very plausible. I think it's true.
Playing online tournaments actually eliminates many of these problems. If you can play a few single table tournaments online at once, you maximize the value of mathematical play, you multiply win rate without increasing volatility, and you probably won't be asked to make deals at the end. This might actually be the ideal way for a mathematician to win at poker. The only problem is figuring out how to get money onto a poker site in America...
Despite being invited to the JHU Biostatistics PhD recruitment weekend, I was not accepted. I'm still waiting on five other programs.