Yesterday, I came in second in a $250 re-entry tournament at Hollywood Casino in Charles Town. There were seventy entries. I made only a single entry (I doubled up early) and was paid about $3150, for a net of about $2900. First place paid about twice that, and I very nearly won. We played for quite a while with three players and then also heads-up. At one point I had about 80% of the total chips. At two points, we nearly made deals that would have been extremely advantageous to me, but both times we had one holdout. The winner was a large older guy with a pretty thick accent originating, I guess, from West Virginia. The tournament lasted from noon to 8:15; after the tournament was over, the winner made a late entry into the 7:00 tournament, and was just sitting down as I was heading for the parking garage!
This was my third time playing this tournament. It starts with blinds of 25-50 and each player gets 15,000 in chips, which is a good amount (the more chips, the more chance for "poker skill" to come into play - although I think my clearest advantage over my competition is due to their poor short-stack strategy). Like most tournaments, the blinds go up quite quickly, though, so it's not long before the skill factor starts to diminish.
Very early in the tournament, I had top pair and called a skilled player's multi-street bluff to go up to about 20K. A little later I made a silly mistake that ended up confusing my opponent and earning me a big pot. With pocket tens, I flopped a set on a board of KJT. My opponent bet small and I tried to raise to 1600. but I accidentally put in a 5K chip instead of the 1K chip, so my bet was 5600 (into a pot of around 2000). I knew I couldn't take it back, so the best thing to do was play it off as if I meant to do that. This way, I get the benefit of giving my opponent a wrong impression of my hand, plus (perhaps more importantly), a big bet like that is likely to be noticed by the rest of the table, giving them all a false impression of my playing style. The enormous bet was a mistake, but it has lots of pleasant side effects if I don't let on that I didn't do it on purpose. My opponent had about 12,500 left and called the bet.
A small card came on the turn. We both checked. If my opponent had a straight draw, I wanted to give him a chance to bluff me on the river after he missed his straight. The river was another King. My opponent checked and I put him all in for his last 7500. He made what I think was a very bad call with Kx and I was suddently up to about 35K in chips. Another call of a multi-round bluff (this time I had AK high) put me up over 40K. I had quite a few lucky hands (eg someone called a big semibluff and I made my straight) after that and cruised into the final table with about 180,000 in chips. There were 1,050,000 total chips in play, so I had about 17% of the chips at that point. I shared the chip lead with one other player.
Third place paid around $1700 and seventh place paid almost $1000. This means that the correct strategy for a short-stacked player at the final table is to try to hang on for dear life in order to get at least that $1000 prize for seventh place. Players certainly adjusted their style for this consideration, but in my opinion they did not adjust it nearly enough. Players were still far too reluctant to fold hands that they knew were strong pre-flop, even though "strong" can just mean "60% chance of winning." It's not worth a 40% chance of getting knocked out just for a 60% chance of doubling your stack at that point in the tournament. That the players almost all made this mistake is important information to keep in mind for the next tournament, because it has significant strategic implications: getting to the final table with a short stack has a higher than normal EV, because they players in this tournament will make it unusually easy for me to simply fold all my hands and get into the money. Had I known my opponents would have this bias against folding on the bubble, my strategy yesterday would have been quite different when I had about 150K chips with twenty players left. At that point, the correct strategy would have been to start playing extremely conservatively and cruised into the money. I was fortunate to build up my chips a little bit more before the final table by playing a few more hands, but in retrospect it was not worth the risk of getting knocked out when I had such an easy $1k win waiting for me.
The first deal offered was a "proportional" payout deal that was offered when I was up to about 400k in chips and there were six players left. I asked what this meant and was told that whatever proportion of the total chips we had in our stack would be the proportion of payout pool we would each get. This meant I would get about 40% of $14,000, or $5600, which is almost first place money. I didn't bother to calculate this at the table, but I already knew from some casual analysis that such a deal would greatly favor those who had the most chips, so I quickly agreed, as did everyone else. We had stopped playing and were all counting our chips before someone finally backed out and we continued playing.
The mistake I noticed players making of being too reluctant to fold their strong hands in order to move up in payment was even more acute when it got down to three players. The difference between second and third place was $1400. The older guy who eventually won the tournament had complete disregard for the strategic implications of this and played as if second and third place were equivalent and all that mattered was coming in first. Seeing this, the younger third player should not have played any hands until I had knocked out the older guy. Instead, the third place player only tightened up slightly and I eventually knocked him out. At one point, the older guy caught up to me in chips after I made a call getting 3 to 1 odds on what I thought was about a 50% shot. I should probably have folded, but I made the mistake in failing to tighten up my game enough. I should have just waited until the younger guy was knocked out before playing any more hands. To be fair to myself, I had a lot of things to keep track of after making it so deep into a tournament for the first time in a few years. Fortunately, it worked out okay, and now I know one extra thing I can focus on improving.
When we got down to three players was also when the second deal was offered. I had a big chip lead (I was at about 600k I think), and the younger player offered to give me first place money and split the second and third place money with the other guy. Obviously, this would have been a fabulous deal for me, but the older guy didn't seem interested. I probably should have tried negotiating around that incredible offer, but the older guy was a bit hard to communicate with and seemed entirely uninterested in what we were talking about. In retrospect, I think he might literally not have heard that there was an offer being made at all, and I may have cost myself quite a bit of money by not making certain that he understood the offer. One reason was that the casino did not officially sanction the deals, and the dealer would not stop dealing to allow us to discuss it. When the earlier offer had been made, we had all stopped playing, but this time the older player immediately kept playing and I took that as a cue to drop the subject.
By the time the tournament ended, the older guy and I had been playing heads up for almost an hour and the blinds were 25k and 50k with 5k antes. His style was pretty conservative pre-flop, rarely raising and sometimes even folding on the small blind. He would bet most flops, however. I was up about 800k to 200k at one point and had him all-in, but I lost on a 60% shot. On the hand that crippled me (bringing me down to 35k), I had 66 and my opponent raised to 150. He had been betting most flops, so I figured I would just call him pre-flop and let him bluff the flop. The flop came QQ4 and my opponent checked out of turn. (He often acted out of turn, blaming his hearing. He never took back an action that was made out-of-turn, so I'm inclined to believe he was not being manipulative.) This is an excellent flop for 66, and I did not want to give him a chance to hit a pair on one of what were likely 6 outs for him on the turn, so I bet out 140. He pushed all-in for his last 200 or so. I think his most likely hand here is Ace-high, but it was suspicious that he was planning to check the flop but then decided to raise when I bet. In any case I was getting about 4-1 odds and called. He had Q8 suited; I guess he had been planning either to check-raise (if he thought he was first to act) or slow play until the turn. Anyway, no 6 came. I got may stack back up to 140K, but then lost with K5 when he paired his 4 with a K4.
Certainly, this is a nice and encouraging result for me, but I am also very disappointed not to have won. Also, I got very lucky to get to the final table. However, I am happy to be solidly in the black for my new tournament career. Most importantly, I learned quite a bit about my weaknesses, and I'm eager to return to the felt to try to exploit the weaknesses I saw in many of my opponents. These are exactly the sort of motivations and progressions that inspired my professional poker career when I started seven and a half years ago. I don't have as much time to pursue that passion as a did back then, but it's an exciting development. I now think that playing in the 2013 WSOP is a real possibility.
I got a remarkable comment to my recent post about Poker Strategy by Nesmith Ankeny. The comment was really quite stunning to me because I had never heard of this book before I got it from the library and I certainly had no inkling that anyone would feel passionately about it. My impression was that this was an entirely overlooked book in the poker world, but then someone showed up out of the blue on my little-known blog just to defend the book's honor. Just now I looked at the book review section of Gambling Theory and Other Topics by Mason Malmuth, and indeed Malmuth reviewed the book briefly and gave it a 9/10. I did not remember it among the 124 he reviews there. Here is the entirety of Malmuth's review (p 348):
90. Poker Strategy, Winning With Game Theory (9) by Nesmith Ankeny. This is an excellent book on draw poker based on a game-theory approach. Many strategic concepts are discussed, and I think this book is must reading for serious players.I wish I had taken this seriously back in 2005 when I got Malmuth's book. Ankeny's book is now a little redundant if you read The Mathematics of Poker by Chen and Ankenman, but back in 2005 I think the concepts in Ankeny's book could have given me a head start of a few years in terms of how I now think about poker. I think I will search Malmuth's reviews for more books that he deems "must reading for serious players." Come to think of it, I think Malmuth was still doing reviews on the 2+2 website as of a few years ago, so I should check over there, too. I'll let you know what I find.