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Poker Blog established in 2003 as the first stop for poker news, poker stories, and bad poker advice.

October 20, 2005

Tournament Structures Good and Bad

by Otis

I'd made a rule for myself during my first beer. I would not under any circumstances play the nightly 11pm $225 WSOP second chance tournament. The little $10/$20 cash game was running just fine. Maria and her ex-beau were chatty as always. The dealers were in rare form. I stood to win a little money.

John the Omniscent Cocktail Dude appeared behind me like the Great Gazoo.

"Bud Light." he said, picking up my empty and replacing it with a full one. I toked him as he walked away, took a slug from the bottle, and made a rule for myself. Unless I was up by $300 or more by 10:30pm, I would not play the 11pm $225.

"Bud Light." The Great Gazoo was behind me again. Too few minutes had passed in the interim.

"John," I said, "deliver my next one to Table 23. I'll be in the $225."

The $225

The $225 (aka The World Series of Poker nightly Second Chance tournament) sucked, and I don't say that because I played it five times and never came close to cashing.

Okay, maybe that has something to do with it, but it still sucked.

Don't get me wrong. It was a well-run tournament with good TDs and good dealers. The payouts were great. First prize was usually around $18,000. Not a bad payday.

But it started at 11pm. Even with gamblers hours, you have to quickly realize, the structure was going to be mercury-on-snot fast. Killing off a couple hundred players in a few hours meant the blinds moved so fast (every 20 minutes as I recall), a quick run to the bathroom meant you were likely going to miss half a level.

Of course, I'm an addict. I love tournaments, good or bad.

But, these days, I've started asking myself how -EV are the crapshoots and should we even bother playing them?

[Note: The following all pertains to live tournaments. We can discuss online structures another day. Plus, if I started talking about online structures, I'd start getting all shilly and pimpy. Second, I won't be discussing major, big buy-in tournaments here. Finally, I'm no expert on tournament structures. I have a basic understanding and a bit of common sense that leads me to figure out what is good and bad. Feel free to tell me I'm an idiot.]

Ye Olde Bait and Switch

So, let's piss off the casinos, shall we? Most casinos' daily tournaments suck on ice. They can't be blamed too much. Tournaments don't offer them much in the way of good rake opportunity. To make it anywhere close to a profit-oriented venture, they have to bump up the juice so much that it makes it not worth your time.

Anyone who has been to Vegas once knows this. If you're one of the people who have not yet tried it, be warned: The sole purpose of casinos offering tournaments is to get you in their poker room to play the cash games. They'll ask if you want to sit in a cash game while you're waiting for the tournament to start. They'll let you register early if you're sitting in a game. When you bust out, they will be there to ask if you'd like to sit down in a cash game. Again, there is nothing wrong with this little bait and switch. It's marketing. It's part of what I do for a living, so I can't knock it. Nonetheless, like being in bed with a woman, it's good to know why you're there.

Paging Mr. S. Gonzalez

So, given that we know the casinos have little interest in tournaments outside of the cash game lure and the minute amount of juice they make, we can easily figure out what kind of structure is best for the casino. Fast. Speedy Gonzalez fast.

What is fast? Any live tournament with blind levels less than 30 minutes is too fast. Simple as that.

Many of the low buy-in tourneys in cardrooms these days have 20 minute levels. Some get as ugly as doing 15 minute levels. Twenty minutes is rough. Fifteen minutes is an insult to your intelligence.

In the day and age of television poker, the Hollywooders of the poker world routinely take too long to make a decision about whether to fold A6o to an under the gun raise. In most cases, you will get around the table one to one 1/2 times per level. That is insulting.

Now, again, I don't blame the casino. If you asked, they told you how fast the levels would go, so it's your fault not their's. Nonetheless, like being in bed with a woman, speed is not a good thing.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Okay, so you've convinced yourself the casino has not given you the old bait and switch. You've decided you're perfectly fine with premature de-stackulation. Well, give yourself one more chance to open your eyes and take in the blindness.

Look at the blinds. We know how often they go up, but how much do they go up at each level? Do you start at 50/100, then to 100/200, then 200/400, then 400/800? If so, you're staring at a horrible structure. Of course the size of your starting stack (coming in just a moment) has a lot to do with this, but a good rule is: If it's double every time, it's trouble every time.

Now, of course, no one expects a one-day tournament to have a great structure. To finish the tournament in a reasonable amount of time, the structure has to move along faster than structures like those of, say, the World Series of Poker. But, you'd always be keen to find a one-day structure that goes a little like this:

2500-3000 chips


After that, in a good one-day tournament, you'll likely start to see the doubling start. It has to move along sometime. However, with the above structure, you'll be able to play a little poker for a couple hours. Given, this structure will take more than a few hours to finish. But that's what you want, isn't it? Like being in bed with a woman, it's better to last for several hours than being stacked off in forty minutes.


Finally, as mentioned above, you'll want to start with a decent stack of chips. I know a lot of people who cringe when we say, "Okay, everybody starts with 150 in chips." They will complain, "Come on, man, let's make this bigger. Give everybody 4500 in chips."

As any savvy player is aware, the number of chips means nothing on its own. It all has to do with the number of chips relative to the blinds. In the deeeeeeep-stacked WSOP main event, every player begins with $10,000 in chips. The blinds start at $25/$50. That is a stack that starts at 200x the big blind. That, of course, is way too large for a one-day event.

I played in one WSOP event this year ($1500 buy-in for 1500 chips with blinds that began at 25/25). While the field was massive, the structure was not disgusting at all. In the middle levels, it felt fast, but it really wasn't.

So, what is a reasonable stack-size relative to the blinds for a one-day event? Opinions differ on this pretty strongly. If I ran the world (lord, help us all), I'd want to start with no less than 50x the starting big blind. I'd prefer 60x. I'd be quite pleased with 75x. Others say 100x.

Like being in bed with a woman, it's not the size, it's the relative size.


Ideally, we'd all just boycott the crapshoot tourneys in our cardrooms. But, it wouldn't do much good, I figure. Cheap day-long tournaments are not profitable for the casinos. The Bellagio apparently has a really nice structure for its Friday and Saturday $1000 event, but that's about the only tournament I know of where players generally walk away and feel like they got their money's worth.

Of course, many people lament that they'll never get tournament experience if they don't play the crapshoot events. I would suggest, in conclusion, that you don't want that kind of experience. The only thing you learn at those tournaments is how to play a shortstack. You're better off to play online tournaments, which is, of course, another post for another day.

Finally, as my Dad likes to say, "Lord knows I've been wrong before." You think I'm wrong, leave me a comment and let me know how. I love being wrong about stuff like this. Also, if you know of a regular one-day tournament in Vegas or anywhere that has a good structure, leave it in the comments here. I'd be interested to know where it is.

After all, like being in bed with a woman...

Oh, forget it.

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