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

August 8, 2007

Tournaments, cash games, and skill

by Otis

The last tournament I played culminated in one of those self-affirming moments. I looked up at the TV screen and there I was, sitting right in the middle of the table with a stack of chips that would eventually lead me to winning 20 times my buy-in. Sure, it wasn't big money, but I'd battled through a minefield of a tournament, made the final table, and put myself in a position to win. The fact that it was Caesar’s closed circuit TV feed didn’t matter. I’d won and felt good about it.

When it was all over, I sat down in a chair with a beer and reflected by myself for a moment about what it meant. Was I actually good? Did I just get lucky for a day?

A few nights later, I was playing $2/$5. My table was as nitty and boring as it could possibly be. Two tables away, my buddy, The Mark, was sitting in the seven seat with a structure of chips that was starting to make me envious. It had started as $500. It had grown to $1,000. When I looked up an hour later, he was stacking green birds in stacks of 20 and had more than $3,000 in front of him.

All the while, I was watching my stack go up and down by $100 or so at a time and wondering what I was doing wrong. I mean, was Mark just running well or was I playing a bad game? Sure, I finally picked up the night where I nearly quadrupled my $500 buy-in, but that night was the exception and not the rule. Most nights, it was up or down $200 or so--not necessarily the kind of poker that inspires a player to write, much less play. With Mark, not to mention G-Rob, and select number of other good players on the G-Vegas circuit, big stacks and big wins seem more the rule than the exception. Sure, they all have their nights that end in temporary disaster. Still, along the way, I've always wondered what it is that they have that I don't.

And that gives me, if you will, the red ass.


My post-Vegas catch-up session has involved less catching up than I would like. Between house guests and family trips, I've played a grand total of one hour of poker online and no live cards in the past month. It is, without question, the longest I've gone without playing poker since March 2003. As such, I've not been reading as much as I would normally about the game. I've been scanning Bloglines, but that's about it. One day, however, I noticed a long rant from cash game guru Miami Don that said "MTT's are gimmick poker and not many people make money at them."

I sat back and let it sink in.

"Well, damn, Don," I thought. "I've always considered myself a better tournament player than cash player. Does that mean I'm just a gimmicky loser?"

Of course, I knew Don wasn't trying to insult me. After all, if one looks at my online stats for the past year, they show that while I won a good chunk of cash, I wasn't profitable on the one site where I am tracked. Now, I know that I am a lifetime winner in tournaments, but if I'm being honest, it's not really enough to call me a Winner. After all, you don't see me making a living in Vegas, right?

It took me all of five seconds to understand Don's point. Still, I knew he was going to start a conversation that was going to stoke some hot tempers. As a subject that was close to my poker heart, I decided that I would wait and not read anything else on the subject while I considered how I really felt.

Over the course of the next several days, I got word that Don's post did, indeed, get some people all fired up. I made it a point not to read any of it, just to be sure I didn't let friendships sway my opinion. I'll go back and read it all after I finish this up.

While Don never overtly asked the question, it was almost implied, and so I'll ask it here (at the risk of repeating what other better writers and thinkers might have already produced):

Which player has more skill: The cash game pro or the tournament specialist?

What you see below is a stream-of-consciousness formation of my opinion.


Let's look at the G-Vegas circuit. For the purposes of familiarity here, I'm going to refer to five people you might have read about. [Note: These are all just my interpretations and are open to much debate, especially after a few drinks.]

G-Rob--No limit hold'em cash game player who dabbles in tournaments to results that don't satisfy him. Plays cash games much better live than he does online.

The Mark--Great live cash game player who will play any flop game. Shows no success online. Routinely crushes live single table satellites.

BadBlood--Conservative player who balances live and online play as well as balances cash and tournament play. Maintains an equal level of skill in both cash games and tournaments.

Eddie the Dealer--Loose aggressive player who shows great talent live/online and cash/tournament. With the exception of a leak he's aware of that can be detrimental to his bankroll, a solid all-around player.

Otis--Inconsistent player with one-time big success in online tournaments and cash game play. Live results in cash games have been modest to non-existent. Live tournament play has shown mixed results, with most success coming in events with fields from 30-200 players.

To answer the above question about who is the most skillful player--tournament specialist or cash game pro--I asked myself, "Of the five players above, who would I stake with the hopes of getting a decent return on my money." The answer, as you might expect, was not as definitive as most people might have you believe.

I would stake all of them, as long as I got to pick what they were playing.

Say I have $10,000 in my pocket. Frankly, I don't want to give all of it to any of them. I'm going to put G-Rob in a $1/$2 game with a $500 cap at Caesar's. I'm going to put Mark in five $500 live one-table tournaments. I'm going to put Blood and Eddie in a rotation of live and online cash games and tournaments. I'm going to keep $2,500 for myself and I'm going to play exclusively online--mostly in middle-buy-in--tournaments.

But that doesn't answer the question. Sure, it figures out where I have the best expectation, but it doesn't answer which among us is a better poker player. It only points out who is better at what game and where I stand the best chance of making some money on my investment. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and only time will change that.

Of course, I looked back at my history of staking people or buying pieces of people and discovered something. I have never staked anyone in a cash game, but I have put money into ten or more people playing tournaments. In fact, I've got money in action right now despite not playing a hand of poker myself.

Why is that?

The simple fact is, Don's initial statement is basically true when applied to big buy-in live tournaments.

A couple of years ago, I sat in a steakhouse in Dallas with some very good poker thinkers, including someone with a WSOP bracelet and Nolan Dalla. Over a meal of filet mignon and a half dozen other meats, we figured up the minimum amount of money someone should have to comfortably go on the pro tournament circuit for a year. When figuring buy-ins, airfare, hotel, food, and any other companion expenses (airfare, hotel, and food for spouses, nannies, children, etc), we decided that a player would need about $500,000 to survive a year without fear of going broke.

When only the top 10-15% of people are making any money, going for any significant length of time without a final table is going to end up breaking a lot of players--not to mention putting a real hurtin' on their psyche. It is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you are one of the top tournament players around. The time commitment alone is enough to make live tournaments -EV for most players.

However, that changes in a heartbeat when you look at online tournament pros. Gone are the costs of travel. Gone is the week-long commitment to one tournament. If you look at players like JohnnyBax and Rizen, two of the top online tournament pros, you'll see the kind of money that can be made. These guys and hundreds of other players spend their entire days playing nothing but tournaments, thus giving themselves much better chances at final tables and big money. Sure, it's not going to be a million bucks in one shot, but it can be a damned good living. In fact, it can be a much better living than someone playing small to mid-stakes cash games live.

Playing tournaments live or online takes talent. I'm not saying that because I enjoy it or excel at it. I'm saying it because it's true. Sure, there are a lot of crapshoot tournaments out there, but when a tournament is structured correctly, more often than not, the cream will rise. If you only look among this community of poker bloggers, it's not hard to spot who has a chance at being a profitable tournament player and who does not. Look at guys like Absinthe, Hoy, and bayne. Those are guys who prove that 1) MTTs are not a gimmick and 2) It takes a special talent to be profitable in tournaments.

However, it goes without saying, I think, that it takes just as much--and maybe more--talent to excel in cash games. There are so many variables that come into play in cash that don't in tournaments that one could reasonably argue that cash game play takes--if not more--at least a very different kind of poker talent.

If we accept all of the above--that both styles of poker are profitable and require different talents to play each--then I think it logically follows that the best poker player is the one who can be profitable in both games. Sure, there aren't many of those people out there, but they exist. And they are the people I don't want to face at the table.

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