AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 23.04.2021 · last updated 23.04.2021

Around the globe, every hour of the day, there’s at least a metropolitan city’s worth of people playing in online poker tournaments. With Freerolls, Knockouts, Freezeouts, Rebuys, Bountyand more formats to choose from, the average recreational poker fan is spoilt for choice. Some tournaments might have a few dozen, some a few hundred and, increasingly, some typically have thousands.

And there are all sorts of mixes in terms of the relative strength and make-up of the players we might be up against. Of course, there tends to be a link between the general skill levels and the amount it costs to play. A Freeroll specifically for new players – like those you’ll receive entry to as part of the exclusive extras you get when joining sites such as GGPoker via YourPokerDream – will have more players with little or no experience than a Freeroll that required a certain level of rake to be generated, for example. Players who prefer Freezeouts, where there’s only one bite of the proverbial cherry, might well play less expansively than those who like the all-in thrills and spills of rebuy tournaments.

The combinations and circumstances are many. But whatever kind of tournament we find ourselves in, our goal is the same – ultimately, we aspire to success, and it would be great to emerge from the storm, once the virtual air has cleared, as the last player standing. Every one of the literally millions of players who sat down to play online tournaments last week, for instance, entertained the prospect of their winning. One of the lures of poker, after all – in complete contrast to chess, with which poker is often (rightly) compared – is that simply knowing how to play and a basic understanding of poker fundamentals really is enough to have a chance of winning a tournament.

Interestingly, when the original global online poker explosion saw the popularity of the game skyrocket to the point that the numbers for the Main Event of the World Series of Poker were so huge that, even after creating multiple Day 1 groups, organisers were still having to set up tables in any extra space they could find, the ‘quality’ of the tournament was considered to be ‘weaker’ than previous installments. Top players argued that their edge had been severely undermined by the fact that, with so many inexperienced and poor players gambling away their chips, there were simply too many people seeing their reckless play rewarded, sitting on massive stacks, while seasoned professionals were lagging way behind due to their measured attempts to cut a path through the jungle of variance. Big name players do enjoy success at the WSOP, but it’s become normal over the years to see veritable beginners finding themselves in contention for the coveted title of WSOP Main Event Winner as the tournament comes to a climax.

All of this serves to give us hope… not necessarily that our dreams to win the Big One or snag a WSOP bracelet will come true any time soon, but that every tournament we enter – even if it features a host of hardened professionals or countless number-crunching, fearless whiz kids who aren’t even old enough to step into a casino in Vegas – we have a chance to win. We couldn’t say the same, for example, if we’d just bought a brand new set of golf clubs, having never taken a swing at a ball during our entire lifetime, and rolled up to play in a tournament. Rather than have any chance at all of success, however much we’d watched the game and understood how to play, we’d still end up taking more shots over the first few holes of a round than seasoned players take for the full 18.

So, poker presents us – 24/7, 365 days a year – with a chance to experience success. However, another great thing about poker tournaments is that the payouts extend way beyond first place, so ‘winning’ something is always within reach. This is indeed good news because, if we think about actually winning a tournament, what is the likelihood that we will achieve such a feat? It’s all well and good that it’s theoretically possible, regardless of experience and, to some extent, skill. But what should our expectations be in terms of our hoping to finish at the very top of the field?

Realistically, as it happens, our expectations should, alas, be rather low. Variance is an ugly word in poker for a reason. There’s simply no escaping it. Thus far we’ve been looking at the opportunities poker brings us in terms of how even absolute beginners have a fighting chance, but even the best players in the world have no control over the vagaries of variance. It’s for this reason that a healthy way to approach tournaments is to accept that, as much as skill and ability and understanding and so on are obviously key factors, so is luck. Or, more to the point, bad luck, as there is a distinction to be made here: however well we might play during a tournament, and however much good luck comes our way, we won’t win if we don’t avoid what usually prove to be episodes of seriously damaging bad luck. Indeed, avoiding bad beats and the like is more important in determining tournament success than having good luck. And even if we manage this, we have to experience less bad luck and more good luck, and somehow engineer a decisively superior route through the minefield than every other player in the tournament. All those variables!

Not surprisingly, then, we need to accept that we could play in scores of tournaments and still fail to win a single one of them! Let’s say we like to play Bounty tournaments and that our preference is for one that typically has around 2,000 players. Our odds of finishing in 1st place, in simple terms, are 2,000-1. Now let’s big ourselves up and claim to be much, much stronger than the average player. This might improve our chances of glory five-fold, but that still leaves us at 400-1. So we could play a tournament every week for two years (100 attempts) and still have a considerably negative expectation. Moreover, taking the statistical reality of standard deviation into account, it wouldn’t be unusual to plug away, every week, for 20 years and still emerge form the two-decade long experiment with not a single moment of absolute glory to cherish…

The good news is that success in tournament poker isn’t defined by how many tournaments we manage to win. Prizes abound, and we all can expect to win something every now and then, as well as have realistic aspirations in terms of making the top tranche of the payout list, or reaching a Final Table … and yes – even winning the whole shebang!

Good luck at the tables, and have fun!

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