No Contest

By Ashley ‘The Poker Cynic’ Alterman / July 2005

Like a lot of players, I love to play tournaments. You can have a good day in the cash game, you can have a great day in the cash game, but in a tournament, you can get the lot. When you win a Tournament you know you have achieved the maximum. The feeling of conquering all, is an addictive sensation, in addition to the money won. The cash game can seem dull by comparison, or routine. An open ended game, with no resolution in sight, where the highs and lows occur less frequently and in some respects less dramatically. You can always pull up more money in a cash game, but in a Tournament it’s all over when you lose your stack.

The idea of just playing Tournaments sounds exciting, but is fraught with problems. Having read Ross’s diary, I can see that even the Holy Grail of Sponsorship doesn’t mean it is all plain sailing. The psychological effect of not winning most days is enough to undermine the most confident of players, not to mention the difficulty of earning a living. As the fields for Tournaments expand, winning becomes more difficult, and you can go along time without a cash. How many days would it be before your play was affected? I’d be happy to last a week.

Before the advent of online poker, you would often hear players complaining about how much money the tournaments were taking out of the game, and how much time and space they took up in the cardroom, interfering with cash games. Now the poker industry has dollars coming out of its ears, no one worries any more about a conflict between the two sides of poker. The market is still expanding so no one is bothering to check the books more closely. The fact that the main event at the WSOP will suck $65million from the poker economy (without counting the rake on the thousands of online qualifiers), or that the WPT will take$50-60million over the course of the year is not a problem. Some of that money will come straight back into the poker pool and no one will even notice the rest has gone. The fact that hundreds (or thousands at the WSOP) play these tournaments at $10,000 all year round is a testament to the skill of the tournament organisers and online sites, in perpetuating an impossible balancing act. In a normal game, to ensure continuity, players need to limit the size of the game they play in according to the constraints of their bankroll. Today’s tournament organisers have overcome this inconvenient limitation, mostly with the help of the online sites, and consistently have huge fields of players, of which only a small percentage, can afford to be gambling at that size. The rest of us find it impossible to resist the lure of multi million dollar payouts and feed the frenzy by entering satellites.

One satellite winner, or online qualifier ,winning seven figures from a $100 stake, is more than enough to convince every poker player that they have a reasonable chance of success. Players who fluctuate wildly in the cash game, often without being winners, find the parameters of tournament play reward their aggressive style, allowing them a new level of success. Players have discovered aggression and flair are enough to overcome conservative, solid play. This alone does more to encourage new players than almost anything else. The cash games now played have been designed to encourage the weaker players, and to minimise the edge of the stronger players. The house does this to ensure the game lasts as long as possible. They don’t care who wins, as the long as the game continues and the money rolls in. Tournaments operate on the same principle. The luck factor seems more apparent than in the cash game, leveling the playing field for the less experienced. It may be something of an illusion, but it seems to be working just fine. New players love them because they are more exciting, with bigger prizes than they can shoot for in the cash game, and a better chance of being a winner.

The drama of competition and the glory of winning are a seductive advert for poker at its most exciting. The endless TV poker programmes are the final stages of tournaments. All the excitement of the game compressed into a one hour show for public consumption, but like all else, what lies beneath the surface is a different picture. The intensity of winning or losing often prolonging good and bad streaks. Along with the other difficulties mentioned, is the expense of travel, hotels, and a less effective use of your time than when playing cash. As a financial proposition, it can be hard to manage.

But who cares about the money? There are trophies to be won.