Sunday, April 16, 2006


The Illusion Of Control (Continued)

"I dominated my table today and soon worked my chips up to 50K from the starting 10K".

How often do we read that in various forms ? It depends who's doing the writing. Some bloggers and reporters, fair enough, if it goes tits up they're honest about it. Some others though, always seem to start off with something like the above. This makes me immediately suspicious. Let us return to Greenstein's book where he quotes Jack McClelland as saying "We are selling the idea that [prominent tournament players] are the best players in the world". And they're rarely short of buyers.

There are a lot of reasons why people want to buy into this idea. Outright hero worship for one. A desperate attempt to force the laws of cause, effect and justice onto tournament poker for another (good luck with that). The particular misconception here is that the best players sit down, take control of the table and smoothly accumulate chips with little or no risk. I oughtn't to complain really, this is the myth that makes average club players think they can fold Aces and so forth, but there it is. I don't think it works like that in practice.

I've been watching some of the WSOP Main Event 2005 and you have to be looking for it, but if you do, suddenly you realise how often there's a quick "And Famous McFace will have to wait another year" and that's that. Off the top of my head, Doyle, Negreanu, TJ, Ferguson, Duke, Men and Scotty, Hansen, Phillips, Marcel, Harrington, Harman God I don't know there are probably 50 more. Never got going. Not with a bang - with a whimper. Oh yeah and Hellmuth, speaking of whimpering. Yuk yuk yuk. And that's only the ones we saw. Half an hour later you think where was Greenstein ? Todd Brunson ? Ulliott ? Juanda ? E-Dog ? Esfandiari ? But hey, Ivey and Lederer have chips. Those pros eh, different gravy.

You know when you play a Sit and Go where you get down to 5 or 6 players, you start ducking and diving, nipping and stealing, no one plays back, you take the lead, press them around the bubble, have a 2-1 chip lead heads up and close it out ? You think "ha, I was in the zone there". Next time, everything goes wrong, you get knocked off 2 or 3 pots and then lose your all in, and you can't help thinking you must have played it badly, or at least not so well. It ain't necessarily so. The control you felt you had the first time was simply an illusion caused by the happenstance that nobody else found a good enough hand when you were in the pot. Then the next time, they did.

This happens in MTTs as well, I'm sure of it. These people who are pressing all the time, it's only ever going to last until someone finds a good hand and has the guts to slow-play it at least a bit. When that happens they're back to square one. When it happens two or three times that's your lot. Even in the tournaments they feel went well enough to write for them, there's often a slant of "I worked it up to 50K and then I had this really unlucky hand". A bit late, but I suddenly thought of a great analogy. They're playing Russian Roulette. That generally goes very well until the end.

Of course they'll have their share of empty chambers all the way through, and get some results, and maybe make some money with a bit of luck (quite a lot of luck unless someone else is picking up the exes). But if you believe this story that good players can cut a swathe through the field by will-power and skill alone, you're not going to realise how much they do in fact have to gamble, never mind how much we have to gamble.

The last point to mention for now is to remind you that good intentions do not help you all that much in poker tournaments. You can summon up all the determination and will-power at your command and it's only going to help a bit. If the cards don't drop your way it's still not going to happen. If you win that satellite, don't kid yourself that because you're going to try twice as hard as normal you're sure to do well. The real point is, why are you only trying half as hard the rest of the time. Every time you play, stay calm, level headed, make the best decisions you can and see what happens. On the day it's mostly out of your hands. Over the years, it's consistent good decision making, perserverance on an even keel as Steve Badger says, that earns you money.

The trick with tournaments is to filter out the noise from what really matters.

Let's take two players, one of them player A who looks to dominate tournaments through aggressive play hand after hand, (let's call him BG) and another. player B,who keeps quiet, but then suddenly appears at the final table, without anyone figuring out how he got there (lets call him DH).

Player BG plans to get from $10,000 to $1M by taking 600 1-to-10 shots where he is 1-to-20 favourite for each bet. Meanwhile Player DH plans to get there by taking eight evens shots where he is 1-to-2 favourite for each bet.

Which is the better strategy? Well, to be frank, at first glance, I couldn't tell you. Both players have a positive EV in the tournament, but one will appear to be dominating his table (and, if and when he goes out, it will probably be to a bad beat or because "someone behind him found Aces") while the other will appear not to be doing very much and, if he goes out, will look to have been only slightly unlucky.

In this sense, much of the "advice" on tournaments is utterly irrelevant. Play each hand properly and allow for other players' changes in style because they are in a tournament. Everything else is noise.

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