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The Real Value of Tournament Chips

Whenever you’re talking about poker strategies, you’ll find people who make no distinction between tournament play and ring game play. In fact, I know some top players who believe that both should be played exactly the same. Even though some of them have been extremely successful with this approach, I couldn’t disagree with them more.

The basic problem is that in a tournament setting, all chips are not of equal value. In most cases, the chips you lose are going to be worth a lot more than the ones you win. While losing a hand to a marginal call in a ring game might cost you, the same marginal call in a tournament can send you to the rail. Given the nature of tournaments, it’s extremely difficult to rebound from a loss that could have been avoided in the first place. Because of this, what might be an acceptable call in a ring game should probably be a fold in a tournament.

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Think about this in terms of playing the first hand in a tournament: you wouldn’t take a coin-flip for your whole stack and risk busting for what is likely a 50% chance of doubling up. Why? Because doubling your stack – especially early on in a tournament - doesn’t double your equity. If you think of yourself as a winning player, your goal should be to win the entire tournament – not just the first hand. Looking at it like this, the limited potential for this short-term gain doesn’t justify the risk of getting knocked out immediately.

The same concept also holds true later on in a tournament. Let’s say I have 50K in chips in the middle stages and I find myself in a potential coin-flip situation for 20K. Obviously, if I win, I go up to 70K and if, I lose, I go down to 30K. I’m risking 40% of my stack for a potential gain of 20% and the advantage gained by winning those extra chips isn’t nearly enough to justify the risk of dropping to 30K. If that happens, I’ve put myself at a serious disadvantage that would be extremely difficult to recover from. There are plenty of players who would probably just go for it and take the flip, but there’s rarely ever going to be a situation where I would. This reward just isn’t worth the risk.

Given what I’ve just said, I’m not telling you that you should lay down your hand every time someone shoves their entire stack into the pot. There are going to be plenty of times when the EV is there and you’re justified in calling someone’s all-in bet. Let’s say you’re holding A-K and you’ve already put your opponent on a weak Ace. In that situation, you might have induced a bluff and calling is justified. But when we’re talking about situations where you’re likely to be flipping, you don’t want to be that caller. While it’s true that you can’t always escape flip situations, I think it’s best to do everything that you can to avoid ending up in that spot.

I think that these examples clearly illustrate the huge difference between how winning or losing the same amount of chips affects you. Some people might disagree with me in specific situations, but I’ve never heard a single good player disagree with that basic idea. To me, the concept that the chips you stand to lose are a lot more valuable than those you stand to win in marginal situations is fundamental to tournament play. If you avoid these situations, it will put you that much closer to victory.

With thanks to Bill Edler, as published by fulltiltpoker