With the explosion of tournament poker in the past few years, many players are making the transition from cash games to tournament play. Since the prize pools have in many cases decupled, this influx is not that surprising. Like me, the allure of huge money and TV exposure has drawn in many players who used to concentrate on only cash games. It is vital, however, that these players understand that the big prize pools and TV exposure are not the only difference between tournament play and cash games. The math and psychology of the games are also extremely different. Having a deep understanding of where the two types of poker diverge can make all the difference between success and failure in the tournament arena.
The most obvious mathematical difference is that the chips in a tournament have no cash value. This may seem like an obvious point but the consequences of not knowing this fact are often missed by players. When you play in a cash game and you have, say, $50K in chips, your chips are actually worth $50,000. If you have 50 $1K chips each chip is worth $1K. If an opponent has, say, $10K in chips, their chips are worth $10,000. If they have 10 $1K chips, each chip is worth $1K.
Let’s take the same case in a tournament. In order to understand what your chips are worth in a tournament you have to know what the prize pool is. Let’s say the prize pool of a tournament is $1 million. You have 50K in tournament chips comprised of a stack of 50 1K chips. Your opponent has 10K in tournament chips comprised of 10 1K chips. You are both playing for the same $1 million prize pool. So your 50K in chips is vying for the same $1million that your opponent’s 10K in chips is vying for. In the simplest terms each of your chips is worth less than each of your opponent’s chips because your opponent’s 10 chips are playing for the same prize pool as your 50 chips.
Since each of your chips is worth less than each of your opponent’s chips, you need to make mathematical adjustments in your play. For example, it makes more sense to play faster and looser when you have a big stack – not because you have so many chips that you can afford to lose some; but because your chips have a reduced value. Due to the size of your stack, you are actually getting better pot odds every time you play. You are actually calling less than your opponent who has a small stack because each of your chips is actually worth less than each of your opponent’s chips.
Let’s say there is 10K in the pot and you are thinking about calling 5K of your stack on a 2 to 1 shot. Getting only exactly the right odds in a cash game in this situation you would likely fold rather than take a pure gamble. But in a tournament, when you have such a big stack, you need to realize that since each of your chips is worth less than each of the chips in the pot that you are actually getting better than 2 to 1 odds on the call so it is no longer a gamble to make the call. Of course this assumes you won’t have to call any more chips on the turn. That gets more complicated and I don’t want to get too complicated here.
On the flip side, when you have a short stack, it is important to understand that the pot is not always offering you the odds you think it is. When you are short stacked, each of your chips is worth more than the chips in the pot, so you are getting worse pot odds than it appears. This means, of course, that you need to play your hands tighter than you would in a cash game – being much more conservative in calling since you are mathematically getting worse pot odds on the call than you would be in a similar situation in a cash game.
Now obviously, this isn’t the only mathematical difference between tournaments and cash game play but it is one of the most important ones. It is a difference that too few players really understand. Many players do happen upon this strategy—playing looser when you are big stacked and tighter when you are short stacked on your drawing hands—but many don’t understand the mathematical underpinnings that make this strategy a successful one. Having a deep understanding of the conceptual and mathematical reasons behind a successful strategy can only improve your game.