Setting MTT Goals Part I: Analyzing Payouts
© 2006 Randy Saylor  

I don’t like losing tournaments, but if it can happen to the very best players, it can certainly happen to me. Losing an MTT (multi-table tournament) while being aggressive is light years ahead of passively folding your way into the money. Consider adjusting your MTT goals. You might just find your results improving in the long run.

The steep payout structures of online MTTs affect the ideal strategy dramatically. A steep payout means the prizes increase rapidly as you get closer to first. The lowest ITM (in the money) players often receive little more than their buy-in plus a little extra.

The window below is a screenshot of the payouts from the nightly $150+12 tournament at Poker Stars, on August 1, 2006. This is a one the most popular higher-stakes tournaments online. On this night, 450 players entered.

You can see that 37th through 45th places don’t even double their buy-in. Sure, but $108 profit is good, right? No, frankly, it’s not. Not if you’re playing $162 tournaments!

Given the choice between 46th and 45th, of course I’ll choose the latter. But given the choice between an easy 45th with virtually no shot to do better and busting out 48th and knowing I took a real shot at catching one of those four-digit prizes that go to the final table of nine…again, I’ll take the latter every time.

This is an important note: the stakes do not matter! Perhaps an example from a $2 tournament would make this point clearer, but it should not be necessary. If you are properly bankrolled for the level you are playing, you must play for the lucrative payouts of the higher places.

A quick analysis of that prize distribution shows that the percentages received increase dramatically.

Places 45-37: 0.40%
Places 36-28: 0.50%
Places 27-19: 0.70%
Places 18-10: 1.10%
9th: 1.70%
8th: 2.60%
7th: 3.50%
6th: 4.50%
5th: 5.50%
4th: 7.00%
3rd: 10.50%
2nd: 15.40%
1st: 25.00%

Most online poker sites use similar pay scales.

If the sites wanted prize distribution to be flatter, they might switch to an arithmetical increase. In that case, the percentage increase between each place would be the same. With 45 places paid, 45th would receive only 0.097%, or $65.21, which is less than the buy-in, but each place would receive $65.21 more than the previous one. A player would be slightly positive in 43rd place. First place would receive $2934.45.

Why wouldn’t sites switch to such a system? Time and player prize interest are the keys. If players received increasing awards in this manner, play would grind to an absolute halt towards the end of a tournament, because it would be profitable to play extra tight in hopes of moving up slightly. If tournaments took forever to play, the sites would lose money because nobody has that much time, and they would stop playing as many tournaments. The other argument against a “perfect” flat payout is player interest. Would you be more excited for the chance to win $16,875 or $2934 for your $162 investment?

It is a fair argument that payouts could perhaps be slightly flatter; that the endgame of tournaments relies too much on luck. While this is true, we must remember that poker is a long run game. If you make the right tournament plays long enough (with the proper bankroll), your luck will even out over time.

There are two important exceptions to this rule, which are not the subject of this article. Those are fixed-payout satellite (qualifier) tournaments, and tournaments that you entered via satellite that are outside your normal bankroll. In the case of multi-entry satellites, many places at the top may receive the same prize. In the final Poker Stars WSOP satellite, a $370 event, over 7000 entered and over 230 won a World Series of Poker seat. In that tournament, finishing in 230th place was equally as good as 1st. In that situation, extra tight play approaching the bubble (waiting for others to make the mistakes) is often correct.

The other time you can adjust your strategy on the bubble to a tighter game is when you have entered the current tournament by winning a satellite. Suppose you play the $11 freezeout satellite to the Sunday Million at Party Poker and win a seat. The buy-in for that tournament is $200+15, which would normally be way outside your bankroll. Now you can approach the bubble cautiously. The smallest win in that tournament might be $400 that day, but you must consider that a $389 profit would be very significant to you. It might mean little to someone who buys into tournaments like that directly all the time.

The next article in this two part series gives an example of how to apply payout analysis to actual bubble play.

Part One of Two: Analyzing Payouts
Part Two of Two: Tournament Bubble Play  

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