Monday, September 24, 2012

Folding Kings Preflop in MTTs

Mr. Multi and I were chatting about tournament poker the other day, and I asked the following question: Imagine that you're in a big, high-dollar, multi-day WSOP event. It's the very first hand of the tournament, and you're in the big blind. You don't know anyone or anything about the other players at the table. Everyone has T10K in chips and the blinds are 50/100. An UTG player open raises to T300, a MP player 3bets to T1200, and the button then shoves all-in for T10K. The SB folds, and you look down and see two black Kings. What do you do?

MM's knee-jerk answer was to re-jam all-in, because, well, who's smart enough to fold cowboys preflop, right? My knee jerk reaction was the same, but after a little further thought I started to doubt the wisdom of getting it all in. Certainly in a cash game, getting it in pre with cowboys in this type of situation would almost certainly be plus EV, so you would absolutely do it. But is this correct in a tournament, too? Let's look at it a little closer, applying some of REDi to the problem.

Reads: let's assume that the 4bet jammer is a typical ABC player. His range has to be extremely tight. Why? Because he's seen an UTG player raise (which means UTG is strong), a middle position player re-raise the UTG player (which means the MP player is also very strong) ,and then the jammer risks his entire tournament life on the very first hand against these strong ranges by jamming over the top. In many situations, the 4bet jammer's range could easily be QQ+ and AK+. It might even be tighter.

Estimate: Against a QQ+, AK+ range, our equity with cowboys is 57%, and with the dead money in the middle (and assuming the first two players fold), calling the jam with KK gives us an expected value of +$2,255, which is highly plus EV. If we take the queens out of his range, our equity falls slightly under 50%, but re-jamming is still plus EV at approximately +$148 due to the dead money from the other two players.

In a tournament we would obviously calculate the same EV numbers, so mathematically-speaking it's also correct to get it in with KK…

...or is it? The pure math says it is, but I think there's more to this problem than just mathematical EV calcs, especially in a high Patience Factor tournament like a WSOP event. In fact, I think the answer lies in the concept of Edge. Let me explain.

Love him or hate him, Phil Hellmuth famously says that he isn't afraid to fold big hands like KK preflop early in tournaments. His reasoning is that he has more skill than the other players, so why gamble in small +EV situations if he doesn't have to? Hellmuth believes he's so much better than all the other players, that gambling on near coin flips and slight +EV plays mitigates this edge. If he can pick other spots where his combination of reads and post-flop skills means he can chip-up in multiple, lower-risk smaller pots and build a stack without endangering his tournament life, why would he get it all in here on a near coin flip?

Years ago, the Guru brought a successful amateur tournament player in to talk with some of us at our weekly strategy meeting. The player, Debbie, had just gone deep in the WSOP main event, and we picked her brain for an hour or so on how she did it. The one thing I remember her saying was something akin to Hellmuth's advice: she said she simply refused to get it all in during the early days of the tournament unless she held the virtual nuts. Why gamble against bad players, she reasoned? In other words, she was saying that she was better than many of the dead-money players, the PF was high, and she had patience and skill, so why take unnecessary risks? Debbie went on to go deep and take home $50K in profit from the event.

Now, I know I'm not as good as Phil Hellmuth (or frankly even at the MTT caliber of Debbie yet), but I also recognize that I might be better than a sizable fraction of the huge field of casual players alive in the early stages of a huge WSOP tournament. Why gamble early on with these folks when I can be patient, pick my spots, make my reads, and get my money in much better than 57% equity?*

I took this idea to heart yesterday evening, when I played in a moderately large online Sunday MTT. The starting field was 230 players, some of whom seemed quite good, but a large number probably not so great (the buy-in was just eleven bucks). I played very patiently, tight, aggressive, and selective. Three times early in the tourney, I laid down moderately big hands (AKo, JJ, and QQ) when my reads said I was ahead, but not by very far, and I'd have to risk my tournament life. After 4 hours of play, I ended busting in 13th place, deep into the money, and nearly final tabling the event. A big part of my success in this game, I’m convinced, were my decisions to forgo races early on.

So, to answer the original question: I think I'm holding my nose and folding KK** on the first hand of the WSOP if I'm facing a 4-bet shove. Why race when I don't have to? Remember: you can't win a tournament on the first hand of the event, but you absolutely can lose one.

All-in for now…
*Of course, later in the tourney, when I'm up against much better players, I should think more about re-jamming, as my post-flop edge is less and less, and, frankly, I will need a means to negate the better players' skill advantages. There's a famous Sklansky story of him prepping a friend's daughter for the WSOP main event. The issue he faced was the girl didn't know much if anything about poker. In other words, she was one of the dead money players. Sklansky came up with a system that essentially took the pro's skill advantages away: he told the girl to just wait for big pocket pairs and big slick, and then just shove. Fold everything else. According to lore, the girl went very deep with this strategy, eventually busting out when she finally ran into AA and got called.
**It should go without saying, but I will state it for the record anyway: if you have AA in this situation, you should absolutely be getting it all in preflop here. I think. :-)


  1. Bug, I pretty much agree with you till you get to the **AA footnote. You are talking about hand 1, you have 3 other players, at this point, that you know nothing about and you will be calling all-in and going to the River with at least one of them. At best, if all three stay and you win you'll just add 30,000 chips to your stack your stack, nice, but if you lose you go home.

    What story will you have to tell back home? Oh yeah, as BB I called an all-in on hand one with my pocket A's. Damn player sucked out on me on the River with junk. Or, damn player also had AA and hit a flush on the River. Or damn player hit a set with a smaller pocket pair, or any number of other scenarios that can beat your pocket A's. And then when they ask "why did you call that all-in on hand one?" What do you say?

    To my mind it's way too early in the tournament to risk everything by calling an all-in, even when I have pocket A's.

    Now, if the 3rd player had just RR to T3600 chips, leaving it open for you to be the one to RR all-in, maybe it would be worth the risk, and if you were lucky all three might fold and you'd pick up a decent number of chips.

    As one of this year's WSOP players said as he folded the winning hand where a call would put him all-in, "I don't want to bust out of here on a call."

    1. OK I'm replying to my own comment. :-)

      Lying in bed this morning, just as I'm getting ready to start my day, the thought came to me that your **AA comment likely was facetious!