Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rocks, Pebbles, and War

"Rock breaks scissors. Pebble breaks nothing."
-Arnold Snyder, The Poker Tournament Formula

In cash games, your chips are directly and explicitly equivalent to money, nothing more, nothing less. Effective stack sizes rule, so relative differences between your stack and your opponents are nullified and, essentially, meaningless.

In a tournament, your chips are equal to money (albeit in an indirect ICM-related manner), but they're also weapons, and the relative size of your weapon stockpile to that of your opponent matters a lot. Said another way, think of your tournament chips as a limited pile of ammunition. As the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz pointed out, one of the keys to success in battle is to take away your enemy's ability to make war. The same is true in tournaments. The less ammo you have, the more judicious you have to be in how you use those bullets. Once your ability to make war is diminished, your enemies won't fear you anymore.

Conversely, the more ammo you have, the wider your range of tactics can be. This may seem simpleminded at first blush, but it's vitally important to remember in the heat of a tournament battle. Every time you're considering making a raise or calling a bet, ask yourself if using this amount of ammo from your limited munitions stockpile is worth the expenditure. Is the reward worthy of the risk? Frequently in a tournament/war, the answer is going to be no, it's better to conserve the bullets than fire them if your chance of winning the skirmish is not clearly in your favor.

In a cash game, this type of thought should never, ever enter your mind; if you're playing properly within your bankroll limits, you should take every +EV opportunity that comes along, even the slimmest ones. Tournament poker is a different beast altogether. You obviously can't just reload when your stack drops in size, so your tournament life becomes at risk. You simply have to be much less willing to get your stack all in in small edge situations....

...ah, but this doesn't mean you should assume a fearful, bunker mentality and avoid taking selective sniper shots from time to time, either. In fact, and especially in fast tournaments, your primary focus should be on accumulating chips early. Forget the conventional wisdom that says you have time and should be super patient. There is no time for bunker mentality in tournaments, especially low PF ones. The trick is accumulating chips in situations that offer you the highest reward:risk ratio as possible, and eschewing those with lower reward:risks.

Snyder likes to use the analogy of rock-paper-scissors to chips-cards-position in his books. I'm still not 100% sold on the analogy, but there are definitely some merits to constantly considering these three primary weapons at your disposal in a tournament and how they play off against each other. Everyone will get the same distribution of all three, so what matters is how each player uses these tools. Everyone will get the button at an equal frequency, everyone will get a random hand dealt to them on each deal, and everyone starts with the same number of chips. The trick is to use each of these weapons in a manner that maximizes their return. When you have position, put pressure on your opponents OOP. When you have strong cards, put pressure on your opponents to get their money in badly. And when you have a stack, use it to put pressure on smaller stacks.

Snyder writes that in fast tournaments with low patience factors, there is a huge onus on you to accumulate chips. It's not enough just to keep up with the blinds and the average chip stack. It's actually possible (probable in fact) in a low PF tournament that everyone can have an average stack, but all still be desperate and on the brink of elimination. This is just the nature of increasing blinds and low PFs. You have to take away your opponents' ability wage war, while at the same time increasing your own ability to attack. The blinds are going up, your opponents are building bigger and bigger bombs in their arsenals, so you have to do the same.

Tournament poker is essentially caveman war, with everyone starting with equal sized piles of rocks to throw at each other from their caves. The only question is how selective you are at who you choose to throw those rocks at, how many you're willing to commit at a given opponent, and how good your aim is. If all you have is a stack of pebbles, the other guy will be unafraid to come out of his cave and advance on your position. Don't let yourself get short stacked, or you will end facing an unafraid enemy.

All-in for now...

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