(Editor’s note: In early July, Corwin Cole checked in from the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, where he was preparing to play in the Main Event.)
So far at the 2014 World Series of Poker, I’ve cashed in three tournaments, and I feel razor-sharp in anticipation of the guaranteed $10 million first prize in the Main Event.
Along the way, I’ve revisited perhaps the most fundamental concept that differentiates tournament poker from cash games: the fact that each chip you have is more valuable than the next one you get.
To illuminate this idea, consider two players who are heads-up at the end of a tournament with a first prize of $500,000 and second place earning $350,000.
Each player’s stack, no matter how big or how small, is worth no more than the top prize and no less than runner-up money.
If there are 10 million chips in play, and one competitor has 9 million while the other has just 1 million, the chip leader does not have nine times as much dollar value in front of him.
Mathematically, this phenomenon implies that pot odds are not linear in poker tournaments the way they are in cash games.
When the pot is laying you 3-1 in a cash game, you simply need to win at least 25 percent of the time to show a long-term profit. In a tournament, however, 1,000 chips in the pot are worth less than the last 1,000 chips in your stack.
So, even if the pot is laying you 3-1 directly, the actual odds, in realizable dollars, are often as bad as, say, 2-1.
Strategically, there is one major implication of this: The pressure you can apply to others is disproportionate to the amount of risk you take.
Take, for example, a hand I recently played in a $1,500-buy-in no-limit hold ’em event. With blinds at 500-1,000 and a 100 ante, action folded to my opponent on the button, who had been playing very tight and started the hand with about 14,000 in his stack. He raised to 2,100.
For multiple reasons, including his body language, I was confident that he did not want to play a big pot just now, so I reraised to 5,300 from the small blind with Kc 6h. The big blind folded and the button called.
When the flop came As Ah 3d, I made a very small continuation bet of just 3,700 – less than 30 percent of the pot and substantially less than the amount of my previous bet.
With fewer than 9,000 chips remaining, he had very limited options at this point. He would have to decide whether he wanted to risk his tournament life now or survive to see another hand. He took the safe route and folded.
Since I had started the hand with over 50,000, I was able to impose a significant threat on my opponent at very little cost to myself.
These high-pressure “underbets” are among the many powerful strategies that propel successful tournament players to final tables while overly mechanical players bust out early.
Be sure to remember the true value, both financial and psychological, of every chip, and you can leverage this awareness to crush weaker players.
Corwin Cole is a poker coach whose instructional videos can be found at CardRunners.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.