Something Shiny Pulled From a Pot of Crap

As I mentioned at the end of last month’s communiqué, I was preparing to go to the Grand Sierra Resort’s Fall Pot of Gold tournament in Reno in mid-October. I had my tickets weeks in advance, worked hard to get various projects in the office out of the way, checked in to my Monday morning flight mid-afternoon on Sunday, then saw this on the 2+2 thread about the event:

GSR CancellationA subsequent post confirmed the post, and I called the GSR poker room to get my own independent verification. I canceled my room reservation and managed to get a $30 credit for my flight, but the rest of the ticket was gone. Apparently the first event—a $100K guarantee—had fallen short by some 30%, and to prevent something similar from happening on the following weekend’s $200K, they just canceled the rest of the series. When is a guarantee not a guarantee? When your airline reservations depend on it.

That put me in a foul enough mood that I went out to Encore and took fourth place for a small cash in their $1K Sunday night guarantee. Played a dozen more events over the next couple weeks without a cash, then got in the 10pm $500 guarantee at Encore (after busting out of the weekly $10K at Final Table) and chopped it two ways.

Since it’s more cost-effective to purchase airline tickets a couple weeks out, I’d already bought a flight to Vegas with a couple of Wynn Fall Classic $100K and $250K guarantee events in mind, with daily $15K Caesars Palace Poker Classic series events to back me up. I knew they wouldn’t be canceled.

Took an early Monday morning flight to get to the Wynn, made my way over to the Encore side of the complex where the big events were starting out, and picked up my ticket for the second of two flights for the $100K, then waited a couple of hours in the coffee shop.

I played one hand. Opened with [ah 5h] and got a substantial raise from the other end of the table. The flop was [2h 9h 4x]. On that board, I’m statistically ahead of  kings and almost even with aces. Obviously, that didn’t work out, as the guy with kings went all in on the flop and I took the chance that didn’t pan out. Not a glorious start to the week.

It was a long, hot walk in the sun down to Caesars, where I got into the $15K. I made it through more than half the field but never really found a good footing and busted around 90th of 214. Jumped into the 4pm PLO game. I enjoy the various forms of Omaha (except Big O, which is an abomination), but I play more PLO8 than PLO and not much of that, so I was pleasantly surprised to make the final table—even in a field of only 36—but I only made 8th place and missed the money.

Got up the next morning and took another shot at the noon game at Caesars. More accurately, I took two shots, as it looked like the tournament might not make the guarantee at the time I first busted. By the second time I busted, it had made the guarantee. Again, I made it through about 60% of the field (though this time I had to shoot two bullets to do it).

That afternoon’s Double Stack Turbo game was already under way and it didn’t look like there were a lot of players, so I decided to skip it, got some dinner and a rest, then headed to the Venetian for the 7pm game there. Tuesday night is a $150 buy-in Green Chip ($25) Bounty tournament. I’d played a bounty game at the Venetian during my summer of ignominy in Vegas last year; I was determined to do better this time.

Our table was getting crushed by a woman a couple seats to my right who said she was a former dealer from the San Diego area. I was doing okay, but when I was up to about 40K, a quick count of her stack gave me an estimate of 90K or more. I kept plugging away, and even though I didn’t acquire a monster stack, I seemed to be able to find the pressure points on short stacks. Suddenly, it seemed, we were down to the final table, and I had two-thirds my buy-in in bounties safely in my pocket.

The woman with the early massive chip stack was the short stack by the time we got to final, and was the first to go. I started accumulating chips, getting up to second place with 175K (with the 200K chip leader on my immediate right).

175KOver the course of the final, I took four more bounties. My stack did get whacked at one point after that photo, knocking me down to 80K, but I quickly climbed back over 100K and managed to build up to 200K as we got down to four players. A couple propositions for a deal had been discussed, with the usual wrangling and posturing. The chip leader wanted $300 more than anyone else in an otherwise equal split; the old guy with the short stack said if he was in it at four players there’s be no more talk of a deal. In the end, though, the two bigger stacks got an equal amount, the old guy and the other stack got a smaller, equal amount, and since I’d just taken the chip lead, I got the hardware.

Venetian Poker Room Daily Tournament Champion

Venetian Poker Room Daily Tournament Champion

My second shot at the Wynn the next day went a lot better than the first, but not well enough. The first flight of the $250K guarantee had played until just before 10pm the night before. I was over chip average for over five hours on the second flight, then made a stupid mistake followed up by another, and was out and on my way home within a couple of hours.

Size Does Matter

Hearkening back to the discussion of median return on investment (mROI) from a couple months back, what tournaments should you be playing to maintain profitability?

The big determining factor is your in-the-money percentage (ITM). If you’re some sort of poker god and cash in half the tournaments you enter, you should be profitable, assuming your mROI is above 200% (i.e. you aren’t always min-cashing). When you’re in the more mortal realm of 12% to 18% ITM, however, the math gets a bit murkier.

Let’s assume you have a solid but not outrageous ITM value of 14%. You’re cashing in about one out of every seven games, not just small games but across the board including games with more than 100 players. If you’re playing in casinos where tips are taken out of the total prize pool, your mROI needs to be +600% or better in order to be profitable. If you’re playing in something like Portland’s social gaming clubs where the winning players need to tip the dealers in order to keep the scene going, your mROI needs to be +440% or better to stay ahead. As an example of the latter, if you enter a tournament with a $25 buy-in, a $10 add-on, and a $10 door fee, your payout needs to be about $350; pay $35 as a tip and subtract $45 for other costs, and the remaining $270 buys you the six tournament entries you don’t cash in. Although the overall mROI for social clubs is lower, the tip means that the prize has to be a higher multiple of the other costs (buy-in, add-on, door) for a positive average return (+677% in the example above).

A $350 payout for a $25 entry tournament is a fairly decent-sized prize, though. Depending on the prize structure, that’s more or less the top prize of a $1,000 guarantee tournament with 25 or 26 players. The median payout in a tournament that size would be less than $300; unless you got the top spot, you’d be dragging down your mROI.

This is why the Poker Mutant is focusing on larger fields, these days. Aside from a preference for the blinds structures of deep stack games, larger fields are simply the only way to maintain profitability. A tournament like the Encore Club’s $25K Guarantee earlier this month paid 12 places with a scheduled median ROI of +490% (the 9-way chop actually made the median ROI +1150%). But that required a field of 150 players.

Small-field tournaments in Portland—i.e. those with 20-30 players—pay about 45-50% for the top prize, with three or four places total paying (before any bubble agreements), and with the median payout in the range of 20-30% of the pot. The pot to basic cost ratio varies considerably depending on the tournament structure and club. An 11am $250 guarantee freeroll tournament at Portland Players Club ($5 door, $5 pre-add-on, $10 add-on) with close to 30 players can generate a pot to cost ratio of nearly 25:1 with a third of the players re-buying (I don’t include re-buys in basic costs because as I’ve explained, rebuys are the death of ROI). That means the median payout in those tournaments is approximately 625% of your basic cost. If you tip your dealer 10% of your 625% prize ($125), your ROI for the game is +285%, which sounds great, but only if your ITM is better than 26%. Of course, if you win the top prize in that tournament you’re doing better, but then if you cash in third you’d better be cashing in almost every game you play.

Games that induce a lot of re-buys, like the afternoon Pot Limit Omaha Hi-Lo tournaments at The Final Table ($10 door, $20 buy-in, $10 add-on), can change the math a little. It’s not uncommon for there to be nearly as many re-buys as original entries, which can juice the pot a bit. One game late last year had 28 entries, 21 re-buys, and 22 add-ons, for a $1,200 pot (30:1). That’s still not a great number, though, with the median payout at just under 16% ($190), for a potential ROI of only +222%; more money but not as high a return as the median payout in the PPC game. Again, the top end does better—+450%—but that’s just keeping your head above water for someone with an ITM of 14% (and it means you need to take first place every time you cash).

Is there a sweet spot? Is there a magic number that makes it more likely that your tournament cashes will be profitable cashes? So much of that decision rests on variables like re-buy and payout structures, but in Poker Mutant’s humble opinion—in the world of Portland poker rooms, at least—you’re more likely to be profitable in events with 75 or more entrants. Apart from the opportunity of winning a big stake if you take down the top prize, which can have a pot to cost ratio of 20:1 or 30:1, the average cash in a field of that size is large enough to maintain profitability for most above-average players. You’ll still find Poker Mutant at the tables for smaller games, but our focus is on those bigger tournaments for the time being.

Anyone heading down to Reno for the World Poker Challenge?

Grasping For the Ring

2011 Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza IV Main Event (15,000 chips)

First off, if I’d had my druthers, I wouldn’t have plowed the money from my first-place finish at the Encore Club on Saturday into a single event. I’d been keeping track of tournament series throughout the summer with the plan to get somewhere where I could play five or more tournaments—probably in the $300-$500 range—over a period of days. Events in Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles—stuff I could get to cheaply and easily—I had them all plotted into my calendar at one point or another through September and October (a good share of my winnings from the Encore’s Tournament of Champions went into tournaments at Foxwoods when I was there in August). Big Poker Oktober at the Bike, the Pot of Gold at the Grand Sierra, Pendleton’s Fall Poker Round-Up, the Commerce Casino’s LA Poker Open—they were done as last weekend approached. The last flight of the WSOP Circuit Main Event at Lake Tahoe started at the same time the Encore’s $10K Guarantee began, so I wasn’t making that. With the cancellation of the Ho, Ho, Hold’em series at the Bike , by the time I won the event at 4am Sunday, I was down to just a couple of opportunities: I could pay an exorbitant amount of money to get a last-minute flight down to Vegas and try my hand at the Venetian’s DSE Main Event for $2,500, or I could wait until the 28th (after our family’s holiday dinner) and try my hand at the Bellagio’s Five Diamond World Poker Classic, where I still didn’t get that many buy-ins for my money (at $500 and $1,000 each) and where if I did manage to win enough for Prague, I’d be really scrambling to get the arrangements together before I’d need to leave on December 4th. The best-laid plans, etc.

So less than four hours after I walk out of the Encore with my winnings, I’m loading my computer bag with a change of clothes and other stuff through the TSA x-ray machine on my way to Vegas. I haven’t slept for over 24 hours. At the gate, I get called up and asked to take one of the exit row seats so they can put some family members together and I think that’ll be great because I’ll be able to stretch my legs out a little bit. I can, but I still only get manage about 15 minutes of nap time on the plane. Usually I can fall asleep before we take off.

I make it to the Venetian almost exactly at noon, get signed up for my Grazie card and then count out my $100s for the tournament entry, plus a $10 dealer bonus of 5,000 chips. Goodbye $2,510!

Table 78 is far outside the poker room, on the edge of the sports betting area. It’s Sunday afternoon in football season and the crowd noise is pretty overwhelming. I’m okay, but it seems to be bothering several of the players, including the woman seated to my immediate right (who I believe was Brazilian player Alessandra Dos Santos). It does make hearing verbalizations difficult for both players and dealers, and with some of each speaking with accents, there were several instances where dealers misheard bet and raise amounts and had to be corrected by neighbors of the acting player.

My stack went up and down at 78. A couple of times I was knocked down as far as 15,000, but I managed to battle back up over the total starting stack of 20,000. Play didn’t seem that different from card rooms back in Portland. The players certainly acted the same. I haven’t been able to place the name of a player across the table who I sort of recognized, but his frustrated manner of tossing his cards was quite familiar.

My stack was down a bit after the first break (at two hours) when I was moved to a table in the 50s, further away from the sports bet. The first thing I noticed was that there were a couple of large stacks on the other end of  the table. Chips at 78 had been fairly-evenly distributed  and there hadn’t been any bust-outs in the time I was there, although the board showed a number of them that must have been spread across about 30 tables in the tournament. The second thing was that the guy directly opposite my spot at the table was wearing a Nike Portland State t-shirt. And then there was a guy between us sitting on a short stack who bore an amazing resemblance to Phil Laak.

Play at this table was harder than at 78, mostly due to the influence of the large stacks. For every chip I won, I blew off two or three. One of the players—Thong Tran (who started the final table today number 6 in chips)—managed to put the screws to me at just the right times when I was a little over-extended. Meanwhile, I chatted with the guy in the PSU shirt—who said he currently lived in Vegas—about Portland. The Laak-alike—who said his name was Bob—said he’d never been to Oregon. I don’t know, he looked like Laak, he acted like Laak, but Vegas is a town full of impersonators and I know Laak’s been to Oregon. I was tempted to tell him about the high desert of the eastern part of the state, the skiiing in the mountains, the scenic north coast, and the amazing sand dunes on the central coast, but somehow conversation between us and the dealer turned to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which the PSU guy had never seen) and “Bob”, the dealer, and I discussed whether Mr. Potter was just a misunderstood member of the 1% and excavated favorite lines. “Bob” got a laugh out of my ability to come up with “No more we live like pigs!”, Martini’s line as George is moving him and his family to their new home.

Then, on a hand when I picked up [ax qx] and raised, “Bob” went all-in. Action folded to me, I called hoping for jacks or lower but I was heads-up against [ax kx], which cost me half my stack and put me under 10,000 for the first time. With the blind levels at 150/300/25, I was under 30 big blinds and going down fast. It was a great gig while it lasted.

Instead of staying through Wednesday (when my return flight home was scheduled) and playing the daily tournaments, I rebooked to come back early Monday, dumped the second and third nights of my booking at the Imperial Palace ($20/night in combination with my flight through Alaska Airlines) and upgraded to first class after sitting on hard-ass poker chairs for so long. I couldn’t have won enough to make it to Prague, and that was the point of the trip.

I looked up the names of the 57 players who made it through to Day 2 (22% of the field, and less than half of them would make the money) and spotted Gavin Smith in third place, 2011 WSOP Main Event fifth-place finisher (and DV’s nemesis) Phil Collins, and Lauren Kling, among others. Probably plenty of other names to recognize among the other couple hundred who got booted in the first day. Only a couple of the names I looked up didn’t have entries in the Hendon Mob Poker Database.

Five hours. -100% ROI. 180th of 265 players.