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When "tournament life" has no value - making calls based on pot odds


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I'm trying to convey to my friend why, sometimes, you have to stick your whole stack in even though you know you have the worst of it.

My mate understands pot odds - for example, he knows to call off an early-position 3bb shove in the big blind with 86s, even though it's unlikely 8-high is the best hand.

However he says it goes against the grain to make these calls when it's for his "tournament life". I'm trying to convince him that tournament life is irrelevant when you have fairly short stack.

My argument is that tournament life only factors into the equation in two situations:

  1. Where ICM comes into play. I.e. the bubble (or some other aspect of a tournament pay structure) dictates you should be more risk-averse than usual. Whether or not to call off your stack or a significant part of it is still a maths puzzle; risk/reward are distorted in a quantifiable way, only the $EV calculation is more complex.
  2. When you have a lot of big blinds and your opponent(s) are very weak. [And if you bust out of the tournament, you're not immediately going to be able to start a new tournament where even better scenarios will present themselves.] In other words you can "fold and wait for a better spot", even though gambling your stack right now is somewhat +EV in a vacuum.

I believe that on a relatively short stack, there's no other situation where you should value your tournament life so highly that you turn down +EV plays.


Here are two example scenarios where I would argue players just need to just forget about their "tournament lives":


A few levels into a tourney, still a long way from the money, pre antes, you've lost most of your stack. You have 6bb before posting the big blind. 5 players limp in, the SB folds, you check your option and see a free flop in the big blind with Q3hh. The flop comes Ah 8d 4h. You check, the first limper bets, and everyone else folds.

Let's assume he usually has an ace. Let's also assume the times he has a dominating flush draw or a set are compensated for by the times he has made this play with a dominated flush draw. So you have about 35% equity.

You should push all-in. You're risking 5bb to win a pot of 11.5bb. If you fold you'll have 5bb, but if you win the hand you'll have a significantly more playable stack of 16.5bb. Your expectation from the all-in play is +0.775 bb.

It doesn't matter how soft the game is [ignoring very contrived scenarios] - you should always take this edge, even though you know you will bust out of the tourney about 65% of the time on this hand.

I wouldn't necessarily need to have a short stack to call off all my chips with the worst hand, although I might look for a slightly bigger edge if I were risking a bigger stack in the late stages of a soft game.


You're heads-up with just 4 big blinds [before posting]. Your moderately savvy, reasonably aggressive opponent has 15 big blinds. He pushes all-in from the small blind, so you have to risk your last 3bb to make the call.

Ignoring antes for simplicity, you'll have 8bb if you call and win, but only 3bb if you fold. You're getting odds of 5-to-3, or 1.666-to-1. Pot odds dictate you should call with a very wide range - any hand that has 37.5%+ equity against his range.

Let's assign him a slightly pessimistic range of {22+,A2s+,K2s+,Q2s+,J2s+,T2s+,94s+,84s+,74s+,64s+,54s,A2o+,K2o+,Q5o+,J6o+,T7o+,97o+,87o} - that's 62.6% of hands. Actually he should be pushing a little wider.

We should call with some fairly unattractive hands: Q2o, J4o, T6o, T2s, 97o, 95s, 87o, 75s, 64s, 54s. And we're not even getting the famous '2-to-1' odds!

You are better than your opponent. However my argument is that pretty much nobody has a big enough skill edge to turn down this opportunity. Your skill edge is largely negated by the effective stack size. It doesn't matter how much money you're playing for, it doesn't matter if it's a Sunday major, it doesn't matter if it's the WSOP Main Event. You should still call it off.

Although those calling hands are only very slightly above break-even, I still advocate calling, even though you believe you will bust out of the tournament in 2nd place on this hand over 61% of the time:

  • You only have 3bb back. Time has almost run out.

  • This is your shot at getting a playable stack RIGHT NOW.

  • If you fold and "wait for a better spot", your problem is that your fold equity is all but gone, so you will most likely have to win a showdown when you shove your 3bb stack the next hand.

  • By definition, there's only a 50% chance your next hand will be above-average...

  • So the next hand, there's a good chance you'll either fold again or have to ship it in with the worst hand - and even if you win the showdown, you'll only have a 6bb stack!

  • By making folds where calling is +EV, you're actually conceding part of your supposed edge (making your opponent's shoves more profitable). It's not intrinsically wrong in poker to do exploitable stuff, but I think it's wrong to turn down ANY edge on a stack below 7-8bb unless your opponent is shockingly bad at playing a short stack.


As I said, my friend understands pot odds, but I'm trying to change his mentality so he stops caring about his tournament life so much.

In summary: sometimes it's correct to gamble your whole stack with the worst hand. Moreover it's a leak if you DON'T gamble.

Have I given a reasonable explanation of why he should be more willing to call off his stack with the worst hand?

Have I missed any important points?

Can anyone think of a better way of explaining this?

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Two things I wanted to add:

1. I'd like to emphasise that your ability/willingness to make correct pot odds-based calls is actually part of your skill edge. When you're short-stacked, calling off your stack isn't just something that you do in spite of your skill edge. To say you are folding +EV hand because you think you're better than your opponent is contradictory, unless your edge in future hands is great AND there's a good chance those +EV situations will present themselves before your stack evaporates.

2. I have reflected on the counter-intuitiveness of calling off one's stack as an underdog. As a 'maths guy' it seems very natural to me to snap-call it off with any fair hand, however this does mean we are actively making a choice that probably will result in us losing. But we must face up to the reality that folding this hand will probably result in us losing the tournament anyway in a later hand.

What matters is - to state the obvious - are we more likely to go on to win the tournament by folding this hand, or by calling?

If we call and lose, the game is over.

But in the other two scenarios (folding, and calling-and-winning) the game isn't over yet - we've just changed the balance of probabilities.


Returning to example 2 in my original post: let's assign the villain a stack of 16bb to make the maths simpler.

Let's say we have J4o, which IMO is one of the ugliest hands in our calling range!

(a) If we fold, we have 3bb and our opponent has 17bb.

(b) If we call and win, we have 8bb and our opponent has 12bb.

For starters, let's say the villain is equally good at poker - neither of us have any skill edge. It follows that our stack size is directly proportional to our probability of winning the tournament.

(a) If we fold, we have a 15% chance of winning the tournament.

(b) If we call and win, we have a 40% chance of winning the tournament.

J4o has approximately 38% equity; we will bust 60.24% of the time.

If we win, which will happen 36.22% of the time, we will have 8bb giving us a 40% chance of winning the tournament.

If we chop, which will happen 3.54% of the time, we will have 4bb giving us a 20% chance of winning the tournament.

Therefore by calling, our probability of winning the tournament is (0.4*0.3622 + 0.2*0.0354) = 15.196%

So by calling, we've only increased our chances of winning the tournament by 1.3% - but why would you turn that down?

If somebody walked up to you and offered to give you $13, no strings attached, you wouldn't say "no thanks, I've already got $1000" would you?

We're still an underdog to win the tournament if we call it off with J4o, but less so than if we were to fold.

Even if we believe we have a skill edge over our opponent, the relative change to our probability of winning the tournament will be approximately the same. Indeed, due to the fact our skill edge is diminished by having a very short stack, the opportunity to increase our stack to 8bb right now (rather than, say, a possibility we'll double up to 6bb on the next hand) is particularly appealing.

This logic would only break down if we had a very specific read that our opponent had huge leaks when playing a very short effective stack, e.g. we think he might make a terrible fold when we push all-in for 3bb in spite of the gargantuan pot odds.

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Very interesting deep analysis !!!

What directly came to my mind is that your friend might not understand the FE the way u (we..) do and the importance of it in the tournament life factor.

Tournament life is (as I see) "dead" when we comes down to 5 to 7/8BB (obv depends of the skill level of the opponents and other factor like online/live) because we do not have FE anymore, in this case math is by far the guideline of what we have to do in order to make profitable play and reasoning out of math in this case can only be wrong.

Like to hear other P5ers opinion :-)

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As a very conservative rock like player I agree with the op. Poker is all about making money, therefore trying to work out the best return for your money (ev) is the most important thing. Sometimes you have to go in against the odds to achieve the most positive ev. When short stacked, even if you only win one in four, that may be good enough for a reasonable cash if the pot is big enough. If you get down to such a short stack, that doubling through twice doesn't put you close to the money, you are pretty much dead. How many times you have to risk your tournament life comes into it. For instance, doubling through twice at 50-50 is 3-1 against. Even going in twice with a dominating hand at around 70% gives you only 50-50 survival.

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Dear Liquid's friend - Liquid is right. i didnt read his whole post but im sure everything he wrote is true. tourny life doesnt really matter unless its the FT, ft bubble, or money bubble (plus some exceptions). until ICM comes into play you can basically play purely CEV. if its middle stages and im in the bb with 6bb and 65sooted and some reg that has me covered jams in the sb im snap calling and doesnt matter if i bust. i only need around 38% equity (roughly) if its full ring with normal antes so i dont care that im calling off my stack with a hand the will be behind most of the time. its +cev so at this point in the tourny it would also be +$ev. its for sure a leak to pass up on a bunch of +ev calls just to avoid busting, imo. you can if u want but its suboptimal. ignoring ICM when it applies and playing purely for the win is a mistake, but until ICM comes into the picture i say build a big stack or bust trying, if you bust just reg for another. its fun when you call shoves with 6 high and get there too =)

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Good post. A better example might be when you have chips in the big blind and someone really short jams in his 4bb or whatever, it's passed round to you and with antes you're getting 2-1. You would only fold absolute junk here because probably 80% of hands are more than 33% to win against his range. Your friend might counter that your "tournament life" is not at stake here...

...but as you have pointed out, that only comes seriously into play in bubble or final table situations. The mindset of "waiting for a better spot" holds a lot of less inexperienced players back. Try to train yourself to just take +ev spots. Not taking them is leaving money on the table.



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Nice thread liqued, yep what you are telling your friend is all correct, what I would suggest is you sit with him and go through some situations on an online ICM (Independant Chip Model) calculater web site, there are some great free ones about, (personally I like http://www.icmpoker.com). It may seem daunting to people at first when they look at some of these simulators, but just play around for half an hour and you will soon get the hang of how to learn from it.

A lot of players, even very experianced ones still make a lot of IMC mistakes, they tend to think that pay jumps make too big a difference and should effect your desicions. The fact is that as your stack is getting smaller the more attention you should be paying to playing mathematical poker but the situation can still dictate at what point you need to start taking the only slightly +ev spots. Let me try to give a couple of examples:

1: 5 people left in $11 MTT 1000 people started one player has a monster stack with an M of 40 (100bb) the other 4 players all have stack sizes around 6M (15 bb). In this situation while the ICM calculator is still very important, there will obviously be times when you don't shove things that are marginal, due to the huge pay difference between 5th and 2nd.

2: 11 people left in $11 MTT 1000 people started you are in 9th place with an M of 6 (15bb) 8th place has an M of 12 (30bb) up to the chip leader with an M of 40 (100bb). In this situation you should be following every mathematical edge that you know to be +ev no matter how small as here waiting for someone else to drop out is not useful as even if that happens you will still have few chips and you will gain very little of the prize pool.

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Two things I wanted to add:

1. I'd like to emphasise that your ability/willingness to make correct pot odds-based calls is actually part of your skill edge. When you're short-stacked, calling off your stack isn't just something that you do in spite of your skill edge. To say you are folding +EV hand because you think you're better than your opponent is contradictory, unless your edge in future hands is great AND there's a good chance those +EV situations will present themselves before your stack evaporates.

This is really important and often overlooked. A lot of people think they need to fold certain spots because they have a skill edge over their opponents. But I'd argue that unless they understand what they are giving up by folding and properly weighing it against the benefit of gambling, their skill edge may not be as pronounced as they think. All people do by folding away these opportunities is require themselves to get more and more lucky with the deck to get back to a place where they can even think about exploiting the traditional edges they believe they have over their opponents. It doesn't help if you understand odds better than the other guy unless you actually use them to your advantage :)

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LIKE this post alot, thought provoking, i think (sorry i know ) i will try this out when i get low in future ,

it would be worth the tirade of donk, fool , idiot comments when my j4 off hits, as i sit thier smiling to myself in my armchair thinking if only you new what i know lol. proberbly worth more than the chips i just won.

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On this subject what's also interesting to note is that people tend to call too much when decisions are NOT for their tournament life. So some people are too tight on calling it off, while not nearly tight enough when it comes to smaller raises (conserving your stack). For example, flatting raises out of the blinds and check/folding with a 25BB stack. People do this SO MUCH and its terrible. This isn't really an ICM thing, but its a similar concept.... having more chips means you can pick up more pots since you can raise or 3bet preflop more comfortably ... and along the same line, you can play more Turns/Rivers which is where mistakes get compounded and more costly for our opponents. Its a thing that snowballs on itself pretty significantly and I think some people out there really underestimate the importance of not losing what's in your stack. You have to keep it in mind when taking crappy situations just because they're thinly +chipEV.

The best way to see this is to filter your stat tracking software for hands you've played with say 20-30BB and then compare it to 40BB+. Your BB/100 is probably way higher when deeper if you're a winning player. You have to think into the future and predict what's most likely going to happen at your table and then tailor how much you gamble to that ... and like you said, it also depends on how bad the players are. I'm going to call all-ins narrower (give up thin spots I mean) if people are bad at my table... I've taken this philosophy when I get HU in an MTT and it has proven VASTLY effective because a lot of MTT players are just not at all good at HU. You still have to call for 'pot odds' sometimes even if its really marginal but the point is to think about your overall strategy, and how to optimize it for the current situation.

This is the type of stuff that gets you into some really deep discussion really fast and I love thinking about it .... some people say that NLHE has been "solved" but personally I think it hasnt, especially for tournaments, because its exceptionally difficult to say what the best overall strategy is. Many (if not most) people these days believe that you should never give up any +EV spot, even if its very thin, but I definitely think that is wrong provided you are not the fish in the game. There's obviously a balance between trying to accumulate and preserving your table image, but the big question is what is that balance .... in general though I think (currently) table image is really undervalued in the poker community. Having a tight/solid table image just gives you so many options and really profitable scenarios in future hands .... much like having a deeper stack. So, there's a lot more to it than the math in each individual hand.

I'm an engineer so math is definitely my strong suit too, but what any math-based poker player needs to understand is that there's hands to be played in the future, and everything you do now can increase/decrease your profitability later on, when blinds and pots are bigger...

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