Tournament Structures: Why Turbo Poker Tournaments Are A Lottery

It’s common knowledge amongst anyone who knows anything about tournament poker, that a tournament’s structure massively affects the balance between skill and luck involved in the game.  The ‘slower’ the tournament structure is, the more the skill of each player has a chance to prevail against the natural luck involved in the game, and of course the reverse is also true.

To illustrate the point let’s have a quick look at two extreme examples, starting with the fastest.  There are tournaments on some online sites that are entirely based on luck, where each player starts with just a few chips, so few that all players are forced by the antes to go all in on the first hand.  There is absolutely no skill that any player can employ, a true lottery where the world’s greatest players would have no advantage over the world’s worst.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the world’s biggest and best tournaments, where players start with large stacks and the blinds increase slowly.  For example the World Series Of Poker main event structure provides each player with a starting stack of 30,000 chips and an initial level of 50/100, with blind levels increasing every 2 hours. You can see that this is a very ‘slow’ tournament structure allowing for as much skill as possible within the game. Luck can never be eliminated, nor should it be, but it’s tournaments like these that really allow the cream to rise to the top.

This is not a new concept to me, but I have to admit that I haven’t been paying enough attention to the structure of the tournaments that I enter.  I made a decision some time ago to generally avoid ‘Turbo’ tournaments because too much luck is involved in comparison to skill.  However I really got thinking more on the subject when recently I started playing on the iPoker network again, more specifically with William Hill.  There are Sit & Go tournaments offered across the whole network with jackpot prizes increasing weekly for winning a number of tournaments in a row.  They demonstrate the significance of the luck factor in tournaments that ramp the blinds up quickly.

Name Buy-in Entrants Wins Jackpot Consolation** Current Total***
Dirty Dozen $2+0.40 12 4 $2,000 None $2,000
Maui $5+1 10 5 $15,000 + $6,000* $200  $15,000
Craze $10+2 18 4 $50,000 None  $50,000
Rio $20+3.50 6 6 $30,000 + $10,000* $300  $130,000
Fort Knox $50+9 6 6 $50,000 + $20,000* $750  $172,500

*Jackpot prize increases by this amount after one week of not being won, and then by “incremental” amounts, whatever that means!
**Consolation prize is awarded for the same number of consecutive 1st or 2nd finishes.
*** Current total at time of posting according to the William Hill website.

Notice that the fees attached to each of the buy-ins is up to 20% compared to the usual 10%, which is what pays for the jackpot prizes.

At first glance the jackpots look almost too good to be true.  It’s clearly not going to be easy to win any of them, but a good player attacking them consistently should have a good chance, and the rewards if you manage are large.

Well even though I’m not privy to all the numbers, I can guarantee you that they work out in favour of the house. Looking at the Maui Sit & Go as an example, each buy-in includes $0.50 towards the jackpot prize of $15,000. So for the house to be even they can tolerate one jackpot winner per 30,000 buy-ins, or one string of 5 wins in a row for a single player every 3,000 tournaments. That’s what they can tolerate, but I have no doubt that a profit is made. Part of that I’m sure is simply from keeping players on the network by supplying such promotions. You also have to remember that I’ve not included the consolation prizes that they need to pay out.

Personally I still find these numbers fairly appealing. Could I get 5 wins in a row on a tournament at that buy-in? I’m fairly confident that given some time and commitment I probably could. So why am I not spending all my poker time playing these tournaments to hit the jackpot?

The answer is simple, the tournament structure. To be honest I think it’s a little deceptive. It’s not ‘turbo’ exactly and it’s not classified as such, but it can also be considered to be pretty fast. 10 players start with 1,000 chips each, with the first level blinds at 10/20 as seen below, so that’s a starting stack of 50 big blinds. That doesn’t really appear to be too fast, but then you look at the later levels.

William Hill Sit & Go Maui Jackpot Tournament Structure iPoker Network

iPoker ‘Maui’ Sit & Go Jackpot Tournament Structure

So let’s say no-one is eliminated in the first 22 minutes. The average chip stack would of course still be 1,000 chips, and the the blinds would now be 30/60, that’s an average of less than 18 big blinds. That does start to look quite quick, but still not totally terrible.

Let’s eliminate 3 people across that fourth level and the next. After that we’re at 7 players, average stack of 1,428 and going into the 100/200 level. Suddenly we’re at an average stack of just 7 big blinds each. Players are forced to draw a line in the sand and shove their remaining stacks where in other tournaments they would not. Not only is there not enough time to wait for a good ‘spot’, the game becomes far too reliant on guessing, often with no options but to fold or shove, and with very little information on what your opponent is holding.

It is the significant size of the luck element that the iPoker network force into these Sit & Go jackpot tournaments, that allows them to have such large jackpots.  From their point of view the greater the amount of luck involved, the easier it is for them to predict the number of winners across a large selection of tournaments.

So what’s the moral of the story?  If you want to become a successful tournament player it is imperative that you pay close attention to tournament structures.  Merely choosing not to play in tournaments that have been classified by the house as turbo, is not enough analysis.

I also want to stress that I am not saying that you shouldn’t play in any turbo style tournaments.  Some people like that sort of structure and choose to play super aggressive from the start.  This usually ends up in one of two outcomes, either holding a large dominating stack, or being eliminated early on before too much time has been committed. There’s nothing wrong with playing in turbo tournaments, but you must understand what you are buying in for and adapt your play accordingly.  Waiting for good cards is turbo suicide.

There are three elements that affect the speed of a tournament:

  • Size of starting stacks
  • Time between each level increase
  • The amount the blinds and antes raise with each increase

Make sure that you pay attention to each of these elements and notice the average stack size in terms of number of big blinds, as the tournaments you play in progress.

Despite everything I’ve said in this post, I’m still somewhat tempted by the prizes on offer from the Sit & Go jackpot  tournaments, particularly those with weekly increasing totals, but I don’t believe that constantly playing them is the right way to approach them.

One element that should also be considered is that when I have played in them I often feel like it’s somewhat easier to get inside the heads of my opponents.  Players can often be categorised more easily than with other tournaments.  Some players who play them regularly seem to attack them hard when they don’t have any wins under their belt, willing to gamble to put themselves in a position where they are then closer to hitting the jackpot with a more considered approach for subsequent tournaments.  If you identify who these people are and also keep a track of the tournaments that have not long finished, you can often have a big advantage over them.

As a general rule of thumb though, I’m going to be sticking to slower tournaments with particular reference to larger starting stacks.  I have found that there are many large tournaments, with several thousand entrants, that appear to have a good structure.  When I’ve run deep in them I have found that the ratio between the average stack and the blinds becomes too small, meaning that most players left are put in a position where they have very little room to outplay their larger stacked opponents, and luck becomes a greater factor in those later stages.  That’s really not something that you want when you’ve got an average stack, committed several hours to the tournament, and the money is still some way from getting interesting.

Looking at PokerStars as an example, which I am playing on most at the moment, there are many tournaments with exactly the same structure in terms of blinds, but differing in starting stacks, with either 1,500 or 3,000 chips in front of you to start.

It can seem that the difference of 1,500 between these two figures is pretty small when you compare them to the size of stacks in the later stages of a tournament.  But you have to remember that all chips stay on the tables.  So if you start tournament A with an average of 3,000 chips compared to the identical tournament B with 1,500 chips, the average stack will always be double that of tournament B, however far you look down the line, not just 1,500 more.


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