Profitability of Poker Tournaments

Just as there are many online players who make a very good return on their efforts in cash games, so there are others who prefer to focus on tournaments. Many events contain a proportion of players who lack the bankroll and/or skills to be successful in cash play and prefer to take a shot at a decent prize for a small investment. Occasionally a multiple-table tournament will be won by a relatively weak player scoring a one-off triumph, but in general the better players naturally can expect a clear positive expectation. Over the course of a whole event, the combined skills of the better players should overwhelm those of a weaker player. The latter may have a good run and win some sizable pots, but even if they eliminate some of the good players there will usually still be enough decent players left with sufficient chips to ensure that they will most likely come unstuck in the end. Furthermore, part of the success of the top players in large buy-in ($100 or more) events is that they have developed very good reads on the other regular players in these events, which enables them to make the kind of profitable opponent-specific plays that would be impossible for a less experienced rival.

It is often argued that good tournament players should be able to make at least a 40-50% return on their investment in the long run (i.e. $4-$5 profit for every $10 spent on buy-ins), and there are undoubtedly some online tournament specialists who are able to make 100%, particularly for low buy-in events. However, it is important to remember that the variance attached to tournament play is high – in the short run one big tournament victory could make all the difference in determining whether a player is ahead of the game or not. Furthermore, the short-term luck factor involved in tournament play can be quite high, especially for sit and go tournaments in which the blinds escalate rapidly, thereby possibly nullifying some of the edge of the better players.

The long run in tournament play might therefore be defined as at least 100 events – until you have played this many tournaments, your results will not be a particularly reliable indicator of whether or not you can beat the game in the long run. Indeed, if you specialise in multi-table events, and your results are such that you nearly always finish outside the money, punctuated by the occasional big pay-off, even 100 tournaments is too few to be regarded as a reliable sample size. For this reason, an absolute bare minimum bankroll of 20 buy-ins is probably necessary for a serious tournament player, and it is perhaps advisable to keep as many as 50 buy-ins in your bankroll if you play exclusively in multi-table events.

Nowadays many players like to specialise in the widely available sit and go events. With the normal 50%/30%/20% prize structure in these tournaments, each player starts with a theoretical 30% chance of making the prize list (assuming the standard ten-player tables). However, since the cardroom usually charges 10% of each buy-in in registration fees, you would actually need to reach the final three 33% of the time to break even (assuming you achieve an equal ratio of first places to seconds to thirds). Undoubtedly, specialists at the lower buy-in levels (e.g. $10 and $20) have the long-term potential to cash out considerably more than 33% of the time, possibly as much as 50% for a very good player and 60% for a really top-flight player at this level. Furthermore, it is highly likely that their tournament skills would enable them to achieve a higher number of first place finishes relative to seconds and thirds, thereby increasing their overall level of profitability.

In a newsgroup post a few years back, WSOP bracelet-winner Daniel Negreanu claimed that he had played 85 $100 single-table tournaments at Paradise Poker the year before, winning 16, and placing second 11 times and third seven times for a 40% cash-out ratio and an average profit of just over $40 per event. However, the blinds in the Paradise Poker tournaments rise so quickly (every ten hands) that tournaments typically last only 70-90 hands, which almost certainly would have negated some of his ability and allowed the weaker players more of a chance. It is quite conceivable that in multi-table events (or sit and go events with a different blind structure) his return would be considerably greater than this.

Whichever type of tournament you choose to play, you should always ensure that:
•    Your connection is in good order before you start. There is nothing more frustrating than being disconnected during a tournament and anted-away while you are trying to return to the game.
•    You will not be disturbed while you are playing. Any distractions will cause you to lose focus, and if you are called away from the table you will again be anted-away.
•    You have organised some refreshments in advance, particularly for a multi-table event, which could easily last several hours.
•    Everyone else is present at the table when you start play. If any players are absent then you can steal their blinds without mercy. Also, watch out for anyone who joins your table midway through a tournament – if they happen to be sitting out and the other players don’t notice immediately, then you can steal their blinds too!