Tournaments or Cash Games?

By: Edison Nguyen

So the Aussie millions series has just passed, having only played four events including the Main Event, I was very fortunate to have a successful series. That said, I think the Aussie Millions side-events have a terrible structure, and have my own reasons for skipping most but I won’t discuss that within this blog post.

My plans so far for this year are to play in the ANZPT Perth (27th February) & Sydney (20th March) Main Events and possibly go to Asia in April.

I originally wanted to write a post about staking poker players, potential ROI’s (return on investments) in different tournaments and buying action (investing in players) at a mark-up in this blog, however I decided to explore tournaments and cash games as separate entities before writing a thorough post on the staking topic. This blog will also serve to be a body of information to support the next blog.

My personal reasons for playing live tournaments are that it is really  fun to go and play a tournament with all your friends, have people to “sweat/rail”, run deep, meet all sorts of interesting characters and bask in the spotlight etc. Also using tournament series as an excuse to travel is also convenient to get out of the house.

People put a lot of emphasis on bracelets, rings and titles so much more so than they are worth.  However, winning tournaments is less of an achievement than people think. Tournaments require a large element of luck, more so than cash games which I will explain later on.

Edison NguyenThere is no better feeling than winning a tournament as opposed to winning at cash games. If you win every chip, you win the maximum dollars (that you could have) and all the glory that comes with winning tournaments. Whereas you cannot really get the same feeling from ANY cash game sessions.

There have been plenty of times I’ve won large amounts in cash games, but the feeling of winning a tournament for a lesser amount always feels more satisfying. The feeling is not even close.

I particularly enjoyed playing tournaments online as you could play so many (especially on our Mondays) and could score a big amount in very little time. There is a sense of mystery going into each day waking up and playing online tournaments. Who knows if today is the day you win three online tournaments and win a significant amount of life changing money?

However, for the most part, restricting yourself to tournaments is actually very bad. Not just monetary wise but for your own long-term poker career. What do I mean?

This is a very simplistic representation of tournaments so please keep in mind that they are more complex than what follows.

The majority of hands in tournaments are with stack sizes in the range of 10-30bb (big blinds). This is not to say there is no creativity there or room to play. There is, but again it is still limited compared to cash games. Also with those stack sizes the luck versus skill is heavily skewed to the former.

Another point is that the learning curve to get “decent” at playing these stack sizes is relatively shallow. Thus, even the best players will only have a tiny edge in this format.

Secondly, with tournament poker (especially online because of the field sizes), you rarely face the same opponents for any significant amount of hands to really be able to exact your ‘edge’. Also to further this problem, a lot of the hands are within the 10-30bb range which really doesn’t give you any more information to make adjustments.

As a result, your tournament game becomes more of “solid” strategy that’s effective to the current “average tournament player”, with adjustments made for the players that are significant outliers in terms of general strategy.

Your overall poker experience is capped, with most being at the lower stack sizes. This will hurt your game when stack sizes are deeper (especially in main events such as the Aussie Millions). There is a point where more experience at 10-30bb stack sizes isn’t going to be adding that much to your game.

Because of the reasons above, it is safe to say that there is a considerable amount of luck involved in tournaments compared to cash games. That is why there are a very low % of people that will make money consistently through playing tournaments only. There is a way to do this, but that means putting extremely high volume in online tournaments.

The fact that tournament players are more likely to be staked than cash game players is just a result of this. Of course there are other reasons to be staked but on the whole this is probably true.

Let’s switch to cash games for a second. Since the start of 2014 I have decided to switch back to cash games online (my original game), focusing primarily on Pot Limit Omaha (my favourite & strongest game).

My own reasons for making the switch back, is that after dipping in the online tournament world for six months, I believe the ROI/profit are substantially higher in cash games than tournament poker. I feel the people who put in the hours and work, will have a bigger edge in cash games than if they put the same hours into tournament poker.

Also the sleeping schedule for playing online tournaments is terrible in Australia. Most professional players are waking up at 2-4am on Mondays and 4-6am on normal days. This means it is very detrimental to go out on a Friday night with your friends as it disrupts your entire sleep schedule for the week.

That said, playing cash games lacks the camaraderie that comes with playing tournaments (especially series such as the Aussie Millions).  It is a very isolated thing to do, and because of the monotonous nature, there is very little “surprise” playing from session to session (apart from losing or winning).

However, it is the only chance you can put in significant volume against the same opponents with deep stacks and make adjustments, punches and counter punches according to your opponents. As a result it becomes a more skilled, form of poker that is less likely to be dictated by short term variance i.e. luck.

My own opinion is that playing a blend of cash games and tournament poker is the “ideal” thing to do, with a bigger emphasis on cash games.

As a professional, it is more important that you have a form of “stable” income that you can invest time into, whilst playing the odd occasional tournament/series for a change in the monotonous nature of cash games, but not relying on them to put food on the table. A big score should not affect your estimated yearly income too much otherwise you may be relying on winning the lottery more than having control over your results.  

As for me, I’ve taken a back seat on online tournaments (only playing the bigger ones online when I can wake up for it) and focusing on cash games. I will however change my sleeping schedules and play the more exciting online series such as SCOOP (Spring Championship of Online Poker) and WCOOP (World Championship of Online Poker).

Stay tuned for my next blog, where I’ll explore the intricacies of staking players, buying action (investing) in other players, selling action and estimating a more accurate ROI (and therefore mark-up) per player. Also I hope to discuss (from a backer’s point of view) what people seeking stakes can do to be more attractive to backers/investors.

Feel free to leave comments or suggestions below!

You can follow Edison's poker adventures on Twitter @GooGieMonA