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A New Twist in Poker - The Cash Tournament

Updated on October 12, 2009

New Rules Can Reduce Poker Variance

Everywhere you look in the world of poker tournament games, one theme always rears its ugly little head. Simply put, you have to "run good" in key spots to win in poker tournaments. With any game that is a mix of luck and skill, this will always be a characteristic of poker to some degree.

However, this characteristic is magnified under the prevailing payout system in poker tournaments. SnG (sit and go) games are a jam-or-fold type of game and very prone to wild variance and swings that can devastate a player's progress in the game. Likewise, MTT's (multitable tournaments), which generally pay out 10 to 15% of the field, require players to put their chips at risk over and over again just to reach the minimum payout level.

Considering that the minimum payout level is often less than twice the buyin, it's no surprise that the negative variance in these games can decimate a player. Even many pros have reported downswings of over 150 buyins.

A simple illustration shows just how "good" a player has to "run" just to make the money in a tournament. First of all, a player will have to either get lucky one time and double up or be fortunate to have everyone fold when he keeps bluffing and taking down pots. But if he had lost chips before doubling, then he is often barely back to his starting stack and has to double again just to get any momentum.

Once a player gets momentum, he can try to use his stack to his advantage, but that is hardly an easy task with all the other stacks trying to do the same thing. Inevitably, the player is going to have to get in multiple races just to stay ahead of the blinds. Sure, a player can just run super hot and keep winning all his races or picking up Aces and Kings multiple times. By the way, he will have to get called when picking up those Aces or Kings. Otherwise, he just picks up the blinds and has to hope he keeps getting playable hands and situations. This is just the reality of variance under the current scheme used in poker tournaments.

Furthermore, it is common knowledge that a player just about has to make final tables even in very large tournaments to turn a profit. One lost race is all it takes to miss those final tables. A lot of the famous players that one can see are the ones who "ran hot" at the right time. And even many of those players are no longer active on the tournament trail.

How is such a person supposed to weather this variance? The purpose of the cash tournament and related Comprehensive Plan (detailed below) is designed to make surviving that storm a little easier while simultaneously preserving chances to hit the big paydays players have come to expect in the world of tournament poker.

Despite the foregoing, poker rooms have yet to make any significant changes to reduce the often long-term luck factor and variance in poker tournaments that often decimates a player's bankroll. Apparently, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that huge cashes to the top 3 places or so, and especially the winner, are what drive marketing and the desire to participate in the game. True, tournament poker has exploded in the past few years despite the negative variance associated with the current payout schemes.

I am fully cognizant that at least some part of what has made tournament poker popular includes these big paydays. I would not seek to rid tournament poker of such big paydays, as they are obviously a key component of what draws people to the game. Rather, I seek to actually increase the number of people who can buy into tournaments with the traditional payout structure by allowing all players to protect their bankrolls more effectively than the current scheme allows.

There are also good points here for poker rooms. First, the leaderboard system of the Comprehensive Plan includes huge yearly bonuses to the top players. This is a strong incentive in addition to the lower variance. Another good point in favor of poker rooms is that cash tournaments finish faster, thus allowing more games to fill up in the same time frame. This is especially true for Sit and Go games. Additionally, it is a little easier to multitable online when playing cash tournaments. More multitabling and more games equal more rake for poker rooms.

Lastly, this is an option that I believe players should have even if a portion of the community does not prefer this format. Not everyone will want to participate in cash tournaments, but the key is providing this option for those who feel that their games are ideal for this format and who would like to protect their bankrolls from the severe negative variance associated with traditional payout structures.

Rules of a Cash Tournament:

1. Players receive chips with an actual cash value based on the buyin amount, just like a cash game. So for a $100 cash tournament, you would have $100 worth of chips. Of course, you could make the chips worth less. For example, you could start with 1000 in chips, and each $1 in chips would be worth only 10 cents. If you bet $10 on a hand, you would actually be betting $1 in real cash.

2. After each level, players may cash out for real cash. In other words, the end of each level is a cashout bubble, and this kind of cashout is called a "voluntary cashout" because it is by the player's own choice.

3. A player may not voluntarily cash out unless he has at least 130% of his starting stack. This rule is to prevent absurd results, such as a player cashing out after picking up a few blinds in the first level.

Amounts above 130% are not advisable because the purpose of a cash tournament is to reduce variance. Forcing a player to have to double his stack, for instance, is pretty much the opposite of that.

4. There are also "forced cashouts," but a player may not be forced to cash out at a loss. A forced cashout exists merely to end the game more quickly, but it happens only if all the players are in profit.

a. If all players remaining that are above the cashout threshold try to cash out, no one may cash out if it would leave one or more players below the starting stack. This is generally most lilely to come up in SnG's and would hardly ever happen in large-field multi-table tournaments unless a player gets severely crippled near the end.

b. But if all players left are above the starting stack, then the game is terminated if all but one player tries to cash out. Players would then win whatever is in their stacks at that time. That last player is effectively "forced" to cash out, but it is reasonably fair because he cashes out at a profit even if he is below that standard 130% amount. Read the examples at the end of this writing for clarification purposes.

The Benefits:

1. Allows players to reduce long-term negative variance.

2. May increase the number of profitable players per game.

3. Puts players in more control of their destiny instead of forcing them through more and more levels of play.

4. More exciting all-in situations throughout the tournament, as actual bucks will be won and then lost from the beginning of the tournament. For example, a player could accumulate 5000 in chips from a start of 1500 and then lose it all when he has his Aces cracked by a bigger stack.

5. Potential huge profit earlier in the game depending on how many competitors a player can bust before they can cash out, chip distribution, etc.

6. The game will always end faster or at the same time, but it will almost always end faster. This is not so much a benefit for a high-dollar game that should have a slow structure, but it can be a big benefit to grinders who want to get in as many games as possible.

The Drawbacks:

1. No guaranteed big cashes at the end. However, this is precisely why the Comprehensive Plan includes tournaments with a traditional payout structure in Phase II (see below).

2. A player can go very deep and still lose his money. This, however, is not really a drawback in my opinion because the player is in full control and can decide when to cash out and when to risk going another level. Part of the skill involved in cash tournaments is in knowing the risk involved in continuing for another level.

Note on Benefits and Drawbacks:

Of course, people will have different opinions about whether a particular feature is a benefit or drawback.

Situations Where This Is Ideal:

Nowadays, the three main formats are cash games, MTT's (multi-table tournaments) and SnG's (sit-n-go tournaments). As a wholesale replacement, the cash tournament would arguably be suitable for replacing only the current SnG structure (except for SnG satellites)
but is best as a "feeder program" for supplementing traditional MTT's (details provided in the Comprehensive Plan).

It has some benefits over traditional cash games that some players will prefer, but many will still prefer standard cash games. Thus, it is best as an option to standard cash games, not a replacement.

The main benefit over cash games is that everyone starts out on a level playing field. There is no need to constantly worry about shortstackers showing up, people cannot randomly take money off the table or add money, and hit-and-run artists cannot randomly come and go.

Although players are free to leave after any level if they are at a profit of 30% or more (based on the starting chip count), everyone knows these guidelines going in and can adjust to their competitors according to the situation.

Probably the most important difference is that there will always be other players in the game as long as one player is at a loss. Thus, no player can be abandoned or have the game "break" when he is at a loss.

Will cash tournaments completely replace cash games? Of course, they never will. Many or even most cash-game players might opt to focus on the traditional format due to the edge they may have in those games.

But the purpose here is to create a game with more controlled ending and starting points and, thus, a certain kind of predictability and less variance that a certain percentage of players will prefer.

Of course, many of the players who will prefer cash tournaments are not cash players at all. They are players of traditional tournaments who are tired of being forced to try to navigate through the minefield of 90% of the players just to "min cash" and often no more.

Accordingly, the main benefit over standard MTT's is a smaller potential of devastating long-term variance ( the kind where a player fails to cash for 40 or 50 times or cannot seem to go deep for hundreds of tournaments). Any time a player is forced to undergo one race after another over many levels of increasing blinds, it is inevitable that some will suffer this fate. This is not a problem for those who wish to play this format, but the Comprehensive Plan will lay out why a player can and should play both depending on his preferences.

The main benefit over SnG's is that there is less reliance on the inevitable jam-or-fold phase that occurs later and magnifies right around the money bubble. While some people are obviously skilled experts in this kind of situation, it becomes more of a math game than
anything else. While there is nothing wrong with that, the cash tournament is about options - the possibility of taking winnings off the table before being forced to play the jam-or-fold game.

Depending on the hand, a player can be in and out of a SnG on the first hand with a profit. There is no real incentive to wait around for the blinds to go up or other players to bust. Again, some will actually prefer the original format, and that is fine. The availability of options is the most important thing, and that is precisely why I am endorsing the cash tournament. The purpose is not to replace anything but to supplement the game as a whole.

Situations Where This Is Not Ideal:

Cash tournaments are suitable for all MTT's and STT's with at least nine players. Heads-up cash tournaments are not feasible, and 6-handed, 4-handed, or anything else less than about nine players is not ideal because it may force too many players to stay in the game, thus negating the benefit of "getting out when the player wants."

A Comprehensive Plan For Cash Tournaments, Leaderboard
Bonuses, and Phase II Daily Freezeouts (Traditional MTT's)

The idea here is to increase player loyalty and provide large paydays and yearly bonuses for the top players at a casino or site. In addition, both recreational players and regulars have ample opportunities to get bigger paydays through the Phase II Dailies.

Think of a year of cash tournaments as one big series. By utilizing this plan, players will have two opportunities to receive bigger paydays than the cash tournaments. The purpose is to preserve the bigger paydays of traditional tournaments.

1. Winning in Phase II Daily Freezeouts with a traditional payout structure of 10 to 15%; and

2. Winning a yearly bonus for cash averages on two separate leaderboards for each buyin level/game type.

The Phase II MTT's can be big payoffs for all players, while the leaderboard is designed to pay bonuses to the best overall players.

The way to do this is by paying out 90% in cash for all cashouts and saving 10% for the Phase II MTT's and Leaderboard Bonuses.

5% would go to the Phase II MTT's, and the other 5% would go to the Leaderboard Bonuses.

The Phase II MTT System:

1. Each time a player cashes out, he receives 5% of that cashout as a "voucher."

2. These vouchers can be used in two ways:

a. Play MTT Dailies for that same level; or

b. Use them to play MTT Dailies for different levels, either
higher or lower.

3. There are pros and cons to allowing outsiders to directly buy into these tournaments with non-voucher money. For one, it is good in that it increases the prizepools. However, those with non-voucher entries should not receive points on the leaderboard, as that would be unfair to those who have "earned" their way into the game by loyally playing the cash tournaments.

Therefore, players buying in directly with cash should not receive points on the leaderboard. If a player feels that the games are soft, he should be allowed to enter, but he should not receive points due to his bypassing the first phase.

4. But the main point is to require that these vouchers be used in Phase II. When looking at how easy it is to earn enough vouchers to play in Phase Dailies, the reason for a no-cash-out-
of-vouchers policy becomes clear - even recreational players can easily qualify. Details for this are contained below.

5. Let's use an example with an online site and $50 cash tournaments.

a. Players cash out, and they receive 5% of that in vouchers.

b. There are multiple levels of Phase II Dailies, so the player should be free to choose whichever level he wants. If the cheapest cash tournament buyin is $1, then there should also
be a $1 Phase II Daily to make it easy for even the lowest micro-stakes grinders to play the Dailies.

c. Under our $50 cash tournament example, a player needs a maximum of about 12.5 cashouts of a conservative $80 cashout to play a Daily of the same level as the cash tournament. [$80 x 5% x 12.5 = $50].

d. Clearly, it would be quite easy for even sporadic players to earn enough vouchers to play the Dailies.

e. Players cashing in a Daily keep 100% of it in cash just as if they played a traditional MTT tournament.

As can be seen, the purpose of combining cash tournaments is to reduce variance on the front end by sacrificing guaranteed big paydays but then making that up by guaranteeing these final-table paydays in the Phase II Dailies. Reduce variance early but keep the bigger paydays in the system.

The Leaderboard Bonus System:

This leaderboard system is optional. If it is not used, I would recommend taking the full 10% of each cashout and applying it to vouchers.

I highly recommend this portion of the program for one big reason - huge bonus payouts at the end of the year compared to the buyin level of the cash tournaments being played (see example below).

While different people prefer different kinds of leaderboard plans, I will give my plan and why I think it should be implemented.

1. Each time a player cashes out, 5% of the cashout goes to the Leaderboard Bonus Pool.

2. There should be two leaderboards:

a. A leaderboard for everyone with at least 15 MTT Daily results; and

b. An additional leaderboard for those with 70 or more results.

Each player's average cash, including bustouts, should determine his score at any given time. Here is an example:

MTT Daily #1: $0
MTT Daily #2: $0
MTT Daily #3: $80
MTT Daily #4: $160

The player's average over these four tournaments is exactly $60.

3. Each board would get 2.5% of all cashouts (5% / 2). Recall that the other 5% goes to the MTT Dailies.

4. The first leaderboard is designed to give everyone a chance for a big bonus as long as that player is at least a semi-regular player (as little as one day a week and literally only about two
or three hours per week if multitabling). It is also an incentive for the recerational players to play a bit more so they can qualify for the board.

While the first board may be influenced heavily by short-term variance, it is a nice feature to give the bulk of players (recreational players) a shot at a real payday even if they are $1 SnG players.

This is simply unheard of in poker without moving up levels or winning a lottery-type freeroll with thousands and thousands of people. Overall, it is better than the popular "Top 50 Results" or similar leaderboards, which make it extremely difficult for a recreational player to compete against the regular grinders.

As a side note, I have no problem with something like a "Top 50 Results" leaderboard, but it is ideal to reward frequent players because the bad scores are cancelled out more when it comes to daily grinders.

At any rate, things like Bad Beat Jackpots or Top 50 Results leaderboards can exist at the same time because they all exist for different purposes and don't conflict with each other in the slightest.

Speaking of daily grinders, that is the purpose of the second leaderboard. This board is an incentive for grinders to compete against each other.

Depending on traffic levels, the number of 100 Dailies can be raised to accommodate the most active grinders. The numbers above are just guidelines and can be modified at will.

While recreational players make up the bulk of players, grinders are the "repeat customers" and should be rewarded with an extra chance at a big payday. While the cutoff of 100 results still leaves open the substantial influence of short-term variance on this leaderboard, it is important to distinguish this from a pure frequent-player program.

These boards are designed to focus more on skill than 15-tabling tournaments and SnG's all day long. Frequent-player incentives already exist for multitable grinding and can be utilized at the same time under an FPP system based on rake paid or otherwise.

Important Question: Why aren't all the cash tournaments averaged instead of only the Phase II Dailies?

I originally planned this as an average of all cash tournaments but quickly realized that it would be unfair to single-table cash SnG players under such a bonus system as this.

Because regularly scheduled MTT cash tournaments have such a bigger upside cashout potential, they are generally going to produce a bigger average, making it unfair to SnG players. Thus, I had to reformulate the plan to include only the results of Phase II Dailies. This method of counting only Dailies is not perfect, but it is so much fairer and more realistic that it is simply not debatable.

Note that, although playing 15 Dailies in a year may seem small for regular players, most players have a job or school or are not as hardcore as the regulars. They play poker to relax and hopefully hit a big score sooner or later. They need a goal that is realistic to reach. If the number were raised substantially above that, they may not want to play at all. Some happy medium exists there, and fifteen is my best estimate for the first leaderboard.

At the same time, the good thing for regulars is that the second leaderboard pays the same but with less competition.

5. There is no perfect answer as to how many players should be paid, but at least the top 10% of qualified players should receive a bonus. I personally prefer 20%. This is less than 10 or 20% of all players because some players will not qualify by playing the minimum of games.

6. Final Note on Number of Games Required to Qualify

There can be no set answer here, as it depends on the amount of games being played at that site and that level. $1 cash SnG's on a high-traffic website can easily accommodate the
30-Dailies minimum. Conversely, $1000 cash SnG's tend to fill up slowly on even the biggest sites, so that minimum number would be much lower.

Of course, Site A, with 100,000 active players, will have bigger minimums than a small site that takes 15 minutes just to fill up a $2 SnG.

7. Final Note on This Comprehensive Plan

What I am tring to do here is more evenly spread the wealth just a little bit more than the current situation allows. Recreational players have a shot at the wealth, and regulars have
that same shot plus a little extra.

This is about options. Some players just don't like being forced to wade through 80-85% of the field and one race after another to possibly miss the cash or just "min cash." While some of these people will play cash games instead, lots of players just don't like cash games, as they require different kinds or levels of skill sets than tournaments.

Cash tournaments are that happy medium between cash games and full-out "donkaments." And the Comprehensive Plan (even if not using the leaderboard system) is the icing on the cake. It provides the incentives and guaranteed bigger paydays that would otherwise be missing in a pure cash-tournament platform while reducing some of the variance of a pure
traditional-tournament scheme.


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