AJIP 2: play money tournaments

Playing for fake money (or Play Money, as they call it on PokerStars) is strange. Very strange. If there’s nothing valuable at stake, people gamble and bluff much more (I’m sure there must be scientific studies that prove this theory, but I’d say it’s quite clear that this is true by just thinking about it a bit).

Play money or real money?

I played a couple of Sit & Go tournaments for play money last week, just to see what I could learn from it. Some people warned me that this would give me bad habits, because play money play is so much different from real money play. Fair enough, I said, but I did it anyway.

When you create an account at PokerStars, you get 1000 play money. Whenever you run out of play money, you click a button, and receive 1000 fresh play money. You can “re-buy” up to 3 times per hour. This leads to people joining a ring game, and going all-in on the first hand they play, no matter what their cards are, in the hope they get lucky and increase their stack by at least 1000. Logical, since they can get free play money back if they lose. This makes the tables with low blinds very wild, because on almost every hand, someone goes all-in. Play money tournaments are similar, but different.

A Sit & Go tournament works like this. You register to the tournament, and pay an entry fee to participate (plus a small extra amount, which goes to the website). This entry fee is then used to create the prize pool. As soon as enough people have registered, the tournament starts. Each player gets $1500 in chips as starting stack. For example, there are 18-seat tournaments for 2000 play money entry fee. That means the prize pool is 36000, divided in this way:

  1. 14,400
  2. 10,800
  3. 7,200
  4. 3,600

So, you need to end up in the top 4 to win money; the other 14 players get nothing.

The all-in behaviour described above translates somewhat to play money tournaments. Players go all-in relatively often in the beginning, in the hope to double up their $1500 stack, and have a better chance of surviving until there are 4 players left.

Knowing that players gamble more at the start of a tournament, I decided to play some tournaments, with the following guidelines in mind:

  • Only play very strong hands (TT or higher pairs, AK, AQ) in the first half of the tournament
  • Go all-in pre-flop with those strong hands
  • Don’t bluff if there are 3 or more players in the hand

This turned out to be a great strategy for the first half of the tournaments. I simply folded almost every hand, and went all-in with the power hands. The worst odds I got on my all-in situations were about 50-50 (a pair against 2 higher non-paired cards). The other situations were much better for me, for example:

Or this one (I’m the player called “Hero”):

Sure, I lost some of these all-in situations, but I won the majority, and that’s a great way to increase your chances to win the tournament. In total, I played about 10 of these tournaments, winning half of them. If only those 14,400 were euros instead of play money…

Many of the players in play money tournaments exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Likes to gamble often.
  • Uses the minimum bet size.
  • Loves Aces.
  • Goes all-in with a bad hand.
  • Calls more often than he should.
  • Rarely bluffs.
  • Doesn’t know much about odds.
  • Underbets and overbets often.
  • Want to see many flops.
  • Folds often after the flop.

Some of these characteristics lead to strange situations. Once, I saw a hand (blinds were 10/20) with lots of raising pre-flop. 6 players were in the hand and the pot was 700 before the flop. After the flop, 1 player bet 20, and the other 5 folded. That made me blink a few times.

Many of these players love Aces. And what I mean by that is not pocket rockets, but a hand with one Ace and any other card. With such a hand, they raise, they go all-in, and they call almost every bet. If an Ace appears on the flop, even the most timid player will bet. So, if you see an Ace in the community cards, and someone bets, that person almost certainly has an Ace (or an even better hand, like trips).

What I’ve also seen is someone calling every bet on one hand with three Tens (where he should have bet more to win a bigger pot), and calling every bet on the next hand with AK and no pair (where he should have folded after the flop or turn, to limit his losses).

Many players seem to use a fit-or-fold strategy. They call the big blind to see the flop, and when they miss the flop, they fold when someone bets. This is very useful to know for later in the tournament, when there are only 2-3 players in the pot instead of 5-7, because then you can easily bluff the other player out of he hand. And if he does call your bluff, or even raise it, you know that he has a hand, and you can get away easily.

I found that it’s not easy to outplay these unpredictable opponents consistently. Is my opponent underbetting or overbetting? Did he just do an unreasonable call on my turn bet, and get very lucky on the river? All in all, my chosen strategy seems to work fine, at least for the first half of the tournament. After that, play turns a bit more normal, although still very loose, and you need to adapt to that by playing looser, and bluffing a bit more.

Next adventure: small stakes real money tournaments!

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2 Responses to AJIP 2: play money tournaments

  1. Desmond says:

    First of all I want to say, I love your blogs.

    But about poker… It seems you’ve been experimenting with poker for quite a bit now, and knowing you, it must be some very good experimenting. The approach you use is a very logical one, in that, you get all variables out in the open and describe them, and then find a strategic solution to increase the possibility to win.

    I read somewhere that logical capabilities are only a small part of the human brain, and that there is much more brain capacity that can be utilized by not reasoning at all, but “just doing” and learning unconsciously from that process.

    So, I’m advocating that seeing it as a pure chance game with no strategy and just ‘feeling lucky’ might eventually also teach a person how to get good at it.

    Can you say something about this? Would you agree with this statement or not? If so, why, if not, why not?

  2. Garion says:

    Interesting question, Desmond. Are you planning on making an AI bot that will earn you money via online poker? 😉

    I have thought about your question for a few days, and am not really sure what the answer is. My gut feeling says that while it might be possible to learn to play poker decently via your proposed method, it would probably take way too long. There are many “good practices” in poker (for example, stealing the blinds) that you can learn easily by someone explaining them to you, instead of playing thousands of hands and figuring out that people on the button raise often.

    Also, a large part of poker is the people game. You have to know the style of the players at your table to perform well. It happens often that a play that is good in one situation, is horrible in another situation. So, for your method of learning poker, you’d not just have to take into account the cards, but also the players.

    Maybe a poker expert will one day visit this blog entry and comment on it :-)

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