The subject of maintaining one’s tournament life was often debated in strategy forums back when online tournaments thrived. Some argued that it was critical to maximize the effectiveness of your plays, even if it meant a greater likelihood of being eliminated. Others said it was more important to maximize your chances of staying alive in a tournament, even if it meant missing opportunities to accumulate chips. There was never any clear consensus.
Today, I think about those opposing strategies as two sides of a continuum, and not mutually exclusive. There are moments in a tournament when you should prioritize accumulating chips, and moments when you should prioritize staying alive. Recognizing those moments comes from evaluating a few factors: table draws, cash bubbles, payout percentages, opponents’ mentalities, etc.
For example, sometimes I’ll avoid risking my entire stack on a soft table where accumulating chips from small pots is easy.
With two tables left in the $15,000 World Poker Tour Championship in Atlantic City, I was fortunate to find myself at the softer table. The other table was stacked with talented players, but there was only one other longtime professional at mine: Keven Stammen.
Stammen plays many hands and also leads out with many hands – which means he often bets into the raiser on the flop after just calling preflop. He usually makes this play after calling from one of the blinds, and with blinds at 12,000-24,000 we played a hand where he led out yet again.
I had raised to 50,000 from the button with Kc 8c and a stack of 950,000. Stammen, who was in the big blind with more than $1.5 million in his stack, called my small raise. When the flop came Qc 7d 5d, he led out for 65,000.
I knew Stammen was capable of leading with a variety of hands, and that even if I didn’t make one of my backdoor draws, I could potentially bluff him on a diamond. I called, and the turn brought a good card for me, the Jc. Stammen checked, and I bet 150,000. He thought for a moment and made the call.
The river missed my draw but brought an excellent opportunity to bluff, the 9d. That card completed both a flush and an 8-6 straight draw on the flop, and I felt it was a mandatory bet with my king-high. The question was whether I should maximize the pressure and go all in, or bet smaller and make sure I’d still be alive if Stammen called me.
The pot contained nearly 550,000, a little less than what I had left in my stack. Shoving was a viable option, but I liked my chances of chipping up against my table if I were still in, and I felt Stammen might believe I’d bet smaller with my value hands to make sure I get called. I bet 325,000, and Kevin went into the tank. He stacked the necessary chips to call, then evaluated how much he’d have left. Finally, he placed the chips in the pot, and I tabled my king-high. He showed Qs 3s and raked a huge pot with his top pair. I was left with 335,000, good for 13 big blinds.
Within 15 minutes of the failed bluff, I’d won enough hands to surpass the million-chip mark. Those chips carried me to the final table, and eventually a third-place finish and the largest payout of my career. But what I’ll never know is this: Was betting small the safe play that kept me alive, or the brutal play that blew my chance at winning?