WSOP variance and Lady Luck in MTTs

Even the best poker players need “Lady Luck” at their side to beat huge MTT variance!

Antonio Esfandiari’s WSOP November 9 analysis and commentary on the World Series of Poker Main Event (2011) has been very impressive: too bad that he has to share the mic. He was completely correct when he said that making the WSOP November 9 is “a combination of both [playing well and getting lucky].”

Concerning the November Nine lineup, my personal favorite is Eoghan O’Dea (along with Phil Collins). Aside from having the luck of the Irish going for him, the play I’ve seen of O’ Dea up to this point has been solid, and he maintains a really humble and friendly demeanor; he’s also someone who understands the variance involved in such a high-profile tournament and even loosely compared reaching the final table (placing “deep” in a large mulit-table tournament) to playing the lottery. Collins has also impressed me, so if I were a betting man, I’d have my money on one of those two gents to win the entire event. Ben Lamb is the player with the longest “poker resume” at the table and is therefore also a very strong contender you’ll want to keep your eye on. However, as is always the case with 2-hour blind levels and all players having over 20 big blinds in their stacks, it’s still anybody’s game.

[Numerous examples of “lucky hands” in the WSOP can be found on YouTube.]

All of the hype surrounding this “game of skill” might lead you to falsely believe that “luck” only plays a minor role in the results of a professional poker player. Don’t just buy it! The luck factor plays a huge roll in the result of any given session: cash games and MTTs alike. Many people today throw around this term “luck” without properly understanding what it means and how multifaceted it can be, especially in large multi-table tournaments such as the 2011 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. Very simply put, luck in poker is when you win a pot in spite of being an underdog based on your “equity” vs. your opponents’ holdings. However, the “luck” involved in the 2011 WSOP goes far beyond the individual hands we looked at in the previous blogs.

  • Tournament luck has to do with the seat you draw (i.e., are you playing against 9 experienced pros or sitting across the table from a bunch of rich “driftwood,”
  • not losing in “cooler” situations (i.e., a monster hand vs. an even stronger hand),
  • winning every single time you move all-in and your opponent has you covered,
  • winning the great majority of hands where you’re only a slight favorite or slight underdog,
  • getting paid off when you hold monsters,
  • winning at least two or three key hands where you’re a marked dog (i.e., “sucking out”),
  • and the list goes on and on.

If you place “deep” in the money (ITM), and especially if you make it to the final table at the WSOP Main Event, the so-called “November Nine,” lady luck has smiled on you multiple times … and if she hadn’t, irrespective of your “skill,” just like every other former champion and big-name pros who bought in and got knocked out of the WSOP Main Event this year, you will be watching the rest of the tournament from the rail. Additionally, if you lose a big pot or two as a marked favorite but don’t get eliminated from the tournament, the reduction in chips has a dynamic effect on your overall image, “monetary equity” based on the Independent-Chip Modelling (ICM) system as well as your “fear and fold equity” and many crucial factors for winning a multi-table tournament.

The 2011 WSOP No-Limit Texas Hold ’em Main Event had 6,865 entrants. Each player bought in for $10,000 and had a starting stack of $30,000 in chips. Blinds started at $50/$100, i.e., every player began the tournament with 300 big blinds in his or her stack. This tournament is very “slow” with the blinds increasing every two hours and entails 8 days of play before the field is reduced to the “November Nine.”

The magic ITM number this year was 693 — i.e., only 10.1% of the field “cashed”! To make matters even worse, the player who finished in 622nd place, didn’t even double his initial investment (a prize of “only” $19,359)! So, if you happened to beat 91% of the thousands of professional and semi-professional players in the field, you only doubled your money. Sound like a risk-free proposition?

Let’s look at the tournament from the perspective of total needed “double-ups” required to win the tournament as explained in the book Tournament Killer Poker By The Numbers. This is of course not exactly how tournaments work (you can of course also accumulate chips without having to go all-in), but it is a good approximation when considering the probability of winning such an event. The winner of the “November Nine” final table will have a stack of $205,925,000 in chips. The question is, “How many times would you need to double your initial $30,000 stack in order to win the whole tournament?” The answer is approximately 14! Even if you get your money in really good, let’s say as a 70% favorite vs. one opponent (e.g. Negranu’s and Hewit’s equity in the embedded videos of the previous blogs), the probability of winning 14 pots back-to-back when you dominate your opponent is 0.00678223 … less than 1%!

Okay, 14 key hands might be a bit extreme, so what about the probability of winning only six critical hands where you’re a 60% favorite? The odds against winning these six consecutive pots at that equity advantage is only 4.67%, i.e., one time in 21.4! In terms of the $10,000 buy-in for the 2011 WSOP Main Event, this scenario could theoretically amount to a total investment of $214,335 before you hit, and when you do finally win these six key pots back-to-back, they might only net you $19K! Pretty wild, right?

The real money is at the final table, and more specifically in the final three places. The final five places at this year’s WSOP Main Event will receive 36.33% of the entire prize pool (not including the interest acquired until November 5th).

In conclusion, I definitely do not mean to scare you away from playing such tournaments, but I do want you to know what you’re getting yourself into (mathematically seen) before you invest your hard-earned money in this absolute beast of a long-shot.

All the best … both on and off the felt!

P.S. If you’re a serious poker player and haven’t seen this clip,  do yourself a favor … click the image below and really take the principle it represents to heart:

Rounders: “Mike” Dealing a “Cooler” to His Own Demise

and really taken it to heart


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