Achieving Poker Tournament Goal One: Surviving

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Regardless of the type tournament you enter, you’ll have to have at least one chip, and preferably a lot more, in front of you to keep playing. In a poker tournament, you must base every decision on the impact a win or loss will have on your chances to remain in the tournament. You must be especially vigilant when you play in a pot limit or no limit tournament, where you can be knocked out of action in a single hand.

Consider a sample hand in a no limit Hold ’em tournament where you’re up against three other opponents, each of whom has gone all-in in front of you. It’s early in the tournament, and you’re still near your original chip count. You will have to go all-in to call, so if you lose the hand, you’ll be out of action. You hold Q♠ Q. What do you do?

You should fold. We know it’s hard to throw away a pair of Queens before the flop, but you’ve got three opponents all-in in front of you, and at least one of them is bound to have either a pair of Kings or a pair of Aces. Not to mention the fact that even if you do have the best hand, there’s a real chance you’ll be unlucky and lose the hand anyway. Take a look at two scenarios: one where your opponents have premium hands and the other where you have the best hand of the four before the flop.

In the first case, assume that one of your opponents has a pair of Aces, another has an unsuited Ace and King, you have Queens, and your final opponent has a pair of Jacks. The table below displays the percentages for each hand to win, lose or tie.

A Pair of Queens Is Not Good Enough to Take On Three All-In Opponents
Hand Win Lose Tie
  A A 59.35 39.45 1.20
  K A 3.68 95.12 1.20
  Q Q 19.48 80.14 0.38
  J  J 16.30 83.32 0.38


As you can see, the pocket Aces are a huge favorite to win the pot despite the fact that there is an Ace in another player’s hand. What’s worse, you will only get a share of the pot around 20 percent of the time, which means that the odds are 4:1 in favor of this hand being your last hand of the tournament. Even the pocket Aces, which are the best possible poker starting hand, are only 3:2 favorites over the rest of the field when you consider those three hands as a group.

In the second case, let’s assume that you have Queens, another player has a suited Ace and King, another opponent has a pair of Jacks, and the fourth opponent has a suited Nine and Ten. The next table displays the percentages for each hand to win, lose, or tie.

Even with the Best Hand, You May Not Choose
to Confront Three All-In Opponents
Hand Win Lose Tie
  Q Q 34.32 65.46 0.21
  A K 33.01 66.78 0.21
  J  J 16.13 83.66 0.21
  T 9 16.32 83.47 0.21

When you don’t have players competing against each other for the same cards, as was the case in the first sample hand, the race between hands is much tighter. The odds against you winning the hand are 2:1 in this scenario, so the prudent action would be to curse your luck, toss in the Queens, and let the other players fight it out.

Doyle Brunson, two-time winner of the World Series of Poker main event and author of Super System (Cardoza, 1979), argues that the only hand you should be willing to go broke on before the flop is a pair of Aces. The previous analyses support his view.

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