From First to Worst - Losing Tournaments One Hand at a Time

Last week our good buddy Neil hosted a 30-player tournament in his home. He does these three or four times a year, and they attract a good bunch of amateur players, from the “I like poker” to the plays-one-a-week set.

The structure in the event is a little difficult, and I’d like to assist Neil in tweaking. The first handful of levels offers a decent amount of play, with a reasonable amount of chips in relation to the blinds, and blind level increases every 20 minutes. At some point after the first hour or two, the blind levels decrease to only 15 minutes. The structure isn’t deep after Level 3, and blazing through four levels an hour, versus three, makes a difference.

Case in point, we started around 7:45p with 30 players, and four hours of play later we still had 16 players remaining. The event ended with about two hours more of play thereafter. With a 30 player event constrained to an evening (figure 6 hours), I’d much prefer the structure to be tight early on (if I’m unlucky, I get my evening back, or get to play some cash games) and then much more relaxed when the player pool shortens up and we start to think about the money.

We were down to 16 players and I was the chip leader with about 17,000 in chips (~28 big blinds), levels were 300/600, no ante (another place to improve the structure). Now with 28 big blinds and 16 players, being the short stack means there are a lot of short stacks. This means you need to be very careful about not committing your chips in a spot where a mid-stacked player can come over the top, and you need to make a slim equity decision (i.e. you’re priced in with a very mediocre hand, or dominated).


Let’s start with Hand 118 (I’m making that up), where I’m the chip leader. Four hands later, I’m the next player to bust.

I’m under the gun with Ad Qd and I come in for a raise to t1600. Our esteemed host, Neil, ponders and calls in mid-late position, as does our loose cannon, Kyle in the cutoff. Button folds and Mr. F ships the remainder of his stack, t5200. Now I have a decision, and common sense dictates I consider all of my options.

There’s t10600 in the pot, and a call is 3600. Getting almost 3 to 1 on my money with AQss, I would find it hard to fold here. If Mr. F shows me AK, I’m a 70-30 underdog, and I’m getting 66-34 on my call, so I’m slightly behind the equity ball against exactly AK (worse against AA or QQ, of course). Now, we cannot assume he has just one hand, and we have to consider how he perceives me. I am capable of raising “light” here some of the time, Mr. F figures, and there’s tons of dead money in the pot, so he has some bonus equity and some (very little) fold equity with his shove. If we can assign him pocket 66s or better, KQss, AJss +, or any AQ or better, We’re a 44-66 underdog, not bad, getting 3-1 on our money. Also, at this stage in the tournament, we may not find many better spots than this, and we’ll increase our chip leading stack by 40% if we call and win. If we lose, we’ll still be above average in chips.

I may:

  • Fold. After evaluating the above, this seems like a really poor fold, unless he shows us AK, AA, or QQ. He ain’t showing anything.
  • Call. A call here isn’t bad, but may either induce a call behind us, and we play a huge pot out of position with A high, or worse, a raise all-on behind us, and put us to another decision. Both players have about 11,000 in chips. If either shoves all in, we’ll likely have to call, given the pot odds, but we won’t like it, and even with the best starting hand will have to dodge a lot of cards.
  • Raise. We want to protect our hand, or more accurately, our chip stack in this spot. Mr. F made it 3600 on top of our initial 1600, so theoretically we could make it just 2000 more, or 7200 to go. Our opponents may perceive this as weak, and think they can get us to fold a huge pot. If either opponent were to re-raise, we’d have a decision, we’d likely have to call, but again, we don’t want to drag another hand in. I elect to make it 9500 to go, which is effectively an all-in for our opponents. It is large enough to make it crystal clear that they have no fold equity on a re-raise, but not so dramatic as an “all in”. I felt like it conveyed strength.

Both opponents folded and Mr. F shows 99. The board flops a 9, and we do not improve. We lose 5200 in chips, and are feeling the pain with t11500 remaining.


The very next hand, we’re in the big blind (still t600) with QJo. There are two folds and Meester Omaha Dave raises to 1700, with 7700 in his stack. The action folds to me, and with 2600 in the pot, and 1100 for me to call, it seems like a spot to take a flop. Then, considering the stack sizes, Meester Dave put in just over 20% of his remaining chips. So, I’m effectively investing a large chunk of change to hit a flop big against what I perceive as a pretty big hand. I could flop top pair and still be losing.

On the other hand, I have a history of getting Dave to make big mistakes. I’ve seen him panic post flop and over bet the pot with just AK. I’ve also induced him to call with way the worst hand and to fold with way the best. He is thinking about all of this while I ponder my decision.

Retrospectively, considering all of this, I still don’t think he’s quite deep enough for me to call. In the heat of the moment, however, I did call.

The flop came Qd 9h 8d, giving me the top pair and a gutshot straight draw. With top pair, I’m hopeful that I have the best hand, and if I’m losing, I have 9 outs to two pair or better (Q , J, T). Against AQ, of course, I’m in bigger trouble.

If Dave is going to make a mistake here, it will be betting with the worst hand. I’m not going to get him to fold better than QJ (my holding). I decide to check to evaluate. Dave instantly ships his last 6000 into our 3700 chip pot. Now, I’m getting a little better than 3-2 on a call, which means I need 40%+ equity if I’m losing. If he shows me AA or KK, I’m a 2-1 underdog, and I have to fold. If its AQ, I’m a 2½ -1 dog, and I need to fold quickly. So, how often does he have something other than that? If I put AK into his range, and weight it equally (equally likely, adjusted for card combinations, to have AA, KK, AK, or AQ) it’s almost a coin-flip, I’m actually a slight mathematical favorite (there are fewer combinations of AA and KK than AK or AQ, and I have a Q and there’s a Q on the board). So… where are we…

Depending on how much (dis)credit we give Dave, we have given ourselves a difficult decision to make here. In the moment, and even in retrospect, and in consideration of the tournament (blinds, stacks) dynamics, I side with a call here by the slimmest of margins.

I called. Meeester Omaha Dave showed AA. My 32.8% equity became zero equity when I did not improve on the turn or river. My stack, t3800.


I fold my small blind on the next hand. T3500.


The next hand, the newly re-chipped Mr. F min-raises to t1200 in the hijack seat. Because the stacks are short to his left, most players are in a fold or show mode, and so Mr. F can effectively decrease the size of his raises. Mr. F can put pressure on the late players, who will either shove or fold. When they shove he can call with his good hands or lose the minimum with his pure bluffs.

I find 55 on the button and come over the top of Mr. F. I hope that he can find a way to fold a total bluff, despite getting a good price on a call. He calls. I hope for two big cards. He shows QQ.