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Scenes From a Tournament

This article originally appeared in Poker World in 1996.

Chinese Poker events have become a standard feature of major Poker tournaments since their introduction in the 1994 World Series of Poker. In this article, we’ll discuss how these events work and examine some situations from January’s Four Queens Classic. The mechanics of a Chinese Poker tournament are simple. As in other events, all participants begin with a fixed number of chips and play until they are eliminated (rebuys are sometimes allowed in the early stages). The stakes increase according to a predetermined schedule, usually controlled by the number of hands played rather than time. Players are given two minutes to make a legal play; if they run out of time, their hand is considered fouled (or surrendered if that option is in effect).

Except in situations where a player has a short stack or a close surrender decision in the late stages, proper tournament play is the same as in live action. But there is a difference - in tournaments, the hands keep coming whether you’re ready for them or not, so the ability to maintain a high level of concentration over hours of non-stop play is critically important. This is especially true since you can’t reach into your pocket to buy more chips; a mistake can be, and often is, fatal. It’s important not to be rattled by a close decision that goes badly. Consider this hand that I picked up in the late stages of an event at the Four Queens:

(1) ª KJ542 © K63 ¨ KQ3 §Q3 -- KKKQQJ6543332

There are two reasonable plays:

(1a) KKK33 23456 QQJ or (1b) 333QQ ª KJ542 KK6

Which would you choose? They seem close according to Basic Strategy, and, with time running out, I put play (1b) on the table. Sure enough, each opponent had a mid-rank full house in the Back, and my play was severely punished. I immediately began to think of reasons why my choice was a mistake: the Front segments are essentially equal, but I had considered the Kings superior to Queens; also the absence of middle rank cards made it likely that the difference between Kings full and Threes full would be greater than normal. Was my play really a mistake? As it turns out, no. A computer simulation later showed that these two plays are as close to equal as two plays can be. But at the time, it took a real effort to put this hand out of my mind.

At the final table of the same event, having played for eleven straight hours (the finalists had agreed to eat dinner at the table), I was hoping not so much for good hands as simple ones. So naturally I picked up this:

(2) ªKQJ8742 © K7542 § 6 -- KKQJ877654422

I spent considerable energy thinking about which Spades to put in Front if I played flush/flush and, by the time I got around to trying to get the Kings in Front, it was too late. The clock was running down and my brain refused to see the correct play:

(2a) ª QJ742 87654 KK2

Fortunately, my flush/flush play did only slightly worse and I learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste time on obviously close decisions in a hand that has important unresolved issues - put first things first. A few hands later, with three of us left and roughly equal in chips, we agreed on a settlement of the prize money and I was able to relax a bit.

Settlements frequently are discussed at the final table of all tournament events and are a fascinating subject in themselves. Here are a couple of brief thoughts on this topic. First, you are under no obligation to accept a settlement. If you’re not sure whether a proposed settlement is a good one for you, simply play on. Second, the method commonly used to divide the prize pool (dividing the money in proportion to each player’s stack), gives incorrect results with three or more players, especially if there’s a wide disparity in stack size. I had the opportunity to apply these thoughts at the final table of another event. This was the situation:

1st - 17100Player 1(me): 2000
2nd - 9500Player 2: 5000
3rd - 5700Player 3: 31000

The stakes were 1000/point and Player 3 proposed a settlement. He would accept 15,100. Player 2 and I would then have 17,200 to split. Since we were each guaranteed at least 5700, there was 5800 at risk for the two of us. This would be divided in proportion to our chips, giving Player 2 a total of 9850, leaving 7350 for me. Was this a good offer for me? What would you have done? I was tempted to take the offer since I could easily wind up in third on the very next hand. But I was suspicious of the proportional division between Player 2 and me, feeling that it undervalued my chances of winning second place. So I refused the settlement. Predictably, my next hand was a poor one and I had to be satisfied with third. Was I correct to play on? Later study indicates that these were the approximate equities in the situation:

Player 1: 7500 Player 2: 9200 Player 3: 15600

Player 3 made a generous offer, but Player 2 was getting all the benefit and I was right (by a little) to refuse. "A chip and a chair" is always worth something in a tournament, often more than you might first think.

Although sometimes grueling, Chinese Poker tournaments can be a lot of fun. So I suggest you try one when you have a chance. After all, someone’s going to win the money - it might be you.

Copyright 2000-2020 Don Smolen    This material is sponsored in part by PokerStars.