Monday, June 28, 2010

The Chopping Block

I had an interesting experience with chopping a tournament recently, and I wrote this post at the time but am just completing it now. Earlier this year I played in a no-limit tournament in a casino with a large poker room where they regularly run tournaments. It was a $200 buyin event, and it was fairly small, more like a multi-table sitngo than an actual mtt, with I believe 58 entrants, give or take a few. Long story short, I end up at the final table with around an average stack, and then I pick up a couple of big hands, run a huge bluff, and before you know it I'm sitting in 2nd place with just a few players remaining. For some reason, I never seem to be able to bust out the third place guy when I am heads-up, and the same held true here as my opponent across the table knocked him out to come into heads-up play with me with him holding about a 2-to-1 chip lead.

2-to-1. It sounds like a big number. I mean, it means he had literally almost twice as many chips as I have. In this thing I think there were just under 600k total chips in play (approximately 58 runners and 10k starting stacks), so it was something like 370k to 210k as we started to play, and you could just tell this guy thought he was killing it. The look on his face said it all -- he kind of knows how to play the game, but in truth he cannot believe he is sitting here playing heads-up for the $2150 first prize. He's played so well, it's never been in doubt for him today, and now he's come into heads-up with a monster stack. He is the best player in the casino on this day, and he just knows it.

Which is why, when I suggested that we discuss a chop, the guy chuckled. Out loud. He wasn't really being a dick I suppose -- he just honestly thought he had this in the bag and wasn't really considering doing any kind of a chop. The top two payouts were scheduled to be $2150 for first and $1350 for second, so he looks up at the tournament board on the closest television screen, considers the payouts for a minute or two, and then turns and offers me a chip chop. Meaning, we add up each of our percentage of the total chips in play, and then divide up the remaining prize pool according to that ratio.

Now, in theory I am not against this approach, but the bottom line is that it really only works well when you're heads up if the two stacks are fairly close. I mean, if the guy with 55% of the chips wants 55% of the prize pool, there might be some logic to both players agreeing to that split, since the chip leader will secure the "win" and the largest share of the prize money despite having very little actual advantage in the final result by virtue of his slightly increased chip stack. Meanwhile, the underdog will secure close to 1st place money in his own right, while holding less than half the chips in heads-up play and probably in line for more like a third of the total prize pool for the top two spots if left as is. In my case, I had already told my opponent earlier at the final table that I was not opposed to a chop based on our chip counts, but again that was at a different time, with still multiple players left at the table, and with very different chip stacks. At this point, I explained to the guy that applying this formula would lead to a ridiculous result, and he started getting belligerent with me. In fact, he would so not listen to what I was trying to say that we ended up having the TD run the numbers on the chip chop so that we could have them right in front of us to help make explanations and negotiations easier.

In a nutshell, with payouts of $2150 and $1350 scheduled to go to the top two finishers, I was already guaranteed to win at least $1350 with no chop at all. However, I had 210k chips to his 370k, giving me roughly 36% of the chips in play, while my opponent held 64%. This would mean that, if we chose to do an exact "chip chop", he would take 64% of the total $3500 prize pool for the top two spots, and I would take 36%. This translates to a chop of $2240 for him, and $1260 for me. The guy just kept arguing and arguing that he was crushing me, he had twice as many chips so he should just twice as much of a payout if we chop it up. Finally, when the TD literally wrote the numbers down and put the paper right on the table in front of me and my opponent, I tried to show him why it makes less than zero sense for me to agree to the chip chop: I would guarantee myself less money ($1260) than I was already guaranteed under the tournament's original payout schedule ($1350)!!

When finally confronted with the numbers right in front of his face, it seemed to finally start to sink in with this guy that there was no way I was going to agree to a straight chip chop at a time when he had a bigger percentage of the total chips than the payout schedule awards to the top finisher over 2nd place. It would literally never make sense to agree to this kind of a chop in this situation -- as I tried to explain to the guy, I wouldn't agree to a straight chip chop even if our stacks were a little closer, such that I was guaranteed $1350 for 2nd place is it stands, but with a chop I could guarantee myself slightly more, say $1450 or something. For only a lousy extra hundred bucks, I would much rather push allin blind on the next five hands and try for the quick random double-up or die trying and take my $1350 in the first place. For this reason, and of course due to the fact that I knew that even at down 370k to 210k, I was just one double-up away from a huge chip lead of close to 3-to-1 myself, I told the guy after finally getting my point across about the chip chop that I would be willing to agree to chop the remaining $3500 only for $1850 for him and $1650 for me, or else we should just play it out. He kinda sneered at me and said "let's shuffle up and deal then!". And so we did.

First hand, I found KTs and, really not caring much at this point, pushed allin before the flop. He folded. On the second hand after the failed chop, my opponent raised it up 3x before the flop, and I instantly pushed allin again when I looked down to find A8, also suited. He thought it over for a decent while with a pissed off look on his face, and then eventually folded his hand again. I pointed out to him that, with the blinds having just escalated yet again a couple of hands earlier, that I was now probably close to 90% of his chip stack if he wanted to just agree to an even chop of $1750 each. Insulted, he immediately rebuffed my offer and we dealt out a third hand. AJo for me, and I pushed allin once again, and my opponent folded with another frustrated look on his face.

As the dealer mixed up the cards for the fourth deal, I saw my opponent's eyes drop down to my stack, then back to his. Having already prepared for this moment, I let him know that I was now just 20k behind him in chips, meaning that we were currently sitting at approximately 300k to 280k. I once again urged him to agree to an even chop, and as the dealer set to start the deal, he blurted out "OK, I'll take the deal, let's just chop this up!" I confirmed we were splitting the payout evenly, and he agreed, commenting that "it just doesn't make sense to play it out at this point". A sentiment with which I totally agreed, don't get me wrong. But the guy cost himself a few hundy by not agreeing to a more fair chop just four hands earlier.

I've seen this happen many, many times at final tables of mtts, both live and online, at really all buyin levels. Invariably, the guy with the biggest stack at the table -- and this phenomenon is generally worse with the fewer the number of players remaining in the tournament -- but the biggest stack pretty much always feels entitled to more of the prize pool than he probably deserves. They always seem to feel like their chip lead is insurmountable, this despite the pressure of the blinds on the short stacks, the low Ms across the board, and the resulting tremendous influence that luck will have on the final results. In my experience, ranging from chopping up the $3 buyin mtt's on pokerstars way back when and all the way up even to my final table at the Venetian Deep Stack last summer with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line -- the top stack almost always overestimates his chances of winning the tournament and rarely ever wants to give up enough to make a chop worth it for the other players.

Similarly, as surely as the big stack will overestimate his chances of winning the tournament outright, I am also not sure I have ever participated in discussions to chop at a final table where the proposals are for the most part rejected by the shortest stacks, in particular when there are more than two or three players remaining in the event. Just as the big stack never seems to be willing to give up enough from the first prize money, the group as a whole never seems to be willing to give the short stacks enough to get them out of the same situation I was in with this guy at heads-up earlier this year. And if the stakes get big enough, this phenomenon with the short stacks is only magnified. Take my Venetian final table last year, for example -- I distinctly remember several failed chop discussions happening in that thing, starting from probably with 8 players left and going on all the way down, pretty much after every single bustout. And mostly every time, the remaining short stacks were not even close to agreeing to what was being proposed. Sure, with 6 players left, 6th place was slated to pay probably about 9k, and the chop being proposed was offering 11k to those players with the shortest stacks, and 11k is appreciably better than 9k for sure, both in percentage terms as well as absolute terms. But, when with one lucky double-up or one pocket Aces these guys could immediately jump to a stack that would put them in line for a 20-30k payout let alone a shot at the 101k first prize, why would they agree to give up potentially 100k in lost wins just to secure an extra $1500 or $2000 right now? The bottom line is, most of the time, the short stacks with multiple players left don't agree with this, and they won't.

As I have discussed (and shown) here several times in my day, I am always willing, if not looking to, chop a tournament when the stacks are shallow, the blinds are soaring and the stakes are worth caring about. But any chop will need to make sense to all the players involved, and invariably the greatest pressure points are focused on the extremes -- the largest and the smallest stacks remaining in the tournament. The bottom line is that, since the winner typically nabs such a huge percentage of the prize pool in his payout, the guy with the chip lead will by definition have to be by far the guy who gives up the most absolute dollars in any big chop, and typically those give-ups will flow mostly in absolute terms to the smallest stacks remaining in the event, who will need to be adequately compensated for giving up a chance to get back into the thick of things for the top payouts. Ultimately with experience I have learned that no chip lead is nearly as safe as you think once you're down to short-handed play with small Ms and a lot at stake, but unfortunately not everyone you run into at your average casino final table will have much (if any) understanding of this important poker tournament concept.

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Blogger Rock said...

You are doing it wrong. Since both of you are guaranteed 2nd place money, that should be pulled out. That means that you are really only playing for the remaining $800. Do the chip chop math on the $800 and you get $510 vs. $290 which works out to $1640 for you which is close to what you proposed ($1650.)

Next time you are in this position, do the chip count math correctly and you will be at a better starting point for negotiations.

9:38 PM  
Blogger 1Queens Up1 said...


I know you didnt do another Ref article (and you sure as heck had enough ammo from the weekend) but heres FIFA's solution to errant goals:

JOHANNESBURG -- FIFA will censor World Cup match action being shown on giant screens inside the stadium after replays of Argentina's disputed first goal against Mexico fueled arguments on the pitch.

Angry Mexico players protested to referee Roberto Rosetti after the screens in Johannesburg's Soccer City showed Argentina forward Carlos Tevez was offside before he scored the opening goal in a 3-1 victory on Sunday.

1:24 AM  
Blogger AtlTaxPro said...


Your post raises valid points about the psychology of chopping, but Rock is correct: once second place is guaranteed, the focus should be on what's left.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Avi said...

Great article. All tournament poker players should read this.

11:33 AM  

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