Tournament versus cash-game strategy
Very few players succeed in both tournaments and cash games. Generally, you find players who are specialists. Maybe they travel the tournament trail around the country, playing the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker Tournament Circuit events. Maybe they play sit-and-go tournaments on the Internet all of the time. Maybe they specialize in small-stakes no-limit hold’em cash games. Or, maybe they specialize in online multitable tournaments. Generally, most poker players are specialists.

Of course there are exceptions, such as Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey, who succeed at the highest levels in both cash games and tournaments. But for every one of them, there are dozens of popular professionals who specialize in specific formats, such as Phil Hellmuth, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Mike Matusow. And, of course, there are many cash-game specialists at the higher levels whom we have never heard of.

Why is this? A hand of Texas hold’em is played the same, whether you play in tournaments or cash games. A flush still beats a straight. Of course, there are a lot of intricacies that differentiate cash games from tournaments – things such as limited stack sizes, no rebuys, blinds to stack ratios, increasing blinds, and bubble play, just to name a few. Granted, these little discrepancies shouldn’t be too hard for smart players to figure out. If they are smart enough to succeed at particular variants of the game, shouldn’t they be smart enough to learn the subtle differences between each?

The difference is something much deeper, as it has a lot to do with style. Let’s first look at cash games. For the purposes of this column, I am referring to full-ring cash games, since this is comparable to tournament play until the final two tables. The biggest mistake players make when starting out is playing too many hands. As they lose, they start to learn that playing fewer hands is generally a better strategy. Eventually, most players learn that a tight-aggressive strategy can reap big profits. They generally are seeing flops with the better hands, which gives them a tremendous edge.

By playing tight, they also reduce their variance, which is helpful for most players’ bankrolls. Most beginning to intermediate players play on a limited bankroll, so less variance is always better, given the same earn rate.

Let’s look now at tournaments. There is one major aspect of tournaments that changes completely the way the game is played: payout structures. Tournaments are structured so that practically all of the money goes to the top three spots. Generally, only 10 percent of the players get paid, and most of them earn only modest profits. To succeed in tournaments, you must be winning them or at least coming very close to winning to reap the big profits.

Imagine a WSOP preliminary event with 1,500 entrants played in about 25 hours, or an online event with 800 players played over eight hours. In the live event, you might get dealt about 500 hands, and about the same in the online event; only 500 hands for the victory, the glory, and the big cash!

How many premium hands do you hope to get in the tournament? You should get dealt aces a couple of times, kings a couple of times, and so on. You can expect A-K about six times and A-Q about six times. Of course, it will be very difficult to win all of those hands. Let’s say that you are lucky and get double your fair share of premium hands. Will that be enough to beat a field of 1,500 players, or 800 players? The answer is: probably not.

Loose players win tournaments; tight players hope to make the money. You can even argue that higher variance is preferable even if the earn rate per hand is slightly less. This is why some losing or break-even players in cash games can occasionally do quite well in a tournament.
Loose players have higher peaks and lower valleys. When I refer to “peaks,” I am referring to your aggregate results over all of the hands that it takes to complete a tournament. In a tournament, you want to reach high peaks, even at the expense of also incurring a lot of valleys. To give these peaks a value, let’s assign them a 9 or 10 on a scale of 10. You are trying to climb Mount Everest and hit a major run of cards in a short period of time.

The valleys don’t really matter that much, since you can lose only your buy-in. Tournament players are rewarded for high variance and are punished very little for it.

Players who use a tight strategy in cash games have comparably smaller peaks and valleys. This is a profitable strategy, as big valleys can be quite costly in a cash game. But if you use the same strategy in a tournament, your peaks will never be as high as those of a loose player. Your best result is to occasionally hit a peak of 7 or 8. If you reach a peak of an 8 on the scale of 10, how do you expect to win a tournament with 800 to 1,500 players in it? Surely, a few of them are going to have peaks of a 9 or 10.

Herein lies the paradox of poker. You can do quite well in cash games by playing a tight strategy, whereas the best strategy in tournaments is a loose one. This is why it is so difficult for so many players to make the transition from cash games to tournaments, and vice versa. Once they learn a certain style of poker, it is difficult to make the transition to another one.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes. If you are a cash-game player with a typical tight strategy who wants to start trying tournaments, realize that you will probably need to loosen up your game significantly in order to achieve success. Conversely, if you are a tournament player who’s ready to tackle cash games, be wary of those big valleys, as they can be much more costly than they are in a tournament.

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