Tactics Vs. Ev In Tournament End Games

In cash live or online Texas holdem games, your decision regarding whether to call a certain bet is often easy. If the pot is laying you better odds to win than the odds that you have or will make the best hand, you make the call. If not, you lay the hand down – that's just how to play Texas holdem. In other words, if you determine that you have a 4 to 1 chance to win a particular hand, and you need to call $20 to win $100, or 5 to 1, you're going to make the call. That difference between the odds you are getting and the true odds is your expected value, or EV. In this case, you have positive expected value, or +EV, because four times you will play this hand and lose $20, for a total of $80, but the fifth time you will win $100, leaving you +$20. If there were only $60 in the pot and you called, this would be a –EV play, because you would be -$20 after the fifth situation. Of course, this breakdown will not happen exactly this way over the next five times you encounter this situation, but over the long term, it will break down in roughly this fashion.

Since, in a cash game, you can always buy more chips, it is always correct to call when you are +EV. However, a tournament poker game is a very different affair. In a tournament, if you make a call for all your chips and lose, your tournament is over. Additionally, in a tournament, your chips lose value as the tournament goes on and the blinds increase. This creates two very different ways of looking at expected value in relation to tournament tactics.

One argument may be that if you don't survive in the tournament, your skills cannot help you and therefore, you should only commit a lot of chips when your EV is very high, and not risk a lot for small edges, such as 54-46 percent, an edge you would happily take in a cash game.

A counterargument is that because the blinds grow so quickly, there is no time to wait for high +EV situations, and you should gamble with small edges in an effort to double up early so that you can take full advantage of all your poker weapons. Also, if you have a chance to eliminate another player at minimal risk to yourself, it is often considered a correct tactic to take a somewhat –EV in this situation. The upside of eliminating an opponent, especially late in a tournament, is quite high, and if only a small percentage of your stack is at risk, the downside is quite low. Another time you may take slightly –EV is if you feel your opponent is much more highly skilled (for example a known poker champion) and you will never get better than a close to even EV situation against them.

In the final stages of a tournament, your tactical approach to the game will be much more important than pure EV. At the final table, the jump in money for each successive finisher gets successively larger, and the jump from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1st in prize money is enormous. For this reason, you may not wish to play for even a highly positive EV. For example, you are at a Texas holdem tournament final table where first place is $50,000, second is $27,000, third is $13,000 and fourth is $6,000. You have t10,000. There are three opponents left, Player A with t11,000, Player B with t12,000 and Player C with t20,000. You are in the big blind. The first player with t11,000 moves all-in, the next player goes all-in as well, and the last player pushes his stack too. You look down at AA. Clearly you have +EV and the basic Texas holdem strategy tells you to call as you currently have the best hand. However, look at the situation. If you go all-in and Player B or C end up with a better hand, you end up with third or fourth place money. If you should win the hand outright, you will still not win the tournament, and you may even not eliminate any players. On the other hand, if you fold here, the player with t20,000 may win the hand, catapulting you from the short stack into second place money. Even if he loses, Player B may eliminate Player A, moving you up, and either way, Player C will now have less than t10,000, making him the short stack and putting pressure on him to make a move.

Many players will call with the AA anyway, figuring they are in it to win it and this gives them their best chance. However, you should be aware that there are times, especially in texasholdem tournament endgames, when expected value may give way to tactical considerations.