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Poker Tournaments: Gold Mines, or "Beefsteak Mines?"

19 September 1999

In one of my favorite W.C. Fields movies, The Bank Dick, a fast-talking con man convinces Fields' dim-witted associate to embezzle bank funds in order to invest in the con man's "Beefsteak Mine" stock.

I don't know about you, but what little beef I do eat these days isn't mined. I tried to envision the guys in the tunnel, hard-hats with lamps illuminating their work. The conversation might go, "Look here, Charlie, a rich vein of flank steak!"

"That's nothin, Frank," his mining partner would reply, "I just dug through to the richest deposits of rump roast anyone ever found in this county!" Yummy.

As a result of the movie scene I now label any "no chance" investment a beefsteak mine. This provides a nice little contrast to the more desirable "gold mine" more commonly used to reference a terrific investment.

Recently I got to ruminating about whether poker tournaments should be classified as gold mines or beefsteak mines, while attending the Commerce Casino's Los Angeles Poker Classic VIII, one of the five or six biggest, most prestigious poker tournaments held in the US each year.

Normally I'm a big fan of tournament gambling. My own tendency to score good results aside (at the Commerce I managed a $5,000 fourth-place in one Limit Hold 'em event, won a supersatellite and two one-table satellites, and had one other almost-very exciting finish I'll discuss later), I view tournament gambling as a terrific way for aficionados of any game to take a shot at a big win with a relatively small investment.

Slot tournaments and craps tournaments, for example, offer wonderful opportunities, because you don't have to beat the house to win the tournament! You just have to out-perform the other entrants, and in some cases that means losing less than anyone else did.

For a small tournament entry fee, you can thus make a big score in a pure chance game, without much risk. (For a more in-depth discussion of these kinds of tournaments, see Chapter 34 of Casino Gambling the Smart Way.)

This very positive view of tournaments got called into question while I was playing in the Classic's huge closing limit hold 'em event (320 entrants!). A very pleasant young fellow sat next to me at my first table, and the conversation we had before Tournament Director Cheri Dokken started the tournament with the familiar cry of "dealers, shuffle up and deal!" started me wondering.

"Usually I play 5-card stud," the apparently corn fed, Iowa-bred, youngster proclaimed. "I haven't played much hold 'em, but I couldn't resist taking a shot at an $80,000 first prize for only a $300 entry fee."

Now, the second part of that sentence made a lot of sense, because that's exactly what smart gamblers like about tournament gambling: big upside, small downside. But the first part? Hadn't played much hold 'em? Plays mostly 5-card stud? Nobody plays mostly 5-card stud, at least nobody I'd ever met at a tournament. The game is almost dead; it's too boring and too easy. I was surprised to find they actually still play the game at the Commerce.

I was positive my young friend was either pulling my leg or trying to snow me into thinking he was a sucker, perhaps in an effort to lure me into trying one of those plays good players make only at novices. $80,000 first prize or not, no one plunks down $300 without having played the game much… do they?

They do. Or at least, he did.

My young friend, it quickly became clear, was telling the honest truth. Hand after hand his chips went into the pot with hopeless holdings. Out of 320 players I think he finished 319th.

Taking a shot he was, but for someone without any hold 'em experience, he was taking a shot at a beefsteak mine. No chance whatsoever.

(Our author finished 30th, not a bad showing but a particularly annoying one when they are paying the first 27 places. Especially annoying when the final hand features our hero losing with pocket kings against ace-queen offsuit. Sigh.)

Perhaps my friend had been emboldened by the 1998 World Series of Poker, where ESPN's audience got to watch a heretofore unknown, Kevin McBride, go all the way to the final table and finish second, for a $750,000 payday. The commentators kept saying how McBride didn't have the necessary experience, the plays he was making were unorthodox (read: wrong), and he just kept getting lucky.

Perhaps Kevin was inexperienced by World Series of Poker standards (although his victory in one of the Rio Carnivale of Poker events in January makes his World Series result seem less of a fluke), but I tell you this (despite lingering resentment from a satellite "bad beat" when I held pocket aces and he held ten-seven offsuit): Kevin McBride would beat my "Iowa" friend heads-up 1,000 times in a row.

Everything is relative. Compared to champions like Phil Hellmuth or T.J. Cloutier, Kevin McBride is green. Compared to my Iowa pal, Kevin is Hellmuth, Cloutier and Bret Maverick all rolled up into one guy.

So this brings us back full circle: are poker tournaments gold mines or beefsteak mines? The answer, as I'm sure you've started to suspect, depends entirely on what kind of poker tournament you're discussing, and what kind of player is entering.

Cardrooms all over America offer huge numbers of small entry-fee tournaments, and by small I mean SMALL. If you scan Card Player magazine, you can find plenty of tournaments with entry fees like $15 or $20, and which offer hundreds of dollars in prizes.

Even if you have very limited experience, I would classify such tournaments as gold mines, because you stand to gain lots of quality experience for a very, very small fee—much smaller than you might lose playing for an equivalent length of time in a money game.

What's more, these small entry-fee tournaments offer the intermediate player a very good run for his or her money, because sharks like Hellmuth and Cloutier are nowhere to be found.

Once the entry fee starts climbing towards $100, $200, or more, though (and especially if the event is part of a major tournament), a novice needs to take a more realistic view, and accept that an in-the-money finish will be unlikely. The larger prizes in such tournaments attract plenty of experienced players, and a background in 5-card stud just isn't going to cut it.

Does this mean that recreational gamblers should stay out of large entry-fee tournaments? No; only that they should stay out of large entry-fee POKER tournaments. In craps, slots, and even blackjack (where the tournaments are too short for card-counters to have much of an edge), a solid recreational player can have an excellent chance to win.

In poker, though, the skill level in larger tournaments is just too great. Yes, new names and faces often turn up at the final table of major events, but these new names and faces, like Kevin McBride, are not fresh off the boat. They usually have plenty of experience playing in reasonably tough lower-limit games or lower entry-fee tournaments, and that experience, combined with luck, mental toughness, and heart, can take a relatively new player a long way.

But if your only poker experience is your weekly Thursday night outing, and most games feature wild cards or bizarre poker variants where the average winning hand is four of a kind, stay out of big time poker tournaments until you have some experience. I suspect that any beefsteak mine steak would need quite a bit of seasoning, and so do you.

©1999 by Andrew N. S. Glazer
& Casino Conquests International, LLC
All Rights Reserved

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer:

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer: