Volatility incentives in tournaments

Volatility incentives

One of the keys to success in tournaments, is understanding volatility incentives. When you are incentivized to take on volatility, and when to shy away from volatility?

What is volatility?

The more inclined you are to take on big possible swings (by committing a big proportion of your chip stack, where the chance of winning is far from certain), the more your willingness to take on volatility. The main benefit of playing bigger pots, is the chance to accumulate a bigger chip stack. The main drawback is that you could be out of the tournament, or find your chip stack crippled to a point where it will be difficult to recover.

The less inclined you are to take on big possible swings (by only playing small pots in relation to your chip stack, or only playing big pots when you are extremely likely to win), the less your willingness to take on volatility. The main advantage is that you survive in the tournament, allowing you to use any future skill edge you may have versus your opponents. The main drawback is that you may not be accumulating the chips you need to give yourself the best chance of winning or doing well in the tournament.

Volatility is not the same as variance

When you play any type of Holdem, you will encounter variance, due to the way the game has been set up. Generally a good strategy does not involve trying to control variance directly, instead you should have the appropriate bankroll to keep your risk of ruin low.

Volatility is in your control – it is your decision whether to play big pots, or small pots. In a cash game that you are properly bankrolled for, you should always be looking to make the highest chip EV decision – regardless of the volatility. In a poker tournament, a good strategy will involve actively trying to control the volatility depending on certain factors.

Tournament phases when volatility incentives are NOT in your favor

  1. From the start of the tournament, to when you are far away from the bubble (as long as you are not short stacked). This could be the pre-ante levels, or levels where re-entry is allowed, in certain tournaments. Doubling up does not double your equity in the tournament, but busting reduces your equity to zero.
  2. On the bubble. If you have a short stack on the bubble, your main incentive is to try and survive and make it into the money (which will be a massive pay jump from $0, to whatever the min-cash is). Thoughts of trying to build a big stack to win the tournament are not as important (which will be difficult if you are short stacked), as thoughts of surviving. Even if you don’t have a short stack, on the bubble you are not looking to take on volatility (e.g. a big stack should rarely be clashing with another big stack, but of course big stacks should put pressure on medium and short stacks).
  3. Approaching the final table. Your main incentive is to make it to the final table, where the biggest percentage of the prize pool is being distributed.

Tournament phases when volatility incentives are in your favor

  • Between (1) and (2) above. Having a big stack when the bubble approaches, can help you accumulate lots of chips on the bubble. This is even more important when the bubble is likely to last for a long time. As soon as antes kick in, or the re-entry period is over, it is usually time to start increasing volatility to start accumulating chips.
  • Between (2) and (3) above. As soon as the bubble bursts, there will likely be lots of smaller stacks left who have been hanging on. Also, as the pay jumps will likely be flat for a long while, other players will be incentivized to try and double up here to try and build a big stack. You need to embrace volatility here, and try and build the biggest stack possible to try and win the tournament. If you get eliminated, it doesn’t matter as much as you would not have won much more for surviving a few extra positions. However, if you do get a bigger stack, you might be able to win the tournament.
  • On the final table. Your goal is to win the tournament.
  • A full explanation of how tournament phases affect your tournament incentives, is available at UnfairPoker.com.

Your stack size affects your volatility incentives

  • When you have 20BB or less, you are generally looking to take on more volatility as accumulating chips is more important than tournament survival (expect at ICM pressure points).
  • When you have more than 1.5x the tournament average chips, you aren’t looking to take on unnecessary volatility – you have the tools to win more chips without exposing yourself to unnecessary volatility.
  • In between, these stacks you have to pick your spots carefully – you want to try and move to more than 1.5x tournament average chips, whilst at the same time trying to avoid falling blow 20BB.
  • A full explanation of how stack sizes affect your tournament incentives, is available at UnfairPoker.com

Other things to consider

  • Is ICM important? ICM when there are imminent big pay jumps (such as on the bubble, on the final table). When there are no imminent pay jumps such as from the start of the tournament to pre-bubble, or when pay jumps are relatively flat (usually after the bubble), you don’t need to be thinking about ICM. At UnfairPoker.com we have an easy to understand training article all about ICM, so we won’t delve into this much further in this article.
  • What about your future skill edge? Is taking on more volatility in a spot a good idea, because your opponents are better than you, and building a bigger stack gives you more chance to do well versus them? Is taking on less volatility in a spot a good idea, because if you survive you can use your skill edge against your weaker opponents?