Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thriving vs. Surviving: John Phan & David Sklansky at the 2008 WSOP, Event No. 40 Final Table

Arnold Snyder, 'The Poker Tournament Formula 2'Mentioned last post Arnold Snyder’s The Poker Tournament Formula 2. An interesting read. I’d definitely recommend it to the serious tourney player.

After focusing primarily on fast tourneys in the first one (and talking a lot about position play), Snyder looks more specifically in PTF2 at tourneys with slower structures. In both books Snyder talks about how to calculate a given tournament’s “patience factor” and therefore rank the relative “skill level” required of the event. On his website, Snyder has among other articles and information a downloadable “Patience Factor / Skill Level Tournament Calculator” -- really just an Excel spreadsheet into which you can insert the relevant numbers to compute tourney speeds. (The sheet probably isn’t of much use to you if you haven’t read the books.)

I didn’t want to discuss the book too much, but rather just mention a couple of passages that come up in PTF2 and how they reminded me of a particular event I covered at this summer’s World Series of Poker, Event No. 40, the $2,500 Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw event.

Snyder begins his second tournament poker book with a discussion of John Phan, the highly-successful tourney player who has accumulated over $4 million in career earnings over the last decade. Snyder found himself playing with Phan a couple of times at the 2006 WSOP, and both times he experienced Phan’s especially aggressive, off-putting style of play with which he successfully accumulated huge chip stacks while punishing the table mercilessly. “Phan’s chip stack,” Snyder reflects, “combined with his aggressive style of play, literally had the rest of the table frozen, even though most of the players had very viable chip stacks in relation to the blinds.”

Snyder takes it upon himself to try to figure out what Phan was doing, and the result in large part is PTF2. He talks a lot in the early part of the book about a concept called “chip utility,” most simply defined as “the usefulness or serviceability of your chips.” Phan’s style not only won him chips, and thus gave him an increased “chip utility” at the table (i.e., he could now do more things with his chips), but it also reduced his opponents’ chip utility -- even those from whom he was not winning pots.

Reading this little tribute to “the Razor” made me think of the six-handed final table of Event No. 40, which began with Phan as the chip leader with nearly 300,000 chips. In fact, he’d led for a lot of the three-day tourney -- I know he was at the top of the leaderboard for most of the second day. Phan faced some tough opponents at this final table, including Gioi Luong, Robert Mizrachi, Ben Ponzi (who had one WSOP bracelet), and David Sklansky. Shun Uchida was the least decorated at the table, though he’d led the tourney at the end of Day 1 and would go on to finish second.

F-Train and I covered this one, and having watched Phan work the first couple of days we knew he’d be tough for the others to deal with at the final table. And indeed, he controlled the show for most of the night. If you read back through our coverage, you’ll see numerous references to Phan’s aggressive play (and table talk). I think we also mentioned in there somewhere the ten Coronas he ordered halfway through the night. I know I did in a post here, anyway.

John Phan winning Event No. 40 at the 2008 WSOPPhan won that tournament, taking his second bracelet of the series. Although I’m not too versed in 2-7 triple draw, it struck me as a game that suited Phan particularly well in that even though it was a limit tourney it afforded numerous opportunities for bluffing and/or intimidation -- especially if one had the chips to do so.

A lot of Snyder’s advice in both of his Poker Tournament books is offered independent of one’s actual cards -- in the fast tourneys he’s talking a lot about using position, and in the slower ones he focuses more squarely on using your chips. Of course, in a game like 2-7 Triple Draw, the actual cards tend to mean even less, with the betting and drawing really moving the action and forcing most of the decisions.

I mentioned David Sklansky was also at that final table. He’s the other reason why Snyder’s book made me think of Event No. 40.

Sklansky entered the final table with 78,000 chips, making him the short stack as play began with about 40 minutes left in Level 17 on Day 3. The blinds were 3,000/5,000 and limits 5,000/10,000 when play began, meaning he had not even eight big bets -- enough, perhaps, to play one hand (sort of) comfortably. Indeed, Sklansky had been nursing the short stack for pretty much all of Day 2, and we’d thought on numerous occasions we’d be reporting his elimination prior to the final table. But he hung on and made it. Finishing in the top six of an event in which 238 players entered is certainly an accomplishment.

We knew, though, Sklansky wouldn’t be winning this one. Not without cards, anyway. And sure enough, Sklansky’s stack dwindled down quickly. Just kind of randomly looking back through the blog, I see I wrote this post about one of the last hands from Level 17:
Sklansky Looking for Cards
David Sklansky raised from the hijack, Robert Mizrachi called from the button, and John Phan called from the small blind. On the first round, all took two cards, and all checked.

On the second draw, Phan stood pat, Sklansky took one, and Mizrachi took two. This time Phan bet, Sklansky called, and Mizrachi folded. Phan stood pat again on the last draw, while Sklansky took one again. Phan bet, and Sklansky folded. Phan has chipped up to 315,000.

Sklansky folded the next hand. On the next he was in the big blind, and had to fold after someone raised. He showed a king as he did.

Sklansky is down to 29,000.
Even in this limit tournament, Sklansky had just about zero “chip utility” of which to speak. As was the case with many hands we watched that night, we had no idea what cards players had on this one. But it kind of didn’t matter, other than the fact that whatever Sklansky drew on the third round, he wasn’t comfortable risking such a high percentage of his stack (the 10,000-chip big bet on the end) to see if he was good.

Sklansky's chips at the final table, Event No. 40, 2008 WSOPThen came the blinds, and Sklansky folded both times. He’d fold another orbit’s worth, then facing a three-bet in the big blind, would fold again.

Sklansky was down to 14,000. On his very last hand, he had just 12,000 to start, meaning even if he’d won the hand, he still would have just a couple of big bets with which to continue.

In his discussion of chip utility in PFT2, Snyder gets into it big time with Sklansky over the latter’s long-held argument for “reverse chip value theory” in tournaments -- what Snyder calls the “big boner” of tourney thinking dreamt up by the “math heads” (i.e., Sklansky and Mason Malmuth). It’s a provocative (and entertaining) discussion, one I think most tourney players should at least be curious about in that it forces one to rethink some of that so-called “received wisdom” we’ve had preached to us over the years.

This post has already run on too long, so I’m not going to get into the whole argument too deeply. I will summarize it, though. The “reverse chip value thory” -- which, Snyder points out, has informed a lot of tournament strategy writing over the last couple of decades -- is the idea that “the more chips a player has, the less each of his chips are worth,” and, conversely, “the fewer chips a player has, the more each of his chips are worth.”

This, of course, is the exact opposite of Snyder’s view. Snyder feels that the more chips you have, the more they are worth, insofar as they give one an increased chip utility. And recalling all of the utility Phan had with his chips there at the final table of Event No. 40 -- and how miserably little utility Sklansky had -- doesn’t contradict Snyder’s point here.

(This argument over the “reverse chip value theory” -- and other debates brought up by Snyder’s book -- continues over on Two Plus Two, with Sklansky predictably entering fray as well to fight back.)

Snyder speaks of how “so many players voluntarily surrender their utility” and instead revert to “survival-oriented strategies” in tournaments. It probably isn’t fair to say Sklansky had “surrendered” his utility by the time the final table started, although he certainly did somewhere along the way in Day 2, choosing rather just to survive than to do what was necessary to take all of his opponents’ chips.

Snyder ultimately characterizes a poker tournament as “a battle between the utility players and the survival players, and it’s not so much a battle as a rout.” From what I could tell, Event No. 40 of this year’s WSOP seemed to confirm that view.

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Blogger Gnome said...

Fascinating chip utility discussion.
It seems like the survival method is old-school thinking, while the monsters who crush MTTs these days seem to prefer a higher-risk strategy that could accumulate a massive stack.

8/19/2008 3:27 PM  
Blogger Rakewell said...

I think the ultimate example of chip utility is Jamie Gold. He had such an ridiculously overwhelming chip stack through much of the 2006 Main Event that he could literally reraise any player at his table all-in anytime one of them raised, without risking more than a tiny fraction of his chips. Here's a snippet from his Bluff magazine interview shortly after it was over:

So it got to the point where I had an absurd amount of chips. Every time there was a table reassignment, I’d turn up with $3,000,000 in chips when everyone else had, like, $150,000, and they’d be like, “OH, MY GOD! Why us?”

I remember getting seated at a table on Day 3 or Day 4 and my chips covered the whole table three times over. They had to break out the new denominations early – just for me. I couldn’t play the first ten or twenty hands every day because I was busy stacking my chips. And I was tripling-up every day. How the hell do you do that when there aren’t any stacks bigger than you in the tournament? I was taking out about 27 people per day. It was unbelievable!

So every day I’d come to the table and everyone would freak out, and there’d be this guy sitting next to me who was practically in tears because he knew could never raise a hand. So I said, “No, listen, think about it like this: No one can raise you, because they’re raising me after you. You’re in a great spot, and here’s the deal. In return for this protection, every time I tell you to lay down your hand, you lay down your hand. And they all said okay. So I would look at my cards before the guy to my right, and then I’d say, “OK, you’re cool; proceed…” or “Nope. Lay it down.”

So I never had anyone to act before me – at all. And so it would always come down to me and the guy on my left – my small blind; his big blind – and I’d say, “That’s my money!” (laughs). I’d tell them, “Here’s our deal: I’m going to raise you every time. If you come over the top and you don’t show me your cards to prove you had a better hand than me, I’m going to take you out.” It was a friendly thing, not a mean thing, and every single person went along with it. And I kept my part of the bargain, too. I became very close friends with every single person on my left and right.

But by Day 5, I had such a huge stack that I really started pushing people around. I played such aggressive poker that, if you wanted to play with me, you basically had to have the nuts; otherwise I was going to get rid of you.


Now THAT is chip utility on a scale unlike I've heard of in any other tournament ever.

8/19/2008 3:37 PM  

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