There has recently been quite a bit of discussion about long registration periods and unlimited re-entries and their impact on (particularly online) poker tournaments.

A lot has been written and said about how unlimited re-entry advantages pros with deep pockets. This is certainly true. Comparing the final tables of re-entry events to similar buy-in freezeouts, one can clearly see that the top players dominate the re-entry events to a greater extent and the effect is larger the more chances they are afforded. Necessarily, this must mean that losing players will have lower ROIs. They will cash less often and burn through their poker budgets more quickly on average.

On the other hand, players love large prizepools and big first place payouts. Unlimited re-entry events with multiple starting flights are a proven method for building large prizepools. Freezeouts can’t compete on that front. Additionally, at least in the live realm, there is a lot to be said for allowing players who have traveled to participate in an event, only to bust immediately, to re-enter.

Freezeouts, single/limited re-entry, and unlimited re-entry all have their merits. Including some of each in live and online schedules makes sense. Increasingly, organizers are doing this in thoughtful ways and I think the game is healthier for it.

Although it gets much less discussion, the length of the registration period is, in my view, a consideration of at least equal importance.

Party has recently begun to address this issue and we no longer have many tournaments where you can enter with less than 20bb. I’d like to see us go further and get that up to 40bb in most tournaments.

Elsewhere, it’s not uncommon these days to see tournaments, particularly online, that allow players to enter or re-enter with 10bb or even less. These structures do generate somewhat larger prizepools, but they come with enough problems that, on balance, I feel they’re clearly bad for players. They make the game less fun by emphasizing seeking edges outside the play of hands.

Most prominently, players can keep track of the open seats available in a tournament and time their registration to maximize the likelihood that they start in late position and minimize the likelihood that they start in the big blind. When entering a tournament with 40+ big blinds, this is not very significant. However, when you’re starting with 10bb and might play only an orbit or two on average, increasing the average number of hands you play before posting your first big blind is a massive swing, often more significant than any play decision you will have the opportunity to make with such a short stack.

Similarly, when posting the big blind costs you around 10% of your chips, the value of stalling to manipulate the timing of blind increases and table breaks is magnified. This kind of gamesmanship is extremely unfun and seriously disadvantages novice or recreational players who don’t know or care to participate in it.

Even outside the gamesmanship, very long entry periods make the actual play of hands less fun and interesting as well.

I am an enthusiast of short stack poker. When cash game players say things like “NLHE is only really interesting 100bb+ deep,” I am quick to rush to the defense of shallower games. But there is a limit.

30bb NLHE is great, even 15bb has a decent amount going on, but once you get under 10bb or so and virtually every hand involves an open jam that is either called or not, the game becomes quite dull. When you allow entries down to 10bb, it’s not just the last hour or so of the registration period that is taken over by this tedious ultra shallow play. It persists at least well past the close of registration and depending on the speed of the levels the tournament may just stay ultra shallow the rest of the way through.

Finally, very long re-entry periods penalize the players who play from the start by allowing last minute entries to capitalize on the fact that, by the time they enter, a substantial percentage of the field has already busted and their chances of at least min cashing are accordingly inflated. Modeling these last minute entries with ICM suggests that they are often worth 3-5% ROI, occasionally as much as 10%, just as a reward for waiting until a lot of the field has already busted before entering the tournament.

Of course, this edge comes at the expense of the players who are already in the tournament. Furthermore, these entries are raked, the same as any other entries in the tournament. So, if each of these entries is raked 3% and profits an additional 3%, that’s 6% of a buy-in penalty being applied to the players who already in the tournament. It’s almost like a hidden, extra rake for the players who play from the start and the site is in fact keeping around half of it! Keep in mind that this effect is no smaller in freezeouts or single re-entry tournaments, it’s purely a function of the length of registration period.

Supposing, as has become fairly common in certain high buy-in and small field tournaments, that there are around as many entries at the last minute as there are in total up to that point, this quickly threatens to become an insurmountable penalty for the players who enter in the early and middle stages of the registration period.

Indeed, I think this effect has become large enough and well enough known that it sometimes prevents tournaments from getting off the ground in the first place. If pros who are considering entering a tournament at the start are not reasonably confident that there will be some whales losing big in the early levels they may, perhaps rightly, not be willing to risk paying rake to start a tournament only to have any edge they may have earned outplaying their opponents in the early levels snatched out from under them by the structural advantages of the late entries.

It may sound like I’m painting a picture of predatory behavior by sites. To some extent this may be true, but mostly I just think this issue is little discussed and poorly understood. Sites may see that many players prefer to enter at the last minute and simply be trying to give them what they want. They may observe that events with very long registration periods generate larger prizepools and assume this means that players like these structures.

I’m as “guilty” as any other pro of making decisions about which tournaments to enter and when on the basis of what I think earns me the most EV, but I think I speak for most of us when I say that I’d prefer to be putting my energy into playing poker, not taking maximum advantage of tournament structures. Closing registration earlier would be a big step in that direction.

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