Taking One Shot at the Big Time

Jason Young

Every player who takes the game seriously enough to know the names Tom Dwan, Di Dang and Huck Seed has considered putting it all on the line to take one shot at the poker dream.

Every year, players crowd around poker tables across the globe and all over the Internet to trade pots worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the world's top online players are winning and losing over a million in a single day. It's no longer remarkable to see online pots larger than $500,000.

Poker has exploded since 2003, and in the last couple years we've seen the largest increase in regular high-stakes action ever. Until recently, nosebleed stakes games have only run occasionally, restricted to private tables.

Now, at any time of any day you can log on to sites like Full Tilt Poker, and watch (or join) intense high-stakes action.

All of this action has made the high-stakes poker lifestyle a more tangible reality. Anyone can look at multiple players who went from nothing to millions, some of them in almost no time flat.

Making a million dollars in less than a week is a dream that most people would love to realize.

Poker players can realistically take a shot at this dream anytime they want. The highest-stakes cash games and tournaments are all open to anyone willing to put up the stake.

It may seem far-fetched to people on the outside of the game, but it's surprisingly common for players to put everything they own on the line for one shot at making it.

Real-life people (by this I mean people not living the professional poker lifestyle) have all their money tied up in debt and, for those lucky enough not to be just living paycheck to paycheck, in assets and savings.

Poker players may have debt, savings and assets as well, but they also have a lump of cash known as a bankroll.

Mike Caro compares a poker pro's roll to the shop and tools owned by a mechanic. The roll is the means of making an income. There is almost no mechanic who would put his shop on the line at a 3,000-1 shot at making a score - it's just not realistic.

If your "shop" is nothing more than a roll of $100 bills, however, it gets really easy to put it all on the line.

Ready, Aim, Fire

In the post-Chris Moneymaker world, it's not uncommon for players to win a satellite entry into a tournament before making a run for the win. You hear all about these stories, especially if the players got their ticket by playing their satellite online.

What you don't always hear about are the players taking a shot with their roll.

In every major tournament, there is a large group of players: professionals on the outs, putting up their roll for one last swing. These players decide to gamble on their future, aware that they'll have to live with either of the two possible outcomes:

  • They win, and rock a fat roll
  • They lose and go home broke, and find themselves a job

These players play from a unique mental perspective: nothing left to lose, already defeated, yet full of hope, aggressive and unpredictable.

These stories are rarely told, because the players who miss their shot disappear into the real world, sometimes rebuilding and returning for another swing. And the players who make it often don't want the world to know that they were ever as close to defeat as they actually were.

The latest story of such an event is described wonderfully by the player himself - Jason Young. Jason was down to his almost his last dollar, resolved to head home to do ... who knows what if he lost. Not only was this his last lump of cash; it was bank-borrowed money.

He prophesized the win before the event ever happened, and won himself a WSOP bracelet and the cash that comes with it, making him the latest player to publicly hit his shot.

Odds of Making It

Tournament poker, like all poker, comes down to statistical odds and probable ROI. This means the following:

A player has to have sufficient skill and edge on her competition to finish high enough in the money often enough so that she can net more money from her winnings than she loses in the attempts.

Just to give a simple example, let's say that Jane Doe will play a $1,000 buy-in tournament with 1,000 players every day. To keep it very simple, she will always finish in one of two places:

  • On the bubble (losing her $1,000 entry fee)
  • In first place (winning $300,000 prize money)

This means she has to finish in first place a minimum of once in every 299 attempts to make money.

Let's say that she is a profitable player, and will finish first in 1/200 attempts. This will net her a total of $100,000 for every 200 attempts. In order for her to make this money, though, she needs to have $200,000 worth of money to pay her buy-ins.

There's no telling when she'll make her first-place finish out of the 200 attempts, meaning she could be down $199,000 before she makes any money.

The problem with taking a shot is that even though you're clearly good enough to make money in this specific tournament, you are gambling that your one available buy-in happens to be the one you win the tourney on.

For Jane Doe, that's a 0.5% chance that she hits her shot - 99.5% of the time she ends up humping a crappy job on the graveyard shift.

No matter how good you are, the odds are not in your favor when you take a shot.

But one thing to remember is the classic cliché: you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. Some players spend years taking shots until anything pans out, the most famous of these possibly being Howard Lederer.

If taking shots is the route you choose, you may have to be prepared to sleep on couches and run errands for other players to build up enough of a stake for your next shot. It could be a long time before you ever hit your target.

Then again, just like Jason Young did in the 2008 WSOP, you may hit the next shot you decide to take.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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Nazz 2009-11-22 11:36:00

All you need to do is be in the money bubble and you double your money.

That's in the top 10% usually.

bennie99 2009-11-03 11:38:00

I highly doubt I'll ever take a shot. I mean, there's moving to a new country and starting from scratch (hard, but more likely to succed if you can find the right job) and then there's throwing your bankroll on the world series of poker. Personally, I might do the former, but not the latter.

Sean Lind 2008-11-27 18:16:00

Now I understand where those numbers came from. I agree with what you said, and the math looks solid. Like I said, the example of 1/200 is an over simplified example. I set up a scenario where the player will absolutely win exactly one out of 200, not a player who has the probability of winning 1/200.

This improbable scenario removes the need for any sort of legit math, allowing the not so mathematically inclined to focus exclusively on the idea of taking a shot being a very big risk.

Truly how big of a risk it is is incredibly difficult to calculate, if possible at all, needing to take into account all money finishes outside of first.

BrianaB 2008-11-26 20:10:00

Ok maybe it's the wording in the article.

In the article it says: "This will net her a total of $100,000 for every 200 attempts. In order for her to make this money, though, she needs to have $200,000 worth of money to pay her buy-ins"

If the player wins 1/200 tourneys she will win $100'000 for every 200 tourneys but on average.

It also says: "In order for her to make this money, though, she needs to have 200,000 worth of money to pay her buy-ins"

The thing is you could easily go 200 without winning at all! She'd need a lot more to win a tourney with any certainty. If she only plays 200 her chance of winning is only 63%

About the 63%:

Suppose she plays 200 tourneys and her prob. of winning is 1/200. What is the likelyhood of winning once or more?


Suppose you'd want a 10% risk of ruin:

x ln(199/200)=ln(0,1)

Your idea is to solidify the massive risk involved in taking a shot. My point is that you are making light of the risk! It is in fact much larger than you imply!

Sean Lind 2008-11-26 18:48:00

Briana, I think you're misreading what I'm saying, but I'm not sure where %63.3 comes into play at all, so maybe I'm misreading what you're saying.

the 1/200 example is an over-simplified example demonstrating the massive amounts of variance in large MTT's. In the example she will win exactly 1 out of 200 attempts, thus needing 200 full buy-ins of BR to yield guaranteed profit.

The idea is to solidify the massive risk involved in taking a shot, not to explain proper BRM, as this clearly is not.

BrianaB 2008-11-26 13:01:00

It's a pretty important concept if you are in any way interested in BRM. And whoever wrote this article obviously got it wrong.

But whatever, suit yourselfish.

Bryan 2008-11-26 06:59:00

This is why women make 76 cents for every dollar a man makes. go make tacos Briana

BrianaB 2008-11-25 23:19:00

"Let's say that she is a profitable player, and will finish first in 1/200 attempts. This will net her a total of $100,000 for every 200 attempts. In order for her to make this money, though, she needs to have $200,000 worth of money to pay her buy-ins."

After 200 games the likelyhood of having won is only 63,3 %. So this statement makes no sense at all.

If you want even just 90 % chance of winning, you would need to play 460 tourneys!

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