Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sam, You Made the Tournament Too Long

Golden Nugget $150 Tournament, Part 1

Alright, so I just finished writing this 4-part post, and even before I started to proof-read and edit it, I realized that in presenting it to my readers, I think I’m going to sound a little bit crazy.

Maybe even a lot crazy.

But you know what?  Poker tournaments do that to me.  And so maybe not editing out all the parts that will make the readers think I’m crazy is actually the best, and definitely most honest, way to present this story to you.

I have a love/hate relationship with poker tournaments.  And after this long trip from Vegas, where I played in nine events (and cashed twice), I have to say that the “hate” part is kind of clobbering the “love” part.  All of that is just another way to say….poker tournaments drive me crazy.

As usual, it’s taking me a while to get to the point.  And to get to that point, I have to talk about Sam Minutello, Sam was the poker room manager at Golden Nugget until late April (he left of his own volition) .  You might remember I did a profile of him for Ante Up when he started at GN, which you can see here.  As a result of that profile, and our working relationship through his GN gig and my responsibilities for PokerAtlas, we became buddies.  I liked Sam even before he told me he’d read some of my blog posts.  The blog post in particular I recall him telling me he had read was the one here, which dealt with min-cashes in tournaments being too small.  Sam expressed at least a little bit of sympathy to my point, but made no commitment to taking my concerns into consideration when constructing future prize pools.

Interestingly, after Sam left GN, he was a part-time Shift Supervisor at, of all places, MGM.  So I saw him quite a bit during the early part of my recent trip.  I understand he recently moved back to Florida to start his own business.  While I wish him well, I do hope that he can somehow find his way back into the poker world.  Poker needs more good people like him.

The one thing I don’t want this write-up to be viewed as is any kind of criticism of Sam. I sure hope he doesn’t see it that way.  To the extent that we are disagreeing about anything, it is that Sam did something that many of you will think impossible—he made his poker tournaments too good.  I bet most of my readers will think I’m crazy…wait, isn’t that what I started out saying?

Sam announced the schedule for the Golden Nugget Grand Poker Series very early this year, before any of the other rooms released their schedules.  Of the summer series, only the WSOP was announced earlier.  Even more impressively, he was done with the structures for the series just a few weeks later, in early March.  I need the structures to enter the tournaments on PokerAtlas.  So it was not only great for the poker world at large but for me personally that he had them ready so timely.

And as I started to enter the series into PokerAtlas, I was extremely impressed with the structures.  All the tournaments—no matter how small the buy-ins—started with eight 30-minute levels, then jumped to 45-minutes at level 9.  The final tables were all 60-minutes.  A glance at the structure sheets indicated that there were more intermediary levels included than for almost any similar priced tournaments I could recall.  In fact, the structures were so player-friendly that virtually all of the events (if not all?) were two-day events.  Even the lowest buy-in, $150 NLH events were two-day tournaments.  The Day 1’s would play 20 levels, or until the final table was reached, whichever came first.

I couldn’t believe the value that Sam was putting into these tournaments.  The price points were $150, $240 and $350, with the main event being $560.  The $350 NLH tournaments all had $100K guaranteed prize pools and the main had a $500K guarantee.  The other events generally didn’t offer guarantees, which put them at odds with most other series events around town, as I explained here.  But it was an impressive schedule with excellent structures. 

And I swear, I would have said that even if, as it turned out, the GPS this year was an Ante Up Poker Tour event.  Yes, the fine publication which publishes my monthly columns was sponsoring the Golden Nugget series this year.

When I got to Vegas, playing a few of these events was very high on my priority list.  I really thought I wanted to play a bit above my comfort level and try a few of those $350 NLH’s with the $100K guarantees.  But those all started at 11AM.  For reasons that I don’t want to go into, playing a tournament with a morning start time is really, really difficult for me.  Even Noon events are tough.  That’s one of the reasons the Saturday 2PM tournament at Binion’s appeals to me…now 2PM is a time I can deal with.  Aria’s 1PM is just on the border of being ok.  And yes, btw, late reg on those 11AM events was to 3:30PM, so yeah, I could have come in late.  But to me, it totally defeats the benefit of having a great structure to come in so late you are no longer taking advantage of that great structure.  I hate entering tournaments late.  A few minutes late is ok, but missing multiple levels?  No thanks.

Before I could try to re-arrange my life enough to make one of those 11AM starts, I tried to find a $150 1PM event to play in the meantime.  And for awhile it seemed like every time I could make one of those tournaments, they weren’t running one!  They of course didn’t run every day.  One issue was the cold I caught (see here)…..it took me a week to feel well enough to commit to playing a tournament (as opposed to a cash game where I could easily leave if I suddenly starting coughing uncontrollably).

But finally, on a Thursday in mid-June, I got my ass over to the Golden Nugget in time to play the $150 NLH tournament, Event #38 of the series.

By close of registration at 5:30PM, there were 229 runners, and a dealer told me that this was the biggest turnout for this particular tournament that he’d seen.  I wasn’t at all surprised. I’d checked the other events around town that day and realized that this tournament didn’t have much competition.  The 11AM event at GN was a limit hold’em tournament.  Most of the other afternoon tournaments around town were either much bigger buy-ins or non-hold’em events.  If you wanted a moderately priced NLH hold’em during daylight, this was pretty much it.

As such, when the prize pool was finally revealed, it totaled $27,480.  I was sure eager to see what the pay scale would look like.  The trouble was, that wasn’t revealed until long after registration closed.  I guess this all depends on the software poker rooms use for their tournaments.  Because some list the pay scale almost from the beginning of the tournament, and you can see it change as new players enter.  This is what happens at Aria. 

But most poker rooms are more old-school, and the Nugget’s software didn’t show this.  Actually, they were running three tournaments and three tournament clocks simultaneously, and I think this info was listed in the “main” tournament of the day—the $240 limit hold’em event that started at 11.  But we had to wait until nearly 6PM to see this info and when they posted it, I was disappointed. 

First place was over $7K, that seemed fine.  I was more interested in the bottom of the scale, since that’s where I all too often end up—if I even make that.  Twenty-four spots would be paid, that seemed right.  But the min-cash?  Only $253.  Wow, that seemed even worse than usual.  Not close to the double-the-buy-in that I advocate.  A measly $100 profit?  For a $150 buy-in and what figured to be 8-9 hours of time, at least?  Seriously?

In my mind, I kind of have a “magic figure” that makes playing in these long tournaments with $100+ buy-ins worth it.  And that is $1K.  If I don’t walk out of there with a $1,000 in my pocket, I feel like a loser.  Now, I don’t mean I expect to get $1K for a min cash, of course not (unless I’m playing much bigger tournaments).  But I kind of felt, intuitively, when I saw how many players and what the prize pool was going to be, that everyone making the final table—everyone coming back for Day 2—should get at least the $1K.  Am I crazy?

Tenth place (not technically the final table since the official final table would be 9-handed) was getting $504.  A nice $350 profit for probably 12-13 hours of poker.  How sweet is that?  To me, not very sweet.  And 9th was $625.  Someone would be making a second trip to GN the next day to pick up a $475 profit.  Then 8th was $795.  Finally, finally, 7th place got into four digits, with a $1,014 take away.  Sixth place was $1,309—finally an actual profit of more than $1K.  I believe 5th was something like $1,700 with 4th getting over $2K.

I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was.  I should be used to it by now.  But no, it really disappointed me to see that I could play all day, all night, into the morning and have to come back the next day and get not get anything better than a $475 profit.  Oh and by the way…..I’ve been assuming that the tournament breaks for the night when the final table is reached.  But if there are more than 9 players at the end of the 20th level, it will stop there and even more players, some of whom will get even less than $625, will have to come back the next day.  Suppose we completed level 20 and there are still 16 players left?  The tournament would halt and one lucky person would have to return the next day for a $351 payout!  $200 profit for two day’s work!

Aside from my usual gripe that tournament payouts are too top heavy, I could draw one other conclusion based on my feelings at this point:  Sam, you made the tournament too long.

Now this is entirely subjective.  This is just my own opinion, and, as I said, I’m sure others would feel quite differently.  I’ll bet a lot of my readers do think I’m nuts (I’m sure Sam does), “complaining” about a $150 tournament that gives you so much play for your money.  Isn’t that what players want? 

Yes.  But then, it really depends on why you play a tournament. If you play strictly for fun, then getting 8-9 hours of play for your relatively small investment is a bargain.  Where else could you get so much entertainment for so little cost? 

Maybe the problem is that I’m just no good at poker?  I mean, if I was consistently finishing in the top 3 of these tournaments I play in, I’d be rather happy, right?  Maybe I should shut the fudge up and try to be a better poker player?  So I wouldn’t have to worry about min-cashing?  Yeah, maybe.

But for now, I’m just really frustrated that you could invest a not insignificant amount of money (for me), play for so, so long and have so little to show for it.  Which brings me back to a flatter pay scale (more money at the bottom) that I’ve ranted about before.  But honestly, am I wrong in thinking that if you’re going to bring people back for a second day, you have to give them enough money to make it worth the return trip?

As it happens, not long before I played this tournament, I saw a tweet from a friend of mine who “complained” about playing in a GN tournament (a $240 one, I believe) because it was a two-day event.  And she said that two-days was too much tournament for that price point.  I mentioned this to Sam when I saw him next time at MGM, and he was a bit perturbed, especially since she was a friend of his as well.  At the time, I scoffed, as he did, at the thought of their being basically too much value in a tournament structure.  But after playing in the $150 NLH I’m about to describe, I definitely understood what she was saying.

My guess is that for next year’s GPS, the then-current management team will make the structures a lot less player-friendly.  For me, a perfectly viable alternative (and even a better one) would be to flatten the pay scale.  You want to have a two-day tournament for $150?  Make sure that everyone who comes back for Day 2 gets $1K (note: in all honestly, that would have to depend on the total prize pool—if there were only 100 runners, you surely couldn’t do that, it would have to be proportional).

But you know what?  I’m prepared to admit that maybe what I’m asking for just wouldn’t be practical….that maybe it would make no sense to flatten the pay scale the way I want.  Maybe the perfectly correct to response to my concerns is simply, “In that case, Rob, don’t play tournaments.  Stick to cash.”  And yet, I continue to play then, don’t I?  Like I said, I’m crazy. 

The starting stack was $15K, with blinds at 25/50.  There was a 75/150 level, unusual for a tournament starting with 25/50 blinds.  The antes didn’t kick in until level 5, where it was 25/100/200.  Those are the same blinds, minus the antes, as level 4.  And remember, these first eight levels were 30 minutes.  See what I mean about a great structure?

Yeah, I’m done with part 1 and didn’t even get to any hands.  Sorry about that.  But I needed to write all of the above to help set the stage for how I felt at various stages of the tournament, and it will even help explain how I played certain hands.  Next part I will actually start discussing hands that I played.  Promise. And that part 2 has now been posted, see here.


  1. I'm a recreational tourney player but I gotta agree that was way way to long to have to play for that low of a payout. I would almost pay $400 not to sit at a table that long. It's a big reason I don't play as much anymore. I don't wanna sit around that long unless its a big payout. It's a fine line tho. I found the V had a good structure but even that was a bit long. When the Hard Rock first opened their poker room they actually had good tounements. They usually went 2-3 hours maybe a bit more and the payout was good and good turnouts. I guess it's all completely subjective as to what players are looking for.

    1. Thanks and yes....its subjective for everyone. Might be fine for tournament grinders who play every single day....they are good enough to hit one of the top 3 payouts often enough to make it all worthwhile. For the recreational player tho....well, if you want to fill a day, ok too. I'm in the middle and thus it's problematic.

  2. My issue is that when I'm on vacation I don't wanna spend 8-12 hours at a poker table unless I was playing a really big event. Many more interesting things to do in Vegas especially in the summer. I liked the Hard Rock tourneys that just went a few hours but they killed their poker room. The alternative is playing cash games but I'm much better in tourneys and I don't enjoy cash games as much but it's my only viable option if I wanna get in a bit of poker on a trip.

    1. Of course, there are lots of smaller buy-in tourneys that take 2-4 hours to play. I just personally don't find any value in them. I do want a "long" tournament but I want to be well compensated when I last a long time.

      Too much to ask? Perhaps.

    2. Not really its just not easy to find unfortunately. I play Bay 101 where I'm at not too bad but not my favorite place. Used to cash for between 3-500 on the small buy ins depending on how many players. Of the ones I've played in Vegas the V was probably the best as well as Aria. Just hate playing 8-10 hours for nothing although maybe I saved money being at the table. Also you get better players when the buy in is higher and that's actually a good thing. Played with a few of the recognizable names at the V tourneys surprisingly

  3. How can you say $7k seems fine for first place, 24 spots paid seems right, then go on to say min cash should be $1k, all the while keep it a $150 tournament because that is what you want to play? The money has to come from somewhere, if you put some much money (7x buyin) into min cash, then the first place is going to be not much better than min cash, unless you drastically reduce the number of spots paid, say to 5 spots for 229 runners.

    The only way your criteria could be satisfied is for GN to put up a big guaranteed that falls way short of meeting. $200k guaranteed for 229 runners in a $150 tourney ought to do it.

    1. How can I say....well I already answered that in the post. poker tournaments drive my crazy!

      I said $7K was fine based just on the # of players and the buy-in. I didn't do the math and I also said that what I'm looking for may just not be workable.

      I suppose $1K for the final 9 is unrealistic, but I think you could take money off the top three spots and make it more worthwhile to return for the second day. Another thing is....don't make it a two day tournament unless you can figure out a way to reward the people coming back for that second day with enough $$. Maybe a $150 two day tournament is never gonna be practical (especially by my criteria).

      I don't want to see any poker room have to put in an overlay and lose money. That's not good for poker.

      As I said, maybe it would impossible to make what I'm asking for work.

    2. "Now, I don’t mean I expect to get $1K for a min cash, of course not (unless I’m playing much bigger tournaments)."

    3. Yep...I did say that! :)

    4. I see, I misread your post thinking you want to have a 1k min cash. Problem with reading on my phone while still waking up 8-)

      May be a $150 2 days tourney is just too long because of the payout. Everyone look for different things in a tourney. I usually don't play anything that is less than a $300 one day live tourney. I look at my what my wild ass guess at ROI, divided by the average hours I would play in said tourney and decide if it is worth my time.

    5. Ah yes...the "wild ass guess," That's my go-to as well.

      Maybe some day I will play in a big enough tournament so that the min cash is $1K!

    6. I think you played in one already. C O L O S S U S.....

    7. Holy shit, you are correct. I forgot...the min cash for that was $1,096.

      Which, btw, was LESS than double the buy-in. :)

  4. I always really enjoy reading your blog, Rob.

    I strongly agree with your point about the tournament payouts being too steep. This is true not just at the GN, but everywhere in Las Vegas that I played this summer. Even in tournaments with 18, 24, 30 payout spots, the vast majority of the prize pool is going to the top 3 spots. If they flattened out the pay structure a bit, I think it would be a huge improvement.

    I had tournaments where I placed half way up the pay scale (eg, 9th place with 18 places paid out of 185 players), where I got slightly less than 3 buy-ins in pay. So I'm in the top 5%, and still profiting slightly less than 2 buy-ins. Just doesn't seem right / worth it.

    One would think that tournament directors would rather have 18 (or however many) very happy customers, rather than 3 very happy customers. I think part of it is they like to tout the high number awarded to first place. If the pay scale was flattened a bit, I think it would be a huge improvement to the game.

    I will respectfully disagree about the GN structure, though. I played several of the GN Grand Series tournaments this summer, and I loved the structure. There was plenty of play time, and enough room in the stacks to "maneuver" a bit, at least in the first several levels. I played all over Las Vegas this summer, and honestly think the GN had the best structure and were the best run tournaments anywhere in town. (And I say that even though all my cashes were elsewhere this year). Kudos to the Golden Nugget. I may have a different perspective, though, as a local, because I'm not in a rush to cram in as much poker as possible during a weeklong trip, as I'm sure folks on a limited trip probably are.

    If they'd just flatten the pay scale a bit, I'd be a very happy camper. I'm not a leftist, but this is one place where I think "spread the wealth" is a good idea. Keep up the good work on the blog; I never miss one of your posts.

    1. Thanks Bruce, and thanks for the kind words. Glad you like this silly stuff.

      I think they'd get more players if the flattened the payouts, that's one of the points I made in that min-cash post. IF that happened, the top 3 places could end up getting the same as now or maybe even more--but it would tougher to get there, since there'd be more players.

      Don't get me wrong, I thought the GN structures were awesome. They were just TOO awesome! Too good for the price structure.

      Actually tho, I think a lot of my objection could have been addressed by flattening the pay outs. If you're gonna make somebody return to your venue a second day to pick up a cash prize (especially a tourist), you need to pay them more money than they did. That's really where my objection lies more than anything else.

      I would play that same structure in a minute if I felt that the $$ for coming back to Day 2 was going to worth the effort.

      I suppose it was worse for me because I was staying near the Strip, had to return to downtown, a pain in itself, and then of course parking stinks downtown.

  5. where is part 2 AAARRGHH

    1. LOL....it's nice to hear that you want more!

      Hang in there, my friend. I'll have part 2 posted later today.