A Wise Hitman Chooses His Targets Carefully…
If you aren’t playing knockout poker tournaments as a part of your schedule, you’re seriously missing out. They’re both the most fun and the biggest value format on the internet these days.
What Are Knockout Tournaments All About?
Knockout tournaments are like regular tournaments, except that in the knockout format a percentage of the prize pool is awarded in bounties (typically either 20% or 50%.)
Everyone has a bounty on their head, and by knocking out a player you get to keep their bounty. At first glance, it doesn’t sound like rocket science. However, bounty tournaments have long been the best value tournaments in online poker for a reason.
Even most winning players have glaring leaks in their games when it comes to dealing with knockouts. Turns out that playing optimal knockout poker isn’t so easy, after all…
A Quick Look at Bounty Tournament Variants
There are several subcategories of knockout tournaments out there. These are 3 common ones nowadays.
- In Super Knockouts, 50% of your buy-in goes to the regular prize pool, and the other half ends up on your scalp. So, in a $100 SuperKnockout tournament, you’re basically playing a $50 buy-in MTT where you also get $50 for each knockout.
- (Regular) Knockouts are the same as above, except that the bounty is worth only 20%, meaning that the bounties are fairly insignificant. This used to be the only bounty variant offered, until someone finally realized that they need to up the value of each bounty to make things more interesting.
- In Progressive SuperKnockout (Bounty Builders on PokerStars), the starting value of each bounty in a $100 tournament is again $50, but the twist is that when you knock out someone, you only get half of their bounty, and the other half is added to your own bounty. So, if you bust someone in the first hand of the tournament, you net $25, and your own bounty goes up to $75. If someone then busts you, they net $37,50, and the other half goes to their bounty, etc, etc. This is the most popular format nowadays, and certainly the most fun as in the late stages the bounties tend to get insanely valuable.
Does it sound complicated? I didn’t think so at first, either. It seems clear that in a regular knockout, the bounties are almost meaningless and we should barely chase them at all, while in SuperKnockouts we should be taking some risks, since the bounties make for half of the entire prize pool.
That’s all reasonable, and not far from the truth. Yet arriving at those conclusions is only a tiny part of puzzle.
Essential Bounty Tournament Math
Most players think of bounties in monetary terms. Facing an all-in by a shorter stack, they think of the money they’ll receive if they win the hand. This is the wrong approach.
Since we are playing poker tournaments and not cash games, we must do our calculations in tournament chips, not real-world currency. To be able to make the right calls, we must know what each bounty is worth in chips. Figuring this out is pretty easy.
In a SuperKnockout tournament, you get x chips (in this example; 3,000) for 50 percent of your buy-in. One bounty is worth one starting stack in Super Knockout tournaments. Thus, a bounty is worth 3,000 chips.
Similarly, in a regular knockout tournament you would receive 3,000 chips for 80 percent of your buy-in, meaning the bounty is worth 750 chips.
In the Progressive Knockout tournament format it becomes a fair bit more complicated. Using a typical Progressive SuperKnockout tournament with 50% bounty prize pool and 3,000 starting stack as an example, the initial starting bounty is worth a little over 1,500 chips (50% of the 3,000 chips, since the other 50% goes to your own bounty).
Why a little over? Because the winner of the tournament gets to keep their own bounty, and thus you always have some equity of the bounty on yourself. In the early levels of a mass-field tournament, that extra equity is almost worthless, but it can become quite a big deal later on. Still, I’d generally advice to all but ignore the equity you have on your own bounty, unless you’re at the very late stages of a tournament.
Why Essential Bounty Math Isn’t Perfect
The above section is what you should use as the basic foundation of approaching math in knockout tournaments, but it’s by no means perfect. The main reason is that since we’re playing tournaments, the chips we gain are always less valuable than the chips we lose (see: Introduction to ICM).
Without accounting for ICM, your stack’s value could theoretically reach more than the first place prize in the tournament, which is clearly impossible.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s also often hidden value in calling a bit looser than you “should” – this is especially true when you’re short-stacked. A good example would be a spot like this:
It folds to the BTN.
BTN (8 BB) goes all-in
SB (10 BB) folds
BB (Hero, 8.1 BB) is contemplating calling with a hand slightly below what the push/fold charts would advocate.
Here, if you fold preflop, you’ll become the shortest stack at the table, and thus your immediate “bounty equity” becomes zero – you can’t win anyone’s bounty by knocking them out, because you’re the shortest stack.
But if you call and win, you not only get the button’s bounty, but you’ll now also cover the player to your right, who’ll be shoving his short stack in the middle soon. Since you also have position on him, you’ll have dibs on the bounty, and thus your future equity on his bounty adds some value into calling the initial shove.
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The Biggest Leak to Avoid in Bounty Tournaments
I could write a book on the myriad common mistakes that people make in bounty tournaments, but this is by far both the most common and expensive one: Not adjusting to the stage of the tournament and failing to understand the chip value of each bounty.
If you’re capable of always forming a rough estimate of the value (in chips!) of each bounty, you’re already better off than many winning regulars.
An unbelievably large amount of seasoned bounty hunters are still treating the bounties for their cash value, even though whether the extra chips in the bounty are meaningful or not depends entirely on the stage of the tournament.
Let’s look at an example of when calling off loose is actually good.
$100 SuperKnockout tournament, 3,000 chip starting stack, blinds 150/300/30
It folds to the player in the Small Blind
Small Blind goes all-in for 3,000 chips, Hero covers in the big blind.
Here, the pot size is actually 6,570 chips (antes, Hero’s BB, the 3,000-chip shove, and the 3,000-chip bounty).
Hero needs to call 2,700 to win a pot of 9,270 = Hero needs only 29.1% equity for the call to be correct.
Clearly, the bounty here is very significant, since without the bounty there would be 3,000 chips less in the pot, and Hero would need 43% to call.
Now let’s look at an example of when calling off loose is a complete disaster.
$100 SuperKnockout, on the Final Table Bubble with 10 Players Left. Blinds at 15,000/30,000/3,000.
It folds to the player in the Small Blind.
SB shoves on us for 300,000 chips (10 big blinds), Hero covers in the Big Blind
In this example the 3,000 chip bounty is only worth one ante; in other words, basically nothing.
In this example, you need to call off additional 270,000 chips to win a pot of 618,000 total – you need 43.7% for the call to be correct. Without the bounty the number would be 43.9%. Obviously that 0.2% has basically no effect on the correct calling range.
Yet time after time you see people making loose calls in hopes of getting the bounty – this is because they only see them for their cash value. The immediate $50 cash award for knocking you out blinds them, even though making a bad call can easily cost them 20 times that.
Common Bounty Tournament Leaks
- Not understanding the real value of each Progressive SuperKnockout bounty
We already went through this, but once more for good measure: You only actually get half of the value you see next to a player’s avatar. The other half goes to your own bounty (of which you then have some equity as long as you have chips).
- Calling shoves too loose in general
I’m slightly repeating myself here, but I really want to make sure to drive this home. At least 95 percent of any bounty MTT field will call shoves way too loose in hopes of getting the bounty. It’s a rare case when it’s the other way around. You should always expect to get called more liberally than you’d think, and thus adjust your own shoving ranges in many spots.
- Playing too tight early on
However, surprisingly many people also play too tight in the early levels. It’s interesting how a large part of the bounty MTT-playing population guards their stacks with precision early on, only to blast it off making terrible calls when the blinds get bigger.
In reality, not having the willingness to gamble early on is quite a big leak. This is because the bounties are always so much more valuable at the early stages – 3,000 chips means more with the blinds at 50/100 than 5,000/10,000. And also, falling behind early is costly, because when you’re the shortest stack, you don’t have a chance of winning anyone else’s bounty.
It’s important to realize that if you don’t cover anyone, you’re only playing for half of the prize pool.
Let’s say you have a flush draw during the early levels and your opponent goes all-in, not quite giving you direct pot odds to call. If you cover them and thus can win their bounty, then you pretty much always have the odds already.
But even if you don’t, it’s important to consider how much you’ll be left with if you fold. I’m generally pretty happy to take a gamble in a spot where I’d become the shortest stack at the table by folding, but by hitting my draw would cover most players.
The difference in “future bounty equity” would be vast enough to justify a call in most cases.
Still, I want to stress that you also shouldn’t do anything batshit crazy to get that early lead – while you’re only playing for half of the prize pool as the shortest stack, you’re playing for none of it if you bust the tournament.
- Reading the dynamics wrong/over-leveling
This is something that I wouldn’t particularly think about at the lower levels, but I see this happen a lot at higher stakes. I recently read a thread posted by a very good player, about a spot he’d encountered in a $1,000 buy-in Progressive SuperKnockout tournament that he’d found particularly tough.
The hand spawned pages and pages of discussion, and it went roughly like this:
Late stages of a $1,000 Progressive KO. Hero’s bounty is worth $5,500.
Hero (27 BB) raises to 2.1 BB with from CO
SB (100 BB, very good regular) 3-bets to 6.1 BB
BB (45 BB) folds, Hero ?
I stared at the hand for a while. Surely I must be missing something? Why had this hand been debated for weeks on end?
I read through the replies. A shockingly large amount of them advocated a fold. The second most popular option was calling, hoping to hit something.
Only a small amount of posters advocated a shove. Why? Because they all thought that the small blind’s range must be insanely strong, since our bounty is so huge and thus he’s laying himself odds to call with virtually anything he 3-bets with.
The hand is a good example of how playing bounty MTTs can mess with your head. You’re basically playing two different games simultaneously, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep your head straight on both fronts at the same time. It happens to everyone now and then, no matter how strong their fundamentals are. When this happens, it’s usually best to simplify the situation as much as you can in your head.
In the example above, I would shove without any hesitation for three reasons:
- He can have a worse hand for value, since he would be correct to 3-bet/call off with hands like K-Q or A-T.
- He can still fold to a shove. If I was in SB’s shoes, I’d throw in some pure bluffs into my 3-betting range expecting the CO to make some tight folds.
- We have a top 5% hand in the cutoff 27 big blinds deep, for ****’s sakes
While the bounties add another dimension to the game, it’s good to keep in my mind that we’re still just playing a poker tournament, and there’s no need to make things more difficult than they already are. You should still, first and foremost, try to play somewhat solid tournament poker. Look for reasons to deviate from the norm, don’t deviate from it as a standard.
Most hands will still roughly play the same, regardless of the bounties involved, and there’s no need to make absurd adjustments and level ourselves into oblivion.
Final Table Play in Progressive Knockouts
In any progressive knockout format, the last player standing will also get his own bounty in full. So, by knocking out your last opponent in the tournament, you’ll not only get their entire bounty, but also 100 percent of your own.
Thus, Progressive Knockouts (and especially Progressive SuperKnockouts) always have a very top heavy payout structure, and it’s important to always push for the win, with respect to ICM.
If we take a look at this final table, for example:
The prize pool:
As we know, by knocking out someone, you only get half of the amount shown next to the player’s avatar. However, since by knocking someone out here you’ll also get heads-up, your equity on the last two remaining bounties is also quite significant. Once we get to this part of the tournament, I’m not opposed to treating the bounties according to their cash value (since final table ICM also deals with real-life currency).
So, what should be our basic strategy as each player here?
rikinhd: We have the chip lead, and the first thing we should notice is that apop33’s bounty is quite large. We should look for a shot to knock him out before the other player does. However, it’s also important to protect our stack – we currently have a great shot at winning every bounty left in the tournament regardless.
So I’d try to play somewhat typical final table poker – try to pressure my opponents, but not take any crazy risks. It’s noteworthy that if we double up either of the remaining players, we’ll no longer have the chip lead, and not being able to immediately knock out apop33 anymore would be pretty bad for us. Also, Noooooooooow’s bounty is almost meaningless, and we must avoid doing anything stupid trying to chase it.
In a nutshell, I’d play close to how I’d play as the chip leader of a normal tournament at this stage. The most common mistake that people make here is going after apop33 like crazy and getting their chips in really bad – while getting that bounty is lucrative, we still have a good shot and banking all the remaining bounties and our own anyway by steadily grinding away by playing small pots.
apop33: Our situation is quite interesting, because our bounty is so big that we’ll get called light for sure when we go all-in. Since the other short stack’s bounty is so tiny, doubling up doesn’t have any immediate upsides from a bounty perspective. Thus, I’d avoid running huge bluffs for the most part, and concentrate on trying to make the $95 (19 buy-ins!) payjump first.
But still, by no means should we play like a nit. It’s always a bit of a disaster to end up second in a progressive KO tournament. If rikinhd busts the other guy, we’ll get the payjump, but then he’ll also have a 3.5:1 chiplead over us heads-up, where we’ll play for a total of $417,26 (half of Noooooooooow’s bounty, plus the last two bounties in full, plus the payjump difference between 1st and 2nd place).
It would be better to have more chips going into the heads-up, since that would give us a better chance of winning the whole thing and all that extra money. It’s noteworthy that the first place prize in itself (without bounties included) is $481, but the difference between first and second is almost worth as much when you count the final two bounties. In apop33’s shoes, I’d take some calculated risks, but try to time my moves as well as possible, because both of my opponents would call me off light for sure.
Noooooooooow: I’d actually play the most aggressive of the bunch in his shoes, especially against apop33. We really, really want to get that bounty – while the next payjump is $95, knocking out apop33 would immediately net us $89,73, plus we’d get heads-up with more or less even stacks playing for another $347,16.
It’s true that ICM still matters, and that $95 payjump is something to be taken seriously as well, but I’d try to push for the win and I’d happily take some risks, especially against apop33. If we knock out apop33, we’ll not only get the payjump and the bounty, but we’ll also have 50% equity on the remaining $347.16. Trying to maximize our chances at getting all the money is clearly more important than just getting that one payjump.
Again, I wouldn’t do anything crazy, but I’d consider playing too tight and limping into second a bigger mistake than making a slightly questionable shove and regularly getting knocked out in third.
P.S: I chose to not cover some less popular knockout formats here simply to avoid this article ending up too long. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments box below or you can tweet at me @chuckbasspoker.