Thursday, August 03, 2006

Poker Tournament "Alternates" Part I

I recently played in a World Series of Poker event in Las Vegas. The WSOP is the largest series of poker tournaments, with 45 total events and it boasts the largest poker tournament (the "Main Event") year after year. The fields are so large that the casino cannot accommodate all the entrants at the start of many of the events. Typically, the tournament area can hold up to 2000 starting players. This year, the WSOP Main Event was so large that the "first day" was broken up into 4 first days (day 1a, day 1b, day 1c and day 1d) to accommodate the 8500 entrants. Harrahs, the casino operator that manages the tournaments, has implemented several other changes to satisfy the public's desire for these large tournaments.

One thing that they did is sqeeze 11 players per table instead of the typical 9. This makes play rather uncomfortable (11 players plus the dealer!), but it is probably a necessary evil. Casinos have to compete with online poker rooms, which typically seat 10 players per table and can easily accommodate HUGE tournaments, with 5000+ players.

The other measure that they take is the notion of "alternates." The casino will initially seat as many players as possible and then the rest of the entrants are designated as alternates. These players will fill the empty seats as the seated players bust out of the tournament.

When I first heard of this, I thought that these alternates would be at an extreme disadvantage. This is because I assumed that the alternates would come into a table where a seated player was just removed, with his chips being spread around the 10 already seated players. Since (with all other factors being equal) players with more chips are more likely to win, you would usually be at a disadvantage to these 10 players. This would very likely result in the alternate player being eliminated and the next alternate player would have to take your seat, where he would be at an even greater disadvantage. This would result in somewhat of a "black hole seat," where each alternate sitting in this seat getting sucked into the netherlands of space.

This was not the case. As players are eliminated, the dealer hands a card representing his seat to the tournament director. The tournament director would wait until he had 11 of these cards and he would go to the first unbroken table (first table #1, then table #2, etc) and distribute the 11 cards randomly to the players seated there. All 11 players at this table would have to move to the seats designated on the card they received.

After this, 11 alternate players would be seated at this empty table. They start with the same amount that the non-alternates started with, so they are at almost no disadvantage. There is very little chance that they will fall into a "black hole seat" like the situation that I described earlier. Yes, they are at a slight disadvantage compared to the rest of the field, but the disadvantage is greatly mitigated by this method.

If you want to know why, you can consider the tournament that I entered. My tournament started with approximately 200 tables, each 11 handed with each player starting with $1500 in tournament chips (T1500). That was approximately 2200 seated players, with around 800 alternates waiting at the rail. During play, I heard the tournament director introduce around 50 new tables, or 550 alternates.

Let's consider the very first alternate. After the first player is eliminated from the tournament, the average chip stack for the table would be (11 initial players x T1500) / 10 players left = T1650, but you would only have T1500. Instead of having 9.090909% of the chips at your table, you would only have 8.333333%.

On the other hand, with the "fill new tables with alternates" method, you are at an even playing field with the rest of the table. There are only two ways that you will be affected by the fact that you are an alternate:
  • A player from another table is moved to your table.
  • You are moved to another table.
If a player from another table is moved to your table, in the best case scenario, you will actually have an advantage over this player. This is usually true at the beginning of a tournament when a player is eliminated from your table. This is because you will have T1650, but the average chip stack will be (200 tables x 11 players x T1500) / (199 tables x 11 players) = T1507.54. Of course, your advantage would have been negligibly higher if you were amongst the initial field of 2200, but not by much.

It is very unlikely that you will be moved to another table if you are an alternate. You would only be moved if there are more alternates than non-alternates, since tables are not broken up a second time (alternates only sit at broken tables) until all non-broken tables have been broken.

A few things are true when considering alternates. The alternates brought into the tournament near the start have the smallest disadvantage compared to the rest of the alternates. You might even say that they have somewhat of an advantage because there is almost no chance that they will have a seat change. This gives them the opportunity to study their players more. When you are moved to another table, you have to re-learn who the weak and strong players are.

Alternates brought into the tournament near the end of the eligibility period are affected much more. Not only do they have to contend with bigger blinds, but their relative chip size is greatly affected by the rest of the field. If you are the 50th alternate table, you start with T1500, but the players not at your table will have (249 tables x 11 players x T1500) / (199 tables x 11 players) = T1876.88. This means that when you eliminate someone from your table, the person who sits at your table will most likely have more chips than the rest of you.

I think this method is very well thought out and it is good for live poker. If you play in a WSOP event, I would try to enter late in the registration period to ensure either a high table number or a low alternate number. Don't register 5 minutes before the tournament starts. Try to register 1 or 2 nights before. This will put you in the best position to stay in the same seat throughout the tournament (or at least the majority of the first day).


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