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17/03/2006 No.39
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Friday March 17, 2006
How to play poker
(How to play has been running from issue 16)

The tournament dream is getting out of hand. Time was when poker was all about the bread-and-butter cash games: grinding out a living over hours at the poker table. Patience was key. People waited for hands. As Al Alvarez likes to say, you needed "a leather ass".

These days, it's less leather ass than ants in the pants. The speed of the internet, the vast sums involved in televised poker and the lower average age of players combine to make a world where everyone wants to win a fortune between lunch and dinner. No one can wait. Cash games are old hat; it's all about the jackpots of the tournament trail, where patience takes a back seat to aggression and luck.


Last week, I was at the final of the European Poker Tour in Monte Carlo. First prize was €900,000 (£600,000). Those who were knocked out played "sit-and-gos" - one-table, 10-runner tournaments completed within a couple of hours. On the second day, they ran $10,000 (£6,000) sit-and-gos. That is, each player put up $10,000 for a two-hour poker game. On day three, they ran a $20,000 version.

Playing in these games were two world champions: Greg Raymer, who won $5m at the 2004 World Series, and Joe Hachem, who won $7.5m there in 2005. For these guys, the stakes were peanuts. For others, it's dangerous to be dazzled by sums like this. A €1,000 multi-table tournament, which ran on the fourth day, was referred to by players as "the little comp". Ten years ago, it would have been the feature event.

If you ask me, it's all gone crazy. However respectable and glamorous poker becomes in the modern world, the fact remains that you can still go broke. Many people do. Chasing pots of this size is particularly expensive. Tournaments are knockout in nature: nine-tenths of the field will never see their buy-in money back again. Cash games are slower, safer and involve a lot less gambling.

Nevertheless, a trend is a trend; and while luck plays a part in tournaments, there are tactics too. For the next few weeks, I'll be talking particularly about tournament strategy.