Nate Silver Talks About Poker Tournament Death

The 2019 World Series of Poker is over. The same night that Hossein Ensan won the Main Event, Carl Shaw won the 89th and final event of the Series, $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em. There were 89 winners at the World Series of Poker (91 if you count the trio that won the Tag Team event separately), but there were a hundred thousand-something people who did not win tournaments. As the Main Event was getting underway, famed statistician, founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, and once avid poker player Nate Silver* tweeted a list of the ten “major causes of death in a poker tournament,” a clever list that spurred some fun conversation.

He described the list as not specifically having to do with a player’s bust-out hand, but rather the hand or condition any time in a tournament “that most contributes to your demise.” Here is Silver’s list:

a. Lose a big flip (i.e. AK vs JJ)
b. Get the money in as a favorite but get sucked out on
c. Get coolered (run your strong hand into an even stronger hand)
d. Make a hero call but the opponent has it
e. Make a big naked bluff that doesn’t work
f. Make a big semi-bluff that doesn’t get there
g. Call with a draw because of pot odds and don’t get there
h. Get pot-stuck over multiple streets (either as bettor or caller) with a medium-strength hand
i. Be card dead / get blinded down
j. Make a big fold to cripple your stack and the lose the rest by one of the other methods

It is possible to come up with additions to the list, but they are almost always going to be version of one of the above or a combination of more than one of the above.

Where the Final Hand of the 2019 WSOP Main Event Fits In

Nate Silver at the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown in April 2019
Photo credit: WPT via flickr

If we go back to the final hand of the 2019 WSOP Main Event, Dario Sammartino’s tournament death, in this case his final hand, is option (f) from Nate Silver’s list, “Make a big semi-bluff that doesn’t get there.”

Sammartino had 8-4 of spades and the board read T-6-2-9 with two spades when he made his all-in move. He didn’t have made hand, but instead was on a semi-bluff. Even if he was behind (which he most certainly was, as Ensan had pocket Kings), he still had plenty of flush and straight outs to win the hand; Sammartino had about a one in four shot.

One could also make the argument that the moment was partially point (h), “Get pot-stuck over multiple streets (either as bettor or caller) with a medium-strength hand,” though Sammartino still would have had about 40 big blinds if he did not continue with the hand and a semi-bluff really isn’t a “medium-strength hand.”

Sammartino got into the situation he was in about 80 hands earlier, as he was either close or leading for a while heads-up before Ensan pulled away. It is hard to pinpoint a “cause of death” if looking at it from that perspective.

Pick Your Poison

After his top ten list, Silver followed up with the question, “Also, which is the “best” way to lose? (i.e. the one you feel least tilted about afterward). Which is the worst way?”

That elicited a boatload of responses and the interesting thing is that many of them were polar opposites of each other. For instance, @JonLawson32 said, “Getting coolered always pisses me off,” but @peterthomasgct went with, “KK vs AA preflop is probably ‘best’”

Here is another conflicting pair:

“Worst way is being a 95% favorite when money is in and then getting runner-runnered” (@tafkokints)
“Sucked out on is the ‘best’ way to lose.” (@greggentry1)

A lot of people said that they can deal with making the right move but having a bad result. I suppose I can see that, but for me, personally, it’s nauseating to get it in with the best hand only for my opponent to hit a miracle river. I suppose later I can feel good about how I played, but it’s extremely painful in the moment and I end up playing the “what if” scenarios in my head for quite some time.

I hate getting coolered, too. I know many poker players are comfortable knowing that getting it all in with, say, Kings versus Aces pre-flop is nearly unavoidable, but I when that situation would happen, I would always think to myself that I should have been able to see it coming and fold. It’s so easy to convince oneself that your opponent is raising and re-raising pre-flop with Queens when it should be so obvious that he or she has Aces.

Beyond the shock and vomit-inducing rage that getting two-outed or similarly sucked out on causes, for me the worst is probably just going card dead and/or never hitting flops. You slowly fade away in the tournament and just don’t end up having any fun. I feel like there was nothing I could do, while at the same time kicking myself for not reading my opponents well, making some moves, and creating my own luck.

On the flip side, if someone just outplays me, like my 10-year old did the other night, I can tip my cap, sleep fine at night, and wake up determined to be better.

*For all I know, he is still an avid poker player, but he seems extremely busy with other things nowadays.

Lead photo credit: WSOP Facebook page

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