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PokerNews Op-Ed: Are Deep Stacks Good for Poker Tournaments?

PokerNews Op-Ed: Are Deep Stacks Good for Poker Tournaments? 0001

Creating tournament structures are my passion and one of the things I have always liked the most about being a tournament director. I have been involved in creating some of the best structures, including the World Series of Poker, Bay 101 WPT Shooting Star, and 2009 LA Poker Classic Main Event. I’ve also created some of the worst structures at charity events and made-for-television tournaments that have time constraints. My passion borders on obsession because I spend much more time than I should analyzing my structures and those of other tournament directors.

Building the perfect balance

Many factors go into creating structures, including where you want the play (early, middle or late), available tables, keeping management happy, how long you want the tournament to last, and even dealer tips. As a tournament director, I am constantly stuck between management’s needs and players’ desires, but I have always leaned toward making the players happy. However, the constant call for more chips has me wondering whether players really know what good structures are or whether the demands of the masses are more important than sticking to what I believe in.

Are deep-stack tournaments really the best structures?

The big questions are (1) how long do you want a tournament to last, and (2) where do you want your play — at the beginning, middle or late stages. Some tournaments are giving double, triple or even more chips, and I am not quite sure where this is going to stop. To accommodate for the added chips, tournaments need to double up the blinds and eliminate levels that may be key to the tournament.

In a deep-stack tournament, you get plenty of play in the beginning, which allows you to take a bad beat or make a mistake. But, in the middle to late stages, you pay the price because play turns into a real crapshoot. If a tournament starting with 3,000 in chips lasts 16 to 20 hours and a deep stack tournament starting with 10,000 takes the same amount of time, it makes sense that the structure will deteriorate in the mid-to-late stages.

With so many chips given at the beginning, few players go out during the first few levels, so the average stack diminishes as the blinds go higher, which creates a rubber-band effect that eventually snaps. Then you will see that the majority of players are short stacked in the middle stages.

I think that the play belongs later in the tournament when it matters most. With deep-stack tournaments, you must take out levels or the tournaments will either last until early in the morning or require another day to complete. When the Borgata (the leader in deep-stack tournaments) went to a triple stack, the final table lasted under 50 hands and ended at 100,000-200,000 with a 20,000 ante. In contrast, we ended after 186 hands at Bay 101 with the blinds at 10,000-20,000 and a 3,000 ante, and it could have lasted a lot longer if Brandon Cantu had not dominated the tournament.

Strangely enough, I prefer to play in deep-stack tournaments, but I consider myself a bad player in no-limit and hope to make it to the stage at which I can get lucky to win. In a smooth balanced structure, it stands to reason that if you get deep, the skill becomes more important. In a recent poll I took, players' main reason given for preferring deep-stack tournaments was “fish like deep stacks and don’t care about the later levels”; “donks like more chips.” I have also heard the case that deep stacks give you the ability to come back from a bad beat, being able to make bigger raises early in the tournament without risking their stacks. The arguments against deep-stack tournaments included “early play is meaningless,” “they always become shove fests in the mid to late stages,” and the “final tables are crapshoots.”

Here is a look at a typical $300 deep-stack tournament with 40-minute levels and 10,000 in chips:

1st Level-25-50
2nd Level-50-100
3rd Level-100-200
4th Level25100-200
5th Level25200-400
6th Level50300-600
7th Level75400-800
8th Level100600-1200
9th Level200800-1,600
10th Level3001,000-2,000
11th Level5001,500-3,000
12th Level5002,000-4,000
13th Level1,0003,000-6,000
14th Level1,0004,000-8,000
15th Level2,0006,000-12,000
16th Level3,0008,000-16,000
17th Level4,00010,000-20,000
18th Level5,00015,000-30,000
19th Level5,00020,000-40,000
20th Level10,00030,000-60,000
21st Level15,00060,000-120,000
22nd Level15,00080,000-160,000

And here is the structure in place for the LA Poker Classic $300 event with 3,000 in chips (hour-long levels at the final table).

1st Level-25-25
2nd Level-25-50
3rd Level-50-100
4th Level-100-200
5th Level25100-200
6th Level25150-300
7th Level50200-400
8th Level50250-500
9th Level75300-600
10th Level100400-800
11th Level100500-1,000
12th Level200600-1,200
13th Level200800-1,600
14th Level3001,000-2,000
15th Level4001,200-2,400
16th Level5001,500-2,000
17th Level5002,000-4,000
18th Level5002,500-5,000
19th Level1,0003,000-6,000
20th Level1,0004,000-8,000
21st Level1,0005,000-10,000
22nd Level2,0006,000-12,000
23rd Level2,0008,000-16,000
24th Level3,00010,000-20,000
25th Level4,00012,000-24,000
26th Level5,00015,000-30,000
27th Level5,00020,000-40,000
28th Level5,00025,000-50,000

As you can see at the end of the 21st level in the deep-stack tournament, you are playing 80,000-160,000 with a 15,000 ante and in the regular deep structure it is only at 6,000-12,000 with a 2,000 ante. With a little less than one-third of the starting chips, you are paying less than one-tenth the big-blind amount of the deep-stack tournament. What that translates into is that the event with the 3,000 in starting chips will last much longer despite starting with 120 big blinds, compared to 200 in the deep-stack tournament.

Deep-stack tournaments appeal to the masses, which may not be a bad thing either because the largest group gets the most play in the early stages and it is far fewer who will get to experience the high blinds of the later stages. While keeping the most players is very important to me as a tournament director, I also think it is important to keep the play where it matters most.

It is also more costly to casinos to have more play at the beginning of the tournament, and that cost gets passed on the customers through higher entry fees, staff withholding, or the latest trend $5 or $10 for even more chips.

While I think it has become a good marketing tool to put Deep Stack, Mega Stack, or Super Stack in the title, I still do not feel that it is necessary for every tournament to go deepstacked. Once players become more savvy and educated, they will figure out the gimmick. The good news is that there are so many different tournaments that players can choose the buy-in, location and structure they prefer.

Matt Savage is the world’s most recognized tournament director and has been involved with almost 400 televised events including the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and many others. He is a founder of the Tournament Directors Association, the first inductee into the Poker Managers Hall of Fame, and actor in the movie "Lucky You." If you have questions about any rulings, please send them to or contact Matt at his website

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