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Let’s Make a Deal: Reasons For and Against Final Table Deals

Xing Zhou (left) and Ying Kit Chan (right)

Players have all sorts of motives for wanting to make final table deals. Indeed, arguments for making such deals can be as varied as the reasons why people play tournaments in the first place.

Sometimes deals are made by players wishing to reduce the significance chance can play at the end of a tournament. Sometimes lesser skilled players might want to make a deal in order to assure themselves a better payday than might happen should they try to play it out against tougher opponents.

And sometimes at the end of a long tournament, players are just plain tired and want to go home.

A memorable final table deal

About a year ago I was many miles from home in Macau reporting on events from the Asia Championship of Poker, including the Main Event which featured a big buy-in of $HKD 100,000, the equivalent of a little less than $13,000 USD.

After several long days of poker just two players remained out of the 184 total entries, Xing Zhou of China and Ying Kit Chan of Hong Kong. The final table had gone fairly rapidly to that point with Zhou having caught a lot of big hands and knocked out several players to carry a huge chip lead to heads-up play. Zhou had 4.86 million to Chan’s 664,000 — a better than 7-to-1 advantage.

It was around 9 p.m., and all of us watching believed the tournament would likely end soon. But Chan started slowly chipping back, then doubled up with {A-Spades}{10-Diamonds} versus Zhou’s {A-Hearts}{J-Diamonds} in a preflop all-in that saw two tens come among the community cards. They played a little longer, took a dinner break, then continued with Chan chipping up and up and up.

Play continued past midnight, then 1 a.m., then 2 a.m. After battling for many hours, Chan finally drew even with Zhou, then even took the lead for a short while before Zhou took it back and began to widen the gap once more.

It approached 3 a.m. They’d been at it nearly six hours! I was starting to think about my flight leaving late that morning from Hong Kong and how I might have trouble catching a ferry from Macau in time for my departure.

Then, suddenly, we all looked up and saw Zhou and Chan talking animatedly while rising from their chairs. It sounded like they were saying “all in,” but both had hands that were still face down on the tables. What was happening?

Soon all became clear. The pair had been dealt hands but before looking at their cards decided to talk about making a deal to divide the remaining prize money and put an end to their marathon match. Zhou had a decent chip lead with more than 3.3 million to Chan’s 2.2 million, but he’d nonetheless agreed simply to divide the remaining prize money right down the middle, 50-50. Instead of the winner getting HKD $4,240,000 (worth a little less than $550,000 USD) and the runner-up HKD $2,854,000 (not quite $370,000 USD), both would get exactly the same amount — HKD $3,547,000.

Why would Zhou agree to such a deal when he had the chip lead? Since he had more of the chips, why didn’t he try to earn himself more of the remaining prize pool when making a deal?

Here’s Zhou himself explaining his reasons for agreeing to a 50-50 split of the remaining money:

As Zhou points out, both fatigue and the fact that this was only his second live tournament made him more than ready to make a deal, even one in which he wasn’t getting the best of terms.

Incidentally, even after the deal was made there was still the matter of deciding who was going to get the trophy and be designated the 2012 ACOP Main Event champion.

Let’s Make a Deal: Reasons For and Against Final Table Deals 101
Ying Kit Chan (left) and Xing Zhou (right)

As mentioned, after making the deal the players decided to go all in without looking at their hands. A board was dealt out, then each player revealed his hole cards one by one to heighten the suspense. As it happened, Zhou — who had Chan covered — had made a straight and Chan two pair. (If you're curious, read the report of that last hand here.) Zhou was technically the winner, but both were champions that night and indeed the pair posed together for some photos at the end such as the one above.

Zhou’s explanation for why he made the deal brings up a few of the reasons for making final table deals. Let’s wrap up our discussion of final table deal-making today by briefly talking about some of those reasons for making deals and also why some players oppose making final table deals.

Making a deal because less experienced

Besides being tired, Zhou recognized that as a less experienced player it was probably in his interest to make a final table deal. Even though Chan had been fortunate to win that early all-in in which he’d had the worse hand, Chan had demonstrated his skill at heads-up play and Zhou knew that even with the chip lead he wasn’t necessarily that big of a favorite to win the tournament.

Generally speaking, players who are less skilled or who have less experience — especially at short-handed or heads-up play — might be more willing to make deals than more seasoned players.

Think about it. Say you found yourself heads-up and even in chips against Phil Ivey, with first place paying $1 million and second $500,000. Just because you’re even in chips, you probably wouldn’t consider yourself even money to win the tournament, so if he offered a deal to split the remaining prize money, it would probably be a good idea to take it. By the same token, Ivey — who knows he has an advantage over you — probably isn’t going to be offering such a deal.

There’s a famous story from the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event of Chris Moneymaker offering a heads-up deal to Sam Farha. A few months ago Grantland published an oral history of that year’s Main Event “When We Held Kings.” In that article, Moneymaker explains how the tournament organizers brought out the cash to set on the table once heads-up began. Moneymaker had the chip lead against Farha, but as the less experienced amateur about to do battle with the crafty veteran, he thought perhaps a deal was in order.

Here’s how Moneymaker explains it:

The stress really kicked in when I saw the money. So I started thinking maybe Sam and I need to talk about a deal here. I said to Sammy, “Let's leave the table and go to the bathroom.” So we walked into the bathroom and I said, “You want to split the money evenly and play for the bracelet?” Sammy's response was, “Instead, we can put it all together — the $2.5 million and the $1.3 million — and play for the whole thing.” Like winner take all. At the time, I thought he was joking. But knowing Sammy now, he probably wasn’t. He said, “In all seriousness, I have more experience. I think I need a little bit more.” Like I should give him more than an even split. I’m like, “Dude, I got you 2-to-1 in chips! Are you crazy?” He's like, “I think I need more.” So I'm like, “We’re playing it out then, straight up.”

Farha also notes how ego played a role in his insisting that he get more than half the money, even though he had a chip deficit. “Even though I’m so tired, says Farha, “I figured this kid can’t beat me, even if I die on the table.”

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Chris Moneymaker

Of course, Moneymaker did go on to win, and without having made a deal took home the entire $2.5 million first prize.

Making a deal to avoid gambling when stacks are shallow

Another big reason why players agree to final table deals has to do with the fact that in a late stage of a tournament the blinds and antes may have increased to a point where luck may be said to outweigh skill to such an extent some players don’t want to “gamble” at a point when the stakes are the highest.

There will be times when a tournament will reach the latter stage of a final table and the blinds and antes are so high everyone’s stacks are essentially “shallow” relatively speaking. This often is the case with online tournaments such as those MicroMillions events on PokerStars we were discussing previously.

The MicroMillions 6 Main Event that played out last Sunday concluded with a three-player deal. As reported on the PokerStars blog, the three players had what seem like super deep stacks of chips at the time they made a deal, with “ZAR84” sitting with almost 300 million, “kabukiboy” next with a little under 226 million, and eventual winner “TheManM” having about 128 million.

However, the blinds at that point were a whopping 5m/10m, which meant even the chip leader had but 30 big blinds with which to work. And with the levels going up every 10 minutes, it wouldn’t be long at all before everyone was going to be in “all-in-or-fold” mode. Thus did a deal seem like a good idea to all three.

Even players who see themselves as more skilled and at an advantage at a final table might be persuaded to make a final table deal in situations when the blinds and antes are so high their relative skill edge is no longer as important as simply catching some good cards.

Making a deal because short-stacked

Finally, if you are the short stack and a final table deal is proposed, you might find yourself willing to go along with a deal so as to avoid a likely outcome, namely, being the next player out and thus unable to make more than whatever the next payout happens to be.

For example, “TheManM” had to be eager to make that deal three-handed in the MicroMillions 6 Main Event when down so low in chips. In fact, both “TheManM” and “kabukiboy” ended up giving a little more to then-leader “ZAR84” than was due according to the “ICM” method (explained in Part 2), since making a deal and assuring themselves well over $100K (at least) looked better to them than risking finishing third and only earning $83,498.88.

Of course, just because you are short-stacked you shouldn’t automatically accept any deal offered to you. Make sure the terms seem fair and that the difference between what you’re offered and what the next payout is makes the deal seem worth taking.

Reasons against making deals

In discussing the reasons for making deals, we’ve already essentially outlined arguments against making them, too, by talking about the three main criteria to be considered when deal-making — experience/skill, how big the blinds/antes are compared to stack sizes, and how many chips you have compared to your opponent(s). Thus...

  • Players with more skill or experience should be less eager to make deals which necessarily lessen (or negate) their edge over their opponents
  • Players should be less eager to make deals if there still remains a lot of “play” with blinds/antes still relatively small compared to stack sizes
  • Players with big chip leads over their opponent(s) should be less eager to make deals and lessen (or negate) the edge they enjoy, chip-wise
Let’s Make a Deal: Reasons For and Against Final Table Deals 103
Daniel Negreanu

Some professional players refuse to consider final table deals no matter what the circumstances, being financially comfortable enough — or simply confident enough in their games — not to have to worry about the possibility of going out earlier than later at a final table. In fact, some oppose final table deal-making on principle as compromising the integrity of tournament poker.

Daniel Negreanu is a player who in the past has pointed out how he doesn’t like making deals himself, even though he understands the reasons why some players do make them. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Negreanu was one of the few tournament players arguing against making final table deals. And whether or not you agree that deal-making lessens the integrity of tournament poker, they certainly do affect the game considerably.

In the end, making a final table deal is a matter of personal preference. No one should ever feel pressured to make a deal if he or she doesn’t want to make one, even if outnumbered everyone-else-to-one.

Realize, though, that deal-making is a prominent part of tournament poker, both live and online. As a tournament reaches that final stage and you’re still sitting there, remain prepared for the possibility of a deal discussion arising, just as you remain prepared for your opponents calling, betting, or raising against you in the next hand.

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