I used to be firmly in the ‘survival’ camp for MTTs, and one of the things I struggled with when I first read Dan Harrington’s books was his willingness to call with marginal hands – regardless of survival odds – if he thought he was getting the right pot odds. I guess my ‘survivalist’ thinking was based on books I read before I came to Harrington – in particular books by TJ Cloutier and David Sklansky. (In fact a lot of Cloutier’s published advice can be summed up as ‘take no chances, stick around and hope to get lucky at the end’ – the perfect survivalist creed!)
A lot of survival thinking is based on the assumption that once you are out of the tournament you are in some sense ‘finished’. That’s clearly true if you are a small-time player who has won a once-in-a-lifetime seat in a major event. This could be your only shot at playing in a big event, so early on you might choose to fold your JJ against your opponent’s massive all-in with AK even though you are getting the odds to make calling correct.
The idea that you are ‘finished’ if you bust is also true (to a lesser extent) if you are a big-time pro playing an event that means a lot to you (the WSOP main event, say). Although you can buy in again next year you only have a limited number of years left to play that particular event. This was even more true when people like Cloutier and Sklansky were learning their trade – for years the only tournaments were the WSOP events – but it also seems to influence younger players like Phil Hellmuth, who fold a lot of 50/50s quite deep into tournaments. Hellmuth seems to think he is so good that he will always find better spots to get his money in. But I wonder also if his desire for bracelets and prestige influences him. In his mind each opportunity to win an event is a one-off chance, so the tighter, more survivalist poker is a natural way for him to play.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the idea of being ‘finished’ once you bust out just doesn’t apply so much these days, which is why Harrington’s approach is probably more correct more of the time. This is especially true with day-to-day online MTTs. If I bust out of my 8pm MTT in the first hand I just buy into the 8.10 event on another site. My approach becomes more like that of a traditional cash game player – take all the value you can get, and reach into your bankroll when you need to buy back in.
To some extent, then, I feel that your personal priorities should dictate how you play. In my case, if the event is big, a rarity, prestigious, or if I travelled a long way to get there or was down to my last buy in then I would be right to play more in survival mode and turn down small EV edges in order to stay in the tourney. The same applies if the only game open if I bust out is a cash game. But if it was just another $50 MTT on Poker Stars or something I should be more inclined to take even small amounts of value, because at the end of the year that is what leads to the best return. And if I actually preferred cash games I would be right to take small edges in tournaments so that if I was going to bust out I could do it sooner rather than later and move over to my favourite game earlier.
Some might say that in turning down small edges in big tournaments I would be giving up too much. I think that’s probably right if you view all results at the end of the year as a whole, because by taking every small edge I can I will make more long term. However, I think I’m right too that a more cautious approach might increase my chance of doing well in this particular event.
Put another way, if I call with a good draw all-in against nine other players in the first hand of every MTT I play, and this situation repeats every day for a year, then at the end of the year I will have a ton of money because when I win that hand I will usually make the final table of the event. But if I need to survive this particular pot , because it is the only one this year that could get me a bracelet or a major cash finish, I might be right to fold the draw and wait for a situation where I am actually favourite to win the hand.
In all this I’m assuming that equity in tournaments is the same concept as in cash games – which seems to be Harrington’s point of view as well. This isn’t strictly true, because in a cash game every chip has the same cash value while in a tournament the more chips you win the less they are worth. (Malmuth explains this at length in every book he ever wrote. ) Despite this, most people now seem to agree that going for the win (as opposed to surviving into a slightly higher finish) is the best long-term approach to MTTs.