Min-Cash... Or Go For The Win?

I get this question all the time in my classes. "Alex, I was on the bubble of this tournament with more than enough chips to min-cash. Should I have taken it slow, or was it smart to go for the win?"

The answer to this question is surprisingly complex.

The truth is, both answers could be correct. Also, both answers could be wrong.

How is this so?

If you ever get a chance one day, look on one of the statistic tracking sites for tournaments. Pick a top player. Pick a guy who is one of the best online tournament players in the world. Look him up on the sites who changed their payout structures after Black Friday. Many of them did so because prize pools had changed anyway, so they figured no one would notice.

What happened is they started paying damn near half the field with their prize pools. They wanted everyone to min-cash and keep playing, so they could be endlessly raked to death. (Let's all take a minute to thank America's Cardroom for not doing this).

What you'll notice on these statistic sites is that even the best players in the world saw their profits flatten out wildly.

That's because tournament players for years were good at doing one thing: Winning poker tournaments.

While that sounds like a stupid statement, it really isn't. When first place is some gargantuan sum, then you can make a ton of mistakes with ICM. It doesn't matter if you don't min-cash as much as you should, because you can keep supplementing your income with your above-average win totals.

Now, when first place prizes go down 35-40%, that's means you have to get much better at min-cashing. Your win total isn't going to make up for all the mistakes you make on the bubble.

What is correct ICM strategy on the bubble? I lived with a mathematics expert in poker for a year and even wrote a book with him. He tried to teach me every night. I still didn't understand half of what he said.

However, what I did get out of him was this:

You can often figure out how much your stack is worth when you divide the prize pool by your percentage of the chips in play. It's not a perfect system, but the fact remains: If your chips don't look like they're worth anything, then grabbing a min-cash would be a big deal. Because right after the bubble bursts, your chips are worth exactly the min-cash total, which often is double or triple what your chips were worth six minutes before.

To secure min-cashes, you have to do some things which the old-school player in me still despises. Stalling, for one, actually has a great ROI.

More importantly, you just want to make sure you're the one jamming. You never want to be calling off your chips.

If you have 30 big blinds on the button with AQo and the cutoff opens, just jam. You don't want to threebet/call right now.

You want them faced with ICM seppuku spots, not you.

Furthermore, many times a guy in the small blind will shove me all-in and I'll have A-2o in the big blind. I'd call there every single time when we're in the money. I'd call him halfway through the tournament. But if we're a few players away from the money and my chips are worth nothing, then I'm folding. I can't bring myself to stall, but I will fold.

This looks like a bigger fold than it is. My opponent is likely not jamming as wide of a range as he should. My chips are likely to double in real dollar value if I fold four more hands, so I really shouldn't be playing anything. If I call off there, I spew ICM equity to everyone at the table. Finally, I play a ton, so locking up easy min-cashes has to become a big part of my game.

This next part really needs to be discussed more in poker literature: A professional player needs to make sure they win a large number of tournaments and cash in a larger number of tournaments. Those who cash all the time but never win do not last in tournament poker. Those who win a tournament every couple of years but never min-cash do not last either.

However, if you are playing recreationally then you should always go for the win.

If you're playing with money you can afford to lose, then you should always try to win the tournament. You will get the greatest memory from this, and it will afford you the best opportunity to make a serious amount of money from poker.

Recreational players do not play enough to make a good deal of money from min-cashing.

If you're playing a tournament that is above your bankroll and a min-cash would mean a lot to you, then we have bigger problems than whether you min-cash or not.

If you won a satellite to get into a big tournament, then you were gambling to even play the damn thing. Go for the gold. No one is going to remember a min-cash in a few years. The money will be gone. Everyone will remember, however, if you make the final table.

Min-cash money is nice, but once you spend it, it's gone. The experience from running deep in a large tournament, however, will last you a lifetime. You're risking a potential large financial reward and an experiential salary to lock up a much smaller financial reward. That's not a great deal.

You have to ask yourself what you're playing for. If you are playing recreationally, like many of you are, then what you're really playing for is the chance to go deep in a tournament and win some hardware.

You know what they call a bracelet winner who bombed out of the first 200 WSOP tournaments he played? A bracelet winner.

Do it for the love. Do it for the experience. Be an adult, and play with money you can afford to lose. Then play like you're not afraid to lose it. This will give you a huge edge on the "pros" who are thinking about their family's groceries.

Good luck to all of you.

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