Tournament Poker: A Team Sport?

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This report by Ken Adams is part of a series for CBSNews.com offering commentary on the world of poker.


Recently, a buddy told me he had bumped into David Singer, a professional tournament poker player whose family was vacationing on the same Cape Cod beach. The entire time they were on the beach, David was practicing his card memory skills by having a family member flash three cards for him to memorize.

It made me think about things I might be able to do at home to improve my game while waiting for the next opportunity to test my skills against live competition at a tournament in Atlantic City or Foxwoods.

While playing an online tournament, I got an idea. What if I invited a few friends who are experienced tournament players to come over to my house and play an online tournament with me?

We would play a single hand as a team, making decisions as a team about what to do each time it was our turn to bet or fold.

The first question was whether that would be considered kosher by the operators of the online Web sites. So I asked the two biggest and most reputable sites, PokerStars and FullTilt.

Both said they had no problem with several people collaborating on playing a single hand. So I invited a few poker buddies over for beer and snacks on two-consecutive Sunday afternoons, to play in the $500 and $1,000 No Limit Holdem events in the World Championship of Online Poker, hosted by PokerStars.

It turned out to be an interesting experience.

Let me confess at the outset that we did not finish in the money in either event. In the first one we finished in 2,028th place out of 3,062 contestants. We just could not accumulate any chips.

Out of 118 hands dealt, the two best hands we had were Jack-Jack and 10-10. We played both hands aggressively, and lost both times to overcards. In the second one, we finished in 1,007th-place out of 1,790 players, a modest improvement over our results the first week.

My tentative conclusion is that team play does not increase your odds of winning a tournament, or even just finishing in the money. It is probably better to have one consistent decision-maker than a group of people arguing and compromising over decisions.

In the first event, we only played 16 of the 118 hands we were dealt -– a small percentage by usual standards. In each hand we played, we probably had to make an average of three decisions after the flop. That means we made a total of 166 decisions by committee.

Inevitably, our different styles of play led to inconsistency. Imagine what it would look like if three different offensive coordinators took turns calling the plays in a football game. The results probably would not be as good as if any one of them dictated a consistent offensive strategy for the whole game.

On the other hand, the two experiments convinced me that team play of online tournaments is a very useful learning tool. Each time we disagreed about whether to play a hand, or how to bet a hand, we each had to articulate why we proposed to do whatever it was. Listening to others' views provided a constant reminder that there is more than one way to play each situation, and that any one of us may have overlooked one or another factor that goes into the decision.

By focusing you on the differences in players' styles and thought processes, team play can help you avoid getting stuck in the rut of making the same mistakes every time you play. To improve, you have to be open to trying different approaches than what you usually do -– otherwise your game stagnates and your results are unlikely to change.

Only the most successful players in the world are well served by maintaining the style that has brought them success. For the rest of us, tournament poker is a constant quest to get better.

Give it a try. Log onto PokerStars one day with a few other players, and play a single table sit-and-go tournament as a team. It only takes an hour, and you will learn a lot. If you have a fancy new television you should be able to plug your laptop directly into the TV, so you don't all have to crowd around a computer screen. If your television cannot accommodate a direct connection, you can buy an inexpensive scan converter which will enable you to connect your computer to your television screen.

Who says poker is not a team sport?
By Ken Adams

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