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Tournament Hell

April 9, 2013

Warning: Epic rant to follow


Last Friday I played in the worst-run poker tournament I’ve ever been a part of. I was leery of the charity event before it even started, and expected it to go a bit rough, but it went far beyond any similarly poorly run tournament in which I’ve played. I’ve played in tournaments that sat 12 players to a table (not enough dealers to handle the volume, you see, and not enough restraint on the part of the organizers to turn away money from people who wanted to buy in), tournaments where players openly shot angles, tournaments where organizers shorted the prize pool and arbitrarily eliminated blind levels. This was worse than all of those. Combined.

The event was hosted by a church near me, and was run by members of the parish. When I first heard of it, I initially dismissed the idea of playing, because I thought it would be too poorly organized to be worth my time and money. Later I learned that this was the third or fourth year the event had been held. Not bad, I thought. They’ve had time to work out the kinks and it might actually go fairly smoothly.

The tournament was advertised as a $100 buy in, with a first place prize of a trip for two to Las Vegas (three days, two nights). Second and third place prizes would also be awarded, but the flyer didn’t disclose what they were. Yeah, obvious red flag there. Would you like some more? The flyer did not advertise the structure, the size of the starting stack, or the length of the blind levels. Probably be a crapshoot, I figured. I would not be disappointed in that expectation.

I prepaid for the event, and walked in to register about 15 minutes before the scheduled start. The woman who organized the event asked if I wanted to buy the add-on. Add-ons in tournaments aren’t uncommon, though this one wasn’t advertised. Typically, you pay 5% more for 15-20% more chips. It’s hard to say no to that kind of bargain. For this tournament, players were given 3,000 chips to start (not many), but for an add-on that was 25% of the buy in, you would receive an additional 1,500 chips. Here, you’d be at a huge disadvantage if you didn’t pay for the add-on.

Surveying the room, I saw a woman coaching the volunteer dealers how to do their job. Not a good sign. I also overheard the woman talking to the man serving as tournament director (TD) about the blind levels. He planned to start them at 50-100, rather than the more typical 25-50. He also planned to double them every 20 minutes. I mentioned shortly after that to the woman that the blinds really should start at 25-50. She talked to the tournament director, and he agreed to do so. At least I won that one.

As the time for the tournament approached, I noticed a conspicuous lack of players. As it turned out, the tournament was starting 30 minutes later than advertised. Would’ve been nice to know that, as I rode my bike straight from the train station to the tournament, rather than going home first and driving back. Oh well, a small loss.

Finally the tournament was ready to begin. Time for some more red flags. They used a projector to put the blind levels up on a wall, but instead of using some free Poker Clock-type software, the tournament director created a PowerPoint presentation that simply displayed the blind level in white letters on a black background, and it was timed to move to the next slide every 20 minutes. Good gravy. We’d have no idea how much time was left in each level, what the next blind levels would be, no count on the number of players remaining, no alarm when one minute was left in a level or when levels changed. You just had to hope someone looked up and noticed that they changed.

Oh, and during the pre-game announcements, I learned it was a rebuy tournament as well. Would’ve been nice to know that before I bought in to the event. So at what point did your chipstack have to decline to before you could rebuy? According to the tournament director, “about 250-ish.” WTF? I have to lose more than 90% of my stack before I can rebuy? Normally you would rebuy if you dipped below the starting stack, or maybe 50% below it at worst. This was insane. So players would have to rebuy for $100, right? Nope, just $25. Well, then you would only get 750 chips, right? That’d be 25% of a starting stack, to match the rebuy amount. Nope. Players rebuying would receive 2,000 chips. Hey, no big deal, as there would also be another 1,500 chip add-on players could buy after the first break.  You would be able to buy that add-on no matter how many chips you had at the time.

The tournament director also made a comment/rule announcement about bets needing to be in increments of the big blind. This confused me, as it sounded like he was describing a limit tournament. I asked aloud to confirm that it was, in fact, a no-limit game. The TD said Yes, he just wanted to let everyone know that they had to bet at least the amount of the big blind. This distinction will come into play later as well.

As it turned out, the tournament director was doubling as the dealer for my table. I asked how they were going to determine which seat the button started in. The dealer/TD asked the table if they wanted to draw for it. They declined. What?!? I explained that each table had to start with the button in the same seat. “Why?” he asked. Head smack. This needs to be explained, really?

How about balancing the tables, how would that be handled? After all, if you’re moved from one table to another, you shouldn’t have to pay the blinds twice. He shook his head and said it didn’t matter, because every table played at a different speed. The look on my face must’ve betrayed my exploding brain, because he conceded that he would try to move players to the same spot at the table they moved to. I just gave up on the matter at this point.

OK, time for some actual poker action. My starting table was playing fairly passive; no one wanted to raise pre-flop. Quite often, players weren’t even sure at showdown what they had and needed to have it pointed out to them. (This will also come into play later.) The following hand, which took place in the 50-100 level, particularly illustrates how things went at the tournament. Initially, three denominations of chips were being used: 25, 100 and 500. During the hand in question, four players limped in. On the flop, one player bet 300, using three 100 chips. The next player folded, and the next player tossed in one 500 chip, without saying anything. Before the next player acted, I pointed out that the player who tossed in the 500 chip had just called, not raised.

This brought a series of questions and complaints, including from the dealer/TD. Sigh. I explained that when you throw out one oversized chip, it’s a call and not a raise. The player who threw out the 500 chip said he wanted to raise. In that case, I noted, he would have to bet at least 600. Once again, the table looked at me as if I had three heads. If the first player’s bet is 300, I explained, then the minimum amount another player could raise is 600 (a simple double of the original raise), not 500. The dealer/TD waived off my complaints by saying, “That’s not how we’re playing.” That’s not how we’re playing??!?! We’re not exercising basic math skills? Players can raise to any arbitrary amount?? So the 500 “raise” stood, and the other player and the initial bettor folded.

The event featured an open bar, of which many players (and at least one dealer) took liberal advantage. The player to my left, like most of the other players in attendance, was a novice and not overly familiar with the rules of a poker tournament. In one hand during the 100-200 level, he was the small blind but departed the table for the bar while the hand was being shuffled. The action quickly folded to me on the button, and I raised. The dealer/TD mucked the small blind’s cards, and the big blind folded as well. As the dealer was collecting the mucked cards, the small blind returned to the table and loudly asked where his cards were. The dealer explained that his cards had been mucked since he wasn’t at the table. He was apoplectic. How could his small blind be stolen like that?!? His cards were irretrievable, but that’s a moot point. He demanded that he be given back his small blind. No way, I said. If we do that, then everyone can just get up to leave when it’s their turn to pay the blinds and never have to pay them. His protestations went on, holding up the action. “C’mon man, this isn’t Vegas! This is a church! You shouldn’t do that!!” The dealer/TD told me to give him back his small blind. I couldn’t believe it. This kind of absurdity was unprecedented. I just shook my head and handed him back the chip, steaming. At this point, there were no rules.

In the very next level, the player to my left, who was so desperate to conserve a single 100 chip a few minutes earlier, called all in for his tournament life on the turn. He was on a draw. He had two overcards and a gutterball straight draw to his opponents’ pocket 5’s. The river brought one of the two remaining 5’s, and the rest of the table erupted. The player to my left stood up to congratulate his opponent. Just one problem: the 5 was the gutterball he needed for his straight. Neither he, nor anyone else at the table saw that he had won. I pointed out the straight, and suddenly I was his best friend in the whole world. More headshaking.

Coming back from break, players started to fall quickly due to the escalating blinds. As expected, the tables were not balanced. Some tables had seven players, others five and one had four players. Finally, the table with four players was broken, and the players sent to other tables. The dealer/TD then handed off dealing responsibilities to another dealer. As we lost players ourselves, I had to explain to the new dealer and other players how the blinds and button should be passed when there was an empty seat due to a player busting out.

Eventually, I made it to the final table, along with seven other players. (We were playing eight handed all night.) The TD apparently hadn’t anticipated the tournament lasting this long, as he had run out of slides with new blind levels. When we arrived at the final table, the TD announced that we would play, oh, two more hands at the current level, then the blinds would go up. At this point, it was close to 11:15 p.m. The players had been drinking all night, and our dealer was bombed, and asking for more whiskey.

At one point, the dealer announced that blinds were 4,000-8,000, even though the board clearly showed 3,000-6,000 and we had just played the last two hands at 3,000-6,000. Fortunately, sense prevailed and the blinds weren’t suddenly raised. With the blinds so high, players dropped rapidly and I soon found myself among the final three players. The dealer finished the glass of whiskey he had been brought.

So what about those prizes for second and third place? The organizer decided that the second place player would be allowed to choose from the other two prizes: gift certificates for dinner and a movie, or a basket of about 12 different bottles of alcohol. Remember, I rode to the event on my bike. Not only did I not want the basket of booze, I had no way to get it home if I finished third. Meanwhile, the dealer complained about how little booze had been in the last glass he had been brought. “They couldn’t have given me any more than that?!” he cried.

I finished in third place, and had to sweat the heads-up battle between a young player and a middle-aged guy. After they played just three hands, the dealer complained to the TD that they were just passing chips back and forth. The TD decided to double the blinds the next hand. A few hands later, not more than five minutes, the younger player doubled up, and suddenly the blinds were doubled again.

Finally, the middle aged guy won and fortunately for me the younger guy took the basket of booze. Obviously, I’ll never play this tournament in the future. I haven’t even mentioned to this point the fact that every hand involved table talk from not only the players, but the dealers/TD as well. It was a bizarre, surreal experience; a bastardization of a poker tournament. Even players who didn’t know what to expect deserved better than they got. Well, at least their drinks were free. And I think they’re going to put my picture in the bulletin.



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