I got pretty lucky Friday night.

Although I claim in my byline to be a semipro poker player, I haven’t been playing very seriously for the last few months, having finally decided that it’s too hard to juggle the time requirements of multi-table tournaments (my preferred format) with the twin responsibilities of writing nearly full time and parenting a two year-old. I still play a bit recreationally, but only for small amounts and fast formats, and rarely giving it my full attention.

Still, as someone who was at one time turning a decent profit at mid-stakes MTTs, I feel a great deal of irony as well as a touch of shame in admitting that I have just doubled my previous best cash to date while single-tabling $3 Spin-and-Gos.

Yes, I know how this sounds. But I was just killing time while waiting for the WSOP $10k 6-Max No-Limit Hold’em Championship final table to start streaming. We spun the maximum prize, and I took it down. I never did end up seeing Byron Kaverman win the bracelet.

The article that wasn’t

Obviously, winning a three-player hyper-turbo is nothing to brag about, nor is getting extremely lucky in the prize pool lottery. So why am I telling you this?

Well, about six months ago, soon after Spin-and-Gos first appeared, I wrote an article about why I thought the Spin-and-Gos would prove more lucrative than the grinders believed at the time. Unfortunately, that article was never published, because between the time that I wrote it and that it was supposed to go live, the PokerStars rake hike happened. They eventually reversed most of those rake increases, but not on the Spin-and-Gos. Neither I nor the prospective publisher of the article felt that we could responsibly plug the Spins as a beatable format at the new rake level, so we scrapped the article.

One of the points I had made in the article was that I expected that losing players would end up playing too tightly when more money was on the line, and that this would make them more reliably beatable when it counts. After all, an overly loose player can still catch a lucky card, while it’s much harder to benefit from luck when you’re folding all the time. Anyone with much heads-up experience knows this is especially true in short-handed situations; if you find yourself up against a true nit, you almost can’t lose.

As for why I expected that this change in playing style would happen, it was partially due to my own early experiments with the Spins, and partially by analogy with MTT play. In the Spins, I’d noticed that even when playing for just a 6x or 10x prize, the weaker players would adopt a much more conservative strategy than when playing for the baseline 2x. This seemed consistent with my experience seeing bad players run deep in multi-table tournaments. The same guys who’d be getting it all in with junk in the early levels would be folding almost every hand once they got close to a final table.

I figured that this meant that players would take this tightening up to an extreme when playing for the biggest prizes in the Spins. Based on what I saw Friday night, I’d say that I was bang on.

Scared money

It’s not hard to understand why players would change their play in this way. For one thing, opportunities to play for large sums of cash are few and far between for the losing players. Once you’ve been at a few final tables, four-figure pay jumps are no big deal, but for someone who has never had more than a few hundred dollars in their account, the pressure is immense.

These players are desperate to avoid blowing their chance, or rather, they’re desperate to avoid feeling like they’ve blown their chance. When it comes to regret, not all mistakes are equal. Calling off incorrectly is a high-regret mistake in that you can see that you got the money in badly, and feel like you might have won if you’d just laid that one hand down. Folding incorrectly, on the other hand… well, you don’t get to see what the other guy had, or what would have happened. It’s always possible to convince yourself that a fold was the right move.

One of the most important skills in poker is being able to play the same way regardless of whether there’s one dollar on the line or a million, and it’s not a skill that many people have.

One hand says it all

When we spun the jackpot Friday night, it took me 34 hands to beat my opponents. That’s pretty long by Spin-and-Go standards, but it only took about four hands for me to feel pretty confident of winning. Based on my theories about the “nit effect,” I was expecting them to play very conservatively before we even started, and after they handed me three of the first four pots without resistance, I was feeling good about that prediction.

But although I was doing a pretty good job of whittling away at their stacks, my opponents were playing quite slowly and the rapid format was starting to work in their favor. Twenty hands in, the blinds were already at 20/40 and I’d only increased my stack by 200, so I was beginning to worry that the blinds were soon going to force my opponents to gamble and put me at the mercy of the deck after all. On hand #22, however, my two opponents got into a cooler situation which left one of them crippled; more importantly, the way they played the hand made me more confident than ever that I had the game in the bag.

I had folded under the gun with 6-4 offsuit and the small blind limped while the big blind checked his option. Both had stacks of just over 400 chips, or around 10 big blinds.

The flop came KJ8 rainbow. The small blind checked and called a minimum bet from the big blind. The turn came a Queen, and again, the small blind checked and called – this time for 80 chips, twice the minimum. I could tell they both had reasonable hands at this point, but I was still thinking that it was something like top pair vs. middle pair.

Finally, the river brought another Jack and now the small blind led out for a 40 chip min-bet of his own. The big blind raised to 120 and the small blind just called. The hands they turned over? The small blind had KJ for Jacks full, while the big blind had T9 for a straight.

Just think about this for a second. Starting with two pretty decent hands and 10 big blind stacks, in a hyper-turbo format, both players managed to get all the way to showdown with a full house versus a straight, without either of them going to the felt. On the river, the small blind had only 100 chips left behind and was losing only to exactly QQ or KK, and still didn’t manage to find a shove.

A few hands later, I busted the small blind player, getting myself heads-up with the other guy with a 1.5-1 chip advantage in my favor. Nine hands later, I’d run that up to a 2-1 advantage, at which point he limped in on my big blind, flopped top pair against my two pair, and was too shallow to get away even playing as tightly as he was. That was that – I had won my $9000 without ever being at risk. Of the 34 hands we played, only five went to showdown, and only two of those had someone all-in: the one in which I busted the first guy, and the one in which I busted the second.

Win rates don’t tell the whole story

I have only a 35% win rate in Spin-and-Gos, which doesn’t seem like it’s quite enough to beat the rake. Of course, my ROI for them is now in the high four figures, but that’s on a pitifully small sample and is almost entirely due to my good fortune in binking the 100,000-1 odds of a jackpot on only a few hundred tries. Neither of these tells you much about how easy or not it is to make money at Spin-and-Gos.

Given the randomization of the prize pool and the tiny chances of huge prizes, you would need an exceptionally large sample for ROI to be reliable – millions of games, at least. Win rate would seem to be a much more reliable way of estimating long-term expected winnings, but this is only if you expect that win rate to hold steady regardless of the stakes. Play a bunch of Spin-and-Gos – enough to have played for the 6x and 10x prizes a few times – and you will likely agree with me that most players’ style changes dramatically as the money on the line increases.

It’s very hard to say exactly how much this effect impacts long-term profitability for players who are capable of playing confidently for higher-than-normal stakes, but based on my experience, I would say that it’s probably quite a lot.

Chances are that I will never again hit the jackpot in a Spin-and-Go, and certainly not against the same opponents, so it’s impossible to say what my statistical chances of winning were. I will however say that if I was offered the choice between $4500 in cash or a chance to replay that tournament, I would play. It seems crazy to assess one’s odds at greater than 50% of winning a three-man hyper-turbo, but these guys were not just playing very poorly… they were playing very poorly in a very low-variance style.

As weird as it sounds to say, luck may not be as big a factor in Spin-and-Gos as you’d expect. There is undoubtedly a huge amount of variance involved in getting the chance to play for the big prizes – as there is in multi-table tournaments – but once that money is actually on the line, I suspect the better players actually win much more often than overall statistics would suggest.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.