The French poker site Winamax has just introduced something called a Hit & Run, but don’t worry, PartTimePoker hasn’t been acquired and your favorite daily poker news roundup is safe. Rather, their Hit & Run is a new kind of satellite tournament in which the goal is chip accumulation, rather than survival.
Satellites (or qualifiers, depending on one’s preferred terminology) have long been an important part of poker, allowing players with modest bankrolls to chase the dream of playing in and winning a major tournament. From the point of view of the high-stakes regulars, satellites play an equally important role in softening the field, as the players who are willing and able to buy in directly are, on the whole, more skilled than those who make it in through satellites.
The trouble with standard satellites
Live satellites are often single-table affairs which award a single ticket to the winner, but online, multi-ticket and even multi-stage satellites are more common due to the high player population. The multi-ticket format means that, although these satellites begin more or less like normal tournaments, they play out very differently in the pre-bubble and bubble phases. Since all the top spots pay out identically, there is no incentive to accumulate chips, only to survive. The strategic effect of this fact can be so large as to make it correct, in certain cases, to fold any hand up to and including pocket Aces preflop.
That dynamic tends to make satellite bubbles extremely long, and simultaneously stressful and boring for the players involved, as they fold hand after hand and pray desperately for someone else to be eliminated. Winamax’s new format, then, is very clearly an attempt to render satellites quicker, more exciting, and less of a chore.
How the Hit & Run Satellite works
The concept is pretty simple. Players all start the tournament with 9,000 chips, and have a chip target equal to 10,000 divided by the percentage of the field which will be awarded tickets. For instance, if the buy-in (not including the tournament fee) is €2 and the tickets being awarded are worth €10, then 20% of the field will receive a ticket. The chip target, then, will be 10,000 / 0.2 = 50,000 chips.
As soon as the first player accumulates enough chips to reach the target, he is awarded a ticket, which is removed from the prize pool. He is then removed from the tournament and his chips are redistributed evenly among the remaining players at the table.
Play continues in this manner until the requisite number of tickets have been awarded. If, at that point, there is any money remaining in the prize pool (because the prize pool doesn’t divide evenly into an integer number of tickets), then the remaining players duke it out in a winner-take-all battle for that consolation prize.
Thus, rather than a contest of endurance and survival, the Hit & Run Satellite is a chip-accumulation sprint, especially in the late stages when few tickets remain. Whereas in a conventional satellite, it can be correct to fold any hand when an opponent is close to busting out, in a Hit & Run it may prove correct to go all-in with any hand, if an opponent is close to winning the final ticket.
The obvious concern: chip-dumping
This is an experimental format, so it remains to be seen how popular it becomes and whether it spreads to other sites, but if you’re at all in the habit of scrutinizing game mechanics, there’s one obvious problem with Hit & Run, which is that it is more collusion-prone than a conventional poker tournament. This is largely due to the fact that chips increase massively in value for a player who is getting close to the target stack, while they are of much lesser value to a shorter stack, particularly when few tickets remain to be awarded.
For instance, consider the situation that there is only one ticket left, the chip target is 50,000, while Player A has 45,000 chips and Player B has 5,000. It’s extremely unlikely that Player B will increase his stack tenfold before the final ticket is awarded, so he is effectively playing only for the leftover money, and is a long shot even on that front. Those same 5,000 chips are, however, worth a lot to Player A, particularly if other players are similarly close to winning the ticket. Even the two are friends or, worse, explicitly colluding, Player B may look for a chance to lose his chips to Player A to guarantee the latter a ticket.
There are three reasons, however, that the problem may not be quite as bad as it initially appears.
Firstly, it’s no coincidence that Winamax elected to make the starting stacks 9,000 rather than 10,000. This means that, at the start of the tournament, an immediate pooling of chips is loss-making for the parties involved. It would, for instance, require six players combining their stacks in order to win a single ticket worth five buy-ins. Of course, the redistribution of chips once a player wins means that if players merely donate most of their chips to a partner, they’ll get some of them back once the partner receives her ticket, but it would be hard to do this effectively without resorting to the sort of bizarre play that would throw up red flags for Winamax’s security team. Overall, any effective collusion strategy would have to be situational in nature and come up later in the tournament, rather than something that could be executed systematically from the start.
Secondly, the most extreme incentives for collusion arise, as I said, when only one or two tickets remain and several players are getting close to winning them. In these cases, the same incentives which promote collusion will likewise cause frequent all-ins from the other players. A natural consequence of that is that collusion becomes much harder to orchestrate. You can attempt to dump chips to a partner, but there will rarely be any guarantee they’ll end up where you intended if half the table is going all-in every hand.
Finally, conventional satellites, especially those large enough to still have multiple tables on the bubble, are also extremely collusion-prone though in the opposite way – a deeper-stacked player being incentivized to donate small amounts of chips to a shorter-stacked friend in order to help her survive. This is an argument I hesitate to make, as it bothers me immensely when, for instance, world politicians point to the abuses of a country like North Korea or Iran in order to justify their own “less bad” policies. Although the flaws in conventional satellites don’t necessarily make Hit & Runs a good idea, however, they do show that the poker community is willing to tolerate a certain amount of collusion risk. So long as Hit & Runs don’t prove to be any worse for this than conventional satellites, the flaw – to the extent that it exists – may not prove to be a fatal one.
Fast and furious
Collusion concerns aside, the Hit & Run concept does seem like it could be a fun and interesting improvement on the standard satellite structure. Stalling and folding is painful for everyone, after all, so anything which avoids making that an effective strategy is already off to a good start.
There are also all sorts of unusual strategic considerations to poke around with, for those interested in maximizing their win rate. Overall, it’s true that chips won will usually be worth more than chips lost, so it’s probably possible to create a relatively simple “reverse ICM” type model to figure out when it’s worth taking a slightly losing gamble in order to accumulate. However, so long as there is more than one ticket left to be awarded, there’s a competing effect due to the redistribution of chips when a player cashes. When a player wins a ticket, the shortest stack at the table will benefit proportionally more from the redistribution of his chips than the others, as those chips are divided equally; if it seems likely that this will happen in the next few hands, then, a short stack may prefer to wait until after that redistribution to try to double up, and play for survival in the meantime.
From the professional perspective, there’s also a strong chance this format will cause the weaker players to over-adjust in the early going, in much the same way as Progressive Super-Knockout tournaments on PokerStars. Even in ordinary tournaments, recreational players are often far too eager to try to double up or bust out at the earliest opportunity; mechanics which emphasize chip accumulation can exaggerate this tendency to an absurd degree, which is, of course, great for everyone else in the game.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.