General Strategies for Poker Tournaments With Huge Bounties

Poker chips stacks. Slaven Vlasic / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Tournaments were already the greatest invention in the history of poker. Then they came up with knockout tournaments. These events have become incredibly popular over the past few years, and it’s easy to see why: You get a prize for every opponent you eliminate
If that weren’t enough, you can also play a progressive knockout tournament, where the bounties get larger and larger every time someone gets felted. These progressives have become the most common way to play knockout poker, but they do pose a challenge when it comes to optimal tournament strategy. Let’s pop the hood open and take a closer look at what it takes to win these events. 

Progressive Rock 

The first key to unlocking the knockout vault is to understand the tournament structure. In a standard knockout tourney, bounties make up 20 percent of the prize pool; this amount goes up to 50 percent for a “super knockout” tourney. That makes going after bounties even more important, and therefore worth the risk, under the super knockout format. 
With progressive knockouts (most of which are super progressives, or SPKO/PSKOs for short), every time you eliminate an opponent, you immediately collect half their bounty, and the other half is added to the bounty on your own head. This changes the math up even more than standard knockouts. On the one hand, you should be willing to assume even more risk chasing down those bounties as they get bigger and bigger, but at the same time, your opponents should be doing the same when it comes to you. How do you adjust? 

Chips Ahoy

The logical way is to translate each bounty into tournament chips. That’s the thing about all tournaments – the chips don’t have a monetary value. If you want to make smart decisions about what to do, you have to consider how many chips are in play, what the buy-in was, how big the prize pool is, and the distribution of the prize pool. That’s why understanding the Independent Chip Model (ICM) is so important for would-be tournament champions. 
Bounties are just another way of distributing the prize pool. Let’s say you enter a regular knockout tournament for $100, and your starting stack is 1,000 chips. Because $20 of your buy-in is sequestered away for bounties, the other $80 represents the value of your 1,000-chip stack, meaning each bounty is worth 250 chips. It’s a 50/50 split in a super knockout, so each bounty in a $100 event would be worth the same as your starting stack of 1,000 chips. 
The math gets harder once you’re playing an SPKO. Since you only claim half the bounty when you eliminate someone, that now represents 500 chips using our $100 buy-in example – except the true answer is slightly larger than half. That’s because the winner of the SPKO gets to keep their own bounty as well as all the others they’ve collected, which you have to factor in as well. It’s a small consideration, though, especially early on in a tournament, so don’t worry about it too much. 

Call Me 

With this information in your back pocket, you can now make smarter risk/reward assessments for every hand you play. Beyond that, you can generally expect your fellow players to call you down lighter than usual, hoping to claim your bounty; this gives you less incentive to bluff, and more incentive to attack with thin value. Also, you can’t win those bounties if you don’t have at least as many chips as your opponents, so be more willing to make a risky call yourself if it will help keep your stack flush. 
There’s plenty more strategy to learn when it comes to knockout tournaments, but this basic approach will point you in the right direction. As always, keep learning, keep practicing, and may the rectangles be with you.