Strategy top ingredient to winning at poker

Nov 13, 2012 3:00 AM

Good timing and the right combination of skill and luck are two of the key elements of winning contests, whether at sports or poker. But the third element – strategy – may be the most important.

The vast majority of the hundreds of poker books now on the market are devoted to how-to-win strategies: how to win tournaments, how to win no-limit hold’em cash games, even how to win the battle of the brains called “poker psychology.”

Last time we looked at how timing, skill and luck influence winning on two popular game shows, Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right. But nowhere on the game show circuit is strategy more important than in the showdown round of Jeopardy.

While the insidiously memorable theme melody of Jeopardy sing-songed in the background, Ted, Dick, and Jane (the names I’ve given the three contestants) tackled the eliminator Final Jeopardy question.

After a sluggish start, top-dog Ted had accumulated $8,600, making big inroads in the semi-final round by wagering his entire fortune on a daily-double question, a strategy that put him in the lead. Dick had amassed $8,400, over $5,500 of it in the early stages followed by a dry spell in the second half. And Jane, bright with the answers but slow on the button, had chalked up $5,200.

As in no-limit poker, part of a winning Jeopardy strategy depends on the amount you bet on the elimination question. You can bet only as much money as you have in front of you, and your opponents’ wagers are not visible to you. If you win, you keep the money; second prize usually is a trip; and third best takes home an electronic gadget. So how much should top-dog Ted, second-place Dick, and underdog Jane wager?

A major part of your betting strategy at this stage of the game depends upon what you think your opponents will bet, and how much money you think they think you will wager (the third-level thinking employed by the masters of tournament poker). Another strategic factor is whether your bet will win second place if you miss the final question.

Jane missed, but it didn’t cost her anything because she cleverly wagered zero, probably hoping to slide into second place if either Ted or Dick bet all-in and missed, or maybe win it all if they both missed. Believing he’d have to “double-up or get up,” second-best Dick bet $8,399, making a $1.00 “save” to ensure a second-place finish in the event that either Jane or Ted bet their entire stacks and missed.

Now, how much should Ted wager? Assuming that both Ted and Dick answered correctly, Dick would have no chance to beat Ted if both men wagered the amount of Dick’s “stack” (result: Dick, $16,800 and Ted, $17,000). Ted needed to bet at least $8,201 to be assured of a win over Dick’s probable all-in bet.

So what did Ted do? He went all in! And he missed the final question. Host Alex Trebek then awarded winner Dick $16,799 for his correct answer; runner-up Jane, a Caribbean cruise for her wrong response; and loser Ted, a Sony camcorder for his betting gaff.

Higher-level thinking, performance under pressure, making saves, timing, the skill/luck blend, and strategic gamesmanship are not unique to tournament poker – they are important weapons anytime you find yourself in jeopardy.

You can contact Shane Smith at [email protected].

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