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Allure of tournament poker bigger than chance of winning

| Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

Stan Geier learned a valuable lesson about poker tournament strategy the hard way: Sometimes, it's best to muck pocket aces before the flop.

Why would anyone even think about throwing away the best starting hand in Texas Hold 'Em without making a bet?

In Geier's case, he was among 12 players left at a tournament in which the top 10 finishers advanced to the $1,000-a-seat Labor Day Classic at The Meadows. He figured he had enough chips that he could have waited until two other players lost and he was guaranteed a spot in the big tournament, which offered a potential five-figure payout.

Instead, Geier found himself all-in against the chip leader, who held jack-4 off-suit. Anyone familiar with hard-luck stories can predict how it ended. A jack on the flop gave Geier's opponent a pair. Another jack on the river gave him three of a kind and all of Geier's chips.

Geier, 44, of Sewickley, put the lesson to good use. The vice president and general manager for LaMar Advertising entered another tournament and this time won a seat in the Classic. There, he finished second, winning $12,216 after spending about $300 on entry fees for the satellite tournaments.

He said he remembered the lesson of the aces and threw away pocket queens pre-flop when he was in seventh place at the final table of the Classic.

Geier's experiences illustrate the allure of tournament poker.

"You could win 25, 50 or a thousand times your entry fee," he said. "The risk is capped."

However, only about 10 percent of tournament players win anything, said Peter Lau, poker room manager at The Meadows, which until last week was the only Pennsylvania casino offering poker tournaments. Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre started tournaments Oct. 1. Rivers and Mt. Airy in the Poconos are revising their tournament plans to submit to the state.

Hold 'Em is the game for the vast majority of poker tournaments, although The Meadows has a weekly 7-card stud tournament.

In tournaments, each player receives an equal number of chips. For example, entrants in The Meadows' morning tournaments pay $40 and get $4,000 in chips. Sunday's "Score Big" tournament calls for $330 in fees and $15,000 in chips.

Players are assigned to specific tables and play until they've lost all their chips. Lau said a deep stack tournament typically takes about six hours. Some tournaments, including the Main Event at the World Series of Poker, last several days.

The number of entrants determines how many players get paid. At The Meadows, only the top three finishers get paid in a tournament that starts with fewer than 30 players, Lau said; for 70 to 100 players, the top 10 get paid; with more than 130, the top 20 get paid.

Prize amounts are determined by the entry fees and number of players. At The Meadows, first place gets 29 percent to 50 percent of the prize pool, depending on how many players finish in the money.

"Tournament action is very hot here," Lau said. "It's a great tool for players to get involved and get serious about being a good poker player and make a name for themselves."

While poker room manager at Wheeling Island casino, Lau ran a tournament that offered the winner a spot at the $10,000-a-seat main event of the 2009 World Series of Poker. Darvin Moon of Oakland, Md., paid $130 to enter and won. At the WSOP, he finished second, winning $5.2 million.

Geier, who has played poker for about six years, said players should study a tournament's ante and blind structure before entering.

Unlike most cash games, tournaments often require players to ante before every hand. As another way of forcing action in a tournament, the blinds are doubled on a set schedule -- every 18 to 30 minutes, for example.

Geier said the more time between "levels," the better. That gives players a little more discretion about the hands they play. Lau said another strategy is to be aggressive throughout the tournament.

Geier said a player's goal is to win the tournament, and that requires staying in the game.

"When you get close, even if you get pocket aces, be prepared to fold."


Where can I find the payback percentages for slot machines at Pennsylvania casinos?

— John J. Kovalik, Latrobe

Starting today, you can find them right here. Player's Advantage will calculate the percentage based on state-required wager and payout reports. It will be in the "Money trail" report. The percentage covers all slot machines in a casino; a breakdown by denomination is not available. Thanks for the suggestion, John!

Money trail

Statewide slot machine revenue for September was up by $13.5 million, or 7.82 percent, from September 2009, the Gaming Control Board said. About $4.7 million of the increase came from SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, which opened Sept. 23. Slot revenue at Rivers was up by $4.9 million, or 31.65 percent, from September 2009; slot revenue at The Meadows was down by $1.6 million, or 7.15 percent. State and local taxes totaling 55 percent are based on gross slot revenue.

For the week ended Oct. 3, Pennsylvania's 10 casinos reported gross slot revenue of $45.25 million on bets totaling $569.5 million. The statewide payback was 90.5 percent. Thanks to the opening of SugarHouse, gross revenue is up from the comparable week last year by $4.5 million, or 11 percent.

Gross slot machine revenue for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

• $4.75 million: Rivers, on bets totaling $60.56 million. Payback: 90.5 percent

• $4.8 million: The Meadows, on bets totaling $57.87 million. Payback: 90.2 percent

• $3.28 million: Presque Isle in Erie, on bets totaling $42.73 million. Payback: 90.5 percent

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