Which player has more skill: The cash sanghoki game pro or the tournament specialist?

What you see below is a stream-of-consciousness formation of my opinion.

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Let’s look at the G-Vegas circuit. For the purposes of familiarity here, I’m going to refer to five people you might have read about. [Note: These are all just my interpretations and are open to much debate, especially after a few drinks.]

G-Rob–No limit hold’em cash sanghoki game player who dabbles in tournaments to results that don’t satisfy him. Plays cash games much better live than he does online.

The Mark–Great live cash game player who will play any flop game. Shows no success online. Routinely crushes live single table satellites.

BadBlood–Conservative player who balances live and online play as well as balances cash and tournament play. Maintains an equal level of skill in both cash games and tournaments.

Eddie the Dealer–Loose aggressive player who shows great talent live/online and cash/tournament. With the exception of a leak he’s aware of that can be detrimental to his bankroll, a solid all-around player.

Otis–Inconsistent player with one-time big success in online tournaments and cash game play. Live results in cash games have been modest to non-existent. Live tournament play has shown mixed results, with most success coming in events with fields from 30-200 players.

To answer the above question about who is the most skillful player–tournament specialist or cash game pro–I asked myself, “Of the five players above, who would I stake with the hopes of getting a decent return on my money.” The answer, as you might expect, was not as definitive as most people might have you believe.

I would stake all of them, as long as I got to pick what they were playing.

Say I have $10,000 in my pocket. Frankly, I don’t want to give all of it to any of them. I’m going to put G-Rob in a $1/$2 game with a $500 cap at Caesar’s. I’m going to put Mark in five $500 live one-table tournaments. I’m going to put Blood and Eddie in a rotation of live and online cash games and tournaments. I’m going to keep $2,500 for myself and I’m going to play exclusively online–mostly in middle-buy-in–tournaments.

But that doesn’t answer the question. Sure, it figures out where I have the best expectation, but it doesn’t answer which among us is a better poker player. It only points out who is better at what game and where I stand the best chance of making some money on my investment. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and only time will change that.

Of course, I looked back at my history of staking people or buying pieces of people and discovered something. I have never staked anyone in a cash game, but I have put money into ten or more people playing tournaments. In fact, I’ve got money in action right now despite not playing a hand of poker myself.

Why is that?

The simple fact is, Don’s initial statement is basically true when applied to big buy-in live tournaments.

A couple of years ago, I sat in a steakhouse in Dallas with some very good poker thinkers, including someone with a WSOP bracelet and Nolan Dalla. Over a meal of filet mignon and a half dozen other meats, we figured up the minimum amount of money someone should have to comfortably go on the pro tournament circuit for a year. When figuring buy-ins, airfare, hotel, food, and any other companion expenses (airfare, hotel, and food for spouses, nannies, children, etc), we decided that a player would need about $500,000 to survive a year without fear of going broke.

When only the top 10-15% of people are making any money, going for any significant length of time without a final table is going to end up breaking a lot of players–not to mention putting a real hurtin’ on their psyche. It is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you are one of the top tournament players around. The time commitment alone is enough to make live tournaments -EV for most players.

However, that changes in a heartbeat when you look at online tournament pros. Gone are the costs of travel. Gone is the week-long commitment to one tournament. If you look at players like JohnnyBax and Rizen, two of the top online tournament pros, you’ll see the kind of money that can be made. These guys and hundreds of other players spend their entire days playing nothing but tournaments, thus giving themselves much better chances at final tables and big money. Sure, it’s not going to be a million bucks in one shot, but it can be a damned good living. In fact, it can be a much better living than someone playing small to mid-stakes cash games live.

Playing tournaments live or online takes talent. I’m not saying that because I enjoy it or excel at it. I’m saying it because it’s true. Sure, there are a lot of crapshoot tournaments out there, but when a tournament is structured correctly, more often than not, the cream will rise. If you only look among this community of poker bloggers, it’s not hard to spot who has a chance at being a profitable tournament player and who does not. Look at guys like Absinthe, Hoy, and bayne. Those are guys who prove that 1) MTTs are not a gimmick and 2) It takes a special talent to be profitable in tournaments.

However, it goes without saying, I think, that it takes just as much–and maybe more–talent to excel in cash games. There are so many variables that come into play in cash that don’t in tournaments that one could reasonably argue that cash game play takes–if not more–at least a very different kind of poker talent.

If we accept all of the above–that both styles of poker are profitable and require different talents to play each–then I think it logically follows that the best poker player is the one who can be profitable in both games. Sure, there aren’t many of those people out there, but they exist. And they are the people I don’t want to face at the table.

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