Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t fail to have noticed the popularity of Bounty/Knockout (“KO”) tournaments online. I’ve even played a few Progressive Knockout games in casinos around Europe.
If you’re already familiar with the mechanics of Progressive Knockouts, you can jump straight to the paragraph “Big Booty” where I’ll dive into the ramifications of the large bounties which define modern KO tourneys.
In regular Multi-Table Tournaments (MTTs), the prize pool is paid out typically to the last 15% remaining players in the field, with most of the money on the final table. KO tournaments typically also award prizes to the top 15%, but additionally you win cash prizes for eliminating other players.
Each player has a head prize, or bounty, which is immediately paid to your account should you bust them. (Under specific circumstances, it’s possible for the bounty to be chopped by more than one player, but this is uncommon.)
KO tourneys aren’t new, but the modern twist is that the bounties are BIG!
In the KO format that has gained the most popularity (and which is featured on Grosvenor Poker online) there are two things to note about head prizes:
- They are ‘progressive’: the twist is that your own bounty grows as you eliminate other players.
- A substantial part of the prize pool—usually 50%—is allocated to bounties.
Example: in a €45.50 tournament, €22.75 of each buy-in goes to the main prize pool; €22.75 goes to the bounty prize pool. If there are 342 total entries, that’s a total prize pool of €15,561.
Let’s say the top 14% are paid (48 payouts). If we place 2nd through 48th, we have finished ‘in the money’ (ITM) and will take a share of the main €7,780.50 prize pool. But if we do so without eliminating anyone, we’ve potentially left a lot of money on the table, as there’s a second prize pool of €7,780.50, namely the bounty prize pool.
At the start, there’s a nominal bounty of €22.75 on each player’s head, but only half of this is immediately available: if you eliminate me, you’re awarded €11.38 in cash, the remaining €11.37 being added to your own head—increasing the incentive for others to bust you. Crucially, you can’t ever win that €11.37 unless you win the whole tournament (thereby winning your own bounty).
Soon enough, you’ll see players with one or two bounties under their belt. By the time someone has eliminated six other players, the nominal bounty value indicated on their head will have increased from €22.75 to at least €90.97, meaning you can win at least €45.49 by eliminating them—four times the bounty available at the start. (In practice their bounty will usually be even bigger, as some of the eliminated players themselves may have knocked others out.)
Even when a player fails to get ITM in a KO tournament, it’s not unusual for them to have nevertheless recouped two or three times their tournament buy-in.
What is the effect of the big bounties? Well, it’s complex, but here’s a highly condensed summary:
- It’s not enough to play KO tournaments ‘normally’ and just hope that bounties happen to gravitate towards you. If you’re not changing your strategy in Knockouts, you’re making a mistake. Keep in mind that HALF of all the money in the prize pool is paid out in bounties.
- As the game progresses, head prizes diverge. A small number of people may have eliminated many other players, which means two things: (1) They may have a big stack, therefore covering everyone else at their table. (2) Should they lose their relative chip lead, the tables are turned: they become a target.
- If you have fewer chips than someone, you can’t win their bounty. Therefore the game can become driven by the dynamic of who covers who, particularly when stacks are shallower relative to the blinds, meaning it takes fewer bets to get all-in.
- The other key driver is the ratio of bounty to stack size. The major targets are players with big bounties but relatively few chips. Even a player with a small bounty could be a big target if they have fallen far below their starting stack.
- Pay attention. Even if your own strategy isn’t to go absolutely ballistic, it’s important to pay attention to table dynamics. There may be maniacs playing an all-or-nothing strategy, never taking their foot off the gas; there may be weak-passive fish who believe they need to see every flop with raggedy holdings, just praying to somehow magically stack people; or there may be a good player who appears to be playing extremely aggressively, but in fact is doing so in a very controlled way. Of course “pay attention to your table” is great advice in all forms of poker, but my personal experience is that play is more divergent and extreme in KO tourneys.
- Knockouts are top-heavy. If you look at the lobby of a KO tourney, don’t be fooled by the payout table. Typically 1st and 2nd have equal payouts from the main prize pool, but it is very common for the champion to win the same amount again—or even more—in bounties. The key point is that you’re awarded your own bounty, effectively doubling all the bounties you’ve already won (including the runner-up’s head prize). The net effect: frequently 1st wins more than double 2nd, a much greater disparity than you’ll see in regular tournaments.
- KO tourneys have what I dub reverse ICM. In regular MTTs, each time a player is eliminated, the remaining players all gain equity; essentially you make money by folding. The bounties in KO tournaments have the opposite effect. As you sit back while other players bust one another, money drains out of the bounty prize pool. Just as ICM (the Independent Chip Model) attempts to model the science of juggling ‘survival’ versus ‘chip accumulation’, you must attempt to balance ‘risk to one’s stack’ versus ‘opportunities for immediate cash and equity accumulation’.
- If you’re adjusting correctly to the format, I believe you will go hero-to-zero more often in KO tourneys. You must make more plays than usual that would be considered unprofitable in a regular MTT, thus there can be a sort of downward pull on your stack.
- There’s a flipside to this: you can bounce back more often. There are more ‘free chips’ about when you get short, because players are incentivised to make loose calls—good for you when you have a fair-to-strong hand!
Key Things to Know
If you haven’t played many KO tourneys, I’m going to blast through a few of the main considerations and adjustments.
If you’re wary of KO tourneys—maybe you think there’s too much ‘gamble’—I’ll try to convince you why it’s time to stop ignoring them.
So why you should play?
Knockout tourneys are huge. Quite simply, some of the biggest and best games are Knockouts. Bigger prize pools mean more recreational players; and if you fancy your edge, you have an interest in playing for bigger money.
Even pros don’t adjust correctly to KO tourneys. Many otherwise good players make outright errors, or under-adjust to the Knockout format. Some of the mistakes are the obvious sort: failure to call with the appropriate ranges when there’s a potential bounty on the line. ‘Auto-pilot’ errors will no doubt creep in when people are multi-tabling a mixture of KO tournaments and regular MTTs: experienced players, facing a shove of a certain size from a certain position, typically know certain hands are auto-folds, and may forget to call wider for the bounty.
However there are other, subtler errors. For example, I frequently see a player 3-bet the button when they cover the players in the blinds, with a hand that will make more profit by trying to keep the SB/BB in the hand. The button should consider whether those player(s) are short-stacked enough (and/or fishy enough) that they may frequently stack off on many ‘cooler’ boards.
Knockouts are interesting and complex. If—like me—you enjoy the situational aspects of poker more than playing a formulaic style and memorising pre-flop charts, you’ll enjoy the depth and breadth of KOs. Not only must you juggle bounties and ICM (which usually pull in opposite directions), you should also find yourself considering ‘future game’ more often. Shall I gamble now (taking a big risk that can be justified by the immediate odds) or preserve my stack because I expect more equitable situations to present themselves in the near future? In my time as a pro I’ve seen the notion of ‘waiting for a better spot’ go out of, and then come back into fashion. Although many great minds are unravelling the maths of this popular tournament format, I can’t see anybody satisfactorily solving the future game aspect of Knockout poker any time soon, since a scientific model must account for blind structure, skill edges, and many other variables.
The standard of play is poor. The bounty component aside, I’m seeing fishier play in KO tourneys. Presumably this is because the games are particularly appealing to recreational players. The biggest giveaway is when someone makes a kamikaze play as the covered player!
They are fun. If you can wrap your head around it being correct to ‘gamble’ with an extremely wide range in certain spots, and have the mental fortitude to ride the fierce chip swings, the action-packed nature of KOs makes them outright entertaining. I mean who likes folding?
Playing aggro is a blast. Do you enjoy playing a hyper-aggressive style in tournaments, but find you sometimes ‘spew’ off your chips? Do you like to practice playing more aggressively, but you’re not sure how far to push the envelope? If you answer ‘yes’ to either of these questions, you should have a crack at playing more Knockouts: there’s a larger-than-usual incentive to accumulate chips, plus when you do cover other players, there’s a better-than-usual chance that playing wild is mathematically justified!
Top 9 Tips to Adjust Your Game for Knockouts
A full discussion of the mathematics of Knockouts is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say this is not solved, and consensus hasn’t even been reached on some of the rudimentary maths (like how to valuate a starting bounty).
- The most basic and intuitive adjustment is that, facing an all-in and covering the player, we must fold less often than usual. This means making loose calls/raises with hands that would ordinarily be considered—at least a little, but sometimes a lot—“minus-EV” in a regular tournament.
- Another obvious adjustment is that covering other players is good. Sometimes we may want to pass a high-variance spot to maintain our chip lead over the table. Other times we may wish to take a calculated risk to overtake our table mates in chips.
- Tune into the dynamics of the feeding frenzy when someone gets short-stacked and all-in (or potentially all-in). There’s variation in how others approach these situations: some will call with any two cards and just hope to get lucky; others will make aggressive plays to try to force the rest of the table out of the pot.
- With the latter player type in mind—trap more! If we have identified a ‘bounty zealot’ on our table and someone’s all-in in front of us, we may expect the zealot to isolate (maybe even shove) at a high frequency. We mustn’t signpost our premium hand if the zealot has yet to act.
- Adjust pre-flop ranges when covered. For example if we’re short-stacked and our bounty makes us more likely than usual to be called, this should affect our hand selection for moving all-in. Think carefully about hands that would usually be the weakest shoves or close folds. Some hands may increase in EV, others may decrease; try to visualise the ranges that might actually call. K-T offsuit might usually be too weak to shove in certain situations, but in a Knockout we could be called by lots of dominated hands like K7s, QTo, JTs, and so on. J9s might usually be a marginally profitable shove, but think about all the hands I just mentioned that might call to chase our bounty.
- There may still be spots where middling hands like J-T suited are profitable shoves, for example when our stack is so short that we expect multiple calls. Suddenly JTs soars in profitability because of its good performance in multi-way all-ins. I recommend regularly playing around with an equity calculator if you don’t already do so. There’s lots of pre-flop action in store in KOs!
- As the covering player, we can play more aggressively post-flop. The answer to a lot of poker questions (should I bet or check the turn? Should I call or raise the flop?) is “it depends”. In KO tournaments, very often it doesn’t. If we have a hand that has a fair chance of winning, and the villain’s bounty is substantial, we’re motivated to play our hand in a way that gets them all-in by the river. This could mean check-raising some draws we’d usually check-call. It could mean jamming the river full-pot with top-pair-no-kicker, in a situation where it would usually be a little too thin to push so hard for value. Of course, versus a perceptive player it must be believable we’d bluff the same way.
- Play within your bankroll. Knockout tournaments can be rollercoaster rides—expect bad beats and dollops of variance. It’s important to play buy-in levels where you can stomach a downswing. Remember there are always satellites for the bigger buy-ins, and you’ll play better poker (read: make the necessary loose calls!) if playing within your comfort zone.
- Register from the start, and if you must re-enter (it does happen!) better to do so within the first few levels. Late registration is fine in regular MTTs, but costs EV in Knockouts if a substantial portion of the field has already been eliminated. Further, there can be merit in playing aggressively from the word go, as bounties are comparatively valuable right at the start. As the game progresses, the risk/reward ratio can become less appealing when your opponents have chipped up, yet they haven’t busted anyone.
Grosvenor’s €1,000,000 “BOUNTY HUNTER SERIES” starts Friday 26th February. Get stuck in…
Good luck at the tables and have fun!