Progressive Knockout tournaments are the fastest growing format in poker. However very little has been written about “PKOs” or the strategies needed to succeed in them.

Until now, that is. In their newest book PKO Poker Strategy, Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter show how players can get an edge on the field in PKOs with just a few adjustments.

The following is an excerpt from PKO Poker Strategy called “PKOs in 30 Minutes.” Read it through — it will probably take you less than a half-hour — then apply what you’ve learned when playing your next PKO tournament on PokerStars.


PKOs in 30 Minutes

The philosophy of PKOs

If you have read our previous book, Poker Satellite Strategy, it isn’t the worst advice to say that in PKOs you should do the complete opposite of what you would do in a satellite. In satellites you make some extreme folds with strong hands because the prize structure is all or nothing, you don’t get more for winning more chips. In a PKO you make some extreme calls with weak hands because the presence of bounties gives you an extra incentive to win a hand beyond increasing your chip stack.

Something which we will talk about a lot in this book is that there are two opposing forces in PKO tournaments that influence every decision we make. One force is the bounties themselves which are an immediate cash prize for eliminating another player. The other force is the Independent Chip Model (ICM) which is a way of determining the cash value of your chips in a tournament. Your chips are worth more or less at different stages of a tournament and often that means chip preservation is more important than winning more chips, so as such we play tighter than we would in a ChipEV spot such as a cash game.

A PKO is a constant battle between whether the bounty or ICM has a bigger influence on how you should play. The purpose of this book is to give you the tools you need to determine in which spots you should be listening to the influence of the bounty and which spots you should be letting ICM have the final say. Until you have read this book completely, when you are at the tables try to think about what your normal range would be, then ask yourself if the bounty is enough to justify widening that range, or if ICM is pulling you in the other direction. Right now this process will be art rather than science, but it is a useful question to ask yourself every time you play a hand in a PKO.

Play looser when you can win a bounty

What makes PKOs radically different to normal MTTs is the presence of bounties. Winning a bounty not only is an immediate cash prize, it does the double-whammy and gives you a bigger stack to serve you as you try to win a payout and more bounties. The upside of getting all your money in the middle of the table when you can win a bounty is far greater than it is in a normal tournament where you just win chips.

For this reason, the equity you need to call a shove when you can win a bounty is lower than it would be in a regular ChipEV spot and much lower than it would be in an ICM influenced spot. In a scenario where you would need 50% equity to call in a cash game, you might need 60% equity to call in a tournament near the payouts, but in PKOs you might only need 35% equity. PKOs are a unique beast in that you often have to make a call that you know will lose you chips in the long term because the times you win the bounty more than make up for it.

For example, let’s say you are playing in an $11 PKO and a player (whom you cover) shoves for 15 big blinds with a $30 bounty on their head. It’s way before the money and the first mincash is $18. Without doing any calculations whatsoever, or thinking about your own chip stack, you can easily see that the bounty itself is worth more than the mincash. Not to mention if you win you will have a lot more chips to make the money and capture more bounties!

Don’t worry about working out the maths yet, that’s what this book is for. Until you have gone through all the material just take a look at how big the bounties are at your favourite site and think of them as removing a few percentage points from the equity you need to call. A small bounty might reduce the equity you need to call by 5%, a big bounty might reduce it by 12%. You might need ATo to call in a normal MTT but in the same spot in a PKO only need A8o, for example.

Again, it’s art, not science, right now. The above advice is incredibly simplistic and only meant for your next few steps before you learn more about PKOs.

Pay attention to who covers whom at all times

This is a very important skill to make into a habit. If we assume that everyone is aware of the bounties on offer at the table, then knowing who can eliminate whom at any stage really shapes the ranges you can put them on. If, for example, a player opens under-the-gun with a medium stack with several players covering them, you can usually put them on a tight range because they risk elimination and will likely get called. However, if that same player opens and the Big Blind is a micro stack with a big bounty, you can widen their range because they are probably taking a punt at winning the Big Blind’s bounty.

If nothing else, pay attention to who you can bust and who can bust you every single hand. You can widen your range accordingly when you have a chance at winning your bounty and likewise look at who appears to be trying to isolate you for your bounty.

Play more pots vs. people you cover

When you can eliminate another player and win their bounty, the focus should be on how you can keep them in the pot for long enough that a chance to get all their chips comes up.

First and foremost, play more pots against them. That means defending your big blind wider than normal when they are in the pot and opening more hands when they are acting behind you. “You have to be in it to win it” is usually terrible poker advice, but it applies here.

This also means doing more things to keep them in pots, which often might mean giving them less chance to get away cheaply. For example, if a player who covers you opens, you are the Small Blind and the Big Blind has a bounty you can win, that might mean flatting with strong hands you would normally 3-bet. If you have Pocket Aces you might normally reraise to get the hands heads-up against the opener, but that gives the Big Blind an easy fold. If you just call you give them a good price to come along. Of course, you will get sucked out on more playing tricky, but the times you win the bounty more than makes up for it.

Play (close to) normal when you are covered

When you are the player who risks elimination in a hand and thus cannot win a bounty, that changes things considerably. There is no additional prize to win, you can only win chips, so as such you should not be taking big risks all-in. This does not mean you should be playing overly tight either because those chips are still worth winning as they are in a regular tournament.

If in doubt, just play the hand like it is a regular tournament without bounties, but with an adjustment for your opponents being quite loose-aggressive. Although you cannot win a bounty, there is one on your head to be won, so while you may be playing a regular MTT strategy, your opponents will be trying to get all your chips in the middle of the table. Treat it like you are playing a regular MTT against a table of maniacs where you expect to be called and reraised much more often. This does mean you can widen the range of hands you are prepared to value bet and bluff catch with, just not to the extent you would when you have a chance of winning a bounty.

Play to get the chips in

When you do have the potential to win a bounty and you have made a hand or massive draw, a cardinal sin of PKOs would be leaving chips on the table. If you get cute making small inducing bets in the hopes the bounty will reshove, you not only lose those extra chips when your strategy doesn’t work out you also miss a bounty. Be prepared to bet big when you think you have a good enough hand to win a bounty. If you have a hand that could win a bounty make sure you, in the words of Doyle Brunson, “put your opponent to a decision for all their chips”.

Fold equity is the least important form of equity in a PKO

Bluffing really isn’t much of a thing in PKOs. Yes, there are spots and players where you can take down a pot knowing you have the worst hand, but as a general rule, you should play with the expectation that people are looking to call against you, especially when they can win a big bounty. When your bounty is big enough it will sometimes be correct for your opponents to call you with 100% of their range; don’t complain if you try to steal a pot and it goes terribly, your opponent has a much bigger incentive to call you than usual.

That said, this doesn’t mean you should be shoving and raising with a tight range, quite the opposite. Knowing that you will get called lighter than usual, you can sometimes shove wider correctly knowing you will get called by a lot of weaker hands that would never normally call you. Plus, now and then, you will take down the pot uncontested.

For this reason, you will have to adjust your shoving range to be weighted more towards hands that do well at showdown. Hands which don’t need to improve against a wide range. Small pairs do worse in PKOs because they get called by a very wide range that is usually flipping against them. High broadway hands do better in PKOs than regular MTTs, not because they contain blockers, but because they get called by hands they dominate more often. Shoving from the cutoff with K3 suited might get a call from JT offsuit and hold, for example. This is something that you would never see in a regular tournament. We will explore in much more detail how different types of hands perform against different ranges in the next chapter.

The first time I ever played a bounty tournament was my second year as a professional. My best friend at the time, Rob Taylor, who was one of Ireland’s top pros, was invited to the opening of a poker club and they gave him a free buy-in but put a big bounty on his head. He was asked to invite another pro along so he asked me. We were the only players with bounties on our head and the prize for busting us was about five buy-ins.

As we were driving there we were discussing how to play under these circumstances because we never had before. Rob was concerned that having the bounty on our head was so minus EV it was taking away the EV of the free buy-in. As the tournament progressed, Rob got more frustrated because he could not get any folds at all. I thought it wasn’t a bad thing overall because when we do get a hand we might get paid.

I decided we had to accept a number of things; we had to accept that when we opened, we might get five calls, therefore we had to change our opening range. A hand like JTs becomes really good because it can make the nuts more often than other hands on boards that also give opponents big hands. My second adjustment was that clearly there was no point bluffing or semi-bluffing because you can’t get folds. So in-game I changed my style to never bluff, value bet only and changed my sizings to bigger bets when I had it because they had to call me. Rob thought it was a handicap to have these bounties on our heads but it actually became a positive, it made the strategy simple, we just had to ask ourselves if our hands were really strong, would weaker hands call and then continue going with it?

This is why Phil Hellmuth still wins tournaments, because everybody wants to bust him. He complains about people calling him with shit but that is how he wins. When you have a bounty on your head, it turns you into Phil Hellmuth.

Key Takeaways

  • Play looser when you can win a bounty
  • Play as if it’s a normal MTT with some maniacs on the table when you are covered
  • Don’t leave chips on the table when you have a good enough hand to win a bounty
  • Don’t expect bluffs to work often
  • High card hands hold up more often in PKOs than small pairs

This is an excerpt from PKO Poker Strategy by Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter. It is the first book to be written about Progressive Knockout tournaments.

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