I've been thinking a lot recently about differences between standard side events with lower buy-ins and "high roller" events, in particular how players often have trouble transitioning from one to the other. This difficulty highlights some interesting ideas about how money affects people when they play poker.
I'm not just talking about making the move from lower buy-in events to higher ones, but going from high to low, too. There are actually a lot of players who do better in high roller events than they do in the lower buy-in tournaments, so the problem with transitioning from one to the other can go both ways.
On the Asia poker circuit -- and in other places, too -- you find a lot of businessmen in the high roller events, players who aren't professionals and who mainly play for fun. The buy-ins are not a concern at all for them, and they aren't worried about bankroll management. Nor do they swap pieces or sell percentages. They don't have backers, either, to whom they might have to explain how they play in a tournament or how they busted. They are able to play without such burdens.
A lot of times these players play in ways that aren't really "standard" to professional players or to those who have studied the game more carefully. They can be more unpredictable with the lines they take and with their hand ranges, and can therefore be pretty challenging to play against as a result.
That said, these players who are more comfortable playing higher buy-in tournaments sometimes struggle playing lower buy-in events. I have a friend who normally plays the high rollers who recently played in the Beijing Millions Main Event which was a lower buy-in tournament that had multiple Day 1 flights. He just couldn't get anything going and busted Day 1s three times. Meanwhile I made it through two different Day 1 flights with similarly above-average stacks.
When he saw how we both had done, he talked to me about some of the differences he has noticed between the higher and lower buy-in tournaments.
He explained to me some of the strategies he uses in high roller events. For example, in a high roller he knows that if he gets into a situation where he might be facing a big coin-flip -- say he has pocket jacks preflop and thinks his opponent has ace-king -- he won't be willing to gamble. Even if he's put a raise in, he'll fold that hand in favor of looking for other opportunities where his edge will be bigger.
He's selective in other ways, too, say when he has a big stack and doesn't necessarily push opponents around the way some pros might do. Instead he remains patient, picking spots carefully and not being overly risky with the way he plays. He sees his conservative style as being similar to how others tend to approach the big buy-in events, especially those for whom the money is meaningful. In fact sometimes he'll take advantage of tight opponents, knowing that they'll fold to his bets -- and his bluffs -- for the same reasons he'll sometimes be inclined to fold in the high rollers.
Meanwhile he's noticed how in smaller buy-in events players are much more loose with their play, primarily because they aren't as worried about the buy-ins. They aren't focused on the bubble bursting or moving up in the payouts. The mentality is very different. In those Day 1 flights at the Beijing Millions he was struggling a little bit to adjust to the different approach those players took when compared to the tighter way players tend to play in the high rollers.
His observations made me think about my own example as a player who plays lots of smaller side events and occasionally takes shots in the high rollers. I understand exactly what he's saying about the buy-ins affecting players' styles. I've come across those "scared money" players in the bigger events, as well as those businessmen for whom the buy-ins don't matter as much.
A lot of those businessmen are very good at picking up tells and reading people, especially when it comes to figuring out who is being affected by the money and who is not. That's one reason why they became successful is business, probably -- being able to read people and their actions. They can have a real edge on the pros sometimes, especially pros who play more online than live.
You might say that players who don't normally play high roller events have a couple of obstacles to overcome. One is being able to move up and play for higher amounts without letting the money affect their games negatively. But the other one is being able to focus more closely on how some of their opponents are affected by the money, something that is more of an issue in a high roller event than is the case in the other events where almost no one is "scared money."
The importance of money to poker is one of the many things that makes the game so interesting. Everyone has his or her own ideas about the significance of money, and whatever those ideas are, they can matter a lot when it comes to playing styles.
Celina Lin is a member of Team PokerStars Pro