Here is the situation - you have a close decision in a no-limit Hold'em poker tournament. Pre-flop you have put your opponent on two over cards and you have a medium pocket pair. You are up against a wild opponent who has constantly been going all-in. This opponent has put in a raise and has your chip stack covered. You have studied the game a little bit and you know you are a slight favorite to win the pot at showdown (about 51 per cent). If you go all-in you know your opponent will call and if you lose you are out. The question is do you go all-in knowing you are slight favorite?
At first glance you might say – "well I am favorite to double up, why not go all-in"? In cash games you would be correct in your thinking. If you get beaten in a cash game you just re-load with more chips. You should take advantage of any profitable situation in cash games. However, you can't just hit the re-load button in tournament play. Once you lose all your chips then you are out. This is the fundamental difference between cash games and tournament play. Survival is an important aspect of tournament play and in some circumstances you should avoid close decisions and wait for more profitable opportunities. Most regular tournament players are aware of this concept, but most do not apply it correctly.
For example, the above theory only holds if you are one of the better players in the tournament. If you are outgunned in ability then you should take any profitable situation that might present itself. I see lots of poor players avoiding situations where they know they are a slight favorite, sometimes as good as a 55 % chance to double up. A poorer player should jump at opportunities to double-up when they are slight favorite to do so. However, most poorer poker players are in self denial so it is unlikely that this article will help them too much.
At the other end of the spectrum are those tournament players who generally play well but sometimes overestimate their ability and give up as much as a 65 % chance to double up, waiting for a better opportunity. These tournament players rarely have a bad result, but often win only small amounts or fall just outside the money (I know I was one of them for a while). This article may be able to help this category of player get one of the top positions.
The real question now becomes how much should you give up if you are one of the better players in the tournament and does this percentage change at various stages in the tournament?
Greg Raymer, 2004 WSOP winner, says that no good player will knowingly pass up a 60/40 opportunity irrespective of the stage of the tournament. Many other pros state that this is about the right figure. Personally, I think that even this might be a bit high. I am reluctant to give up 55 per cent these days. However, I have not won a World Series of Poker bracelet, so let's assume Greg is right. I think that this figure is about right through most stages of the tournament. Once exception might be when you are lucky enough to get down to the last 2 or 3 players. If I got down to the last 3 and the other two players were Dan Harrington and Chris Ferguson (two previous winners of the WSOP), I would gamble to double up if I was a 45 % chance to win, knowing that they were significantly better players. However, if I was up against two chumps, I might wait until I was a 65 % chance. However, these circumstances are rare and I think the 60/40 rule is a good rule of thumb.