How to Adapt Your Poker Strategy for PKO Tournaments

Progressive knockout tournaments (PKOs) are becoming increasingly popular, especially when it comes to online poker. The format involves bounties that become larger as players bust and the game goes on. Many of the same skills apply as in any other tournament, but you’ll need to make key changes to your strategy in order to thrive.

This article explains the way PKOs work and how you can make the necessary adjustments.

What is PKO?

Poker Knockout Sloths

PKO has evolved from regular knockout tournaments. In knockout poker, a portion of the prize pool goes to the payouts and the other portion goes to the bounties, usually half and half.  Whenever you eliminate another player, you claim their full bounty.

For example, let’s say the buy-in is $22. Out of that, $2 goes to rake, $10 goes to the regular prize pool, and $10 goes to the bounty prize pool. In this case, whoever knocks a player out always wins $10.

In the case of PKOs, the prize pool is split in the same way, usually 50-50. When a player knocks an opponent out, they scoop half of the bounty value at that moment. The other half is added to their own so that players’ bounties progressively increase as the game goes on. 

This creates interesting and unique scenarios. Bounties get big. Towards the end of the game, they get really big, so much so that they will come to influence your own and other players’ decisions. And while you might find the occasional live game, PKO tournaments are readily available online on major poker platforms.

Key concepts

Here are some key concepts to understand about the PKO format and how it might influence your decisions:

  • The prize pool is split between payouts and bounties. Players’ bounties, including your own, get progressively bigger as opponents are knocked out.
  • As such, bounties will add an extra factor to decision-making, especially when it comes to all-ins involving short stacks with big bounties.
  • As a general rule, if your opponent’s bounty is large but the stack is small, usually in the later stages, you can loosen up against that opponent to play for their bounty. If your own bounty is big but the stack is small, you’ll need to tighten up as others will be hunting yours.

The points above will form the basis of your poker strategy adjustments for PKOs. Much of how you apply this strategy, however, will depend on the size of bounties as well as how close you are to the payouts. It’s useful to break down PKO strategy according to the stage of the tournament.

Early game

In the early stages of a PKO, you should play quite similarly to any poker tournament. Bounty prizes start small and so it’s rarely worth risking your stack to win one. Still, you can make minor adjustments to your range to account for bounties, especially against very short stacks.

The main adjustment to make here is against other players who are overvaluing these tiny bounties and loosening up too much. Once identified, be ready to adapt by playing strong hands for value and aiming to put these early bounty hunters to bed. You may find opportunities to chip up early this way.

If you knock out a player at this stage then it’s a bonus, but you’re not really making it your aim. Chips gained in the early stages can be used in the mid-late stages to win bounties that are worth a whole lot more.

Mid stages

By the mid stages, interesting developments will have occurred. Chip stacks of opponents will vary and so will bounty values. It’s at this point that bounties become more relevant to your decisions.

Always be aware of chip stack sizes. If you are short-stacked, then others will have an incentive to call you loose, especially if you have a big bounty on your head. In this case, you’ll have less fold equity and will have to tighten up against players who have you easily covered. Bluff and shove less than in regular tournaments and expect to get called wider.

If you have a big stack, you’ll be looking to widen your calling and shoving ranges somewhat against shorter stacks, especially those that have big bounties. The shorter the stack and bigger the bounty, the more you can loosen up.

Remember, if you don’t have a player covered then their bounty is not relevant to your decision. A

Late stages

By now the bounties will be getting huge and can really be worth playing for. The same rules as the mid-stages apply – play looser against short stacks with big bounties, and tighten up against players who have you covered, especially if your own bounty is worth hunting.

If you’re the short stack, there are some hands that would usually be in your shoving range that play particularly badly in a PKO. Suited connectors are a good example because you’ll be getting called by middling hands like king-six and ace-nine more often, which will have suited connectors dominated.

The bottom line is you’re going to get called looser; considerably looser if your bounty is hefty. So aim to value shove against those loose calling ranges if possible and avoid bluffs against big stacks.

If you have a big stack, in some cases you’ll want to loosen up considerably. Let’s say an opponent has an $800 bounty in a $40 tournament and shoves a short stack. The chips risked won’t dent your stack, so you can play for the bounty with relatively little risk.

But let’s face it, you’re not going to be the only one hunting the bounties. This is where isolation shoves come into play. If you want to be all in against only the short stack, you’ll often have to reshove over the top with a medium or big stack to force other potential hunters out of the pot.

In the late stages, decisions have to be weighed up in terms of the reward of winning bounties against the risk of busting the tournament. 

Once you reach the bigger payouts, especially on the final table, the ICM and pay jumps will likely become more important than the bounties. Yet ICM considerations will be less of a factor than in regular tournaments, as a chunk of the prize pool is still in the bounties.

Takeaway points

There’s been a lot to take in, and that’s without going into the mathematics of bounties, so let’s summarize a few key points that you can use right now to improve your PKO poker strategy.

  • If the opponent’s bounty is large and the stack is small, you can loosen your range if your own stack is larger.
  • If your stack is small and your bounty is large, you need to tighten your ranges to avoid bigger stacks playing for your bounty.
  • Bounties are worth much more in the mid to late stages of the tournament. In the end stages, they are worth the most, but this is balanced by the pay jumps.
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