How the progressive knock-out conquered poker

Jon Pill
Published by:
Posted on 01/18/2021

Try and find a knock out tournament in 2021 that doesn’t use the progressive variant.

In fact, calling it a variant no longer feels accurate. The variant is now the default.

Both partypoker and PokerStars have switched so comprehensively to the PKO format that they have started to simply call them KO Tournaments. Party’s KO Series is winding to a close in a few days. For three-and-a-half weeks (from Dec 25th to Jan 19th) they have put on well over 100 events. Every single one of them was a PKO.

A few months ago PKO events were so popular that Stars and GGPoker didn’t see any risk to their profits in running their PKO series in parallel.

When a trend takes off like this it is worth analysing. Especially one that is so clearly good for the game.

Poker trends online are guided by similar principles to the popularity of baby names. Every few years millions of parents try to avoid being either too basic or too extra. As a result, names cycle in popularity (apart from Michael, a perennial favorite).

Similar constraints seem to drive poker trends as players grow bored of last year’s innovation, but don’t want to lose their minds and learn something weird like Badugi.

As a result, we have seen games rise and fall in popularity largely by making small tweaks to popular games. Take PLO for instance. It’s basically hold’em, but more cards. Zoom tables are just multi-tabling, but less exhausting. And spin’n’goes are sit’n’goes, but with more variance. And most recently, short deck is hold’em again, but this time with fewer cards.

The appeal of these new versions lies in two main factors. Simplicity and variance. With one small, easily explained rule tweak you change the way the game is played.

Just as important is its natural appeal to recreational players. And for this, variance is key. Anything that slows a rec player’s roll on its way to the better players is, say it with me, good for the game.

Keep it simple, stupid

Online poker just works better than live poker in so many ways. The dealing takes fractions of a second, the bet sizing is as granular as the currency you play in, and you can mute all the obnoxious drunks at your table.

One of the ideas which most intelligently uses the online format to improve the game is the progressive knock-out. PKOs main improvement over their regular KO opposition is to make the value of the player’s bounty part of the tournament strategy.

In a normal KO, an amount (usually half) the player’s buy-in is a bounty on their head. The result is that before the bubble, bounties make a big difference to the ICM value of a shove. After the bubble, bounties fade rapidly into pleasant little extras.

In a PKO, a player’s still has an amount (still usually half) their buy-in as a bounty. But now when they are knocked out, the knocker out who get’s their bounty only gets half of it. The other half is transferred from the knockee’s head to the knocker’s.

It is that simple.

Recreational appeal

This result of the simple change, is a shifting landscape of bounties that affects strategy significantly the whole way through the tourney.

Large bounties can accrue on players, dwarfing the lower rungs of the pay ladder. Assessing the push-fold values of these stacks is a skill in its own right. But more importantly in a game that is always looking to lure in amateurs to lose (but not too fast), the fact that a player can profit in a tourney without being one of the top 15% finishers does a lot for making the PKO appeal to weaker players.

This is why some trends (like short-deck) that are driven by pros, fall short of ubiquity. The most important thing for getting an innovation to stick is capturing the imagination of the recs, not the regs.

Recreational players are the base of the poker ecosystem, anything that feeds the fish, feeds the shark. PKO’s are a feeding frenzy for all.

Featured image source: Twitter