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What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?


Poker has grown and evolved over the years, with new game formats and tournament structures introduced quite often.

Just a couple of decades ago, freezeout and rebuy tournaments were practically the only formats played, while today, we have knockouts, turbos, hyper-turbos, re-entries, progressive knockouts, and so much more.

One of the most recently added tournament formats is mystery bounty, a tournament variation that adds a gambling element to the popular knockout tournament format, making it very appealing to recreational players.

Whether you have already played a mystery bounty tournament or are still waiting for your first opportunity to jump into one, you should keep reading to learn more about this game. With mystery bounty tournaments being so new, it’s worth looking into the optimal strategies to play them and learning how to adjust to them in the early days.

We can expect a lot of mystery bounty events to take place throughout 2023, so let’s take a look at what they are and how you should adjust your play when you take your seat in them.

What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?

What Are Mystery Bounty Tournaments?

A mystery bounty tournament is a relatively new format that builds upon the classic bounty or knockout format by adding a special twist. In a classic bounty tournament, players are awarded an even prize for each player they eliminate from start to finish, but that is not the case in a mystery bounty event.

Online poker operators and live tournament organizers built upon this format in the past by adding the progressive knockout format, which has the bounties building up throughout the game, making final table bounties nice and juicy.

The mystery bounty format is a mix of both.

Instead of bounties building up with each elimination, some large bounties are introduced into the game right away.

In a mystery bounty tournament, only players who make the money can receive bounties, as they only kick in once the tournament has reached the ITM stage. At this point, every elimination will earn you a bounty. The value of that bounty, however, will be chosen randomly as you pull out a random bounty from a pool of available ones.

While bounty values can vary drastically, there is usually one major bounty in the event, which can be worth up to 100x your initial buyin or even more in the biggest mystery bounty tournaments.

Let's take a look at an example of a mystery bounty tournament and what the payout structure can look like.

What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?

Example Mystery Bounty Tournament

To clarify how mystery bounty tournaments work, let’s look at an example of a mystery bounty event you might play in. Let’s assume you join a $10,500 mystery bounty tournament in a live casino. $500 of the buyin fee goes to the casino as the rake, $3,000 go into the bounty pool, and $7,000 goes into the regular prize pool.

The event draws in 200 players, making the prize pool a total of $1,400,000 and the bounty prize pool $600,000.

In a standard knockout tournament, you would earn $3,000 for each player you knock out, but this will not be the case in the mystery bounty. Instead, possible bounties might look like this:

  • 1 Bounty worth $200,000
  • 2 Bounties worth $75,000
  • 5 Bounties worth $20,000
  • 10 Bounties worth $7,500
  • 16 Bounties worth $3,125

As you can see, only the final 34 players in the event will be worth a bounty, while all earlier eliminations will not award you anything extra.

However, for a buyin of $10,000, you will have an opportunity to win $200,000 for eliminating a single player from the tournament, which can make chasing the bounties much more exciting.

You will need to think about exactly how valuable eliminating players is and at which point you should start making serious deviations from your regular tournament strategy because of the bounties.

Now that you understand the mystery bounty format let's talk about strategy and how you want to approach these tournaments for optimal results.

Playing the Early Stages of Mystery Bounty Tournaments

During the early stages of mystery bounty tournaments, which generally include Day 1 of live events or the earlier levels of online MTTs, no bounties are awarded for eliminations.

In fact, bounty payouts in mystery bounty tournaments only start once everyone is in the money, which means you will have to get to the top 10 or 15% of all players to get any bounties.

However, once you are there, the bounties will be worth a lot more than your typical knockout tournament because all the bounties are distributed among these top finishers.

This means there is no value in eliminating players in the early levels other than the chips you earn, which is the same as any regular freezeout tournament.

And yet, there are some differences between the two, especially in the later stages of the early play, just before the money bubble.

As the money approaches and the knockouts are about to kick in, it is worth it trying to build up a big stack to have the ability to win some easy bounties in the early levels of ITM play.

Conversely, you should probably do your best not to spew chips away close to the money if you have them because there is less value in playing pots before the bounties are in play.

Money bubbles usually take a bit longer to burst in mystery bounty tournaments for this reason but make sure not to lose patience and start calling players off too light. Your chips are worth too much to throw away, so just wait for the short stacks to bust out and start collecting the bounties.

Entering the Bounty Stages of Mystery Bounty Tournaments

Once the bubble has burst, and everyone is in the money, every elimination starts to award bounties. Whenever you eliminate a player, you will earn a chip, which you can exchange for one random bounty once you are eliminated.

When the bubble first bursts, every bounty you earn is worth exactly the starting average. In the example we gave earlier, 34 bounties will be worth a total of $600,000, making each bounty worth exactly $17,647.

While this is great value compared to your initial buyin, it is also the least valuable the bounties will ever be, assuming the biggest bounty doesn’t get randomly picked out early.

In early bounty play, you should make sure to always count the average value of each bounty you stand to win and only make calls for eliminations if they make sense in terms of average value.

Don’t be the player who calls off anything just to win the bounty, and instead try to exploit the recreational players who gamble it all in the hopes of winning that top bounty and walking away the big winner.

If you are the short stack in this tournament phase, make sure to play a bit tighter than you normally would, as you will be getting called a lot wider than you would in a freezeout tournament.

What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?

Playing the Late Stages of Mystery Bounty Tournaments

As you enter the late stages of mystery bounty tournaments, the bounties will finally become more valuable, and there will be some that are fairly easy to pick up.

If you still have a decent stack of chips, you will get many situations in which short-stacks fighting for survival are getting their chips in, giving you an easy shot at a bounty.

As more and more players are eliminated, the value of each remaining bounty will change. Unless the top value bounties are picked up early, each new elimination will be worth more than before.

As the value of bounties increases, the value of calling down all-ins in marginal spots will increase. You will want to keep track of what bounties are worth and make your decisions accordingly.

Each time you are contemplating making a call, add the monetary value of the average bounty into the equation and try to make your calls accordingly.

If you are a short stack yourself, remember that you will get called quite lightly in the late game, as players will be aiming for those bounties.

For this reason, look to go all-in with more hands with high cards and less often with hands like suited connectors, as your fold equity will be minimal.

Also, remember that you don't really want to bust the tournament while you still have a 30-50bb stack, so try to avoid getting into coin-flip situations against other bigger stacks when you are in this spot.

Finally, of course, make sure not to forget about the value of the actual payouts and remember that making the final table still has plenty of value, even in a mystery bounty tournament.

Never play just for the bounties, and never risk a big stack to try and pick up a bounty from another player who still has plenty of chips left.

Your Mystery Bounty Strategy

Mystery bounty tournaments are still fairly new in the poker world, and the absolute optimal strategy has not yet been devised. Yet, pro players have already looked at it from every angle imaginable, and the consensus is that making the money phase with plenty of chips is the strategy you should be aiming for.

When you play your next mystery bounty event, try to forget about min-cashing and look to build up your stack during the bubble phase as much as possible.

While this will mean you get eliminated on the bubble some of the time, the times you make it into the money as a big stack will be well worth it.

Once in the money, look to pick off easy bounties and wait for the value of each bounty to get big before you call off more all-ins and go for that knockout value.

At the end of the day, mystery bounty events are tournaments like any other, and all you need to do to play them profitably is always keep the equity of the bounty in mind when deciding which play to make.

What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?

Why Mystery Bounty Tournaments are So Popular

Mystery bounty tournaments have been picking up popularity at a crazy pace lately, and there is a good reason for it. Recreational players see mystery bounty events as a lottery of sorts and an amazing opportunity to gamble it up and shoot their shot at those big bounties.

On the other hand, these events are also ideal for the pros, who get to exploit the extremely loose play of the recs in the field and capitalize on their mistakes.

The new mystery bounty format is truly one that everyone can benefit from, whether you are looking to have more fun playing poker or to increase your overall edge in the games.

Mystery bounties are now available in both online poker rooms and at all major live poker festivals, and you can expect these types of events to become even more popular as time goes by.

What Is a Mystery Bounty and How to Play Them?

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