Strategies for Tournament Play

Tournaments can be great, especially freezeouts, as you are playing with a defined amount of chips and no-one can reach back into their pockets for more like they could if they were playing a re-buy tournament. Tournaments are great because everyone is starting from the same point and the chips start with the same value to everyone at the table.

This is an important thing to note and is a key difference to playing at a cash game. If you are at a cash game, your opponent could be sat at a $5/$10 game with $50,000 in his pocket ready-to-go. Now someone else at the table with only $1,000 is going to be playing very different indeed. Each chip in play means more to the guy with the smaller bankroll than it does to the guy with the bigger bankroll.

Tournament play eliminates this bias and as such there are different ways to handle your poker tournament strategy.

Top 13 Tips For Tournament Play

Here is a quick few points that will see you on your way to more final tables in those low level online poker tournaments that we all like to play. We’ll talk through a 600 player tournament for example, but this will work for anything down to a sit n go.

  1. Don’t feel that you have to get overly excited early on – there is plenty of time to get some genuine hands that you can play and gain some chips without having to try bluffing your way through it. There will always be a few maniacs early on who will lose everything very quickly
  2. Open up the info/stats box and keep it in view at all times – This will be your eyes and ears of what is going on all around you, as well as how many opponents you still have left to beat
  3. Spend the first few rounds folding anything that’s not a decent hand and observing the other players – Make sure that you get busy taking lots of notes about the players around you, these will be valuable when you get moved around different tables and come back to meet the same players
  4. Keep an eye on the table dynamics – Who has just joined your table? Was it the chip leader? Is it a short stack – these points need to be assessed
  5. Always keep one eye on the blind level clock – How quickly are the blinds going up and is there a critical point when they suddenly could become harsh for you
  6. Try to keep up with the average chip stack – This will be noted in the stats – Don’t worry if you are a little short of the target as a double up at any time will see you well above it for a while
  7. Be observant and don’t tangle with “Mr Tight” with a mediocre hand – Trust your notes
  8. When you start to get towards the bubble you can be slightly more aggressive
  9. The rule of 1 and 10 – If you are lucky enough to have the chip lead on your table / or at least a fair few chips more than others, it is important that you try to knock other players out. This doesn’t mean calling anyone down who bets, however, should you find a short stack going all in for $500 and you are sitting there with $5000 or over, you should call no matter what your cards! (Clearly not if anyone else is already in etc) – So if you have 10 times or more the amount of chips that a small stack has gone all in with, go ahead and call them
  10. Inflection points! – These are key, and you won’t get anywhere if you do not pay attention to these. The simple way to do it is to keep a constant tally of how many big blind bets you have – (if the blinds are for example $50/$100 and you have $1000, then you have an inflection point of 10, if you have $1200, you have an IP of 12 etc) – When you find yourself getting near to an IP of 10 you no longer have the luxury of being able to call to see the flop etc, you need to either put all your chips in or fold. Keep an eye on point number 5 above also as this could suddenly cut your IP in half and leave you in a critical situation!
  11. Attack the middle chip count players when you are in the money – They will be more likely to fold marginal hands as they are not desperate and could still lose a decent amount of their stack should they call you and lose
  12. Play to win – It’s often tempting to get blinded out and wait for a big hand when you on or near the final table, hoping that other players will be knocked out and you rise up the money. This is true, however it is unlikely that the few places that you might gain would increase your $$ prize win massively, whereas there is normally always a very good leap in money from around 4th upwards – If you sit tight waiting then you will simply miss out on getting to 4th or above – should there be 9 left etc you should play to win and go for the real cash
  13. Don’t forget about the cost for playing a tournament. As with cash games there is usually a rake for playing both Single and Multi Table tournaments called tournament fee. It is usually 10% of the buy in. For example a $10 tournament would cost you $1 to play.

Single/Multi Table Tournament Strategies

One of the key things to remember when playing any tournament whether it’s a 10 seater, 50 seater or 500 seater is that the game is a marathon and not a sprint. At the start of the tournament you want to be playing conservatively, and only play premium hands. The hands you want to be playing are pocket sevens up to pocket aces, AK, AQ and possibly suited connectors depending on the situaiton.

Reasons For Playing Tight

More commonly when playing online at the start of a poker tournament other people seated at your table will be arriving within seconds of them completing their previous tourney. This means they are still buzzing from either their win, or from battling against massive blind levels. These punters find it difficult to now re-adjust their playing style for the start of a new tournament and they will still be playing aggressive at the start of their next game. This is why it is not uncommon online to see people pushing all in pre-flop on the first hand, or raising like there’s no tomorrow into the pot very early on.

Another reason for playing tight at the start is simply because you are a better poker player than the majority of people in the tournament. If you fold your marginal hands early on you can sit back and watch the monkeys knock each other out with ridiculous play without you having to risk any of your own chips. You don’t want to be betting into a pot while representing a straight only for your monkey opponent to call without odds and hit their flush.

You want to be conserving your chips and use them against better players that will respect your raises and your position a lot more than monkeys will. Only enter into pots with a monster and always raise pre-flop if you are going to play a hand early on.

Stealing The Blinds

I do love a bit of blind theivery. In tournaments, at any blind level, as long as you have at least 12×BB (and as long as everyone else has folded) you should be stealing the big blind from your SB position. Crank that sucker up to no more than three times the BB to put a question to your opponent for his blind money. More often than not they will fold. You can make this move with pretty much any two cards because if they raise you can elect to fold, if they call then you still have a chance of flopping a monster.

Flat calling the BB from a SB position if all others have folded shows immense weakness and you should expect the BB to raise you out of the hand pre-flop. Simmilarly, vice versa, if it is your BB and the SB flat calls to a folded table, then fire some chips at them. A raise of about 3×BB should do it. Do not raise them all in as this does not give you information.

Tournament Position

You should be monitoring your tournament posiiton as often as possible. This is vital information. You should be looking for how many players have gone and how many are left. You should be looking to see how long before the next blind level and also how much the blinds will be when they do go up. Will you have at least 10×BB? How about in 3 hands time? Do you make your move now? Are you the big stack? Who is short stacking at the table? All of these factors should be considered as it will determine your hand selection and how strong you play.

Position Is Everything

Your position at the table in any game of poker is important, but even more so in tournament play. When you are on the button, even AX can be played fairly agressively as you will always be last to act in every round of betting.

Being under the gun (UTG) can be a very important position especially if you are short stacking.

If you find yourself with only four or five times the BB then UTG is when you should make your all in move regardless of what cards you have. This is a very powerful raise as you are announcing to the table you are putting all your chips on the line regardless of how anyone else acts at the table. You will also be the first person to move all of their chips in and so you will gain aggressive advantage too.

Most times I have done this, the rest of the table folds and I scoop up the blinds. Either that or the table folds to the BB who feels they should call with anything just to try and take out another player. You must remember that any two cards can win a hand and shoving all in UTG is the most powerful move you have left if you are short stacking. You want to be pushing all in with your four or five × BB so that if you double up you will have enough chips to make a stand later on in the tournament. If you fold, then you are being hit with the BB next hand which will cripple your stack and you will lose the first-to-act advantage for that hand.

Bubble Play

The bubble is good or bad depending on which side of the fence you are. If you are currently 6th place in a tourney that pays out top 5 positions, then its a mad scamble between you and the other short stack to fight over blinds and battle over pots. No one ever wants to go out on the bubble and you will see the rest of the table tighten up the closer they get to the money. This can be a great time to change up a gear. Everyone is cautious about going out and so will only be tentatively putting chips into the pot. Take advantage of this and raise strongly into pots in order to scoop up a few more chips. Be careful though, if you do not need to fight for the chips then do not go in half-heartedly with a marginal hand. Sometimes it is best to sit back and let the short stacks fight it out. Even if you are dealt aces, if there are 4 all-ins acting before you, you might consider folding in order to secure your place in the money. Remeber, the value of your hand and the chance of you winning goes down as more players are involved in the pot.

Speed Tournament Strategies

These tournaments are often refered to as “nitro” tourneys, “speed” tourneys, or “turbo” tournaments depending on your choice of online poker game provider. More often than not, they consist a total of five players at the table and only the top two places are paid out. On a $10 + $1 table, $35 goes to 1st place, and $15 to second place. In other words its a 70/30 pot split with a potential clear profit of $24 to be won.

Poker Strategy Tip

Hot Tip: If you are ever going to make any serious money from these games, the only place to finish is 1st. There’s none of this hanging around waiting for others to get knocked out, you are in it to win it.

The first important thing to understand about these tourneys is the blind levels increase at an alarming rate. These tournaments are not for the tight passive players out there. They are more suited to an aggressive player who knows their odds. Some people would argue that the short handed tourneys are nothing more than a lottery where everyone is pushing all in and the result is random. Although I can appreciate that hardened 10+ STT players will come to this conclusion on first experience, it really is about adapting your style and game-plan to the situation and thinking on your feet.If anything I find it really good final table practice for the larger multi-table tourneys.

Now we all know what is going on in the game, lets take a look at some of the strategies involved.

Starting hands

The starting hand requirements for a speed tournament is a lot lower than a ten-seat game. TJu, K7s, 23s, A3u are all hands I would most probably fold in a ten seat tourney but would most likely see a flop with early on in a speed tourney. You have to remember that there are half the usual number of players at the table and so the value of your hand increases, especially if you hold an Ace.

At a ten seat table there are twenty-five cards in play, this is half the deck of cards. In a five seat speed tournament, only fifteen cards get used. With under one third of the deck in play, an Ace at this level is stronger than usual. But remember, it is not invincible. Ace-rag suited or unsuited is always worth playing while the blinds are cheap.

In the early stages you want to accumulate as many chips as early on as possible to put you in a good position for later rounds. You should do this by calling any two marginal cards if you are getting value and you should be playing aggressively if no one else is really interested in the pot.

Value would be calling on the small blind if the rest of the table calls, or calling in late position if you dont expect a raise and the rest of the table flat calls.

You should always be looking for betting patterns and certain behaviours in your opponents from the very start. Use the notes tool wisely and write down what kind of hands they push all in with, how they play their rockets etc, because usually this betting style will stay with them for the entirety of the game, if not, their poker career.

You should use the early stages of the tournament to try and steal the blinds from whoever is to your left. Learn if they are protective of their BB early on while it is cheap as it will tell you if you can nick their blinds later on when they are a bit more juicy. If it turns out they fold most of their BB to your SB raise, then continue to do it. If they raise back more than twice in a row then be wary of doing it in future.

Sitting Back

An unfortunate element of the turbo tournaments as with any tournament to some extent is that this game will attract its fair share of monkeys. Monkeys, fish, zebra, its like a jungle out there. These are people that want a quick gamble fix and will quite happily raise with nothing and get lucky. The only way to get a good start in turbo tournaments is to sit back and let the aggressive monkeys fight it out amongst themselves.

Quite often you will see stupid things happen like a 9xBB raise in late position within the first few hands. It is likely that this monkey has come straight from another tournament and is still in punting-frenzy mode. Let him have your big blind of $30 – you will get him later on.

If you can get into a flop cheaply with one of these guys, make sure you make them pay for every card they see.

When To Push

As the game progresses, you will start to notice your stack dwindling quite severely. All of a sudden, a standard 3xBB raise is a lot of chips not only to yourself, but to your opponents as well. Again, to draw parallels with the ten seat game, if your stack gets as low as 10xBB in a 10-seater you should start to worry. However, in a five seat speed tournament the critical level is only 5xBB. If you find yourself with 5xBB or less at any point during the game then you will need to push all in on the following hands:

  • Any pocket pair
  • Any Ace
  • Two suited picture cards
  • Any two cards if you are UTG

The reason why you should push UTG with any two cards is simple – it is the most powerful weapon at your disposal if you are short stacking. It is the most aggressive you can be. You will always be first to get your chips in. You will always have the advantage of giving the rest of the table a reason to fold. And even if you do get called, any two cards can win the pot. Even 72u beats AKu 33% of the time.

Bubble play

Poker Strategy Tip

Hot Tip: If you are the big stack, make sure you apply pressure to the small stacks at every opportunity. Any Ace-rag, any two big face cards, even suited connectors, you should be raising them up and putting them all in for their blinds.

Once two people have left the game (usually it is the monkeys) you are now down to three and everyone at the table now faces the bubble. The blinds are now speeding round the table and it really is all to play for.

Only if you have got real rags should you be folding.

Marginal hands can be checked on the big blind. Beware though, if two of your opponents are all in, unless you have a monster then steer well clear. You can avoid an unnecessary exit if you let the other two lunatics battle each other.

Heads Up

Congratulations, you have just doubled your money. But now there is the main prize to play for. If you have got this far, then one of three things will be true; you are in front, you are behind, or the stacks are pretty even.

If you are in front, then you can afford to play a tight game for a few hands. Its always worth sacrificing $400 BB to a smaller stack than doubling them up with $4000. However, if you are WELL in front and they have 5xBB or less, then you should be putting them all in with whatever two cards you have got. Sometimes they even fold! Its true, Ive seen it happen. You want to make sure if you are largely on top, then you stay on top.

If you are behind when you go into heads up then get ready to have a monster crank! All of those marginal hands you threw away earlier start to look tasty all of a sudden. If you are holding Q8u or higher then start reaching for that raise button. Theres no point folding your small or big blind here as you just have to chuck all your chips in and hope for the best. Not the most eloquent of strategies but the only way you are going to win this is to get chips one way or another. Short stacking heads up in any tournament is a big disadvantage, even more so in the speed tourneys.

If stacks are even then just try and play a very aggressive game. Steal blinds where you can but dont get pot committed if you are on a bluff. Fold the occasional rags to let your opponent think you are not a lunatic that plays anything. Again, you are looking for the same hands as if you are 5xBB at a full table. Here they are again:

  • Any pocket pair
  • Any Ace
  • Two suited picture cards

Observe Your Opponents!

Think of the first two levels of a tournament as a scouting opportunity. Sitting out of most of the hands will give you plenty of time to observe your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, tells, and betting patterns. Form a mental dossier on each player.

Tournament Play Is All About The Cards

Wrong! – you should always have the following things running through your mind:

  1. What’s the Status of the tournament?
  2. How many players are there at the table?
  3. Who is at the table? Any well knowns?
  4. What is your stack in relation to the blinds?
  5. How big are the other stacks at your table?
  6. How big are the stacks of the aggressive / passive players?
  7. What bets have been made infront of you?
  8. How many players are left after you to act?
  9. What are the pot odds?
  10. What is your position at the table after the flop?
  11. What cards are you holding?

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