The popularity of the World Series of Poker and other live events on TV have sparked major interest in tournament poker. Once a backroom game only played in the corners of Vegas casinos, poker has exploded into homes around the world through online play.
While the element of luck makes tournament poker very attractive, it takes skill to beat the best in the world and come home a millionaire. Let me share with you my top tips for poker tournaments.
Tournament vs Cash Game
Unlike in a cash game where you can join and leave the table anytime, players at a poker tournament start the battle at a predetermined time with each player buying a seat to the event and starting with the same number of chips. You have the option to re-buy to add more chips to your stack.
Once you lose all your chips, you are eliminated from the tournament. The top finishers (typically around 10% of the total starting field) get paid on a descending scale, with the first place winner receiving the biggest prize.
In a cash game, static blinds allow players to dictate their own pace of play. In tournaments, the blinds increase on a predetermined schedule.
The stack sizes in a cash game are typically closer to each other than in a tournament, where some players will have many times that of the average stack while others may just hold a single chip.
Top Tips for Poker Tournaments
How you play in a tournament will mostly depend on two variables: the stage of the tournament and the size of your stack.
The size of your stack is measured in two ways: your stack in comparison to the average stack size and your stack in relation to the blinds.
There are three tournament stages: early, middle, and late.
In the early stage, all players are on equal footing and it can be difficult to spot those who are looking to gamble. The standard approach to playing in this stage is to play tight-aggressive poker. The idea is to make it through the early stage with average or above chips, giving you room to maneuver as you enter the next stage.
Be careful when playing aggressively on suited connectors. Their value is lower than expected since people are going to be short stacked, so if you still decide to call, only do so at the beginning of the tournament.
Many times, just playing tight and betting people out of a pot is difficult early in a tournament, because bad players do not look at bets relative to your bet or pot, but instead look at it relative to their chip stack. These players will be bleeding chips early on in a tournament, so it is essential that you capitalize on their weakness and exploit it.
The middle stage will range from being deep-stacked at the start (lots of chips compared to blinds) to short-stacked near the end. In this stage chips are quickly becoming more valuable and each round of blinds potentially brings you one step closer to elimination. Do not sit around waiting for the best hands. You need to steal blinds and protect your chips to keep yourself from getting short. Once you get too short your only move left is all in. Play to stay alive and get yourself into the money.
In the late stage, many players will have very few chips and a few players with a lot of them. This is the time when everyone is willing to gamble. Once you’re in the money, people no longer care about going bust and are aiming for the win at all times. You need to play very aggressively, make few mistakes, and get lucky at the right times to have a shot at the title. Luck is always a part of poker, and in tournaments it becomes a large factor of the game in the later stages. With the blinds being very large, and many stacks being very short, most players will be folding or going all-in.
If you’re short stacked and it’s already much later on in the tournament, consider going all-in pre-flop to try and steal the blinds even if your hand isn’t looking so great, rather than waiting and going all-in on the flop.
In a cash game, the goal is often to wait for a good hand, a good flop and a bad opponent. In tournament games, you won’t have enough time to wait for these so it makes sense to play aggressive.
Look for weak players and push them around selectively. Raise their blinds and snatch the hand right there. This may have a limited shelf-life, however, as a keen player at the table will realize what you are doing and put in some counter-moves.
Check-raises are another great tool to use against tight players, when timed correctly. Let’s say for example you are in the big blind with a weak player playing behind you. The flop comes rags, which most likely hasn’t helped your opponent, provided he isn’t holding pocket pairs. On this type of flop, betting out is usually good enough to win right there. If you get called, you can almost be certain that your opponent has a hand of some sort. You can check-fold or check-raise the turn if you are sure your opponent has a weak enough hand to fold to major aggression.
In late position, raising an opponent on a bluff or steal is often safer since you aren’t put in the awkward position of checking the turn if your opponent decides to call. If a weak opponent calls a raise on the flop and checks the turn, they likely have a hand that is decent but not a monster. Whether or not they will fold is a read that you must be able to make. Hopefully if you have them pegged as the weak player to attack, you will know they will fold. Otherwise, you are in a sticky situation if they call another turn bet, as you’ll almost certainly have no way of pushing them out of a pot on the river.
When short stacked or even mid-stacked, you will often be in a situation where a half-pot or pot-sized bet means putting a significant portion of your chips into the middle of the table. If you are ever in a position where you need to put a good percentage of your chips into the pot, you should often go ahead and simply push all in.
By sheer brute force, going all-in prevents your opponent from making a difficult call, especially if he has less chips than you. For the very same reason you want to avoid showdowns, a good opponent will also want to avoid a showdown. If your opponent has a mediocre hand, they will be very reluctant to call even if they are relatively certain they have you beat.
Often, you’ll see a player dump away all his chips by checking a hand, then calling all their chips off when their opponent pushes. If you are ever in this situation, instead of just waiting for your opponent to push, be the one that pushes instead! If you’re going to call anyways, you might as well gain some fold equity on your opponent, however small it is. There’s nothing to lose by it, so always take the lead if you are going to jump on the wagon anyways.
Learning how to adjust your game and varying up your level of aggression is the biggest trick to keeping your opponents on their toes. Being able to hide a big hand when your opponents think you are bullying them around will give you the edge to punish them. At the same time, being able to scare your opponents away with a weak hand when they think you are strong is just as important in your strategy toolbox.
Playing aggressive is good, but when applied blindly, can lead to major issues in your game. Knowing when to use aggression to make well timed steals, bluffs and tricks against your opponent is the key to becoming a solid tournament player.
Pay attention and keep track of the players you’re competing against since you may run into them again if you continue playing single table tournaments with the same buy-in.
Tournaments are long and last awhile, so be prepared for a full-day event and pace yourself. Place your bets wisely.
Play as much poker as you can. The more tournaments you play, the better you will get.