This chapter are about some basic tournament strategy. These ideas are the first steps to become a new player at the WSOP or the World Poker tour! We also give you ideas about how to study to become a better tournament player. Good luck and we hope that you are the next super star of poker!
Tournaments demands a different form of play compared to cash-tables, requiring a different kind of skill, more discipline, and courage. Maybe you have seen the pros play at the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker and make millions of dollars!? We try to give you a general idea about tournament poker, and you should be able to use the strategy for both Sit & Go tournaments and for larger tournaments. We write especially about Sit & Go at the end of this page. You should already be familiar with poker or have studied our “how to play poker”.
In tournaments every player pays the buy-in and a small fee to the poker room. All the players get the same amount of chips, play as long as they have chips left, and finally the player who wins all the chips wins the tournament. In mini-tournaments there are three prizes; big multi-table tournaments can have a prize-structure that allows maybe the top 300 or so to get in to the money (ITM). Your first goal should always be to get into the money. Some people say that they only play to win, but if you are looking to win money you should make players that have a greater chance to take you ITM. When a tournament start you should check out how and when the blinds will increase.
Tournaments have a greater risk meaning that you can win a lot of money with a small buy in. But it can also be a long time between the times you win a tournament! But if you are really patient and don’t have money to play for the freerolls that most poker rooms provide can be good practice and also gives you a chance to win!
The winning strategy in tournaments is different from regular games. You have to avoid getting broke, because if you do you can’t play any more (unless it’s a rebuy tournament). That means that sometimes you need to lay down a hand that you would never lay down in a side game, just to stay out of trouble. In tournaments it can cost you too much to chase a flush draw even if the expected value gives you the odds. On the other hand sometimes you need to put al your chips in and just hope that you will hit the flush or straight. The last one applies when you already are in trouble and committed to the pot.
A hand I played for a while ago can illustrate the special nature of a tournament. I was at the final table in a small buy in tournament with a lot of players. I had just lost a pot so I was now number 2 in chip count. The chip leader pulled what I suspected might was a bluff. I held a middle pair (tens), and the board cards showed a possible flush draw and one over card after the turn. To find out if my opponent was bluffing or not I would have to put al my chips in. I decided to lay the hand down, because I was still second in chips and confident to get to the top 3 places were the big money were, if I just stayed out of trouble. Of course he showed me the bluff, but I still think that the decision was right, and I finished second in the tournament. I was out there to make money, not only to win the tournament. If my only goal is to win the tournament I need to call the bet to find out if my middle pair is good. But if I would call him I would risk ending up as at 9th making very little money. Note that if there only would been 3 or 4 players left it might would have pushed me over to a call. And if I was playing a cash-game my intuition about the fact that he might be bluffing (50-50 chance) probably would have made me call him.
Some pocket hands, e.g. QQ, that are clearly worth a raise in regular games, may sometimes not be playable at all in tournaments (even if you rarely lay down a QQ). On the other hand, some hands that are marginal in side games, such as Q-To and K-To, can be raising hands in tournaments. It comes down to the position you have and the sizes of the stack. You need to understand the value of position, and also take notice of the stack-sizes. I suggest that you study the gap concept in Sklansky’s book tournament play for advanced players or in Harrington on hold’em to understand how this advice, that might seem strange to you, can be true.
It’s also important is that you at always try to build you stack up. You need to get some more chips al the way, you don’t need to double up at ever level but to stay alive you need to collect some chips at every level. Remember that collecting chips is your goal, not to take out your opponents. You can win a large tournament by just taking out one player, the one that finish second!
One change compared to your cash-games strategy when you start playing online poker tournaments is to not try to make advertisement play. Because in online poker tournaments the games are fast and you change tables every now and then so you will probably not be able to take advantage of your advertisement.
The Early Rounds
During the first rounds, the stakes are so low that you can play your normal cash-table game. However, you are better off playing tight.
In a tournament a lost chip is worth a little bit more than a won one. Therefore you are better off avoiding marginally profitable hands like Q-To, K-To, A-To and possibly also A-Jo, K-Jo, Q-Jo and J-To. This is especially true in early position (1-5) Those hands can easily get you into trouble and in a tournament you can’t just put some new money on the table. If you are broke – you are done! Furthermore, you should be playing the lowest pocket (22,33,44,55) pairs and suited connectors only if you are in late position or get good pot odds.
Play your good starting hands and be careful about slow playing. Of course you need to mix your game up sometimes, but if you slow play AA and KK you need to be able to lay them down if you think that you are beaten after the flop. I do not usually slow play to much because I hate when I give someone the free cards and allow them to hit a two pair from the BB with 7,2. But if you not are doing so well you need those hands to build up your stack. Say that you feel that the tournament is running away from you and you are getting behind, and have about 60% of the average stack and the blinds are raising. Well if you pick up a AA or KK it might be a good time to slow play it and increase the risk of getting broke and at the same time increase your chance to double up. Again you need to play your stack and your position.
Of course you could choose to limp in wit some moderate hands during the early stages, to make the impression that you are loose and also allow you to hit a monster hand that no one expect you to have. Usually the cost is greater than the benefit and if you are just starting of playing tournaments, I recommend that you play tight. I love to play a lot of hands if I can see the flop cheap and there are plenty of players in the pot. But you should be careful because if the table is a bit aggressive you will only giving away chips, and that will give you trouble in the long run.
Try to be awake about how the game changes speed. A very loose table can al of a sudden start playing tight. Then you raise with more hands and try to pick up some little blinds.
The later Rounds
In the final rounds the conditions have changed radically and you have to adjust your strategy accordingly. First, the value of the pocket cards has changed. High cards go up in value when the tables get short-handed, and suited connectors and small pairs seldom get proper pot odds.
Second, the stakes have gone up so much that fear is an effective tactical weapon, even in fixed limit games. Now you have to take advantage of your tight image by bluffing or semi-bluffing. Just study the example I give above when the chip leader tricked me to fold the best hand. I know what he was up to and he know exactly what position I was in and what the risk reward ratio was for me.
Third, since the stakes are so high, some opponents may have chips enough for only one hand. If you are low on chips you have to pick a hand and go with it. Don’t wait to long so that if you double up you are still in trouble. You need to gamble before it is too late! You also have to give your opponents time to knock each other out. Stay out of trouble and let them get broke. You earn money when other people leave the tournament! You should for example normally not get involved if you are facing a raise and a re-raise in front of you and you hold a medium pocket pair. Try to pick your fights with the medium stacks if they have a bit less chips than you. Try to avoid close decisions against the chip leader. And be aware of the desperate small stakes.
Fourth, if you are close to the money a lot of people will only try to survive to get into the money (and they should). The same fact is if the price money increases lots for every player leaving the tournament. This can help you to get active and try to pick up some chip pots, but don’t overdo it. You want to get ITM to. Also the blinds are getting bigger, which is another reason to why you can try to steal some of them. If your image is tight you can get some cheap chips by putting pressure at the blinds. You do this from late position, but remember that people expect the button to try to steal. I am not advocating trying to steal with an al in, because sometimes you will run into a high pocket pair in the blinds. Therefore it could be more interesting to put your raise in one of the button! You don’t need to have great starting hands in late position. But keep your mind open to the fact that if no one for the first 5 or 6 positions have had a decent starting hand, the risk is greater that someone behind you does!
Heads up is kind of a coin flip if you and your opponent have the same amount of chips. But hopefully you have some knowledge about your opponent and can use this to give yourself an edge. In heads-up, judgment of human nature plays a crucial role. You can always play your normal game, but I recommend that you try to be active.
In heads-up you can raise preflop with all pairs, with two big cards and with an ace, irrespective of the kicker. And some other hands to, I think that initiative is good. On the flop, the top pair is a strong hand. The second pair is playable as well, particularly with a proper kicker. The draws are much more unlikely than when the table is full of players. A strong pair is normally playable even if the board has three cards of the same suit.
You have to try to figure out when the opponent is bluffing, semi-bluffing, or trapping you with a strong hand. Be aware when a player that have been tight-aggressive al of a sudden just start calling you. Accordingly, you have to be able to find the correct bluffing situations. Tight mathematical poker, which is the winning strategy in loose ring games, is not enough heads-up.
If your opponent is very aggressive, you have to trap him by slow playing a strong hand, letting him to bet, and raising on the turn or on the river. On the final rounds the stakes are so high that one hand played to the river can be decisive for the result.
If your opponent is passive, seeming to play only strong hands, you have to raise a lot preflop and bluff and semi-bluff a lot on the flop or on the turn, trying to pick up the blinds. If you get called, you have to believe him; He has something! Your main concern is to avoid getting trapped and instead just build up your stack. Furthermore, it is essential to fold your small blind sometimes, supporting your tight image, otherwise he will pick up that you play to many hands. Be patient, play disciplined and you will have a winning strategy.
And when the tournament is over write GG. Even if you lost the tournament, be a gentleman!
How to improve your tournament play!
The above is just to get you started in thinking like a tournament player. To improve your play we recommend to things:
1. Play tournaments. Freerolls and low buy ins.
2. Read about tournament play. We can recommend three books. The first is two is the two volume set written by Dan Harrington. “Action-Dans” books are very good and explains everything in a great way. He gives good examples from his own experiences in the large tournaments, like WSOP but also from internet play. The books are called “Harrington on holdem, volume 1 and 2”, and you should start with the first one. Sklansky have also written a great tournament book called “Tournament play for advanced players”.