Switching from Cash Games to Tournaments

Birds-Eye View
Tournament play: A very different monster.

Tournaments are a very different monster from cash games.

They use the same 52-card deck and the same general rules of poker of course, but your style of play can vary dramatically from one mode to the other.

If you're well-versed in cash-game poker and decide to make the switch to tournaments, you should make a few adjustments to your thinking if you want to remain a winning player.

Your Stack Is Finite

This is by far the biggest mental obstacle to overcome for cash-game players making the switch. Your stack is finite: when your chips are gone, you're out of the tournament.

In cash games you can rebuy to your heart's content, but in a tournament you get the chips you start with and it's up to you from there. When you lose them, that's it.

Because you only have a finite number of chips, optimal play is different.

In tournament poker you're forced to play a tighter overall game because there is no freedom to rebuy. You can't splash around with chips because chips are your lifeline - you must protect them.

In a cash game you should often take any situation that you feel to be even slightly +EV, because even if you lose in the short term you will show a profit in the long run.

Matt Kay
This is tournament poker.

In a tournament, however, you should often fold in slightly +EV spots where calling - and losing - will prevent you from making even more +EV decisions further down the road.

Think of it like this: a rich gambler offers to flip a coin with you for 1.5-1 on $100 today or 4-1 tomorrow on that same $100. If you only have $100, you should pass on the first flip and take the better odds the next day.

That's of course because if you accept on day one and lose, you're now unable to make the even more +EV flip the next day.

This is tournament poker. Occasionally you will have to fold in a spot for all your chips where you may be a slight favorite, as calling and losing will knock you from the tournament and stop you from making bets in which you have an even bigger edge later.

The Blinds Increase

Yes, it's a shock, I know. The blinds in a tournament increase at set intervals - anywhere from every 15 minutes to every two hours. The blinds go up to force the action so players can't just sit around waiting for aces all day.

Increasing the blinds obviously makes a player's stack-to-blinds ratio go down. This in turn causes players to play hands to keep up with the rising blinds, which of course knocks people out.

What that means for you is that as the blinds go up you will need to become more active. If you come from cash games, you might only be used to playing with 100BBs or more. In tournaments you will be forced to master many different stack sizes.

As the stack sizes change your basic strategy should too. For more information on adjusting your play to your stack size, check out this article.

Joshua Prager
Two key factors to consider when stealing: position and hand strength.

Stealing Blinds

Though you may start the tournament playing fairly tight, as the blinds increase and your stack-to-blinds ratio decreases, you'll be forced to loosen up.

A major component of tournament poker strategy is the act of stealing blinds. Though stealing blinds happens in cash games, when you are successful you may only add 2% to your stack. In tournaments when the blinds get big, making a steal may increase your stack by 10% or more.

There are two important factors to consider when deciding when to steal: position and hand strength. Most steals take place from late position, because there are fewer players to wake up with a hand behind you.

The types of hands you want to steal with are ones that have some sort of value after the flop. For example, 7 8 is a better hand than J 2. That is, if you do get called, your 7 8 is going to play better on the flop than J 2.

Supplementing your stack with well-timed steals is a necessity in tournament poker if you wish to have any sort of success. So practice well-timed late-position steals with solid semi-bluff type hands.

A good discussion on stealing can be found in this article on sit-and-gos.

Resteal and Fold Equity

Since you know your opponents are raising light to increase their stack by stealing blinds, you know that they often have a hand that can't stand up to much pressure.

Nick Slade
Do not get crazy - make sure you have fold equity.

If you have an opponent raising every time from the button and cut-off, you can pick a hand and reraise him as a resteal. More often than not, you will find folds from these serial late-position raises.

When you make a move like a steal or a resteal you must have fold equity. You will often have a hand that if called will make you a big dog. So you can only steal and resteal if you believe that your opponents will likely fold!

Many players mistakenly try and resteal without recognizing their end shove is actually laying their opponent 2-1 odds or better. No good player is going to fold getting 2-1 or better before the flop.

So do not get crazy - make sure you have fold equity, or you're just giving chips away.

The Bubble and Getting Paid

Whenever you show a profit in a cash game you can just leave the table if you wish. Tournaments aren't like that: you play until there is only one player remaining.

The payout structure of most tournaments will pay 10% of the field, meaning 90% of players go home empty-handed.

This creates a unique situation called "the money bubble." As the money approaches, short stacks will often tighten up (sometimes to ridiculous degrees) to try and squeak into the money.

And though 10% usually get paid, the payouts are almost always very top-heavy with first place taking 30-50% of the entire prize pool. Squeaking into the money should not be on your mind at all.

Instead, you should use the money bubble to supplement your stack. Identify the players that are playing tight/scared poker and exploit them with bets and raises. For good players the bubble is a time to accumulate chips; do not sit around hoping to min-cash.

Jose Miguel Espinar
Your goal is to win - not min-cash.

Your goal is to win the tournament. Since the most money is at the top, if you always play for the win, you will make more money in the long run than if you choose to nit it up and hope for a min-cash.

The bubble is the time where you can make your money, so take advantage of it!

It's Just Poker

Though there are subtle differences between the two forms of poker, when you get right down to it, it's all just the same game ... a game of playing solid cards, strategizing based on position and paying attention to your opponents.

If you make better decisions than the majority of your opponents, it really won't matter what game you are playing: you are going to be a winner.

More beginner strategy articles from Dan Skolovy:

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Kevin Green 2014-09-30 09:14:13

Bob you have absolutely no clue what your talking about....stick to cracking one off to pokerstars TV

milke 2011-03-14 01:23:05

I agree on some points.I think if you are playing in final stages then pick carefully who you play against! If you can triple up and double up you can win it all! Don't be afraid to shove all in to pick up blinds with hands like ak.if you chill for a bit you might be able to get useful information to help your decision making.don't bluff the ace and try to see what hands people are pushing with and who always limps and who chases all the way.after flop you won't win many chips against a tight player

Darryl 2011-02-28 17:21:41

You our correct 100% and thanks for the tips, also believe the same as what bennie99 posted you need a good size bankroll in order to play in many unless you our just playing for fun..

claire jacobs 2010-10-22 01:57:38

tournaments are a great way to earn fast and large money. Thanks for the tips. I learned a lot from it.

Joe 2010-10-15 17:10:23

What Bob says is true and what Dan says is still right. If you make better decisions than your opponents in the long run you'll be a winner. The question is... how long is the long run? Tournament poker is far higher variance than cash game poker. You can go a very long time without cashing in a tournament but the better that you play and pay attention to the ideas in this article the more likely that will sooner rather than later.

spiderman 2010-08-27 01:54:19

3 stages. 1st play tight. 2nd stage loose up. 3rd stage go all in with good cards and less than 20 blinds. above all luck and risktaking.

best of luck

Stephen 2010-08-21 02:15:14

Bob

Not every player plays the cards the same way, and it also depends on the situation. In many spots, it's the table dynamics and player reads that determine the right play, not the cards.

Bob 2010-08-16 08:49:24

This whole batch of tips is misleading because of what is NOT said. There is a ludicrous assumption that if you do everything "right" you will win at the game. This is gambling folks, it all comes down to catching cards. It's why unknowns can get to final tables and why players like Hellmuth can lose constantly. The writer fails to recognize that players are "placeholders" and the cards dealt plus the position would be handled the same by most players. If everyone at the table is experienced, there are no tells and almost predictable action. Catching the winning card does NOT make someone a great player, as the TV commentators would have us believe. The writer doesn't address how some players lose their stacks through blinds or antes when they are dealt nothing but junk like 8-3 offsuit for hours...or get outdrawn when they do catch a high pair. No big poker strategies apply there! Play or fold, you still will lose. Winning players catch cards, losing players do not.

gezimi 2010-06-27 15:38:08

fitore

bennie99 2009-11-01 15:37:00

That is true about playing for the win. the problem with torunaments is that you have to have a good bankroll to play many of them. On pokerstars for example, I find that playing any less than the 33 dollar tournaments is very difficult, as players are gambling too much and the odds of not getting unlucky are too great if you are playing for the win. I'll admit to playing for the money quite a few times at low money torunaments, but I was a rookie back then.

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