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Switching from Cash Games to Tournaments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: