If this is your first time in a casino or cardroom, I recommend you read our two-part article on getting comfortable before and during your first visit here.
Playing your first tournament is a slightly daunting experience. In larger tournaments you'll be in a room with hundreds, or thousands, of other players all hoping to send you home early. The room will be a roar of sound, with the sound of clicking chips a dull roar.
There will be people in the tourney who are so serious about playing, they will refuse to so much as smile the entire time. You'll have professionals and amateurs sitting hip to hip, clashing cards to the yells of beats and cries of suck-outs.
A large tourney is really unlike anything else you can experience. Tension runs high enough to make some people crack. It's rare to not have at least one person leave the room in a state of lurid, verbose anger.
In this sea of emotion, loss, luck and victory you have to remember to keep your own head. Stay calm; stay relaxed. In essence, the tourney is no different than any home games you've played with your friends.
A flush still beats a straight, the best hand on the river still wins and if you lose your chips you're still out. The core of the game doesn't change, so neither should you. Play with the same joy and freedom you use to beat your best friends.
Tight Is Right... With the End in Sight, Take a Bite in the Fight for the Most Might of the Night... Aight?
(Sometimes I just can't help myself... )
If you're used to playing with your friends, then you'll be used to playing for honor as much as the prize. Games with friends are usually much looser, with large bluffs. Running a huge bluff on a good friend is often more fun than anything else in poker.
The majority of players in the tournament will be playing a very tight game. The only hands that are going to be played early are strong ones. If someone is playing as if they have a better hand than you, they probably do.
Protect Your Chips
I can never say this enough times. Chips are life - protect them any way you can. You cannot afford to be limping with poor hands or running elaborate bluffs in most tourney situations. You have to conserve, and only play in the pots in which you have a legitimate chance to win.
If you think someone has you beat, they probably do. I repeat this as much for your benefit as my own. It's a lesson all good poker players know, but seem to forget from time to time.
At the same time, you should pay attention to who's stealing blinds at your table. If the button is stealing your blinds every orbit, than protecting your blinds is just as important as the other chips in your stack.
If you feel the player is only stealing, it's correct to re-steal. Not only will you protect your blinds and collect her bet at the same time, but you'll make her think twice before trying to steal from you next orbit.
If the button raises after a couple of limpers, you don't want to attempt a re-steal without a legitimate monster. The chances of getting called or pushed on are too large in this scenario. Stealing and re-stealing should be second in your mind behind protecting your chips.
Watch Your Stack Size
If you let yourself get blinded down to nearly nothing, you put yourself into a really poor spot. It's always better to take a risk to keep a healthy-sized stack than to let yourself get down so low you have to take a risk.
The reasoning here is simple: if the chip average is $1,000 and you have $600, taking a coin flip here will put you just above average with a win. If you let yourself get ground down to $200, a coin flip still has the same odds of winning, but you'll end with $400 chips.
Your stack is still so low you now have to take a second coin flip to still be below average. The odds of winning one coin flip are 50%; the odds of winning two consecutive coin flips are 25%. By letting yourself get ground down, you're forcing yourself to face twice as much risk for fewer chips.
After all my advice to protect your chips and play tight, you need to turn on your aggression when your chips start to get low compared to the blinds. This doesn't apply to calling other raises, unless you have the nuts.
You should be raising with any decent hand, hoping to steal but still having a good chance to win if you get a call. Calling pre-flop is rarely a good play in the late stages of a tourney. Raise or fold, or if you're as low as our example, push or fold.
If making a standard raise (approximately three times the big blind) will make the pot larger than your stack after getting one call, you would be better off pushing pre-flop. If the pot is $1,200, and your stack is $400, it's almost impossible to bluff someone here.
You would have had a better chance at making them fold pushing $1,000 pre-flop.
Know Your Goal
You have to know your goal in the tournament. I'm talking about your honest-to-goodness goal here. Almost all professionals will play to win, while many amateurs are playing to make the money. There's a big difference in how you will play the game if your goal is winning as opposed to just finishing in the money.
Is it more important for you to limp into the money, leaving yourself in a state that will make it almost impossible to make it to the final table, or is it better to risk not making the money at all, for a real shot at taking down the final table?
To learn a little more about bubble play, take a read here: Tournament vs. Cash Play Part 2
Know the Rules
As mentioned in First Time at the Casino Part 1, you need to know all the rules of the room. The rule I see amateurs getting caught on the most is the oversized chip rule.
If you throw in one oversized chip (meaning the bet to you being $25 and you throw in one chip worth $100) it is always a call unless you say the word "raise" first.
I have not played in a single tourney where someone didn't make this mistake. If you don't want to make any betting mistakes, the rule of thumb is to always vocalize your intended actions.
You need to know the blind structure of the tournament. If the tournament structure is really aggressive, it will force you to make stronger moves much earlier.
Tournament officials will supply you with this information if you ask. Some places will print it out for you; others will just let you look at the list.
Most Players Are Just like You
Most of the players in tournaments are in the same boat as you, being first-time or casual players. Half the players who put on an act of being a serious player are anything but. If you know how to play the game, you have no need to worry.
Just play as best you can, and have a good time. Having a good time, regardless of results, will make winning the prize nothing more than a delightful bonus.
More strategy articles from Sean Lind: