Tournament Poker Strategy

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Ever since Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2003, interest in tournament poker has gone through the roof.

Once a backroom game only played by professional gamblers in the corners of Las Vegas casinos, poker has exploded into mainstream culture.

Poker has made its way into homes around the world as people watch major tournaments on their televisions and play at online poker rooms on their computers.

The largest live poker tournament in history was in 2006 when the WSOP Main Event reached 8,773 players, sending eventual winner Jamie Gold home with a first-place prize of $12 million.

Winning a tournament of that size certainly takes a ton of luck, but that doesn't mean tournament poker isn't a skill game.

The best players have an edge over the rest of the field and, over time, will win more than their less-skilled peers.

But it's the element of luck that makes tournament poker so attractive.

Anyone with a chip and a chair has the chance to beat the best in the world, and come home a millionaire.

What is a Poker Tournament?

Unlike a cash game which can run indefinitely, a poker tournament begins at a predetermined start time with each player buying a ticket to the event and starting at the same time with the same number of chips.

Players play until they are eliminated by losing all of their chips. A set number of finishers (typically around 10% of the total starting field) get paid on a descending scale from the winner down to the last paid finishing spot.

All players who finish below the lowest paid spot (for example in a 100-person tournament, all players finishing from 100th to 11th) leave the tournament with nothing but a story.

Differences between Tournaments and Ring Games

Aside from being able to re-buy and cash-out whenever you like, tournament play sees the blinds increase on a predetermined schedule.

This is very different from the static blinds of a cash game which will allow players to dictate their own pace of play.

Another major difference between cash games and tournaments are the stack sizes.

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.

A successful tournament player needs to understand how to play with all stack sizes, while a cash-game player can choose to only ever sit behind a stack of a specific amount.

Stack Sizes

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:

  1. Your stack in comparison to the average stack size.
  2. Your stack in relation to the blinds.

The more chips you have, the more risk you're able to shoulder.

In other words, you can make plays which risk 5,000 chips if you have 50,000, but the same play would be foolish if you only hold 6,000.

The most important thing to understand in a tournament is your chips are your tournament life.

Chips = Life

When you run out of chips, your tournament is over; everything you do in a tournament should be based on this one concept.

Stages of a Tournament

There are three basic tournament stages:

  • Early
  • Middle
  • Late

Early Stage

Since everyone gets to play the early stages of almost every tournament, this is the part in which all players have the most experience, feel the most comfortable and have a lot of chips in relation to the blinds.

Everyone's on an equal footing and it's hard to find anyone looking to gamble. People in this stage are rarely looking to get it all in with anything but the nuts.

If you find a player willing to play a large pot, they either have the nuts, they're looking to gamble or they're trying to build a big stack early through sheer aggression.

More often than not, though, they have the goods.

The standard approach to playing in this stage is to play very ABC tight-aggressive poker.

It makes no sense to make big moves to steal the blinds, since the blinds are worth relatively nothing compared to the size of your stack.

The idea is to make it through the early stage with average or above chips, giving you room to maneuver as you enter the middle stage.

Middle Stage

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.

It's at this point you can no longer afford to sit around waiting for only 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.

As Dan Harrington wrote in his famous Harrington on Hold'em tournament strategy books, it's always better to take a risk to keep yourself sitting with a healthy stack than to wait until you've been whittled down and forced to take a risk just to stay alive.

If you take the risk to stay healthy and lose, you still have a handful of chips to try again with. If you wait until you're in dire straits you have no second chance.

The goal with the middle stage is simply to stay alive and get yourself into the money (a tournament pro, though, likely cares little about making the money and plays to win at all times).

Once you're into the money, you've entered the late stages of the tourney.

Late Stage

The late stage will have many players with very few chips and a few players with a lot of them.

This is the time of a tournament when everyone's 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 or no 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 playing a simple all-in or fold game.

You need to be willing to take coin flips, and have the luck to win them if you want to finish in first.

How to Become a Better Tournament Player

Firstly, read every article, book, forum thread and webpage you can find. Watch poker on TV, listen to webcasts, and watch strategy videos.

But above all else, you're going to have to play as much poker as you can.

The more tournaments you play, the better you will become at playing them.

Many of the best tournament players in the world play hundreds to thousands of tournaments each year.

The more you play, the better you will get.

Read, play, reflect and discuss.

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Tim 2014-03-16 20:02:35

This article is the truth...I won a tournament tonight and it was a freeroll with 1,000 people in it to start and the first place money was over $1,700...I played for five hours and followed this advice (Often looking back at it just to make sure) and it worked...I played tight at certain times and got extremely lucky other times (Maybe ten hands) i cant believe it actually worked...

Charlie 2013-10-19 08:53:46

Great article. I'm about to go play in Bard Garrett's tournament, let's see if I an stick to the above plan and win!

nick 2013-09-18 02:31:19

running into ACES over and over is depressing along with losing Aces to pocket fours.

Darren 2013-08-13 17:13:49

Under how to become a better player the author provides no advice except study and practice...most readers were probably here to study already. Not too useful.

aneurisman 2013-05-01 20:17:59

This page is vidication for me. How many times do you see people go all in preflop on the very first hand in tournament play, especially on line. Push yes, but all in is nothing short of a suicide attempt. I find these type of players only survive to half the field at the very longest.

I always said, and actually had mountains of people disagree who i think are short sighted players, poker is not about winning the hand, it's about taking all the chips. You don't need a winning hand to take chips. See weakness, be aggressive with caution to people who slow play strong hands. Not mucking your hand and strategically showing what you got misleads others on your style of play, especially the newbys. Deception has alway been a part of poker, since it's inception in about 1500 BC, and in tournament play, it's even more critical. Be interesting to hear what people say on this point.

For some reason, this tip has always stuck with me. To beat an aggressive player, be tight, to beat a tight player, be aggressive.

smokeyk955 2013-03-21 07:35:59

i think its good sound advice but quite obvious and simple advice i often follow these sort of strategy in tournaments but you also have to mix your own style in mines fairly tight but ultra aggresive lookin for good spots and tring to make good reads but never never go all in against a bigger stack unless u get a good read and are 100 percent sure in your own mind your beating your opponent or simply have the nuts at that stage thats a strong positive play in my mind OBVIOUSLY
FREE LIAM DARRINGTON

beastfrombeneath 2013-02-27 21:36:17

Fuk poker...too many donkeys!!! I am going golfing. So many amateur-pros who just gamble on any hand. All I hear is l put you on this, I put you on that shut the fucc up already... really, really...put these nuts in your mouth and choke...fake ass pros pro...lmao

Slivovka 2013-02-27 01:33:38

yah I try to avoid all in preflop and coinflips is no good in pokertourney. Ok I go JJ to AA all in preflop in case I'm shorty but If I have 15+ BB I never go ALL IN preflop with KK and worse. I 3bet before the flop if the raise is small and just cal if there is only 2 way pot ot raise is 3xBB I just don't want to that F. Ace fu** me on that board:S and luck is one mayor factor in turnaments like to know when t ofold :D

Ash 2013-02-26 15:47:06

*This ofcourse Is an Advanced play later in the tournaments, I'd advised doing this no more than 3 hands out of 10 to avoid suspicion's but it will keep you ticking over until you get your spot to double up
you will still want to be focusing on weak opponents tight timid guys pushing pre flop in late position

Ash 2013-02-26 15:42:24

My Simple Advice can get you deep in a tournament -
Stay out of pots with dangerous players, Loose Donkeys or larger stacks without Premium hands, use your position well (i.e) be prepared to give up hands Dont throw away your chips by calling aggressive players, instead try to isolate amount of callers and take the initiative by opening up to 3-bet 4-bet ''If you want to see a flop that bad'' - at least then you can narrow their range and rep High cards with Suited connectors so forth. Example, if they flat call a 3-bet they are likely to coward to a C.bet even out of position - first to act, if they dont Re-raise you on the flop usually in good shape (obviously you will want a hand incase they do get lucky or catch the turn.

But most Importantly just remember the more often they Raise blinds, the more often you can 3-bet those players and Either take it down or C-bet on the flop and Fish out the strength of their hand which more often than not will be Average at best, K9-K7 , off etc, and worse

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