Poker tournaments are a great way for beginners to learn the game without risking too much.
If you make a deep run and get a bit lucky, too, you can also win a pretty big chunk of money.
PokerOlymp's Jan Meinert offers up seven simple tips to improve your tournament results pretty quickly and a few general insights into tournament strategy for new players.
Tips for Poker Tournaments
1. I Have Chips, Therefore I Am
Strategy in poker tournaments differs enormously from cash-game strategy. The main difference: In tournaments, it's all about survival. Once your chips are gone, so are you.
That's why you should always know how many chips you have and how your stack compares to the ever-increasing blinds. The amount of chips you have dictates the way you have to play during the tournament.
Chips change value – that's a common saying in tournament strategy. At the beginning of a tourney you'll have a plethora of chips (compared to blinds). But over time the blinds increase and you'll most certainly have fewer chips after a couple of levels (again compared to the blinds).
The less chips you have, the more you should focus on keeping your stack at a healthy level.
2. Poker Tournaments are Like a State Fair
In some ways tournaments can be compared to a State Fair.
When you first get there you have plenty of money and can choose whatever attractions you want. Ride the ferris wheel, hit the bumper cars, throw a baseball at some milk cans or just sit there and enjoy the atmosphere.
But over time you'll slowly bleed away your money and will have less and less to spend. You also might make a few hasty decisions as the fair gets ready to close.
The same holds true for poker tournaments. Make use of your time at the fair wisely. Don't blow your budget on the wrong buy-ins or wrong moves too early.
3. Patience, Young Skywalker
The easiest way to describe how a beginner should approach poker tournaments is this:
- Play as tight as possible in the beginning and loosen up as you get into the later levels.
Of course this depends on your stack, but in general you should relax during the first levels. Don't get caught up in big confrontations unless you have a really big hand.
There's no need to rush things and the risk of losing too many chips in the beginning is a real threat -- especially for inexperienced players and when you don't know how the other players at your table behave.
4. Don't Get Whamboozled on the Bubble
The bubble is the phase of the tournament where players are only few spots away from the money.
Bubble time can be one of the most fun times during a poker tournament but it’s also the most stressful time for players with shallow stacks.
Meaning: the next one, two or three players who bust will go home with nothing while the rest of the field will receive some cash.
Just imagine busting during the bubble: you’ve probably played for hours, almost made it to a nice payout and then wham – bamboozled at the very last second.
If you have a small stack during bubble play you should approach every situation with extreme caution – maximize your chance to survive and fold everything that's not a monster.
If, on the other hand, you made it to the bubble with a big and healthy stack, it's hammer time. Punish the short stacks and put them all-in at every opportunity (put them all-in, don't call an all-in without a decent hand)
They will have to fold so often that every time you raise it's almost like free chips for you.
5. Don't Be Too Picky Playing Shorthanded
Once you get deeper in a tournament you'll inevitably play short-handed (meaning with less than nine or eight opponents at the table).
During those times you have to play more aggressively than at a full table. All hands with big(ish) cards go up in value.
You'll often find yourself in situations that might feel weird because your hand looks a bit weak but you should play it aggressively because your opponents also have very wide ranges.
On a shorthanded table you can’t be too picky about your hands. If you wait 20 hands for a monster to punish your loose opponents your stack will have gone through the blinds four or five times and will have decayed considerably (or even might have vanished in the process).
6. Heads-Up: Even More Hammer Time
Should you manage to survive all but one opponent you’ve reached the heads-up phase of the tournament. Play here is so different from the previous phases that it's worth training for heads-up duels specifically.
Once again cards go up in value and you have to be willing to put tremendous pressure on your opponent, otherwise he'll just grind you down.
A hand like Ace-Five for example is virtually unplayable in most situations on a full-ring table but is a monster when playing heads up.
7. Deals: Don't Get Ripped Off
Very often during the final table the remaining players will try to make a deal to split the remaining prize money.
If you’re an inexperienced player your opponents will most likely try to make an offer way below the value of your chips. They’ll hope you’re too scared to keep playing without the assurance of a deal.
Normally you should politely reject those offers. Your opponents will usually moan and groan a bit, threaten to keep on playing without a deal, but will eventually accept a counter offer.
The rule of thumb is: A deal which goes by the Independent Chip Model (ICM) numbers is a decent deal for every player.
You should not accept much less than that but also not demand much more than that.
Related Poker Tournament Strategy
- How to Survive Your First Live Poker Tournament
- A Dead Simple Guide to Poker Tournament Strategy
- A Step-by-Step Guide to ICM for Poker Tournaments
- A Fail-Safe, Profitable Strategy for (Some Parts) of Poker Tournaments
- 4 Essential Tips to Make More Money in Poker Tournaments
More on Poker Tournaments
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- 4 instructional tournament hands in our Online Poker Tournament Tricks (2021 edition with Jesper Hougaard)