A Dead Simple Guide to Poker MTT Strategy: Level 1 to Final Table

The early blind levels in a multi-table poker tournament are the easiest blind levels to play.

You really want to fold most hands in this blind level until the fishy players are weeded out. The key is to stay calm, collected and in the zone until the middle rounds.

A Basic Guide to MTT Strategy

Some strategy guides claim that you should only play AA and KK in the early rounds. This is a little too tight. If you're in late position with a pair or A-x suited, there's no reason why you would want to fold, especially if you can get in cheap.

While you want to double up in the early rounds it's not absolutely necessary to do so. Generally you should stick with the basic strong, premium hands for the first blind level.

A Simple MTT Strategy to Stick To:

Field IMG 5142

How to play each of these hands regarding the blinds will come below but first you should take a couple of things into account:

  1. This is basic tournament strategy. This strategy alone will win tournaments for as long as you use it. You also may want to incorporate other elements that you find beneficial to your overall play. Although most people stick straight to the formula, there'll be times when you need to change it up.
  2. You may want to play more hands. This strategy is stone cold tight. I've found that if you possess this kind of patience, you'll win your fair share of MTTs. A lot of people say this strategy is too tight. You can choose to play suited connectors if you please, but let me warn you, your bankroll will take big swings when you're in a lot of hands.

Top MTT Starting Hands

  1. The Big Three - AA, KK, and QQ
  2. Ace-King
  3. Pairs - 22 through JJ
  4. A-x suited

Let's talk about how to play each hand.

How to Play AA, KK & QQ in an MTT

Try your best to wait on one of the big three hands. When you're in late position, you want to limp in with pairs and A-x suited. When playing one of the big three hands, take into account the average raise at the table.

If you're seeing huge raises on your table you may want to throw out a huge raise pre-flop. On an average table, raise four or five times the big blind.

On the flop, bet no matter what as long as there are two people or fewer in the pot. With more than two people in the pot, the flop must be optimal and you must have what you think is the best hand.

Bet huge with these hands and take it to the river. In most cases you'll win because you were a favorite pre-flop.

How to Play Ace-King

Ace-King is a hand that can make or break your tournament. Usually you'd raise this hand from any position, but if re-raised pre-flop it's a good idea to become defensive.

You must hit your ace or king on the flop, or don't bet. The players in the early rounds are usually fishy and will call bets on the flop with drawing hands or even low pair.

Monster Field

If you have to, give up ace-king. It can be beaten consistently by a pair of 2s heads-up. The reason to play it hard is because it has the possibility of becoming the best hand when you hit the flop.

Raise ace-king three times the big blind to play it cautiously.

How to Play Pairs and A-x Suited

Pairs and A-x suited are played in a straightforward manner. These hands are good for busting big pots with a lot of players in them.

You want to limp in with them from late position. If there are a ton of people in the pot pre-flop on a small raise, you might call in hopes of trips or a flush/flush draw.

These hands become worthless when the blinds become high because you will usually miss them on the flop. Also, as the tournament progresses and the blinds go up, short stacks push all-in way too much for you to be limping in with these hands.


That essentially covers the early rounds. Stay tight and if someone puts you all-in with ace-king, just fold it. There will be plenty of opportunities to go all-in as the tournament progresses. You are looking to put your money in when you know it'll come back to you.

Beginner MTT Strategy: The Middle Blind Levels

The middle blind levels are a little more complex, as you'll soon see.  Most of the bad players have been weeded out so you'll have to loosen up, but you also have to remain on guard.

There will still be a lot of really tight players waiting to crack you with aces so be careful. Playing a tournament is a lot like walking on a minefield. You need to avoid as many tight situations as possible by playing the best hands.

Unfortunately, you can't wait all day long for premium hands unless you're a big stack.

There's a tactic whatever your stack.

How to Play With a Big Stack

There's a tactic whatever your stack.

We all love playing with a large stack. Although it might seem easy, there are a few things you need to know before you start loosening up.

First, evaluate the current status of your table. If it's really tight, you'll need to put that big stack to use and test shorter stacks' blinds as frequently as possible (with decent hands, of course).

If the table is really loose, you'll need to keep playing premium starting hands. Another pointer is to raise blinds only when you're in good position.

How to Play with an Average Stack

This is where most of us will be in the tournament. You want to loosen up a little here, adding hands such as A-Q and JJ to your starting hand list.

When you decide to raise, you probably want to bet the flop regardless. If you spot a tight player next to you, raise his blinds double with any two cards and bet the flop.

You'll need to pick it up a little here but for the most part remain tight.

How to Play With a Small Stack

The small stack must become aggressive in the middle rounds. When you spot weakness, bet all-in. Go out of the tournament with a bang.

Never get blinded out. Raise blinds by going all-in with decent hands.

You want to add any pair to your list of starting hands as long as you're in late position to raise the blinds. If you have a pair such as 9-9 or 10-10, don't be afraid to go all-in from any position. You need to double-up to become a threat in this tournament.

Some Advice on Raising Blinds

Good players are separated from bad players when the blinds get higher. Choose your opportunities to raise blinds wisely.

You should only raise a player who you know is really tight. In the late stages of a tournament you may need to raise any player, regardless of his image, with decent cards.

But in the middle rounds you want to spot a tight player and lean on him hard. Toward the end of the middle rounds, you might want to lean on the blinds harder than normal. You should be getting closer to the money and people will start playing really tight.

Say a tournament has 500 people in it and it only places the top 80. When there are about 100 people left, you'll see everyone tighten up.

This will probably be around the end of the middle rounds or the beginning of the late rounds. This is when you'll really make your money.

Beginner MTT Strategy: Late Blind Levels

Congratulations! You've made it to the late blind levels. This is where you'll face your toughest decisions.

Generally you should find yourself right out of the money or at the final table. If you're more interested in winning the tournament rather than placing, here's how to build a huge chip stack to do just that.

You Don't Need the Cards

You read that right. You'll almost never get the cards in the later rounds but the majority of the time you can still build a huge chip stack.

How? Raising the blinds when everyone else is trying to make it to the money. This is a surefire way to either (a) get eliminated, or (b) go on to win the tournament.

There will be a lot of risk involved, but usually people won't call you when you raise their blinds. If you've been playing tight all game, you now have the opportunity to steal blinds left and right.

Out of the Money Strategy

The best way to build a huge chip stack is to raise blinds. The main reason to play tight the whole tournament is because sometimes cards run cold. If you've been playing tight the entire tournament, you have the license to bluff.

You don't always need the cards.

When the blinds get high, you can take just about any two cards and raise them. Again look for tight players, but even if you don't find them put players to a decision for every chip in front of them.

A lot of times you'll raise the pot and if you get a caller, bet the flop regardless. Usually your opponent will miss the flop and you can take the pot down.

If he re-raises, just fold and do it again on the next round of blinds. You can rack up a ton of chips doing this throughout the later rounds of a tournament.

Sometimes you'll get called on a bluff. The key here is to just back off and let your opponent have the hand. But mostly put people to decisions for all your chips.

The reason this works is because you've been sitting tight. If you happen to run into aces, you must shake it off and recover for the next tournament.

This strategy may seem very risky, but it's less of a risk than it might appear. Most people will not call you unless they have aces, especially if you've kept a tight table image.

Large Stack Strategy

If you have an average stack or small stack, you want to stick with the above strategy. If you happen to be the chip leader of the tournament or within the top 10, you may want to play a little tighter.

Play as you did in the early rounds until you get to the final table. The exception is if you have a tight player left to act behind you.

In this case, you can raise his blinds with any two cards and expect to make a profit. But don't get greedy for blinds. Don't make this mistake.

If you have a really large stack, play tighter than usual. If you're catching some decent pairs you may want to raise the blinds occasionally, regardless of the player. Just remember that all those chips can disappear really quickly if you're not careful.

ept barcelona final table 2

Beginner MTT Strategy: At the Final Table 

The final table is where every poker player wants to end up in a big tournament. 

Once there, you should be facing all experienced tournament players. This will require you to take a certain attitude toward the table as well as a certain unique strategy.

Study Your Opponents

You don't really need to study your opponents in the early rounds since so many players are moved to and from your table.

At the final table, though, all of the players around you are most likely good tournament players. Very rarely will you run into a fish who caught a mad streak of cards and ended up at the final table, although it does happen.

For the first 10 or so hands, play extremely tight. Get a feel for the table and how people are playing. Poker brings out different emotions in different people and you must learn the current state of every player.

Have you spotted a player who's loosened up? Is there a large stack leaning on people? Is someone to your left folding almost every hand?

More than likely you'll notice mostly tight players at the final table. You'll also run across a few people utilizing the maniac tournament approach. Identify these players and adjust your play accordingly.

In essence, final-table play involves playing the player and not the cards.

Wait It Out

CSPC winner matt salsberg   Commerce Photo

The final table will bring about some of the best poker you'll witness. This is simply because most of these players feel grateful to be there. They'll be on their best behavior and play the best hands possible.

If you spot a maniac at the table, let him take a few people out. Sit back and feel your way around the table until a few people are gone.

There will come a time when you make your move but don't go out unless you have a good hand. Conversely, if the table is really tight, you may want to take a few risks and rain on the blinds.

A good tournament player's motto for the final table should be "play the player, not the cards."

Luck and an MTT Final Table

It would be lying to say you could finish first at the final table without luck. It's impossible.

Most players at the final table are great tournament players, meaning that more than likely it will be a dogfight for each ascending place.

Make use of every edge available to you. Spot the tight players and maniacs. Adjust your play to each individual player.

Although you want to play tight, you'll need to take some calculated risks. The best way to beat the final table is to look for any edge possible by analyzing each precious detail available to you.

Watch how each individual bets and how much he bets each hand. Study each showdown at the table as if your life depended on it. The final table is all about feel, not about cards.

Good luck and see you at the tables!

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2024-02-17 16:57:56

15 years later, this is still an outstanding MTT guide. Really fills in the holes. My tournament play, depth, and cash results have improved immensely following the concepts laid out in this article. So very thankful.

Kyle Andrew Poggenpoel
2016-02-06 10:00:46

What about those instances when it seems that you are folding hands like J4 or 98s and hitting trips or full-houses? It usually happens if my 1st hands are premium & I’m in position.

2009-08-05 01:52:00

I play differently and it pays off..in the early blind levels i limp with almost every hand like 9-5 9-7 8-7 10-8 6-4..stuff like that i love in the early levels, you WILL hit. but fold to a big raise pre flop with these hands.then when i double up i play only strong hands so i dont lose my chip advantage. in online poker the chip leader has an advantage, he/she will win with bad hands just so people get knocked out. it happens unfortunatley

2009-07-29 18:12:00

the AA guy in your tourney played the hand passivelly. You would not have calleda a 200 bet, would you?

In my first live tournament, I set trembling in the table and was dealt AK UTG. just did 4 bb raise and nobody called :D. Felt relieved.

Well, I agree with this theory, but fell bothered by ALWAYS reaching the middle tourney shortstacked. I see guys with huge stacks though. How do they get it?

Getting in the hands cheaply is important, but if the table is made of good players, they will never allow it to happen.

So I think I should be like a rock, but sometimes play very aggressivelly poor hands, only to grab some chips.

After trying this strategy I hope to get a big stack till the middle.

2009-07-20 13:56:00

This guy is nuttso , I just won my regionals tournament here in Scotland , the first hand dealt i was in SB with 10-8 suited d , UTG limps in for 50 ( blinds 25-50 ) 6 other callers so i decide ill see a flop . Flop comes 10-8-2 rainbow , i check my 2 pairs , BB checks and UTG bets 1000 ?? everybody else folds around to me , After nthinking i push all in with my 2 pairs , he calls and shows AA , Cutting the story short , he is the first one out of tournament and i double up and i also won the tournament … TY

2009-02-26 00:02:00

you say if someone puts you all in with AK you fold? you must distinguish whether the tourney is freezeout or rebuy as this has a significant difference. In a rebuy tourney you need to be willing to race with AK in the hopes of building a stack early on which makes life easier as the blinds increase and you dont need to resort to a push fold strategy

2008-10-27 16:37:00

Yeah good theory but in reality, cant tell you the number of times been all in with KK and got hammered with 777, JJJ and even 5555.
I prefer not to go all in and build a stack which can absorb any bad beats.

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