One of the most popular tournament formats in online poker play is the single-table tournament or "sit-and-go."
Online poker sites have SnGs running continuously. They can run with just one table or multiple tables but a new SnG starts as soon as it has the designated amount of players seated and registered.
There's hardly ever a wait time for play to begin and, given the escalating blinds, there's never any shortage of action. With a minimal time commitment they're the perfect poker format for casual poker players.
But make no mistake - sit-and-go play is a completely different monster than cash-game play. It's more similar to multi-table tournaments inasmuch as the chips you have are finite. There are no re-buys and once your chips are gone, you are gone.
So to win at poker SnGs you need to protect the chips you're given. Here's how to do it at every stage of a Sit & Go.
How to Win at Poker Sit & Gos
Avoid Confrontation Early
When the blinds are low you should employ a very conservative strategy. There's no need to get over-involved and risk tons of chips early on.
If you have any chores to do around the house, feel free to start up a sit-and-go or six and then go sweep the kitchen, vacuum the stairs and put your pot roast in.
By the time you get back you should be ready to play. Obviously, that's a little extreme ... but it's a more advisable course of action than getting aggressive early.
In the early stages of a sit-and-go you'd like to avoid large-scale confrontations. There's no need to run up large bluffs or overplay marginal hands.
There will be plenty of time for being ultra-aggressive later. What we're trying to do is stay out of the action early. But while you should play very tight, you should still play your strong hands aggressively.
If you have a premium hand by all means bring it in for a raise. I would never advocate anything different. What I am saying is there's no reason to try to exploit small edges early.
Effective stacks 1,500. You have 9♠ 9♣ in the big blind. The blinds are 20/40. There are four limpers to you. In a cash game, this is a very easy raise. In a sit-and-go I would argue this is a check.
If you want to raise this hand, you'll have to make it at least 5 or 6x the big blind. You'll be out of position for the rest of the hand and there are four limpers in front of you.
For the sake of the example, you raise the pot to 240. The first two limpers fold and both the cut-off and the button call.
The flop comes Q♥ 4♠ 2♣. This flop is fairly decent for your hand. Only one over-card and you took the lead pre-flop so you'll have to continuation-bet this flop.
You bet 2/3 the pot or about 500. The cut-off folds and the button calls.
Now look at the spot you're in. You've just put half of your stack into the pot. What are you going to do on the turn? The pot is now 1,800. If you fire again on the turn it will be for all your chips.
How much can you like your hand? The answer is probably not that much. Checking and folding is also a pretty bad move, as you have half of your stack in the pot.
This is why I advocate the check pre-flop while the blinds are low. It allows you to avoid a sticky situation like this one. There are lots of situations like this.
With speculative hands that are most likely to be good now but are not a huge favorite, there's no need to balloon a pot to exploit some small edge you may or may not have.
The amount of chips you'll have to put into play to find out if you do have that edge is far too many to risk when your stack is finite. Rather than trying to push your small edges now it's better to conserve your chips for the higher blind levels.
Essential Sit & Go Tip: Play Your Position
Just like in cash games, you should play tight from early position. By playing tight pre-flop you simplify your decisions after the flop. What you want to avoid early on in sit-and-gos is tough situations.
As you know, tough situations lead to you losing chips, so avoid those tough spots as best you can.
One way to do that is to play even tighter from early position. You have to preserve those chips you have because when they're gone, you're gone.
So avoid playing weak hands out of position - you'll just be burning money.
Fold Dominated Hands in Early Position
If you're in early position you should fold all dominated hands. Hands like A-T, A-J, K-Q and worse should hit the muck.
They may look like decent hands but they're a trap for most players. As I've said above you want to protect your chips early so err on the side of caution.
You should still bring in your premium hands for raises. This is ABC TAG (tight-aggressive) play. You want to be playing tight, but if you get a big hand, get aggressive. Don't be afraid to raise AA-JJ, A-K, A-Q etc.
If the table has been playing passive, you can also try to limp decent pocket pairs (TT-66).
Add Hands to Your Raising List in Middle Position
From middle position you should play a similar tight game. You still don't want to get locked up in any battles out of position with marginal hands. Of course you'll still be raising your premium hands for value.
You can also add hands like AJo, AJs and KQs to your raising list. You can start opening up your game a little bit more by limping pocket pairs and good suited connectors, but you don't want to to put yourself in situations where you're playing large pots with marginal hands.
Add Hands to Your Limping List in Late Position
From late position and the button you don't need to open your game much more than you already have in middle position.
You have a little more freedom but you shouldn't be raising up your ace-rag hands or J-Ts just yet. You can however start adding some hands to your limping range.
If you can get in cheap to a multi-way pot with a good suited connector or a pocket pair, that is a fantastic move. You should be looking for spots where you can see a cheap flop and maybe hit a monster and double up.
If you can do that early, it will make the later stages of a sit-and-go much easier for you.
Be Aware of the Gap Theory
Throughout all of this you must always be aware of the gap theory. The gap theory is, in summary, this:
- If the hand is raised when it gets to you, you need a better hand to call than you would need if you were the one making the raise.
So if you're in middle position you can raise with A-J, but you should not call a raise with it. Simplified, you should be playing even tighter when the pot is opened in front of you.
Mid-blind play starts at around the 50/100 level and continues until around 100/200. The table has most likely seen a few eliminations but is not yet short-handed.
How to Beat SnGs: The Mid-Levels
Once the blinds start escalating it's time to make some adjustments. For one, limping should almost completely be eliminated. Open limping is pointless at this stage of the game.
The average stack is just over 20 BBs. Limping for 5% of your stack is giving away money. If you're going to enter a pot, enter it raising or don't enter it at all. The time for limping is over.
Your goal now is supplementing your stack either with cards or without.
Playing from Early Position
Playing from early position doesn't change that much between low- and mid-blind play. You'll still be playing very tightly.
There are still going to be pots contested on the flop and playing out of position makes this very difficult since you are almost always playing for your stack on the flop.
You want to continue to play your strong hands hard and fold your weak ones. Don't try and get creative from early position.
Playing from Middle Position
In middle position your strategy is similar to early position. You want to protect your chips when you're weak and you want to come in raising when you're strong.
From middle position there's no reason to get maniacal; however, you can open up your raising requirements the closer you get to the button.
Late position is always where you want to be in poker. However, in sit-and-go play it is even more important - it's where you build your stack.
Playing from Late Position
From late position it's time to get creative. Your goal is to steal blinds - you need to add to your stack with or without premium hands. In a sit-and-go you can't just wait around for aces.
The blinds are escalating all the time and if you decide that you're only gonna play monsters, then by the time you actually get one it won't matter if you double up.
Late position is the bread and butter of a sit-and-go player. Now that the blinds are getting up there, it's time to switch gears. Your goal now becomes accumulating chips.
How to Steal the Blinds in SnGs
The best way to accumulate chips is by stealing blinds. Does that mean we can just start raising any two cards all willy-nilly because we have position? No.
Then what types of hands make suitable steal hands? The best candidates for steal hands are ones with a reasonable chance of making something on the flop in case you're called.
Random trash hands are still exactly that: trash. Though position is an incredible advantage, it doesn't mean you can all of a sudden start opening up 7-2 profitably.
Think of it this way: Which hands would you play from early position in an extremely passive cash game? This is roughly the range of hands you can now start raising from late position. A hand like 7-8s is an excellent candidate for a steal-raise.
A hand like J-2s, not so much. Your goal, of course, is to take the pot down without a fight. However, you are going to get called sometimes. This is why your hands must have at least some value on the flop.
When called, you should play your hands on the flop similarly to how you would any other time. If you are called in one spot then you should likely follow your pre-flop raise with a continuation bet on the flop.
If you're called there, then you have to take a look at the strength of your hand as a whole to decide whether to fire a second barrel.
You have a stack of 2,100 and are on the button. The small blind has a stack of 1,800 and the big blind has a stack of 2,000. The blinds are 50/100. It's folded around to you in the button with 6♠ 7♠.
You raise to 300; the small and the big blind both fold. This is what we hope for. Ideally we want to just take the pot down with no contest. The goal is to get a fold so pat yourself on the back. Free 150 chips.
You have a stack of 2,100 and you're on the button. The small blind has a stack of 1,800 and the big blind has a stack of 2,000.
The blinds are 50/100. All fold to you with J♠ T♣. You raise to 300; the small blind folds and the big blind calls. The flop comes 7♠ 8♦ 2♠.
The big blind checks, you bet 400 and the big blind folds. In this example we get called pre-flop but now a nice continuation bet takes down the pot for us. Which leads me to another point: pay attention to how the table is playing.
If people are folding for 2.5x the BB or one-third pot-sized c-bets, then just bet that. You want to win the pot while putting the least amount of your chips at risk as possible.
You have a stack of 1,400 and you're on the button. The small blind has a stack of 1,800 and the big blind has a stack of 2,000.
Blinds are 75/150 and all fold to you on the button with 3♠ 3♣. You raise all-in for 1,400; the blinds fold.
This hand is different than the previous two. In this example we have only 1,400 chips and the blinds are 75/150, meaning we have less than 10 BBs.
The rule of thumb is if you have 10 BBs or less it's better to just shove all-in than make a small raise. By making a small raise, you're raising 30% of your stack. If you get pushed on then it almost makes a fold mathematically impossible.
As we know one of the fundamental theorems of poker is if you're going to call a bet, you're better off making the bet yourself. So don't mess around with a small raise... just shove it all-in.
Be Aware of Table Image!
While playing in the mid-blind region you must always be aware of your table image. Be aware of how others around the table perceive you.
You'll be raising quite a lot and your opponents will change how they play against you. Some will try and re-steal against you since they know you are raising a lot.
If you sense your opponents have picked up you are stealing too much, slow down for a rotation or two. You can't just constantly push people around with nothing. They'll eventually catch on.
So be aggressive, but always keep yourself in check.
How to Beat SnGs: Post-Flop Play
This is where it gets fun. By now the game will be short-handed with four or five players left.
Everyone at the table will probably be short-stacked in the classic sense of the word. The average stack will only be around 12 BBs. This is approaching push-or-fold time for everybody.
Here's where you'll make your profit. Your average sit-and-go player plays this late stage so badly it's laughable. If you play this stage better than they do you will show a long-term positive expectation.
At this stage of the game, post-flop play is out the window - flops are rarely seen. You have two options: push or fold. And, by god, should you be pushing.
Your Goal is to Win, Not Limp Into Money
Your goal is to win sit-and-gos. You don't want to "limp" into the money. When you just try and limp into the money you are throwing +EV away.
You have to have the killer instinct to attack and destroy players who are happy just limping into the money or moving up the pay scale.
In poker, if a player is playing scared, he's exploitable. Everyone wants to finish in the money; nobody is playing to get eliminated. You're no different.
But your goal is to win. Therefore, you have to look at the long term and put the short term out of your mind. Concentrate on making good plays at the correct time and forget about the results. If you make the correct plays, success will eventually follow.
Get More Aggressive, Not Less
The top three players in a sit-and-go typically get paid. So when you get down to four- and five-handed play, you've reached the bubble.
There will almost certainly be some short stacks thinking if they play ultra-tight they may sneak into the money. They're wrong. You want to get more aggressive, not less.
When play is short-handed the blinds will already be very high. Your average stack will be just 12 BBs, meaning you'll be losing 10% of your stack to the blinds every rotation.
When the game is short-handed, those rotations come fast and furious, decimating your stack. You're better off pushing all-in without looking at your cards than letting yourself get blinded out.
Don't Let Yourself Get Blinded Out!
The action is frenetic now and you should be trying to steal as often as you can get away with it. If you get a feel players are hoping to limp into the money, punish their blinds - they won't defend them.
If you notice someone is calling pushes liberally, then ease up your aggression against that player. I won't discuss in detail the hands you should be willing to push with. I will, however, discuss the situations you should look for to get your hands all-in.
My advice would be this: Never call off your stack hoping for a coin flip. If you think you're flipping, you're better off folding and pushing the next hand blind. Rely on fold equity to supplement your stack.
Your hand value is just something you can fall back on in case you are called! I'll say it again: fold equity is more important than hand value!
A Couple of Examples:
The game is four-handed and blinds are 150/300. You have a stack of 2,900. The UTG player shoves all-in for 3,200. The button folds. You hold 6♠ 6♣ in the SB.
You? Fold. You're hoping for a flip, best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario, you're crushed. There's no need to call off your chips hoping for a flip. If you just wait and shove a hand of your own accord, you'll be better off.
The game is four-handed and blinds are 150/300. You have a stack of 2,900. You're UTG and shove A♦ 8♣. The button calls and the blinds fold. The Button shows 5♠ 5♣.
OK. You got yourself in a flip. You must have screwed up, right?
In this situation we shoved a good ace with less than 10 BBs. Obviously we were hoping for a fold. However, the button decided to race with us. This result is fine.
The small blind and the big blind folded, adding 450 in overlay to the pot. That means the pot is laying us better than the 1-1 odds we're getting on our hand.
But wouldn't that then make the pocket fives call correct too? Yes, in a way it does, but that's looking at this hand in a vacuum and not seeing the big picture.
You're not always going to show up with A-7 here. A lot of the time you'll have a pocket pair that crushes your opponent.
Most importantly, he has no fold equity. He can only win the hand one way: having the best hand hold up. When we shove the A-7, we can win the pot by having everyone fold or we can win at showdown!
One Last Example:
The game is four-handed. The blinds are 150/300. You have a stack of 1,800 and everyone has you covered. You shove 8♥ 9♥ UTG.
The button snap-calls with A♣ K♣. The blinds fold. Oh noez - you got called by a monster. This is terrible, right?
You're only approximately a 40-60 underdog versus A-K. And guess what? That difference in expected value is made up by the blind overlay.
So in reality you're not in bad shape at all. No two unpaired cards are that much of a favorite against two other non-paired hands. So don't fret if you get in "bad" - you'll know you made the right play based on your fold equity in the hand!
This is the key to late-stage sit-and-go play. Be the aggressor. The aggressor has two ways to win while the caller only has one. Never allow yourself to get blinded out. Being blinded out means you gave up on your sit-and-go.
Stop trying to limp your way to the small money and start shoving your way to that first-place prize.
Sometimes You Have to Call in SnGs!
While being the aggressor is the key to a quality end game, you can't just fold everything if you aren't the initial raiser. Sometimes you're going to have to make calls.
But there are a few things to take into account before you decide to get all passive and just call. Obviously if you have a monster, no debate: just get your chips in the middle and hope for the best.
The times I'm talking about are those marginal, borderline situations. You have to look at your stack. If you're the chip leader with 20+ BBs, obviously you're going to have a lot more freedom than the guy who has seven BBs.
If you have no money invested in the pot, then you should be less likely to want to call off your chips. In fact you should never cold-call your chips off unless you think you are a favorite and are getting odds on your money.
The game is three-handed. The blinds are 200/400. You're in the big blind with 6,500 (after posting your blind). The button folds and the small blind shoves for 1,200 total.
You have 8♣ 9♣. What do you do? Call.
You have 400 invested already. He shoves for 1,200 total. This means 1,600 in the pot and you only have to call 800 more. You're getting 2-1 on your call.
The player in the small blind should be shoving almost any two cards here. Your hand stacks up very well against his range and you're getting 2-1 on your money. You're only worse than 2-1 against pocket pairs bigger than both your cards, which is highly unlikely.
Chances are you'll get your money in in a 60-40 situation. With no danger of getting knocked out, if you make 60-40 bets all day getting 2-1 you'll end up rich.
The game is three-handed. The blinds are 200/400. You're in the big blind and have 2,400. The button folds and the small blind shoves for 3,000.
You have A♥ T♣. What should you do? Call.
This one you have to call off your chips. Your hand absolutely crushes the small blind's range. Even tight players are going to be shoving most aces in this spot and your hand is far better than average.
I would recommend you fold a smaller ace in this spot but with a big ace like A-T you have to make the call. While I recommend against just calling in my overall strategy, I did have to put this in here.
I'm amazed at the players I see folding hands with incredible odds. As a rule of thumb, if you're getting better than 2-1 you should have a pretty good reason for not calling.
How to Win a Sit & Go: Heads-Up Strategy
Once you get to the end game, you still need to seal the deal. You've learned all the tools; now you just have to apply them one-on-one. So our focus now is heads-up play.
Unfortunately, the way most sit-and-gos are designed online, by the time you get to heads-up play the blinds are so big the game doesn't allow for much play.
I hope you've accumulated some chips because if the chips are even it will be a very tight match. Neither player will hold much of an edge over the other because of the structure.
The match usually comes down to whomever gets the best cards in the shortest period of time. That's not to say it's completely out of your hands though; there's still room for you to exploit your edge.
Watch Your Hand Values
When you're heads-up, hand values change from what they were pre-flop in the earlier stages. Depending on how aggressive your opponent is playing, it may be +EV to get any ace in pre-flop.
Think of it this way: If your hand is decent short-handed it's a monster heads-up.
Pocket pairs are very robust. Hands are usually won with just one pair at showdown, so if you are dealt one before the flop then you're already ahead of the game.
Hands that also increase in value are big broadway hands, like K-Q, K-J, Q-J, K-T, etc. - ones that when they hit the flop make top pair with a good kicker.
Top pair is a massive hand heads-up and it's almost always worthy of getting all-in. Hands that decrease in value are weak speculative hands, like low suited connectors.
While they may be decent hands to raise with as a steal, they should not be played against a raise. These hands dramatically drop in value when the stacks are short.
Even if you flop a draw, there's little money to get paid off with. When they do hit the flop, they usually make weak second-pair type hands or gut-shot draws. Nothing you'd want to risk your tournament life on.
You have 6,250 and so does your opponent. Blinds are 250/500. You're in the small blind/button with J♠ T♣ and raise to 1,800.
Flop comes J♣ 6♣ 3♦. Your opponent bets 3,200. What should you do? Shove. That's it, that's all.
This is the crux of heads-up poker in a sit-and-go. The blinds are too big and there's so little play that if you flop top pair you're destined to get it all-in.
You have 6,250 and so does your opponent. Blinds are 250/500. You have Q♣ J♣ in the small blind/button and raise to 1,800. Your opponent calls.
The flop comes down T♠ 2♣ 9♦. Your opponent checks and you bet 3,000. Your opponent shoves. You? Call.
You have two over-cards and an open-ended straight draw. You only have 1,450 in your stack and there's 11,050 in the pot. To put it bluntly, you're pot-committed.
Luckily you have a massive draw and are getting great odds. It's hands like these your tournament will come down to. You should of course, as always in poker, be exploiting your position to the max. Continue pushing hard when in position.
Don't stop stealing or slow your aggression just because you're heads-up - the game is not over until it's won. So stay on your toes and keep up the fight.
Remember if you always make decisions as best you can you'll make money in the long run no matter what happens in the short term. Just look long-term and always try and make the most +EV play you can.
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Well, that brings our Beginners Guide to becoming a sit-and-go champion to a close. It's by no means comprehensive - I wrote it for the average player who understands poker but wants to take his or her sit-and-go game to the next level.
I hope it's given you enough information to go from merely playing sit-and-go's to understanding what it takes to be a serious winner.