How to Survive & Thrive in Big-Field Poker Tournaments

Big poker tournaments with lots of players will result in very large payouts - often over 1,000 times the size of the original buy-in.

The Final Hand
Most players aren't looking to win.

This is more than enough reason to spend some time ironing out a solid MTT strategy.

If you've never thought about it you naturally assume that everyone's goal in a tournament is to win first place. The reality is that most players aren't playing for first place at all.

They're playing to make the money.

For the majority of players finishing anywhere in the money is considered a win. These are the players who would like the big first-place prize, but are happy just to not lose their buy-in.

For them the battle is won by making money. If you make money you're a winner while those who don't are the losers.

In contrast, the players who are playing to win first are putting themselves at much higher risk of busting out before the money in return for a decent chance at making a very deep run.

The Real Money is in Winning

The first thing you have to do is choose what your goal is.

Don't pick one because it sounds good - you have to make a choice that is true to your needs and that you can follow.

If your goal is to play to win, 3,000th-place and second-place are the same result as far as you're concerned.

For good tournament players this mentality is the more profitable choice. Let's take a scenario in which you're set to play 10 $1,000 buy-in tourneys.

In the first scenario you're playing to make the money. Five times out of 10 you bust before the money; the other five you make it just inside the money.

  • Lose 5 x $1,000: -$5,000
  • Limp into Money 5 x $2,000: $10,000
  • Total Profit: $5,000

In the second scenario you're playing to win. You bust out early in nine of the tourneys and win the 10th:

  • Lose 9 x $1,000: -$9,000
  • Win 1 x $300,000: $300,000
  • Total Profit: $291,000

As you can see by these rough numbers the real money is in winning a tourney.

If You Win You Can Afford to Lose

The variance is much larger as the most you could ever have been down in the first scenario was -$5,000; in the second that almost doubles to -$9,000.

The Money
The real money is in winning the tournament.

Keep in mind these numbers are just to show you the massive difference in the possible payouts.

It's ludicrous to expect to consistently win one out of 10 massive MTTs.

But with a first-place payout of $300,000 you can afford to lose a couple hundred times before you win and still make a tidy profit.

The players who play to just make the money will argue that they have a chance at winning as well, as well as making the money more often.

Although they do make the money more frequently it's similar to cash-game players who manufacture winning streaks.

If you're limping into the money at the tournament chip average or less you're going to have to become a serious card rack to make it deep.

The players who are playing to win will have spaced out their gambling across the whole tournament while you will be forced to take as much or more risk in a very short period to make a run at the final table.

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You Can't Manufacture Wins

Many cash-game players are addicted to the concept of winning sessions, ignoring long-term results and calculated hourly earnings. These players will quit a winning session at a fraction of the total amount they stand to win in an effort to always finish in the black.

The mentality of having to win in a specific session is dangerous for a serious poker player, though, because it can limit wins and sometimes even force excessive losses.

There are times when you are just not going to play good poker. You may be tired, depressed or just a little scattered. If you force yourself to stay at the table, chasing your losses to grind out a meagre win for the session, you risk going horribly deep.

Manufacturing wins can result in limited winnings and exaggerated losses.

Poker Pros Are NOT Luckier Than You

The first thing to understand with tournaments of this size is that you're going to be forced to gamble at multiple points to have a shot at booking a win.

Eugene Katchalov
The best MTT pros know you need to get lucky.

You're going to have to win multiple coin flips, have your hands hold up to multiple strong draws, and commonly get a little, or a lot, lucky when you get it in bad.

The best MTT professionals understand the need to be lucky, and incorporate it into their game plan. Amateurs often look at tournament professionals and comment about how lucky they are all the time.

But in fact, other than the odd natural streaks of luck, the professionals are no more lucky than you.

The big difference is they're taking the situations where they need to win a coin flip, or need to catch some luck, and making sure they happen at opportune moments.

In a situation where you hold a hand with a 60% probability to win against your one opponent, would you rather get it all-in against a player who has one-third of your stack or a player who has you covered?

Amateurs will often answer "one-third," because if they lose they will still have chips to keep playing.

The problem with this choice is it will force you into circumstances where you have to take a similar risk just to get back to where you were originally.

A professional is playing to win and would rather take the same risks for the large pots which will put them into contention to go deep into the field and maybe even make a final-table run.

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Consider Your ROI in Big-Field Poker Tournaments

poker tournaments m

The other thing to consider is the ROI. If you're playing in tournaments offering over 1,000 times your buy-in you can afford to make strong moves to try for a deep finish.

As a solid player, you're bound to have your luck hold out more than a couple of times out of a thousand. Every time you see a professional player making it deep into a big tourney you can look back and find a whole slew of hands where the player "got lucky."

To use the lucksack strategy to your own ends you want to make sure that you're taking these risks when it's most profitable to do so. You're going to have to gamble at multiple points in a tournament, absolutely - so make sure you do it when you stand to gain the most.

Losing players are always quick to call large-field tournaments "bingo" or "crapshoots" while winning players consistently do well.

What is M in Poker Tournaments?

Allen Kessler
Allen Kessler: Proponent of the conservative start, middle and end.

Just because you can and will need to gamble in a tourney, that doesn't always mean you should. When you have an M of 20+ (your M being the ratio of your chip stack to the sum of the blinds and antes) there's no need to go looking for a gamble.

With an M of over 20 you're able to play "real poker," as some would call it.

In other words you can play, raise, call and fold in almost all situations. But just because you aren't forced to go looking for a gamble doesn't mean you shouldn't take one if the right opportunity presents itself.

It is at this point in a tournament where you can afford to play conservative poker and avoid having to take a coin flip. There are even some pros who will argue against moving all-in with an M over 100, regardless of the strength of your hand.

They argue that even being an 80% favorite is not worth your tournament life when you can afford to fold and wait for a spot with less risk. This is why some pros will fold AA in a main event against an all-in in the first round.

I both agree and disagree with this philosophy. After all, your chips are your tournament life - you need to protect them at all costs. Without chips you have no tourney.

If you're the best player at your table by a wide margin it makes sense to fold in such a situation. Being massively deep-stacked against nine other players less skillful than you will allow you to grow your stack steadily, risk free.

If you're not in such a situation you'll want to get yourself into the largest pots you can when you have the best of it.

The best advice for a conservative start is to stay away from any large pots where you may find yourself a coin flip or worse.

Once you start getting to a low M the standard call, raise and fold options are no longer available to you.

When you have an M of 6, any hand you play will pot-commit you - meaning you're playing for your stack.

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Push and Pray

Especially in online poker tournaments, the later stages of a tournament are frequently reduced to an all-in fest. Don't be fooled by the fireworks: the best players do have a method to their madness.

Dan Harrington

First off, as Dan Harrington says in his books, it's better to take a risk to keep your M above 20 than to have to take a risk to get it back.

Timing is almost always more important than the hands you're dealt. Since you have no way of knowing if any hands you will be dealt after the current one will be better or worse, the only things you can count on are timing and blinds.

Being the first one into the pot is always better than calling the first one in. For example:

If you're down to an M of 6, you're looking for a hand to move all-in with. You're dealt KQ. Let's put your opponent, with an M of 5, on A6.

If you move all-in before the opponent, chances are they're folding. But if he acts before you open the pot, there's a good chance he'll move all-in with this.

Calling with K-Q will be behind many of the hands a player will push with, while the same players may fold the same hands if you get your money in first.

First in vigor, as Harrington calls it, is always more important than the hand at this point in a tournament.

If you're in a situation to do so, try to pick the best time and player to put your chips in against. It's better to get it all-in with a player who has you covered rather than with a player a little shy.

If you lose against the smaller-stack player, it will leave you crippled with one or two M - almost the same fate as busting out. If the negatives are similar to equal, it makes sense to get into the situation which maximizes your profit.

Winning an extra two M in a pot may seem insignificant, but with raising blinds and antes, not to mention future pots, it can be a lifesaver. An extra three M won turns into an extra six M the next time you win with it all-in.

Bubble Play in Big Poker Tournaments

Tom Dwan

First off, if you're playing to win the bubble should be meaningless to you. Your play should be based on making the best moves possible to aid your run at the final table.

That being said, almost all players in a big tournament are affected by the bubble. If it affects the way they play their hands, it will indirectly affect the way you have to play yours.

Since most players are playing to make the money, they will be unwilling to get into any hand or situation around bubble time that can put their tournament at risk.

This will allow you to pick up more blinds and force people to fold more hands than usual. Closely observe your opponents to see who's unwilling to play at bubble time. Target them and build your stack.

If another player is playing the same game as you, you want to avoid him at this moment in a tournament. If you're both upping your aggression, you can get yourself into a pot larger than you had planned on.

More importantly, if there are seven players on your table willing to give away blinds with little to no resistance, it doesn't make sense to play large variance-filled hands against other aggressors.

One thing to be wary of: many very short-stacked players who are in push or fold mode will be willing to push over the top of any raise you make if they have a decent hand.

They'd rather get it in with a hopeful coin flip or a resteal than to get blinded out. Players in push or fold mode should always be handled with care.

Further Reading:

Conclusion

You may have noticed that we've said nothing of final-table play. The problem with giving final-table advice is it's so heavily reliant on the situation.

Blinds, stacks, players, timing and many other factors - such as if it's televised or not - all come into play. There are too many variables to make it worth giving any general final-table counsel.

Deep Stack Tournament Strategy

If you ever want to be successful at the WSOP you'll need to have a solid understanding of deep-stacked tournament play. With starting stacks now three times the buy-in, solid deep-stack play is going to be a prerequisite to going deep in any series event.

And that means if you're used to playing standard live poker tournaments - where the structures are typically so fast only a fraction of the tournament would qualify as deep-stacked - you'll need to adjust your game.

Do You Play Cash Games?

A deep-stacked tourney is almost identical in play to a deep-stacked cash game and all of the elements of a cash game that can typically be missing from a tournament are there.

Set mining for example, which can be a bad idea in a short-stack scenario, again becomes the bread and butter of your strategy. In a true deep-stack format you can raise, re-raise and still fold in the same hand. This allows for much more creative and skill-based plays.

Your goal is to play smaller pots, risking as little as possible, until you grab hold of a monster. Don't needlessly risk your chips - you can almost be guaranteed to find a more favorable spot if you're just willing to wait.

Hand Selection in Deep Stack MTTs

deep stack tournament strategy

At the beginning of a major deep-stacked tournament, when your M is 200, you have enough chips to play in any style you choose. All choices, lines and hands you may choose to play in a cash game, can be played here.

Now is the time to play suited connectors or even suited one-gappers (if that's the kind of game you play). The longer you wait, and the lower your M becomes, the more restricted you become in your options.

Your goal is to get to the flop cheap with hands that have the possibility of flopping something huge, and concealed. No one pays off a straight when there are four connected cards on the board; you want to have the cards in the middle to keep your hand strength off their radar.

You also want to play hands that either flop huge, or are easy folds. The last thing you should do is stack off at this point with bottom two pair or worse.

As your M begins to shrink, you need to start cutting out the low-probability/high-reward hands, as their initial investment becomes too high, forcing you to commit a large percentage of your stack on a long-shot.

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The More Deep Stacked, The Fewer All Ins

One of the trademarks of standard tournament poker is the all-in, as most tournaments have only a few levels of deep-stacked play before players are forced into "push or fold" mode.

deep stack poker strategy

The more deep stacked you are though, the less often you should be moving all in. Think back to all the deep-stacked cash games you've played. When you and your opponents still have large stacks, how often do you get those large stacks all in?

It's a very rare occurrence two players with stacks well over 200bb will get it all in. It does happen, but it's rare enough that it's quite a memorable event.

Deep-stacked tournament poker is no different. Unless you have the nuts, and another player willing to stack off, it almost never makes sense to get all of your chips across the line. If you're wondering why, take a look at the numbers:

Blinds: 25/50

Your stack: 27,000

Your opponent's stack: 32,000

Preflop: You raise 3x the bb (150). Only your opponent calls. Pot now 300.

Flop: You bet pot, your opponent calls. Pot 900

Turn: You bet pot again, your opponent calls. Pot is now 2,700

River: You bet pot one more time; your opponent calls. Pot now 8,100

In this scenario, with one player being very aggressive and the other player just calling, the final pot is 8,100 - less than one-third of the total stacks of each player. To get their whole stacks in the players would have to bet over three times as many chips across the four betting rounds.

In other words, the type of action needed to get over 540bb in the pot is absolutely sick. Although it does happen - mostly when two players both flop extremely strong hands - you shouldn't be thinking of the early stages of these tournaments as a time to move all in.

Deep Stack Tourney = Cash Game Grind

Your goal in deep-stacked MTTs is to play the cash-game grind. Forget about doubling up. You're looking to slowly and consistently grow your stack.

You can increase your stack 50%-100% during a long tournament day without ever being involved in a very large pot. Because you have no need to grow your stack immediately, you have no need to put your chips at risk.

Protect your stack until you have the best of it and then make your move. Play smart and you'll have no need to get lucky in the opening rounds.

Related Poker Tournament Strategy

Antonio
2011-06-12 13:01:11

Well, quite the opposite of what Mike Caro preaches.
Also you cannot calculate the expected gain by assuming that when playing conservatively you barely make it to the money 5 times and you win one time in 10 when taking risks (against 3000!).
You should instead estimate what is the probability to get n-th place when playing conservatively, and calculate Sum_n W_n P_n, with W_n the money for n-th place (minus buy-in), and compare with the analogous quantity when you play taking risks.
An oft-cited strategy is to accumulate chips by playing aggressively just before the bubble bursts, by taking advantage of scared players. But why taking risks early in the tournament?

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