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.
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:
- Your stack in comparison to the average stack size.
- 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:
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.
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.
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
First, 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.