People often ask very specific questions about how to be a winning tournament player:
* How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?
* Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, then tighten up later as the blinds increase?
* I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up more as I get close to the money, or try to accumulate more chips early on?
Surprisingly, all three questions have the same answer: Stop trying to force things to happen. Just concentrate on playing solid poker, and let the chips fall where they may.In fact, that's the best answer for almost any specific tournament question. Here is a more useful question:
How much of a difference is there between ring game strategy and tournament strategy?
The answer: Not as much as you think.
Before you worry about adjusting for tournaments, concentrate on adjusting for the other players. The most important skill in poker is the ability to react to a wide range of opponents playing a wide range of styles. Players who can do this will thrive in both ring games and tournaments alike. Many of the most costly tournament mistakes are the result of players
over-adjusting for tournament play. Let's look at these questions again:
How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?
The short answer is: As many as you can get.
Play your cards. Play your opponents. Do not try to force action simply because you think you "need" to have a certain number of chips to have a chance of winning. You should be thinking about accumulating more chips, while trying to conserve the chips you already have. The more chips you have, the better your chances of winning. The fewer chips you have, the worse your chances.Forget about reaching some magical number. There is no amount below which you have no shot, nor is there any amount above which you can be guaranteed a victory. A chip and a chair is enough to win, and enough to beat you. Getting fixated on a specific number is a good way to ensure failure.
Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, and then tighten up later as the blinds increase?
Your play shouldn't change much as the tournament progresses. Gear your play to take maximum advantage of your opponents, irrespective of how far along the tournament is. Most players are too loose in the early stages of a tournament. Rather than become one of these players, adjust for their play instead:
* Attempt to steal the blinds less often
* Call more raises
* Re-raise more frequently
Likewise, when opponents typically tighten up later on, you should steal more often and be less inclined to get involved in opened pots. Again, this should be a reaction to the way your opponents are playing, not an action based on any particular stage of the tournament.
Last question: I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up more as I get close to the money to avoid this, or try to accumulate more chips early on?
Usually the people asking this question are already tightening up too soon before reaching the money. In other words, they are over-adjusting to tournament play. Not only is it incorrect to tighten up considerably before you are two or three players from the money, doing so is the surest way to finish on or near the bubble. Just play your best, most aggressive game, and try not to let your stack dwindle to a point where you can't protect your hand with a pre-flop all-in raise. If you do, your opponents will be getting the right pot odds to call, even with weak hands. Look for opportunities to make a move before you let this happen, even if it means raising with less than desirable holdings.
Next, I will address the two situations where adjusting your game will help.
How To Win At Tournament Poker
Previously, I talked about not adjusting for tournament play, answered three specific tournament questions, and stressed that there is little difference between tournament strategy and ring game strategy. This week, I would like to expand on that by answering a fourth question, and address the two situations where it's right to deviate from simply playing your best game.
The fourth question: Surely the different payout structure between ring games and tournaments means something, doesn't it?
Yes, tournaments differ from live action in that you are rewarded for how long you last, rather than for how many chips you accumulate. In ring game poker, the chips you save by folding are just as valuable as the chips you win by playing. In tournament play, the chips you save are
actually more valuable.
Consider a typical $1,000 buy-in tournament with 100 players, where first place is worth $40,000 out of a total prize pool of $100,000.
At the beginning of the tournament everyone has 1,000 in chips with a value of $1,000. The eventual winner will have 100,000 in chips and, in live action, would be entitled to a prize of $100,000. In a tournament, that same $100,000 is worth only $40,000, meaning that, at the end, each 1,000 in chips is only worth $400. As your stack grows, the value of each additional
chip decreases, which means you want to be slightly more averse to taking unnecessary risks in tournaments than you might be in live action. (And if you are at all averse to taking risks in live action, you're probably playing over your bankroll.) Don't overcompensate for tournament play. Most people would be better off making no changes at all, rather than the changes that they do make.
Having said all this, there are two cases where adjusting will help:
1. When you are just out of the money.
If you are short stacked, you need to be very careful when committing your chips, especially with a call.
If you have a large stack, look for opportunities to push the short and medium stacks around - especially the medium stacks. These players will be a lot less likely to want a confrontation with you, and it should be open season on their blinds and antes.
If you have a medium or small stack, you need to be a bit more careful. Remember, though, that the other players - even the larger stacks - don't want to tangle with you. They just want to steal from you without a fight. Be prepared to push them around a little, and even to push back occasionally when they try to bully you. This often turns into a game of Chicken between the bigger stacks to determine which large stack will let the other steal most of the blinds.
2. At the final table.
Very little adjustment is necessary until you are one player away from the final table. Here, again, you should tighten up slightly because this is the next point where the payout structure handsomely rewards outlasting other players. Look for opportunities to push around the other players, and the smaller stacks in particular. This is good advice throughout the final table.
What about heads up? There are no more tournament adjustments necessary. You are essentially playing a winner take all freeze-out for the difference between first and second place.
Remember: Tournament adjustments should be subtle. It is rare that your play would be dramatically different in a tournament. When in doubt, just play your best game. And if you never adjust from that, you've got a great shot of winning, no matter what game you're playing.