Basic poker tournament strategy

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Jeffrey | Poker Articles, Poker Strategy, Poker Tournament

Submitted by Cody Kirshner this article belongs to the Poker Tournament series

Have you been playing tournaments that you wish you could do better in, or you are doing well and then all of a sudden have a “blow up”?  We all feel that way from time to time, and even the best of us will make a misread and loose all of our chips, but that is the nature of tournament poker.  Every decision that you make in tournament poker could be the hand that can cost you the tournament.  So I decided to come up with a strategy that I use all the time when I play my tournaments.  I am not saying any of this strategy will either, guarantee success, or will win you a tournament right off the bat, but it should help you become a better tournament player.

The early stage of a poker tournament

Before we get into the strategy let me break down what you should be looking for in the early stages tournament.  In the beginning of any tournament it may be very difficult to get reads on players, especially if you have no past experience playing with them before.  You should proceed with caution against these types of players, until you can get a better read on them.  There will be other players at a table that you may think are playing solid, but when they come to the show down you see they were limping in early position with a hand such as Q9, something very marginal, and they called the whole way with the board being 10 6 7 2 5  trying to hit a gut shot for half of their stack.  Against these “calling stations” you want to play solid hands and make the most of them.  Calling stations can help you greatly in the early stages of a tournament because they can give you a few hundred to help build up your stack.  Then finally there is the wild and crazy “donks” that will play any single hand, make outrageous bets that don’t even make sense, and they have absolutely no idea what they are doing.  These are the players that you only want to play really premium hands against because they are willing to give you chips if you have the patience to take them. 

Now comes the strategy in the tournament, the hands you should be playing.  In the early stages of any tournament I usually sit back and only play premium cards (AA, KK, QQ, any good pocket pair…AK AQ and sometimes AJ, A10 in later position) because I look at the table and try and scout my opponents. I add and preach please don’t play KJ, Q10, K10 when people make a good size raise to you early on. It simply isn’t worth busting with hands like these.  Because if someone raises you early on and the board comes 4 9 K, and the person pushes all in after a good size raise pre flop, and you have K10 you will probably call and if they flip over AK you are practically drawing dead.   I just suggest not playing these types of hands early on because it isn’t worth busting on marginal hands such as these.  Which brings me to my next point, don’t be raising either with these types of hands early in a tournament because you will more often end up losing more chips than you will be gaining.  The early portion of a tournament should be the time when you just sit back and try and pick your spots with good hands and allow yourself to build up a good chip stack, while not putting anything at risk with marginal hands.  It may seem hard at first but if you show good patients at the beginning it will really pay off for you.

The middle and late stages of a poker tournament

Now that you have made it through the early stage of the tournament ( I think the first hour is the early stage until first break.)  it is time to reflect on your chip stack. If the tournament started with 1500 and you have 3500 that allows you to be a little more open.  You can raise with KJ, Q10s, J10s, these types of hands in middle to late position, but still don’t be raising in early position with these types of hands, it is still too early.  On the other side of the spectrum if you are low stack with 1000 when you started with 1500 be looking for premium cards, and be willing to fold marginal hands until you find a good spot to put all your chips in with.  With 1000 chips you are still not dead in the tournament especially if the blinds are around 40/80.  I have seen too many people give up in these stages of the tournament because they think they don’t have a chance and just shove with QJ off and someone calls with AJ and they bust you.  So remain patient because you still aren’t in trouble just yet.  Also at this stage of the tournament you know how 1 or 2 people are playing as well because you have been playing with them for the past hour.  So if they are conservative make sure you are using that to your advantage ( if you raise pre flop don’t be afraid to put a continuation bet on the flop when you miss completely cause you might just take it down there.)  In the same sense if someone is playing very tight and you know they only bet when they have something don’t be afraid to fold to him if your AK misses because you don’t need to be a hero and make a amazing bluff when they have top pair, it just isn’t going to work.

When you have made it through 2 hours of play, this is where things become interesting.  You are getting real close to the money and people will start tightening up their games, or the big stacks will bully the short stacks because they know that they are just trying to get in the money.  This is when, if you have a big stack don’t be afraid to try and take a few stabs at certain pots if the short stacks keep checking to you, and if the big stacks are bullying you, don’t be afraid to reraise them because they just might be trying to push you around.  Also this is the time when if you just have an average stack don’t be afraid to try and steal a few pots because the blinds are starting to get higher and higher.  Your selection of hands can change to a lot of different types of suited connectors and if nobody puts a raise into the pot, don’t hesitate to make a raise of your own.  But be careful, because you don’t want to become too aggressive and lose a bunch of chips just because you’re trying to steal the blinds from other people.  So I just suggest only raising with suited connectors in middle to late position.  If you manage to make it past the money bubble then the tournament turns to having a new objective, the grind down to the final table.  What you will see is right after the money bubble concludes and everyone that is remaining makes the money, the game will start to loosen up again.  People will get back to playing normal poker, and as should you.  At this point in the tournament you will become very familiar with certain players and the certain styles that they play, so once again use that to your advantage.  If people are hyper aggressive, don’t be afraid to check a monster and let them bet into you.  At the same point, retorting early that if a person is conservative don’t be afraid to take the pot from them, but just be careful.  Another big thing here is when you know the player, watch out for random plays they might make, especially if you have a good hand…MAKE SURE YOU DON’T GET TRAPPED.  If a real aggressive player that always bets continues to check watch out because they might just be slow playing something very big. So if they check and you bet and they reraise you, be careful that they don’t have a monster and bust you out. 

The final table of a poker tournament

Finally you have made it, you outlasted the field, and only 9 remain…you made it to the final table.   This is why you play poker, to have a chance at final tables.  There will probably be big money pay outs in all spots, but  the top 3 will pay the most…depending what site you are playing on.  I have learned to play final tables from the great Phil Hellmuth.  He said “you can’t win the tournament 9 handed, let the bad players make their mistakes, take some pots, and win the tournament 4 or 5 handed.”  This is the smartest strategy I can give you.  At the beginning of the final table be conservative let the other players lose their money, but you play tight and conservative.  My suggestion on hands would be to stick to an early tournament strategy.  As the players start to get knocked out that is when you are able to change your strategy and start mixing in different types of hands again.  Now if you are the short stack at the final table try and wait for a good hand if you can. If this is not an option look to take a stand with the best hand that you think you will get while being at the table before the blinds will eat you alive.  If your stack is about 10X the big blind yoiur move should be a push and only a push. 

I hope that my strategy has given you some insight on what you should be doing with tournament play.  Patience will allow you to have a deep run, and well timed plays.  If you are smart and are able to catch a few breaks you will be able to make a final table.  Remember don’t be playing KJ QJ Q10…etc. in early position, early in the tournament.  These types of hands will get you busted in a tournament.  Stick with good solid premium hands early to help build your chip stack as much as you can.  This is a very basic strategy for tournament play, it can get more difficult, but for beginners this is a good formula to follow to allow you to have success.  Good luck. And see you at the tables.

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4 Comments to Basic poker tournament strategy

Mark
March 3, 2009

Hi Cody

Good basic poker strategy article. I think I might just adjust my play to not beeing too fancy during the early stages of a tournament.

Mark’s last blog post..Online poker tournament statistics: player exit percentage

The Other Mark
March 3, 2009

I like where you are coming from when you say to play tight early on, but in the deeper stack big buyin tournaments I do this a lot differently. There is more room to maneuver and you can abuse players a little bit better when you are playing many hands. I think if you come into any of these tournaments with a set strategy, you are lining yourself up to miss out on opportunities to take advantage of people that play bad.

Mark
March 3, 2009

Good points…I guess the optimal strategy is the opposite of what your opponents are following…

Mark’s last blog post..Online poker tournament statistics: player exit percentage

poker review
March 16, 2009

I ususally play fast early in tournaments because I want to get some chips or GTFO. :-)

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