Double Up or Die: A Strategic Approach to No-Limit Hold’em Tournaments

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Jeffrey | Poker Tournament

Submitted by Houston Slim, this article is a part of the Poker Tournament series.

During this week that we celebrate the final table (finally!) of the World Series of Poker Main Event, we should take the time to remember one of the legends of the game that left us too soon.  The late, great Stu Ungar was the only man ever to win the Main Event three times.  Not only did he win in back-to-back years in 1980 and ’81, he also came back to win again in 1997.  His talent extended beyond poker, as he was also considered the greatest gin rummy player ever.  In fact, he was so good at tournament gin, nobody would play against him and his action dried up. He took on poker out of necessity and, legend has it, his first Main Event win was also his first no limit hold’em tournament of any kind.

Sadly, Ungar died from a heart attack brought on by cocaine abuse at age 45.  Despite winning millions of dollars at the poker table, he squandered his fortune on bad investments, sports betting and casino table games.  However, his genius at the poker table was admired among legends of the game such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan.  Many poker experts agree that, if Ungar had lived to see this era of poker, he would be even more dominant against these larger fields than he had been against the best players in the world.

One aspect of Ungar’s winning strategy was that he would avoid playing hands in the early rounds of a tournament.  His line of thinking was that, with so little in the pot at the start, there was no point in risking a substantial portion of his stack for such a low return on investment.  When the blinds went up and each player was forced to place an ante bet before the deal, then Ungar loosened his starting hand selections.  The higher blinds and the “dead money” of the antes made for a more substantial reward.

Such a tournament strategy can be very useful, especially for beginners.  An interesting fact to remember is that, in the history of the World Series of Poker Main Event, no player who has led after Day One has ever won the tournament.   In other words, it doesn’t matter how much of a lead you have after the first round or at the first break.  The key is to stay tight during the first few rounds, watch your opponents, then attack when the pot carries enough for you to add substantially to your stack.

Another key to loosening your starting hands once antes come into play is that, if the action folds to you and you take the pot uncontested, you earn more than just the blinds alone.  In a typical tournament structure, the sum of the antes usually equals one big blind.  For example, in a multi-table tournament on Full Tilt Poker, the first level with antes has blinds of 120 and 240 with an ante of 25.  At a table with nine players, the antes sum up to 225.  Thus, if you can take down the blinds and antes, you earn 585 (120 + 240 + 225) instead of the 360 you’d get with the blinds alone.

As these blinds and antes increase relative to your stack size, these pots offer even more encouragement to gamble with what are usually considered sub-standard starting hands.  While many players will be hesitant to risk all of their chips on anything less than a quality hand, you must be willing to “double up or die” if you want to accumulate chips, especially if you want chips to play with at the final table.  Remember, although making the money in a tournament is nice, making a final table is much more rewarding.  For example, if a tournament offers one hundred times your buy-in for first place, you can miss the money ninety-nine times, win once, and still break even!

For those players who consider missing the money a “failure”, you should change your expectations and look for opportunities to increase your stack, gamble, risk, and “double up or die”.

By Houston Slim

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