Thoughts on poker tournament strategy

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Mark | Poker Articles, Poker Strategy, Poker Tournament

This article belongs to the Poker Tournament series.

Lately I have come to realize that playing Multi-table Poker Tournaments requires a special mental mindset that not all poker players possess. On one hand you never stand to lose more than the tournament buyin, but the price you pay for this privilege is that most of the tournaments you enter will be a complete waste of time – when evaluated by a profit per hour criteria – unless you make it to the final table.

The path to the final table in a large multi-table tournament is bumpy to say the least. You will be fighting other poker minds and constantly increasing blinds in a race to stay ahead of the field while avoiding dangerous situations that could turn your chances of winning up side down in a heartbeat.

Multi-table tournaments are my favorite poker game, but it’s definitely a love/hate relationship. I like them because a small buyin gives me a chance of winning big and unlike entering a lottery I can influence my chances of winning. I hate them when I play perfect patient poker for 4 hours only to get knocked out in 30th place in some all in situation where I am a massive favorite, but the chip leader at the table sucks out on me.

The last couple of days I have been wondering whether a change of my overall approach to multi-table tournaments could somehow minimize some of the frustrations I often experience when playing them. My usual tournament approach is to enter into many pots during the first hour when the blinds are low, hoping to catch a monster flop that will double me up. If I manage to make it to the first break with a solid stack I start playing my opponents more; aiming to win some pots by outplaying them. If I don’t have a solid stack after the first break I narrow down my hand range selection and play my decent hands aggressively. With this overall strategy I don’t have problems making the money, but my final table participation percentage is miserably low.

I think my biggest problem is that I often find myself below average stacked after the first couple of hours of play which really limits the possibilities one haves to accumulate chips. Basically my tournament becomes a folding game with sporadic bursts of aggression when a decent hand comes along. Of course if I become seriously shortstacked I will push with almost any hand if I’m first to act. Sometimes I get lucky catching a good series of cards, pushing, getting called by inferior hands and doubling up a couple of times putting me back in the running. However, an average or slightly above average stack is really vulnerable in the late stages of a tournament where the blinds are high and people push all in preflop in each round.

The way I have been playing tournaments so far has resulted in most of my all in situations being concentrated at the end of the tournament. Seeing as the all in situations are the ones where you risk exiting the tournament it therefore makes sense that I will often experience being knocked out late in tournaments.

Now what will happen if I turn my game around so that most of my all in situations are concentrated earlier on? I will be knocked earlier more often that’s for sure. However, if I survive the early onslaught my above average stack will give me a higher degree of freedom to operate during the later stages of the tournament. I will be able to make moves on my opponents, I will survive bad beats and I will be able to wait for solid hands during the all in frenzy that starts after the bubble bursts. In addition I will avoid the frustration of mostly being knocked out ITM but before the prizes become significant.

Another benefit of the strategy outlined above is that I will be accumulating chips at a stage where the average opposition is of a lower quality and have a big chip stack later when the average opposition is of a higher quality and therefore more susceptible to folding hands when I make moves on them.

I would really appreciate some comments on my thoughts in this article.

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13 Comments to Thoughts on poker tournament strategy

Scott aka AmericanTrinity
May 2, 2009

I have won a handful of smaller tournaments this year and the one common denominator is getting the rush at the right time, at the final table. I usually get to the FT with an average enough stack by playing more or less tight-aggressive. However, I see a real benefit in starting loose-aggressive as the players I have seen successful early on got there by being loose-aggressive, then flame out as they get further in the tournament when there luck runs out. I also see that I must change my image to maximize my success. Gus Hansen in his book says he doesn’t know which style is better, but I think its about 50/50. The trick is in switching up your style. I think. Still learning and working on my game. Not sure there is a right answer, but good blog.

May 2, 2009

Hi Scott

Thanks for your comment. I agree that it is necessary to switch your styles during a tournament. The trick is always to do the opposite of what your opponents are doing.
I haven’t won any tournaments yet this year which is why I’m looking to change my strategy.


Mark’s last blog post..Thoughts on poker tournament strategy

May 3, 2009

Well my new strategy worked. I busted out early of all the tournaments I entered into tonight:

Titan Poker 3k Guaranteed: I build a nice stack by being aggressive. I pick up QQ and go all in preflop to fake trying to steal the pot. I get called by AJ and my opponent makes a flush with 4 spades on the board.

Full Tilt Poker 25k Guaranteed: I double up early with AA against AK and then call early with KJ. Three callers and the flop is JJA. I bet the pot and get one caller. Turn is an 8. I bet the pot, get reraised then push only to see my opponent holding J8. Nice turn.
A bit later I push all in preflop with JJ behind a raise and a call. The initial raiser calls me with KQ suited and rivers a King.

Busting out early is definitely something I will have to get used to, but I think I’m on the right track.

Mark’s last blog post..Thoughts on poker tournament strategy

May 3, 2009

There goes my last money on Full Tilt Poker….read about it here:

Mark’s last blog post..Thoughts on poker tournament strategy

Scott aka AmericanTrinity
May 3, 2009

Have you put a limit as to how aggressive you can be and lose? I have seen some pros write about going down to 9x the big blinds before they get aggressive, but you could use it the other way too. Be aggressive until you have 10x big blinds left for example. Once you get up, you can be conservative. Keep trying though and let me know how you do.

May 4, 2009

Hi Scott

Thanks for your suggestions. Could be that setting a limit on how much of your stack you can use for aggressive play is a good idea.


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The Other Mark
May 6, 2009

I don’t mind flipping coins early on. I don’t even mind taking the worst of it a little bit. It’s partially because Im wreckless, but I can also change my game significantly if I double up early on and really take more of a table leader stance. When I can do this, I usually make a nice run if the table is good. + Tournament EV is getting harder to come by these days, I try to only play tournaments for fun… another reason I dont mind flipping coins early on, its just more fun to play with a huge stack.

May 8, 2009

I disagree with the hard to find EV part. If you are better than the average player, there is still plenty of EV to be found in tournaments.

Mark’s last blog post..The toothpick, apple and fork balancing trick

May 10, 2009

I dissagree with the strategy of playing loose aggressive early on. Although you are right, a the chip leaders after the first hour or so are people wo have played loose, they are just one or two people and in tournaments with a couple of hundred players or more there could be dozens of player who also play loose early on who get knocked out because of it. It is much better to play tighter early on and wait for premium hands and then play them aggressively with the loose players. It may mean you don’t end up playing a hand before the break but but just because you are not the chip leader or have not doubled up it does not mean you are at a massive disadvantage unless the blinds are getting big.
Better to wait for good opportunities than gamble on bad ones because you are getting bored.

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May 10, 2009

Hi Elloraboy

Thanks for the comment. Trust me I have played tight sensible poker for ages until recently, and I simply haven’t seen enough wins to justify this approach. As a wise man said to me, you need to get some chips or get the f…ck out.
A poker tournament is a race and you simply can’t wait around for premium hand to come by. The chips are worth more early on when the blinds are low so you really need to take risks and seek out situations where you can double up.
Once you have secured yourself a solid stack you can sit back a bit and take advantage of your loose table image, playing premium hands and getting paid.
Also with a large stack you can better afford to play drawing hands.


Mark’s last blog post..Betting@betfair’s poker portal

May 21, 2009

After some time executing my new higher risk approach to tournaments I still haven’t won one :-(

I do seem to build a stack faster in the early phases of tournaments, which is good news. Problem is I haven’t yet mastered the art of tightening up again when I have a big stack.

There are still some adjustments to be made to my strategy and I will keep you updated how it goes.


Mark’s last blog post..Personality Deficient

May 28, 2009

Perhaps your style of play is more suited to slower tourneys where the blinds increase at larger intervals. There’s a lot more luck involved in turbo tournaments. Also tables can be shuffled so often online that you never get enough of a handle on the other players to make a ‘safe’ bluff

May 29, 2009

I think you might have a point Fiona. I might start playing some deep stack tourneys.

Thanks for the advice

Mark’s last blog post..24 WSOP Bracelet Events to be Streamed Online

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