Poker tournament strategy differs greatly compared to a live ring game structure.
Although one usually looks for favorable odds and a positive expected value (pos ev) when playing in a live game, one has to consider the most important factor when playing a tournament. YOU HAVE TO SURVIVE ABOVE ALL ELSE!. Once your chips are gone, you are finished. Savvy tournament players will use this factor to their advantage. They also sometimes forget that the novice tournament player may not have this knowledge. There have been more than a few early exits by the Pro who forgets who they are playing against. The biggest advantage for a pro therefore occurs when the opponent knows enough about tournament strategy to fear being knocked out.
Playing Tournament Poker – Basic and Advanced Strategy Concepts
To play a hand based only on it’s value is a mistake that many tournament players fail to recognize . A classic example is folding A-A in a Super Satellite when there are two or more players all in preflop and if either one loses their chips, the remaining players win a seat in the big tournament. This strategy would almost never be correct in a standard tournament nor in a live game ( note the word almost). Another factor one needs to consider is the chip status of your opponent. Again, this factor rarely has significant importance in a ring game. A player who has been stealing the blinds hand after hand at one of several short handed tables during a tournament, might want to fold a big hand against the short stack because he has a better chance to continue to increase his chips rather than combining the tables to a 9 or 10 handed game. The two examples above are advanced strategies that all successful tournament players utilize.
One other advanced strategy that the stronger tournament player understands, is the gap concept. The basic premise here is that it takes a much stronger hand to call a raise than it does to make the initial raise. This holds true no matter what game of poker one is playing. It is even more important though in a poker tournament because one cannot pull out more money from the pocket should he/she lose their stack (assuming a freezeout structure or after the rebuy period is over).
Poker tournaments play in a much tighter fashion. The pots tend to be against a few opponents or heads up for the most part. In a tournament the players have a small stack in relation to the escalating blinds. Therefore, hands that are normally playable in a looser limit ring game are death traps in a tournament. One just does not receive the correct odds to draw to a flush or straight unless they have other possible outs. For example, If one had a generic flush draw such as the Jc-10c with a board of Ad -3c -6c, it is probably not worth drawing to if one is in a heads up pot. Even in the big blind, the pot odds are not enough to warrant a call on the flop with the risks of losing at least 1.5 more big bets. A strong opponent is probably not going to call a bet should the flush come on the turn, hence the risks of playing this generic draw is just not worth the loss of a significant portion of your chips. This is especially true when in the latter stages of a tournament when an average stack might be only enough to play one and a half hands to the river. If you are going to play a flush draw you need to have two overcards to the flop, a pair and a flush draw or a flush draw and a straight draw to play. Even a gutshot ( an inside straight draw) adds three more possible outs.. Add the deceptive factor of hitting this draw and you have a significant chance to win several more bets in a limit game.
Poker tournament strategy also differs depending on the structure. In limit holdem, a player rarely has pot odds to play small pairs and suited connectors. Pot limit poker adds these hands into the mix. No/pot limit adds implied odds into the game of poker. Although you may have implied odds in a limit game, it is a relatively small factor in most cases. One might be able to squeeze an additional bet or two out of the opponents. No/pot limit has implied odds that is many times more lucrative.
In no/pot limit holdem, there are other factors that one has to consider besides the pot odds. When you play poker, you are thinking about one thing in every hand that you play. You want to maximize your win and minimize your loss in every hand you play. In no/pot limit, I want to double through my opponent every time. Obviously, that is not possible.
When playing no/pot limit poker you have to consider your position when facing an opponent. Having position in no/pot limit is a much stronger factor than in a limit game. Keep this in mind anytime you consider calling a raise. If you are out of position, your options become limited and your risk of becoming trapped increases exponentially. I recommend that a beginning or intermediate player only play big hands in early position as well as out of the blinds until they gain more experience. Playing this way will allow you to last long enough to observe the better players in the no/pot limit structures.
No limit poker does negate the “out of position” problem. All one has to do is scoot all of your chips into the middle when the flop comes to your liking. This puts the pressure on your opponent to make the tough decision. I would recommend you learn more about the game before playing this kamikaze style of play or you may find yourself watching from the rail a little too often. The better players rarely risks their entire stack when playing no limit (unless they are forced to do so). Although going all in does decrease your opponents skill advantage, it also increases your risk of losing your entire stack. Learn how to play the game that maximizes your win and minimizes your loss and you will have a much better chance to succeed.
When you are in last position, you can play a drawing hand more effectively.Position allows for you to take a free card should your opponent check. Conversely, you can not take a free card when you are first to act. Playing a draw when in position allows you to have infinite odds (ie; at absolutely no additional cost to you) should you decide to check. A good no/pot limit player takes advantage of this. In no/pot limit poker one should not bet a draw and reopen the betting to your opponents on the turn. After you make the mistake of betting in this situation and your opponent check raises you all in, you will learn to minimize this mistake. Obviously, there are times when one does bet here, but I recommend leaving this play for the stronger opponents to decide as well as the playing of a speculative (drawing) hand out of position.
One of the ploys that I like to use against a player who bets in front of me when I have last position, is to raise when I have a drawing hand. This strategy is used more frequently in a multi handed pot and especially so in a limit game. I also use this in a heads up no/pot limit game as well. It is called the “free card play” although you actually save 1/2 of a big bet overall in a limit game and not a full big bet as the name implies. By raising on the flop when last to act, the initial bettor will usually check on the turn. When everyone else checks you have the option to take a free card or to bet. If you are on a flush or straight draw, you basically froze your opponents into allowing you to see the river card without facing an additional bet. This play is one of the first advanced strategy that an intermediate player learns. Unfortunately, it is also a play that is used too often and in the wrong setting by a lot of inexperienced players. When used correctly it can win you a pot that you may not have had a chance to win. When used incorrectly, it can lose you more than you should have. I will not go into depth here but hopefully will detail this play in another article in the future.
I really didn’t even scratch the surface of tournament poker in this article. I plan to continue a series of articles and expand in detail on the material presented here. The ability to bluff more effectively in a tournament, the ability to protect a hand (especially in no/pot limit poker), and other subjects will be presented as well. I ask that everyone read up on any terms that you did not understand in this article – check our poker terms glossary. Good Luck!
By Scott Aigner