Poker tournaments


In this article:

Tournament Strategy

Many books have been written on how to play Poker Tournaments. David Sklansky is one of the best authors on Poker today, and I will always recommend his books, but his book “Tournament Poker for Advanced Players” was written in 2000 and is a bit dated. It doesn’t really address online Poker Tournaments that well or the exponential growth of Poker Tournaments, that occurred when the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour were on television. In the following pages, Openings, Mid-Game and End Game, we will discuss strategy but for a simple, down and dirty basic strategy, for No Limit Hold’em, here we go.

What is the Tournament Status?

  • Early Game: Good solid Hold’em play works, Try not to get pot committed with marginal cards. Don’t hesitate to fold.
  • Middle Game: Survive. Allow position and relative stack size to dominate your hand selection. In early position only play top hands.
  • Late Game: With good hands attack short stacks that are under blind pressure and avoid everyone else. Be very cautious in Early position.
  • End Game: Attack the short stacks, and avoid the big stacks. Raise, and when down to 2 or 3 never enter pot without a raise.

What is your stack position?

  • Tall Stack: Bully short stacks when a loss will not affect your tournament standing.
  • Medium Stack: Look for opportunities against short stacks under blind pressure. Try to avoid taller stacks.
  • Short Stack: Try to get in multi-action pots. Slow play some in an attempt to entice a bluff or steal from the taller stacks.

What is your position?

  • Blinds: When several players are in the pot, call a raise only with very good cards. If the flop hits your pockets, bet it out immediately.
  • Early: (There is no such thing as Middle position.) If someone raises ahead of you, consider folding everything.
  • Late: (The Button or one off the Button.) Steal the blinds with marginal cards. Raise, and if there are several callers in front, you might limp in with good marginal cards.

Who is the player?

  • Good Player: Consider folding when he bets or raises.
  • Unknown or Medium Player: Consider waiting for another hand.
  • Poor Player: Attack with marginal hands, and don’t try any fancy moves he won’t understand them anyway. “Never bluff a bad player.” – Elvis Lives

What are your cards?

  • Good Starting Hands: AA, KK , AK are good hands. All other hands are marginal, or trash.
  • Marginal Hands: Any Pair and any two cards above a ten might be considered marginal. Everything else is trash.
  • Bad Hands: Do not play two cards to a flush or straight if they do not include two cards above a ten.

Notice Cards were mentioned last.

You don’t really have to know why this wins, but if you wish to, read below about:

Openings, Mid-Game, Late Game, and End game.

Starting hands

What are solid cards to start playing with?

In a ring game, your starting hand standards generally don’t vary. They remain the same for the complete session. In a Poker tournament on the other hand, your starting hands vary significantly has the tournament progresses and chips move from one player to another. Additionally the style of play the predominates Poker Tournaments and the usual NL structure dictate a big modification to those starting hands that may be quite profitable in a Poker ring game.

The biggest modification is the omission of suited pockets from the list of starting hands. Most ring games have an average of 4 or 5 players before every flop At a Poker Tournament table the average is probably 3 or less except at the very beginning of the tournament. (In a re-buy/add-n tourney this period of normal play may last until re-buys are no longer allowed.) If you play suited cards in a ring game you can expect to win about 1 out of 5. With good multi-way action your flush draws can supply a positive expectation. In a Poker Tournament on the other hand where heads-up is the normal action, you do not get the pot odds required to make a flush draw worth while.

Poker tournamentsThere is a second consideration and more important consideration. In a ring game if you bust out you go to the ATM. You can bust out 4 times and wait to win on the 5 th . In a Poker tournament if you bust out, you’re done and on the rail. If your still not convinced, look at this example.

In all types of poker, straight draws probably lose more money than any other “starting” hand. Don’t even consider connectors, unless they have intrinsic high card value. The hand JT does not have high card value and has a negative expected value anyway.

Here are the starting hands:

  • Limit your starting hands to the absolute top tier of hands; AA, KK , AK s and AK. QQ is a marginal starting hand in an early position.
  • Any hand that does not contain an Ace is barely marginal. (Especially in a freeroll where many players believe any ace should see the flop.)
  • Do not play 2 suited cards hoping for a flush, if they both don’t have intrinsic high card value.
  • Straights lose.
  • If someone raises in front of you, consider folding.

Of course we’ll discuss modifications that are required during the different stages of the Tournament.

Tournament Openings

If you fall off the boat, you can’t just tread water

The Opening starts with first hand and ends around the first break or a little after. After the 1 st break when the players start to come under Blind pressure. If 3 players have less than 10 times the big blind, the Opening has ended. In a Re-buy & Add-on poker tournament, the opening will end sometime after Re-buys have been discontinued. It may last a little longer because the add-on gives short stacks a chance to prolong their participation with additional chips.

This period in a poker tournament most closely a normal poker ring game. Good solid poker play even with good marginal cards can build your stack. If you are going to play marginal hands. Try to do it in late position and don’t get involved in large pots unless you have a premier hand.

During this period you have a great opportunity to build a chip stack, but it also has the additional risk involved. I am a firm believer that:

poker_tournaments_02“If you fall off the boat, you can’t just tread water and wait for the tide to carry you to shore. Sooner or later you have to start swimming toward land. Otherwise you’ll just eventually tire and sink.” — Turner

That doesn’t mean that you strike out in any direction. You have to know where you are going. Playing any marginal cards in Poker is a risk. You should never hesitate to muck marginal cards to a strong raise and make sure that you are getting good pot odds.

After the flop, Don’t slow play anything except a flopped flush or a set for your pocket pair. If there is a flush draw or straight draw, consider betting your set immediately. Slow playing is a slow death, and we’ll have to listen to another poker bad beat story.

To sum-up the Poker tournament opening: Play a solid poker game, Don’t get confrontational. Expect the other players to play quite loosely, (especially in free rolls and R&A Hold’em tournaments). Don’t get anxious as your stack shrinks. Sit patiently and wait for good hands. Don’t push.

Tournament Mid-game

Avoid equal or bigger stacks like the plague

The Mid-Game in a Poker Tournament begins as more and more players’ stacks come under blind pressure. Some tables may actually go into the Mid-Game a round or two before others. Now we must modify or normal solid game significantly. During this period most of the hands are 2 or 3 handed and you seldom have multi-way actions. As short stacks become more desperate, all in moves will become more frequent. Just as we modify our play others will modify there’s and often for the alert player this yields some excellent opportunities.

You should modify your play based on your stack size


Short Stack:

(under blind pressure) You should become more aggressive look for situations where you might make good use of marginal cards. Attack the other short stacks when possible. If you are in a situation where you would call an All-in, bet or raise first. Put the decision in the other guys lap.

Short Medium Stack:

Keep your starting hand standards high, but when you can bully a short stack do it but be prepared. Short stack will go all in with any cards all. If you aren’t prepared to call an all-in. Steal the blinds to support your stack but do so carefully.

Large Medium Stack: You are in a situation were you could probably blind into the money, restrict your starting hands to the absolute best. From Late Position steal very cautiously. Avoid equal or bigger stacks like the plague. Don’t get involved in multi-way pots. If you can’t go all in with hand, don’t play anything in early position. Mucking pocket aces in this situation might be the best move, if several players have already moved all in.

Tall Stack:

Poker tournamentsYou have a tall stack when you a have a large multiple of the average stack, often no one may have a tall stack, not even the chip leader. If you can sustain a loss without jeopardizing your tournament standing you have a tall stack. You have the power. Use it. Bully ’em. Steel the blinds as frequently as possible with good cards, but don’t play if you aren’t prepared to cover an all in. If you have trash, don’t call in an attempt to put another player out. Too often you will only double him up. Pay attention to the players, because you should know by now who is capable of laying it down and who isn’t.

Tournament Late-game

The most significant variable is your stack

The Late Game in a Poker Tournament occurs when every player is modifying his play to insure that he at least makes it into the money. All middle stacks tighten up significantly. Short stacks that feel they have chance to blind into the money get even tighter. Short stacks that feel they will come up short can become maniacs, and Tall stacks become bullies.

This is the point in a Poker Tournament that money is made. If you are unsuccessful here, you won’t make money in poker tournaments. It is also the point where hard and fast rules can’t work. There are just too many variables. The most significant variable is your stack. If you have a tall stack you can gamble almost with impunity, often increasing your chip lead significantly. If you have short stack, you have to gamble, and just pray to the Poker gods to get lucky.

There are two ways to measure a short stack; Its’ relationship to the average or its relationship to the blinds. Since the blind pressure can become oppressive to everyone at this point, use the relationship to the blinds. It will give you a better grasp of your situation.

Poker tournaments20 times the BB might be considered a middle stack. (Especially if there are a greater number of shorter stacks than places to the money. 32 shorter stacks and 30 places to the money.) Look for opportunities to steal the blinds to maintain your position. Try not to get involved with taller stacks.

10 times the BB might not be that bad if there are many shorter stacks still in the poker tournament. Still, look for opportunities to steal the blinds to maintain your position. There is also another problem, compared to the other stacks, your stack is losing leverage. When your stack size is small relative to others, they can call you almost in passing, and will. Your chances of an outright steal are decreasing.

5 times the BB, you are definitely under blind pressure. (Unless it is only a few eliminations from the money a several other short stacks.) At best you have 3 rounds left. If you think there is a possibility of making the money, tend to hold on and wait for the good hand. Otherwise you need to pick your spot and take the chance.

As a last word on short stacks, often, you can increase your chances of making the money by decreasing your chances of making the bigger money. Will you give up the chance to win $30 for a chance to win $2000, even if the chance of winning the $2000 is small.

Middle stacks, stick to the top cards. Don’t get in confrontations with larger stacks unless you have a definite edge. Realize that short stacks will go all in at the drop of a hat so don’t play them unless your hand has all-in quality. When playing marginal cards always do it from late position and against no callers.


Poker tournamentsUltimately the middle stack at this level of a poker tournament is faced with the same decision as a short stack. “You can increase your chances of making the money by decreasing your chances of making the bigger money.” Although your chances of winning the big prize are significantly better.

Tall stacks own this level of a Poker tournament. They bully and eliminate short stacks almost at will. If they take several small losses, they can regroup and still expect to do well in the poker tournament. In many poker tournaments, you can often see tall stacks that simply sit-out during this period of the tournament and insure their position in the money, but they these “Poker” players give up a unique opportunity to garner a large number of additional chips for the final end-game.

In Freeroll tournaments tend to target the final prize. Although free rolls often pay many places, your not going to get much for $5. In a free roll, you want to win the top prizes. When the top prize is exceptional, like a cruise or ticket to a big money poker tournament, everything else is inconsequential.

Tournament End-game

The tournament status is now. This is it

After giving you a strict set up standards, we’ve discussed all the ways that we should modify those standards based on the situation. At no point in a poker tournament is your play more important. When I was learning to play golf, I remember the old golf pro telling me. “Hit your drive down the middle.” (Start with good cards.) “If you come up a bit short, you might have to use a longer approach club, a 5-iron instead of a 7-iron, no problem.” (Through the middle and late stage, you might have to take a longer shot.) “If you miss a putt once you’re on the green, it costs you a stroke.” (If you bust out early during the end game it has cost you some money.) Sometimes it is amazing how real life resembles golf and poker.

The end game begins when the seat prize differences from one seat to the next become significant. Usually this occurs at the final table. In one of the larger dailies this could be significant, $500 for tenth, $1500 for seventh, and $8000 for first. You don’t want to miss a putt here.

Once we’re here you can see the importance of the order used to evaluate considerations.

  1. The tournament status is now. This is it.
  2. If your stack position is short, you’ve got to play. If not you’ve a little flexibility but often even the tall stacks might be under blind pressure at this point. Only extremely large relative stacks have an advantage here. Never call, RAISE .
  3. Your position changes almost everything as a raise on the button is hard can only be called with best hands. Since you cannot play unless you are prepared to call an ALL-IN move by anyone acting after you, the button is a friendly place to be.
  4. If you have a good read on an opponent at this point of game, it is as lucrative as a pocket pair.
  5. With the above in play your cards are almost immaterial. You must play marginal cards. You will seldom get a single caller much less two or three. (There will be few multi-way pots.) High cards and pocket pairs are rules of the day.
  6. As the numbers of players dwindle, the value of high cards increases. Ace rag is a pretty good hand against one or two players.
  7. Don’t play unless you are prepared to go all-in once the table is short, and one last word.


Good Luck.

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