August 11, 2009

Poker Tournament Strategy

Your skills and experience in a regular (ring) game of poker will generally serve you well in a poker tournament. However, there are a few differences, and you must update your strategy a bit when facing a tournament situation.

  • First of all — and this is something so simple that you tend to forget how important it is — a tournament is a series of games. Not simply a bunch of games, one after the other, but a SERIES.

If you’re playing regular poker (or blackjack, or craps, or any other kind of gambling), you can call it a night whenever you want. You can quit if you’re ahead, or quit if you’re behind. You can say “I’ll just play one more hand to see how it goes.” That kind of thinking will do just fine at almost any other kind of gambling…but at a tournament, it’s not even an option. The only way you’re going home is with nothing or the whole shebang. Well, there’s usually second and third place prize money too — but you have to make it all the way to the end to get it.

Stack size becomes twice (or ten times ) as important, because that’s all you’ve got to work with — the shorter it gets, the more freedom you lose. Some tournaments allow “re-buys” where you can replace what you’ve lost, but you’ll see the opposite (a “freezeout”) a lot more often. Basically, you can use another player’s shorter stack to your advantage…but you can sometimes make their taller stack work for you, if that lets you anticipate their moves.

There’s also “the gap concept”. The gap refers to the difference between the hand you need to have to call the opening bet and the hand you need to open the bet yourself. If your opponents are playing tighter, the gap gets bigger, and vice versa (they play loose, the gap gets smaller). You’ll notice that when you play with this in mind, you start by raising with a lot less in your hand — the kind of hands you wouldn’t even call with, if it weren’t a tournament.

Once you’ve played tournament-style for a while, things like this tend to become second-nature. If you’ve got a lifetime of habits to work against, you’ll have to unlearn them to succeed (it’s no accident that a lot of big-name tournament players are younger). There’s only two ways to get better: study and practice. You’ve done some of the studying just now, so time for practice — head to the free poker games and get good enough to put all this studying to the test.

In tournament poker, you will usually need a better hand to play against someone who has opened the betting than what you need to open with yourself. The difference between the hand needed to call an opening bet with and the hand needed to open with is called the gap. Depending on whether your opponents are playing tight or loose, the width of the gap changes. The tighter they play the bigger the gap, and the looser they play the smaller the gap. This means raising when first in with a lot of hands you would never call a raise with normally. If you are sitting in late position playing Hold’em with a decent stack and no one has entered the pot, it would be correct to raise with hands as weak as 22, A-x and K-9s. Of course, if a very aggressive player is sitting in the blinds and he plays back a lot you will have to be more selective.

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