5 ways to win MTTs when you’re card dead

Don’t give up the ghost when you go card dead. Follow Ross Jarvis’ top five tips for taking down tournaments with rags

One of the most frustrating feelings in poker is when you go card dead in a tournament. Sometimes you don’t see a lick of paint for hours as you muck 7-2, J-5 and 8-3 hand after hand. Meanwhile the blinds are rising, your stack is shrinking and your opponents are chipping up.

Unfortunately, tournament poker often doesn’t afford you the luxury of folding for hours on end. In order to win MTTs you have to constantly accumulate chips. And while it’s pretty straightforward to do that when you’re regularly picking up Aces and Kings, it’s the art of stacking chips without having a real hand that will see you go deep time and again.

There’s an old adage in poker that you play the people, not the cards. So stop whining about being card dead and use the following five tips for regular tournament success…

1. Stealing

What is it?
Raising with a weak hand preflop, your sole intention being to steal the blinds and antes.

How to use it
Stealing the blinds is a very simple strategy that most tournament players learn at an early stage. Though it’s so commonly used – and many people will be aware of what you are up to – it’s still the most effective way of increasing your stack without having a genuine hand.

Depending on the table, it can often be profitable to raise with almost any two cards if it is folded to you in the cutoff or on the button. If the few players acting after you don’t have a hand, or are very tight and passive, they will likely just fold allowing you to pick up vital blinds and antes.

Selecting the players to steal from is a critical thing that you must address early at a table. Look for those players who are frequently folding, and even start raising from early or mid position if there is a player who never defends. Conversely, avoid stealing with poor hands against call stations and very aggressive players who will constantly reraise and force you to fold.

It’s also important, especially in the early stages, not to steal too much. When the blinds are low and antes are yet to come into play there’s little point in going after the paltry amounts on offer. Instead, you should wait for the middle and late stages of a tournament when nicking the blinds and antes will increase your stack significantly – sometimes by as much as 10-20%.

At some point observant, competent players will become aware of what you are doing and play back at you with a wider range of hands. This is especially true online where tournaments are more aggressive than ever. With this in mind it’s important your hand range is polarised between rags and strong hands. Raising as a steal with marginal hands like Q-T, A-x, 2-2 and so on can lead to problems if you then call a raise and are dominated postflop. Therefore if you are raising with the sole aim of stealing you may as well do it with 7-2 rather than a hand like A-7 offsuit. 

In terms of bet sizing you should risk as little as possible in order to achieve your aim. So many weak players make the mistake of raising 3x or 4x when 2.5x will achieve the desired result: a fold from the blinds. In the later stages of a tourney when average stacks are something like 15-20 big blinds, even min-raising can be the most effective method, as the blinds will be reluctant to call for a fair portion of their stacks.

If done correctly stealing the blinds will enable you to pick up lots of pots uncontested and give you the element of disguise when you have a monster.

2. Restealing

What is it?
A reraise from late position or the blinds – usually all-in – to counter a player you feel is weak or is stealing the blinds too much.

How to use it
Restealing is the perfect counter against players who are frequently stealing the blinds. The idea is that as the familiar late position steal-raise comes in from a savvy tournament player, you three-bet from the button or blinds (often with not much of a hand too), and more often than not take the pot down preflop.

As with stealing blinds this tactic is much better when applied in the mid-to-late stages of a tournament. Early on stacks will be relatively deep so players may call your three-bet in position and look to outplay you after the flop, putting you in an awkward position. But as the blinds get bigger and the stacks shallower, a three-bet resteal will allow you to shove all-in – or at least pot-commit you – and put maximum pressure on the initial raiser.

Stack size is a vital consideration when thinking about a resteal. Ideally, your stack should be between 18-25 big blinds – a perfect size to shove if your opponent has made a standard 3x raise. The size of your bet will be offering the villain poor odds to call without his hand being at the very top of his opening range. Of course, occasionally your opponent will have an actual hand and you’ll be called, so the resteal does have a large element of danger attached to it.

In order to limit this threat make sure you target the right type of player. It’s obviously better to resteal against a loose-aggressive player (who could have anything), than someone who is making their first raise in several orbits. Also, don’t let your stack get so short that your opponent is getting great pot odds to call with marginal hands like K-J, A-5 or 4-4.

Finally, while your hand isn’t important if you get the move through, it suddenly becomes vital if you’re called. Therefore you should err towards restealing with hands that won’t often be dominated. Stay away from weak Aces and be more inclined to shove small pairs and suited connectors that will have far more equity against genuine hands like A-K and other Broadway combinations.

3.Blind aggression

What is it
Action folds to the small blind, who calls, giving you the option to check or raise. Don’t check and see a flop – raise and take the pot down, or carry the initiative into the hand postflop.

How to use it

This is a very easy way to pick up chips that many players neglect to incorporate into their play. It’s quite common for the action to get folded to the blinds in a tournament as the cost of raising increases. Often the small blind will limp into your big blind and many players will simply check and see a flop. However, if antes are in play and the blinds are quite significant, you should usually raise instead!

There are two benefits to this – first, you’ll likely take the pot down there and then as the small blind would probably have raised with a strong hand, and second, if your opponent calls your raise you get to play the hand in position with the initiative. Your cards are largely irrelevant, you are simply playing in position and capitalising on the weakness shown by the small blind.

The only time you should be wary of doing it is if the small blind is a tricky player who is likely to limp with big hands to trap. In that case, mix up your game between checking and raising.

4. Squeezing

What is it?
A squeeze play is when one player raises, a second opponent flat-calls, and you then reraise with a weak hand, effectively ‘squeezing’ out the first raiser who has to worry about not only your seemingly big hand but the flat-caller in between. Your sole intention is obviously to get both players to fold.

How to use it

The squeeze play bluff used to be a rarity in tournament poker. More often than not if somebody squeezed, it meant one of two things – Aces or Kings. That was until Dan Harrington pulled off the move perfectly at the final table of the 2004 WSOP Main Event, sparking the online generation to start squeezing as if it was going out of fashion.

Due to its increasingly common use these days, squeezing isn’t as effective as it once was. But, if timed correctly, you can still add valuable chips to your stack without needing to pick up a hand.

Make sure you have a tight image before you attempt a squeeze. Your opponents have to think you have the sort of hand you are representing – a monster.

If you’ve been showing bluffs all day long and generally getting too involved, other players will see right through it and play back at you. It’s equally important that you know your opponents very well. In a perfect world, the initial raiser is a loose player and the flat-caller is a predictable player that would always three-bet his big hands.

And, like any move you try to pull off in a tournament, make sure your stack is large enough to deter any of them from making a marginal call if they think you are ‘at it’. For this reason it’s vital that you make your raise a pot-sized one so that the other players don’t think they have the odds to call.

5. Moving all-in

What is it?
As simple as it sounds. When you are short-stacked, wait for a good spot and shove all-in with any two cards.

How to use it
Being card dead is bad, but being card dead and having a miniscule stack is worse. Once you drop below the fabled ten big blinds stage you face a huge battle to get back in the tournament. Imagine you’ve slipped down to just five big blinds after folding for hours on end. You then pick up pocket Aces, shove all-in and are lucky enough to double-up. It sounds great, but you’re still in short-stacked territory, and in need of at least one more double-up.

To get back into a tourney when short-stacked you have to be bold and make your move earlier when you still have fold equity. It’s more about spotting opportunities than the cards in front of you. If the action is folded to you in late position, your shoving range should be quite wide. Start with pushing A-x, all pairs and hands like T-9 and 8-7 that will have decent equity against most hands that may call you. You should also look at the stacks of players to act behind you.

Ideally you should shove into medium stacks that stand to suffer the most if they call and lose. With very short and/or big stacks behind you it might be worth waiting for a better hand as you’ll get called more often. Many online pros also advocate the unexploitable shove, where shoving marginal hands like K-T or Q-J from the button or small blind with 15-20 big blinds, is +EV. How aggressive you get is up to you, but if you’re going for the win, pushing more often than not is the way to create chip leverage for yourself going into the latter stages.

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