There are certain moves every winning tournament player must know. Ross Jarvis is on hand to teach you five essential skills…
Tournament poker is constantly evolving. Players are more aggressive, new variants seem to crop up every month and prize pools are bigger than ever. Despite all this, the most basic strategy moves are still very effective. From stealing the blinds to abusing the bubble, these are the foundations every top tourney pro builds from. It’s only once you become a master of these concepts that you should try and add in the fancy highlight-reel plays that get all the attention on TV and online. Join us as we list the five most important skills any beginner needs to be a tournament poker champion.
1. Attacking weak players in the early levels
If you’ve ever watched the WSOP Main Event on TV you will know that Phil Hellmuth usually shows up a few hours after the cards have been dealt, often in lame fancy dress attire with scantily-clad women on his arm. If you decide to imitate the Poker Brat in your next live tournament you will achieve two things: looking a complete prat and missing out on tons of value! However, do feel free to bring the women along – it’s better than ogling a field of Jimmy Fricke lookalikes.
The early levels of poker tournaments are exceptionally important and can help define how far you progress in the whole thing. At the start of a tourney every single player that has paid their buy-in is alive and fully stacked. Crucially, this means that all of the fish are ready and waiting to hand their chips to you! It’s one of the easiest points in any tournament to chip up because of all the dead money in the field so make sure you are there, ready to play and focused.
Stacks will be deep early on so you can afford to see a ton of flops against the weaker players at your table. Look to play hands that can make the nuts like small pairs, suited connectors and suited Aces. A common leak that fish have is overplaying their big hands postflop and being unable to fold. Time and again you will see these players knocked out in the early levels because they can’t fold an overpair when it is clear they are beat. Keep the pots small when you don’t have it and make big raises and bets when you do have a monster – simple poker.
You should never bluff against fish that call too much. It is an obvious statement yet ‘good’ players continually try it, only to roll their eyes and mutter insults when the fish inevitably call down with third pair. If you’re one of these players trying to bluff the fish then you are playing like one yourself. In the early levels it’s crucial to put ourselves into a position to possibly stack the weak players – by value betting strong and attempting to hit lucky flops on the cheap – but do not force the issue if you are card dead or frustrated. A good spot will eventually come if you are patient.
Inevitably, the latter stages of a tournament will be predominantly filled by good players, making it much harder to accumulate chips and highlighting just how important those early levels really are.
See it in action!
Cash game legend Sam Farha takes advantage of actor Oliver Hudson’s inexperience by knocking him out of the 2005 WSOP Main Event on the very first hand. It may look like a cooler but a better player would have avoided going broke in this spot most of the time.
2. Stealing the blinds
You must constantly accumulate chips in tournaments to combat the rising blinds and antes. If you don’t, you’ll go bust. One of the easiest ways to do this is by stealing the blinds. It’s very simple to do – when action is folded to you in late position just stick in a raise with a weak hand and hope that everyone folds.
Of course, like most ideas in poker, stealing the blinds can be more complicated than that. It’s important to target the right type of player first. If you have very active or aggressive players in the blinds they will likely look for any excuse to call or raise rather than fold, so avoid stealing in these spots. The perfect targets are tight players that won’t try any moves such as light three-betting. Poker becomes very easy to play against these guys as you can just fold all but your strong hands whenever they show aggression.
Your chances of success increase when you attack the right stack size. It’s a bad idea to try and steal from a player with less than 15BBs because they will be shoving all-in on you fairly widely. Similarly, a player with a huge stack may be less inclined to fold because they have enough chips to gamble. Aim for players with a 25-40 big blind stack – these players are somewhat handcuffed by their stack size which forces them to play quite tight. It’s a license to steal.
Back in the old days, when raises were respected, nobody would play back at you without a monster hand. In 2013 everyone at the table knows what you are up to when you steal the blinds – and some of them will try to shoot you down accordingly. Be aware of your table image and recognise those spots where it looks exactly like what you are doing (stealing the blinds with a weak hand on the button for example). If you get three-bet in these spots the chances that your opponent is bluffing will rise significantly. Make sure you discourage them from doing this in the future by throwing in the occasional four-bet bluff yourself. As long as you’ve read the situation correctly you will be surprised how frequently this works.
Finally, it’s key that you adjust your opening raise sizes throughout the tournament. Early on it’s fine to open to three big blinds when you want to steal, but once the blinds get really big a min-raise will do the same job. This is because the average stack size of the field will have shrunk due to the blinds, meaning they cannot afford to loosely call preflop. It also becomes a less risky bluff for you, which is a bonus.
3. Searching for information
There are lots of poker websites these days that can offer us important information on our opponents in either a live or online tournament. TheHendonMob.com’s famous poker player database lists every significant live tournament cash a player has had in their career. Once you arrive at a tourney look for the names of your table mates on the TV displaying the table draw and then type their name into the Hendon Mob’s database on your smartphone.
There are plenty of free reads that we can get from doing this. If you see that a player only has one or two small cashes – or isn’t on the database at all – you can assume they are either inexperienced or plain bad at live poker. By contrast, some players will have frequent live results that date back years in low to mid-stakes tournaments. These will typically be very strong live players that are well-known on the circuit (such as Mickey Wernick or Julian Thew) and very experienced. A third player group to look out for is those that have one major score in their back catalogue, such as a UKIPT or EPT win, but have then gone on to have very few results. You’d be surprised how many of these players exist and it’s often a sign that they simply ran amazingly in that one event before their lack of skill became apparent. Don’t let these player’s reputations intimidate you as they are rarely going to be that great.
Online poker now has even more sophisticated database tools at your fingertips. Perhaps the most useful is www.OfficialPokerRankings.com. Search for any player on this site and you will receive an instant breakdown of their total online poker profits, average buy-in and ROI (Return On Investment). Not only will this immediately alert you as to whether a player is good or not, but you can also manipulate this information to your advantage. For example, if a player’s average buy-in is just $5 but they are deep with you in a $200 online tournament you can rightly assume they will be feeling nervous and a bit out of their depth. Now that you know this it makes sense to push them around more than usual and expect them to play back only with premium hands. They say poker is a game of information and it’s important for us to gain as much as we can on our opponents – luckily enough there are tons of websites out there waiting to help us.
4. Lose the fear of busting
You will not win any money from the vast majority of poker tournaments you enter. The sooner you realise – and expect this – the better. Even excellent pros will only cash in around 15% of the tournaments they enter. Appreciating the huge variance in tournament poker should help you get over the irrational fear of busting that many players have. There is no shame in getting knocked out of a poker tournament!
Far too many players value their ‘tournament life’ more than they value making the correct decisions in every spot possible. I saw a perfect example recently in a £200 live six-max freezeout. An older gentleman raised only for a very aggressive young kid to move all-in for 22 big blinds (the initial raiser had a similar stack size). After muttering about how he’d travelled from Manchester to London for this tournament the older guy eventually folded pocket Tens face-up. Given the situation it’s a terrible fold heavily influenced by the fact that he didn’t want to be eliminated from the tourney in its early stages.
You must be willing to take risks in tournaments by playing aggressively with draws or making the odd hero call when you sense you are winning. If you play too tightly good players are going to exploit you over and over again as they will be aware that you must have a monster if you ever decide to risk your tournament. More importantly, taking on this strategy means that you will never win a lot of money! You will get quite a few min-cashes on your record, and maybe even a final table or two if you run well, but you won’t win tournaments outright.
All of the most successful tourney players are aggressive and willing to gamble it up when they have to. That’s because the vast majority of the money is to be found in the top three spots. Who cares if you blow an opportunity to finish 28th by losing a huge coinflip for the tournament chip lead? In the long run a solitary victory will often pay for a 28th place finish many times over.
See it in action!
German EPT winner Benny Spindler is known as one of the craziest players on the circuit. Watch as he and fellow sicko Paul Foltyn play a huge pot at the 2011 EPT London.
5. Abusing the bubble
The money bubble offers a great opportunity to win chips by playing aggressively. Too many players – especially those that value their ‘tournament life’ too much – will be hanging on desperate for a min-cash, and only playing with monsters. So long as you have a decent stack you should view this stage as one of the most critical in the tournament. Raise a ton of hands to steal the blinds and win lots of small pots. Abusing the bubble is especially effective in live poker tournaments for the reasons we have listed previously. There’s no worse feeling in a tournament than being the nut bubble boy – some players will sink to the tightest levels to avoid this being them.
It’s important that we don’t get carried away though. Targeting the correct players to abuse is crucial. If you’re playing online and some well-known tourney pro is short on chips in the Sunday Million do not try and steal from him – he won’t care if he min-cashes or not! You want to target players you suspect the money is important to, not those that are playing purely for the win.
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