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If you want to make a massive score then you need to go deep – and hopefully win – a big poker tournament. We ask some of the best in the business how to do it
You can keep your sit-and-gos, and put your 45-mans in your pipe and smoke them. As for your hundred man so-called ‘tournaments’ you can shove them where the sun don’t shine. We know you’re not really after trebling your buy-in and grinding out small profits.
That’s just not sexy is it? What we all want to do is hit a big score in a 2,000-runner tournament where the top prizes can be life-changing. This could be the Sunday Million, the PCA or just a $2 rebuy on PokerStars. Wherever you are playing though, with juicy prize pools come immense fields.
You know a lot of the basics already, but that’s not enough to beat a field of hopeless losers, grinders and pros. What we’ve done is picked the brains of some first class grinders to get under the skin of how you navigate each stage. Do you play tight or go batshit crazy from the crack of the starting pistol?
Should you try and abuse the bubble or just make sure to lock up some cash first? Stick with us and we’ll show you the route to riches. If you’re lucky…
The only time you will find a level playing field in this kind of tournament is when you register. After that, even before the first hand is dealt, the tournament becomes unequal thanks to the seat draw. There’s a chance you may be at your first table for some time so you should quickly try to appraise who’s sat with you and pick out the soft spots.
‘A lot of players like to gamble a lot in the early stages of tourneys thinking they will either get a big stack which allows them to run over the field or be out pretty soon. I do not really believe in this,’ says online pro Dominik Nitsche.
‘I think that in a big field with a lot of inexperienced players it’s often best to be a little more cautious before risking your tourney life. There are so many players (especially in the early stages) that are basically ready to give their chips away for free.
‘I like to get those chips with as a little risk as possible so play a much looser preflop style than I would in a smaller tougher field. I try to see as many flops as possible with weak players and build a big pot when I have it. Weak players in online tournaments simply do not fold enough. There is no need to bluff them,’
And with over $2.7 million in online tournament scores it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to what this Belgian tournament titan has to say. This strategy, of course, does not work so well if you’re at a table with a bunch of pro players but with so many online satellite qualifiers the likelihood of that is slim.
Aim for those easy chips while they’re still there. Weaker players won’t want to put overcards or top pair down and will view a bet as a bet and not look at its size or implications. As a result you should hammer these passive players with big value bets when you have it and keep things a little snugger in marginal spots.
Losing your stack with a marginal hand or by consistently bluffing is how most fishy players bust early on. Don’t be one of them.
Nearing the money
As the average stack gets smaller the blinds and antes grow in importance. Stealing these becomes vital, but picking the right targets is a must. Against some players you can get away with opening 100% of hands. As long as they keep folding, you can keep raising.
Most players will look to avoid a confrontation without a premium hand, particularly if they are out of position. Abuse this until you’re given a reason not to. Conversely, if you’re faced with a player who’s consistently stealing your blinds you cannot be afraid to shove on him especially if you are short on chips. They’ll not find it easy to call a shove with a hand as strong as A-T or K-Q. It’s very important to stay active, keep building your stack and never be afraid to bust if it’s due to making the correct move.
Playing a short stack well is vital in these tournaments. Three-bet shoving with 15 to 20 big blinds can be profitable, as can open-shoving 8-12 big blinds but what if you find yourself shorter than that with no fold equity?
‘A lot of people don’t realise how important it is to make the money,’ Nitsche says. ‘Let’s say you have five big blinds in the Sunday million and ten more players need to bust before you make the money. It is best to fold most of your hands in this scenario. Why? Because even if you double you will not be in great shape.
‘Lock up the min-cash first then get ready to gamble. I am not saying you should fold hands as strong as A-A or Q-Q, but you might want to rethink the situation with a hand like A-Q or 8-8,’ says Nitsche.
If you’re lucky enough not to be in shove or fold mode and still have a stack of more than 30 big blinds then you still have a lot of postflop play to deal with. ‘The medium stage of the tournament takes longer in a big field,’ Kenny ‘SpaceyFCB’ Hallaert, says. He’s won the Sunday Warm-Up on PokerStars and finished second in a $1 rebuy for $12,562 among other big scores, so he knows what he’s talking about.
‘Try to get a read on your opponent,’ he advises. ‘If you can see that he wants to see a lot of showdowns then I will never bluff him, but once I have a good made hand I’ll make him pay off. Usually inexperienced players won’t look at the bet sizing and will either be looking to get to showdown cheaply or fold, so small bets can make them muk.’
Hallaert argues there are no hard and fast rules to poker, and you can afford to be creative. ‘If I have Aces and someone is three-betting a lot I will not four-bet all-in because he will fold a lot even if we’re only 25 big blinds deep. I’ll call in position and let him put it in on the flop. If I go all-in he’ll be folding half the time, which is not what you want with Aces.
‘There are times you may lose some value against hands that they’d go all-in with, but there are so many other hands he would have folded preflop that your opponent will now continuation bet or stack off with when he hits one-pair or a draw.’
The bubble bursts
Once you are into the money you can allow yourself to breathe a sigh of relief, but don’t relax too much as your job is far from done. After the bubble there will usually be a flurry of all-ins as players take a punt to get a playable stack. If it’s the correct move then don’t be afraid to join them, but simply jabbing the all-in button without due thought is, quite frankly, a bit idiotic.
‘After you’re in the money, remember most of the prize pool will be awarded to the final table,’ says Xuan Liu, who won $600,000 for her 4th place finisher at the PCA this year. ‘There are still over a thousand entrants left, so try to keep playing a solid aggressive style relative to your stack size and everyone else’s at the table, not just the aggressor’s.
‘You can adjust your opening ranges as well as your three-bet and flatting ranges to disguise your hand. And you can give your neighbour to the left less spots to abuse you without committing a lot of his chips in impractical situations.
‘Regardless of how you choose to adjust, make sure you have a plan going into the hand. If you have a deep enough stack then you can afford to four-bet fold, but I would recommend not turning your value hands into bluffs if you don’t intend on flipping for a lot of chips.
‘Having said this, if he really is a legitimately excellent aggressive player it’s perfectly fine to just tighten up and wait until your table breaks. If you’re deep enough to get five-bet then the best approach would be to continue playing a style you’re comfortable with. There will still be a ton of softer players in the field and one of the best things about poker is that you don’t have to be the best player to win,’ Liu says.
Nearing the final table
With two or three tables left in an online tournament you should be watching all the tables trying to gain some reads and insights on how your opponents play. This extra information can prove invaluable on the final table.
‘Look up your opponents on a site like officialpokerrankings.com and work out which of them will probably be playing scared. If someone at the Sunday million final table has an average buy-in of $5 they probably won’t be playing as crazy as someone with an average buy-in of PP $150,’ says UKIPT winner and three-time final table finisher Max Silver.
Play is, of course, stack dependent but with the big money so close you need to maintain a fine balance between risk avoidance and not letting yourself blind out. If, as mentioned above, you’re a $5 player out of your element don’t play like it.
This could be your shot so try to avoid passing up on what you know is a sweet three-bet shove spot so you can ladder one more step. You have to keep moving or you will die. ‘You can get into a few tricky situations as the short stack on the final table bubble as you do not want to risk all your chips,’ says Nitsche. ‘However I often find it easier to play the short stack. You can just go all-in against aggressive big stacks and put them to a decision. They will fold more often than not and you will make a nice profit without having to see any community cards.’
One word of warning, however, is if you’re a big stack you shouldn’t be mindlessly punishing the short stacks as you don’t want to consistently get priced into calling with trashy hands. Remember that just because you’re the big stack it doesn’t mean that you get to win every hand.
Going for the win
The final table is the nirvana of poker and if you’ve achieved it then you should try to enjoy it. That said, this is where the big money lies and every step takes you closer to that big payday. Whole articles can and have been written about winning final tables, but in short you need to keep your cool, maintain pressure on those that you can bust and try to avoid getting bullied by those in position and with more chips.
Don’t talk yourself into hero calls and keep your aggression levels high enough that you can make the final three. This is not a good time to go into your shell. Considered aggression is the way to go. Once you get to the final three then it’s all about the dynamics.
‘As a general rule I would just ramp up the aggression all over,’ says Silver. ‘On the other hand if you do have two really aggressive opponents it’s actually not a bad time to sit back yourself and let them battle it out.’
Any big pots they play can potentially knock one of them out and take you heads-up so they are obviously great for you. It’s so unlikely you are going to make a big hand when playing three-handed that if you’re opponents are playing tight you need to widen your opening ranges and take the aggression up a few notches.
In reality there is no simple route to success. You’ll need some luck and the cards to fall your way, but the main thing is to keep a cool head throughout. Keep testing, building or preserving dependent on the time of the tournament and your table dynamic. And if you can do that, then yours is the tournament and the first place money my son.