Mickey Petersen: How to play the early stages of MTTs

He’s won $1.36m in live events – now Mickey Petersen explains why you shouldn’t be ready to go at 100mph in the early stages of tournaments

PokerPlayer: How important is getting off to a good start in online MTTs?
Mickey Petersen: Getting off to a good start is overrated. Everyone wants to get off to a good start but a lot of people will make the mistake of trying to force themselves to play a lot of bad hands early on in order to accumulate chips.

The value of having a significant chip advantage mainly comes when you are getting close to the bubble or the final table. In the early stages it doesn’t really allow you to get into more profitable situations.

Is it more important to preserve chips and not make mistakes than it is to aggressively go after them?
The best way to think about it is that every hand you play is an opportunity for you to turn a profit. The trick is to figure out which hands and situations belong in which groups.
Now, that being said there is some value to just being alive in a tournament and having chips because you get to play future hands. Where to draw the line is tough to say, but there is no doubt that doubling your stack makes it worth less than twice as much.

It’s the same reason why you hear people discuss hypotheticals about being all-in on the first hand of the WSOP Main Event and knowing what the other guy is holding – how much of an edge do you need to call?

In general terms, would you advise people to adopt a tight-aggressive (TAG) style early on?
I think one of the biggest mistakes people make in general is playing too many hands before the antes kicks in, especially from early position. There is just not that much in the pot to win preflop and there are a lot of people who can wake up with a stronger hand behind you. Plus you are almost always going to be playing out of position against them. So I think the way to approach it is to start off with a default TAG strategy, and then as soon as you see people make specific kind of mistakes you can start to adjust accordingly.

The more out of line people are preflop, and the bigger mistakes they make postflop, the more hands you can allow yourself to start playing against them.

Is it better to be dealt suited connectors and small pairs to try and flop a monster, than it is to get Aces and Kings?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s better, because I think on average if you are playing well postflop you are always going to make more money with huge pairs. But suited connectors allow you to make much stronger hands by the river than overpairs and make you a lot trickier to play against.

If a really tight player opens under the gun and you know he never plays suited connectors he is going to have a big problem when the flop comes 5-6-7 for example.

Do you like to three-bet hands like Aces early on or just call?
It depends what kind of player I am up against. In the very early levels I don’t three-bet much against really early position openers no matter if I have Aces or 6-5 suited. I think it makes you tougher to play against and people can’t go as crazy bluffing you. That being said, if I see someone is opening too many hands or calling three-bets too liberally I will always three-bet.

Should you only ever get all-in preflop with Aces and Kings in the early stages of a tournament?
There are certainly situations where some people are so out of line that you are better off getting it in lighter than that, especially where it’s between the button and/or the blinds. It also depends on how deep it is, but in very general terms I would agree that you should probably not be looking to get it in with worse unless you have a good reason.

Do a lot of people overplay A-K early on? And how should we approach that hand instead?
I think a lot of people three-bet A-K in situations where it plays better as a calling hand. If you have a read that people are calling your three-bets with dominated Aces and Kings a lot then you should definitely keep on three-betting it. But for the most part it’s the first hand people will put you on when you three-bet. By just calling it will make your calling range a lot stronger and mean that it’s harder for people to force you off hands on King and Ace-high boards.

How important is it to be able to identify the weaker players at the table quickly?
You can easily play a profitable strategy without really knowing who is good or bad, but it’s definitely a big advantage the faster you can figure it out. One thing I am very persistent about is using the colour notes [on PokerStars] to keep track of how strong I think a player is. It might seem like a chore but you can build up a really useful database quickly, and paying attention is key.

Do you think that running big bluffs early on is a bad idea?
It’s very situational and there are a lot of situations where running big bluffs early on is a good idea. The most important thing is that you have solid reasoning for doing it.

How can players keep their cool if they get off to a bad start in an MTT?
A lot of it is practice and just having the proper mindset. I think it helps to think of how many chips you need to actually win a tournament. If a tournament with 1,000 people just started and you instantly lose half your stack it might feel like a disaster, and conversely if you double up you might feel like you are on top of the world. Even if you double up though you still have to win 998 more stacks to win the tournament!

It shows how silly it is to care about getting off to a good start. Some of my biggest scores have been in tournaments where I got off to a terrible start or was short for long periods of time. Just try and play good poker!


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