Winning poker tournaments with ABC poker

Too many people get too tied up with intricate and specific strategies for winning poker tournaments – sometimes the best way to success is also the easiest

This is intended as an antidote to the relentless onslaught of complex plays you see in the modern game. Refreshing your memory of the basics of poker strategy helps you better understand why you do certain things and identify any leaks in your game.

Today’s typical tournament starts off with fairly deep stacks, but as the blinds rise and players are eliminated, the stacks get much shorter. Other tournaments are designed to start with short stacks, or get to the short-stacked stage much quicker, or both. It’s therefore very important to play well when the stacks are not deep, as that’s when the big money is won and lost!

Mid-game play

When the effective stacks are very deep (say, 50 big blinds or more) your strategy in a tournament is quite similar to a cash game. Preflop, you’ll play hands not necessarily for their percentage chance of winning, but for their postflop potential. You can take a few chances with marginal hands, as the potential rewards are large and the benefits of being a big stack later in the tournament are significant.

However, as the stacks get shorter and the chance of someone getting all-in before the flop increases, things change. As a medium stack – say 20-30 big blinds – the effective stacks aren’t large enough to make playing speculative hands such as suited connectors profitable, as the potential reward when you hit your hand has decreased significantly.

Consequently, your preflop hand selection should shift from these types of hands towards those with the best percentage chance of winning, which typically means high cards and pairs.

The difficulty of playing a medium stack is that simply moving all-in preflop with this many chips is generally a mistake, as you’re risking too much to win the blinds and antes. You also can’t afford to waste precious chips by entering too many pots, and it’s more difficult to put pressure on opponents because they will be aware that you can only cause them so much damage.

ABC poker is about giving yourself easy decisions so you don’t make costly mistakes. This means it is even more important than ever to be aggressive. Many players tend to slow-play their big hands in the middle stages, thinking they need to be tricky to make the most of their rare monster. But playing your hand slowly often results in immediate suspicion from your opponents, as it’s a departure from the style you are playing the rest of the time.

If every time you enter the pot it’s with a raise, often to steal the blinds, and all of a sudden you limp in under the gun with a hand like pocket Aces, your move is going to stand out in the minds of your opponents. Why encourage them to stop and think about what is going on, or give them a free or cheap chance to outdraw your big hand? Raising is the straightforward play and it keeps you incognito, keeps your decisions simple, and can be much more profitable.

Stealing the blinds

If you never steal the blinds in an MTT you are relying entirely on winning big pots against your opponents to gather chips. This is a terrible idea, as it will only work if you go on a lucky run. If you sit around waiting for a big hand in a typical tournament (let alone a fast-structured turbo tournament), then chances are much of your stack will be gone by the time the big hand arrives.

The ABC approach to stealing the blinds is to wait for a situation in which you are in late position and everybody has folded to you. You then make a standard-sized raise, hoping that the blinds will fold and you’ll win the pot. How often you raise depends on how aggressive the players in the blinds are. If they are unknowns, you might raise with all of your hands except complete trash such as 8-3 or 9-4. If they are especially passive, then you raise no matter what your hand is (in the unlikely event that you are reraised, you can then re-evaluate). If they are especially aggressive, then you might raise with fewer hands, as you know your opponent will defend more often.

Note that the very basic ABC style doesn’t involve resteals – that is, preflop bluffs that you make when you suspect that your opponent, who has already opened for a raise, is simply trying to steal the blinds and antes. Nor does it include raising to isolate an opponent, then stealing the pot after the flop. With the ABC style, we are simply waiting for a situation in which we are the first to enter the pot before making our steal attempt.

Keeping it simple

Another way to simplify your decisions is to plan ahead and control the size of the pot. You’re looking to build a pot size where you can get all-in with the best hand without the all-in bet being unusually large. Accordingly, you might make a larger raise before the flop, in order to get all-in after the flop without overbetting the pot.

This also means you should be wary of committing any decent chunk of your stack if you are not prepared to commit all of it. That means not calling off 10% of your stack with something like K-Q only to fold your hand after the flop when it misses. It’s much better to be the aggressor and be putting the pressure on your opponents, instead of the other way round.

A related situation to avoid is giving your opponent the ‘perfect all-in’. This typically occurs when you are the aggressor and are making a preflop raise. As an example, let’s say the effective stacks are 1,000 and the blinds are 50/100. If you raise to 300, your opponent has the perfect opportunity to push all-in. They’re not giving you such excellent pot odds that you should call with any hand, so they have some fold equity, and by winning the pot they will significantly advance their own position. Often when faced with this situation, you should either be prepared to go all the way and commit the entire 1,000 chips, or you should reconsider entering the
pot in the first place.

The bubble

In tournaments the money comes from climbing the prize ladder and not from winning pots. Since the money is usually reached by the top 10-15% of the field, it logically follows that in the early stages of the tournament when most of the field remains, you don’t gain much when a player is eliminated. However, when you are close to the money, every opponent eliminated can significantly increase your cash equity in the tournament.

This has two effects. The first is that typical opponents tighten up around the bubble, hoping to squeeze into the money as the shortest stacks are blinded away or forced all-in. You should respond by being extra aggressive before the flop, taking advantage of those opponents who would prefer to give up their blinds and fold their way into the money.

The second effect may also cause you to be more aggressive, especially if you have a big stack. Because every opponent eliminated increases your equity, you can take chances and call more frequently when a short stack moves all-in.

The potential damage the short-stack can do is small, and the reward for eliminating a player is potentially significant. On the flipside, it’s sometimes right to become more passive. For example, in a multi-way pot with an all-in player, you should often choose not to bet even with a strong hand, so that you don’t force any of the other players to fold and reduce the chance of the all-in player being eliminated.

In the money

Once the money is reached, there is often a period of carnage as the short stacks who folded their way into the money now push all-in in an attempt to rebuild. There are often lots of ‘mini-bubbles’ at this stage that can be exploited and this is your chance to go for the big prize. In your poker career, you won’t remember the many small cashes – it’s the big wins that stick out. Don’t be afraid to gamble in an attempt to win the tourney. Play aggressively and straightforwardly, and the ABC strategy will one day pay off big-time!


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