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Poker tournaments. Basic strategy.

Poker tournaments are a good alternative to cash poker, offering an opportunity to win a large sum of money for an acceptable fee. The successful strategy of play in a tournament has significant distinctions from the same rank cash game. This chapter contains general information that will be useful primarily for beginners at poker tournaments.

During the tournament players with no chips left are busted. The blinds/antes regularly increase, what hastens the tournament’s end. So, playing in the tournament, your goal is to accumulate chips and avoid the possibility of being busted.

Before the Tournament

Before you enter a tournament do your homework properly. You should learn all there is to know about the turnament, including

  • the way tournament is organised
  • the type of the event - whether it is “freezeout” or not
  • the size of an entry fee and initial buy-in
  • are rebuy or add-on options available and on what conditions

We recommend you to waive such options as add-on and rebuy ones in your first tournaments. Your aim at this period is to gain maximum possible experience at reasonable cost. So, try to show your best with only starting chips.

Basically it is mathematically proved to be sensible to choose a rebuy option at any stage. By this you become not outclassed by the opposition and show that the cost doesn't bother you much. This is also true even when all your opponents have far more chips than you.

Take into consideration the average number of chips in the hands of your opponents. If you currently have the less amount of chips it is sound to use a “rule of thumb” - to take an add-on in order to improve your position. In case of a small or on the contrary large stack the add-on option is not so effective. No doubt, that cheap additional chips are far more attractive regardless of stack size.

Pay attention to the number of prizes and the way turnament is held: it is played to determine the final winner or it lasts certain time. On approaching the last few players it maybe reasonable to choose a speciefic strategy unsuitable under any other conditions.

The understanding of the blind/ante structure and its time variation during the tournament is very important. Typically the blinds increase regularly, doubling every certain amount of time (20 - 40 minutes usually). It is worthy of notice. Imagine the situation: you hold 1800 chips and current blinds are 200 and 400. After next blind paying you got 1200 chips left, that is three times as much as the big blind. Then the blinds double and after the following posting you have only 600 chips which is now less than the 800 big blind. Obviously the strategies to choose in these two situations have considerable differences: while being rather temperate in the first one, you need to be aggressive in the second in order to win a pot quickly.

The Early Stages

Here are some advice that may be useful in the tournament's early stages.

Suppose you participate in a “freezeout” tournament. On the on hand, you’ll see the gamblers playing tight in the early stages to avoid being eliminated rapidly. On the other hand, there probably will be aggressive looking players aming at building a big stack as quickly as possile. We recommend you to be selectively aggressive against tight players. Such strategy of play proves to be effective in the early stages of the event.

But if the rebuy option is available, you’ll find the play in the early stages to be much more looser. It is always easy to tell the difference between the players ready to reby and those who are not. The first ones, usually aggressive players, try to raise the stacks by playing marginal hands, while the second prefere more caotious strategy.

At the beginning of a tournament the blind cost is usually low in comparison with the average stack size and can get even lower if the rebuy option is allowed. This is the time, when you can play more marginal hands than you usually do. About 5% or less of your stack is an acceptable risk to see the flop holding only suited connectors, small pairs or other marginal hands. But in case of hitting big on the flop, you will double your stack!

More by token, holding good hands it is sometimes correct to be relatively conservative during the preflop. Suppose there are several callers and you have AK in late position, flat calling is a preferable decision in this situation. If you want to get your opponents to fold, you should not raise. Flat calling allows you to minimize your loss in case of unlucky flop, but if you hit the flop big, you'll have the benefit of disguise.

If aggressive playing is what you prefer, then try to build a considerable stack during earky stages. By this you run a risk of being busted at the beginning of the tournament, but in case of success, you’ll get sufficient chips to stand the first few blind increments even holding weak hands.

The strategy of steady chip accumulation will suit naturally passive players or those who sees good on both sides of the issue. Looser preflop playing provides smaller cost in relation to your stack, but you should play tight post-flop then. In other words, it means that the risk of putting in the extra bet or raising is not worth taking unless you are not sure to be ahead. Loosing a pot, it is always better to save a bet, rather than waiting for a potential extra bet.

In the end we recommend you not to take into account elimination of your opponents in the early stages, as you’re still too far from the “final table” and the number of contestants should not bother you. It is better to concentrate on accumulating chips and maintaining your stack in good condition. Even if you hold a big stack and the loss in particular case does not cost you a lot, take no chances and fold, because in such situation you’ll hardly enlarge your stack by much. Not only should you try to make a good start, but you also have to spend the chips carefully avoiding unnecessary expenditure.

The Middle/Late Stages

As the turnament goes on, there are gradual changes in the structure of the game. Consequently you should change your game strategy in the middle and late stages of the event.

The average stack percentage increases in response to the blinds growth. That is why winning the blinds now plays a far more important role, and the first gambler into the pot typically preferes entering with a raise rather than with flat calling.

On the other hand, now to call a raise will cost you a considerable part of the average stack. It entails the increase of the quality of hand required to raise. As a result, many hands go raise, players fold and it may happen that you even won't see a flop for several hands.

By the time of middle and late stages many players will already be busted and tables for the most part won’t be full. This along with the blinds growth means that even a big stack won't save the day unless you win the hands quite regularly. The only way to get through all that is to be aggressive, without regard to your naturall style of play.

Well, the basic middle and late stages strategy supposes the opening raise requirements to loose, while the requirements for calling should be tightened up. The good average score is one winning of blinds per round. The winning of blinds gives you a cance to withstand next round of hands what increases your odds to hit a premium hand and possibility to double your stack.

The large stack allowes you to command respect during the raise and win the blinds without obstructions. At the same time, small stack contains not enough chips to cause any damage to the large stack holders and therefore players with small stacks are called far more often. There is a certain critical stack size, which you should avoid running any extra risks needed. In a limit games it is proved to be 4 times big bet size and in no-limit and pot ones - 6 times big blind size.

You should change the strategy of game if you find your stack to be below the critical level. Now you’ll be probably called and it doesn't make sense anymore to raise with marginal hands. In this case limp in to a pot with any reasonable hand, unless you so lucky to raise and hit a premium hand. If the raise doesn’t occur you may fold and judge the flop if needed. But if after you limping into a pot it is then raised, prepare to put all chips you have in and pray for luck. When you are extremely short of chips your calling requirements should be also loosened. If you hold a hand with a low pair or an Ax don't miss a rare opportunity to double your stack.

You are in a strong position when you have a big stack, for instance twice as much as the average stack or even more. But do not be too self-confident as the situation can change in a moment. With a big stack you have an opportunity to use a more conservative strategy and spend more time waiting for strong hands. However, with blinds growing steadilly, your privilege will be soon reduced to zero and therefore you have to stay aggressive. In general it is recommended to use selectively aggressive strategy, it means to mix it with the smaller stacks, but remain cautious with large stacks that can seriously damage your pocket.

You might also need to know how experienced gamblers with large stacks play at the turnaments. They can call a raise by a short stack even holding a moderate or weak hand. By that they run a risk of loosing some chips, but get a chance make a step forward to the prize pool. Such players also try to eliminate the all-in opponents by checkng down their hands.

Never the less while gaining experience in your first tournaments, we recommend you to call a raise merely with very strong hands regardless the number of chips your opponent has. Though being face to face with an almost all-in player you should do your best to make him commit his last chips. In this case you must bet to avoid being checked. It is a common blunder to leave your opponent with some chips, as they may later turn into considerable sum if he gets a stroke of good fortune.

With blinds gradually growing, the part of a call or a raise in the average stack increases as well. It results in an aggressive play of most gamblers on the flop and more frequent bluffing. You should be aware of this and react properly.

The Final Stage

If you make right decisions, run moderate risks and are enough lucky you will get to the final stage of the tournament where you are only few steps away from the prize pool.

With blinds at this stage being extremely high, top finishers actually have stacks not higher than the critical size. What is more, the game will become increasingly short-handed and as a result you’ll be able to see fewer and fewer hands before you find your stack anted away.

The exact information about the number of people separating you from the prize and the amount of chips in the hands of your opponents is absolutely urgent. If your stack is bigger than average, it will be right to raise agressively but stay conservative in calling. Though if your stack is less than average it can be correct to adhere to the tighter strategy. Here are two main reasons for this:

For instance, there are five top finishers, but only four of them will be awarded a prize. In case your opponent has the shortage of chips to cover the big blind next hand then you should fold, unless you hold a very strong hand, and hope he doesn’t get a piece of luck. If you are able to survive longer than other contestants at the table, this advice can be extended to the tighter playing in general. In that way you can either win a pot and make a step towards the prize money or stay in relatively equal position with other players by winning the next bet.

The strategy of tight playing along with having enough chips to see the next few hands minimizes your chances of being eliminated quickly. Thereby your opponents will bust each other orthere will be a deal. In any case you benefit.

Typically top finishers in the poker tournaments are allowed to make a deal and share the prize pool according to preset regulations. Most turnaments end like this due to extremely high blinds, which make luck far more important than game skills ore chips weight.

Basically three types of deal are made:

  • Top finishers agree about the saver for those of them who will be eliminated and get outside the list of prizewinners. That is how it works: if only 4 of 6 players of the “final table” get the prize, it is agreed that 2 eliminated players get 100$ each and the prize pool is therefore reduced by $200. Then the game goes on.
  • All players who managed to survive to the final table split the prize pool and the tournament ends at this point. The share each top finisher gets depends on the amount of chips he currently has and is subject to negotiation.
  • Certain part of the prize money is devided among remaining players and the game goes on. Commonly the winner takes the rest of the prize pool and the trophy (if any).

If the second type of deal is used, that means the prize pool will be split among top finishers, you’d better let more experienced players carry on negotiations. You’ll be offered a certain sum of money and asked to reject or accept it. As a rule of thumb, holding signidicant persentage of chips (like 40%) you should expect 30-35% of the prize fund. On the other hand, if your stack is less than average (like 10%, for example) do insist on receiving more than your chips face value (expectations of about 15% are sound).

For novices at pocker tournaments it may be worthy of notice that there will be no deal until an outspoken agreement of ALL top finishers is obtained. If you are not satisfied with the terms of a deal just ask the dealer to carry on. If everything goes right for you, finaly you'll have all your chips and the bulk of the prize. However keep in mind that while in the last stages of the turnament luck rules the game a good deal always can leave everyone happy.

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