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Poker Tournament Strategy

Poker Tournament Strategy

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Poker Tournament Strategy

Poker tournaments have arguably done for online poker what Newton did for science.  Poker tournaments receive the highest amount of traffic at online poker rooms.  Poker sites like PokerStars have a traffic surge of up to 300% when they have a major tournament on such as the Stars Sunday Million ($1.5 Million GTD).  In fact, PokerStars made the Guinness Book of World Records when they hosted a $1 buy-in tournament in Decembe4 2009 that attracted just under 150,000 entrants.

It’s a fair comment to say that when many new poker player join online poker sites they tend to learn their traits in the micro-stakes MTTs and SNGs before moving on to cash games. Hence, learning how to play poker tournament successfully is extremely important for quick success and building a bankroll as a new player.

The first thing that you need to understand about poker tournaments is that the rising blinds, constant switching of tables, moving players and prizepool-payout makes poker tournament strategy completely different to regular cash game strategy.

Because you only have one buy-in or chip stack in an online tournament (unless you are playing re-buy MTTs) it means that you have to play a much tighter, passive game in the early stages.  Dan Harrington, who wrote the book on poker tournament strategy, suggests keeping to a TAG starting-hand selection of pocket pairs, AJ+ and JJ+ during the early stages of the tournament.  The reason that you need to keep to such a tight hand selection (e.g. top 10% of your hands) is that if you decide to limp and start playing hands like A5 or QJ you will find that you will be beaten by a great kicker down the line (i.e. AQ or AK).  It’s also very hard to limp with marginal hands such as 67s out of position because the chances of being raised or 3bet on a 10-man table are significantly higher.

As you move into the middle stages of the tournament, in other words once the antes kick in, you’ll need to ramp up the aggression.  This require the learning of all kinds of complex, advanced tactics such as blind stealing, 3betting light, 4bet shoving, double-barrelling, re-stealing and squeeze play.  These are far too complicated concepts to discuss in a single article but for more information I recommend visiting

The reason that you need to be so aggressive in tournaments is because of the rising blinds and antes.  These effectively force you into building a stack faster than you would conventionally do in a cash game.  The time pressure factor means that you have to take more risks, which may include shoving on top of an opponent from LP or calling a short-stack player’s all-in from the blinds.

Blind stealing also becomes incredibly important in the middle to late stages of a tournament.  As you approach the middle stages, the average stack size will only be around 50BBs and this means that the value of bluffing or stealing the blinds and pre-flop pots becomes extremely high.  If you are sat in LP or CO on a tight table, especially with tight or short-stack players (less than 30BBs) on the blinds than you should consider re-raising them or even shoving all-in.  It’s coin-flip situations like this and aggressive pressure which the key to winning a poker tournament.

As you progress towards the bubble you’ll notice that many of the players on your table will decide to tighten up (i.e. fold more hands pre-flop).  This is because of something known as ICM (independent chip model) and it basically means that players will be less willing to risk their chips and risk busting out of the tournament early just before they enter the guaranteed payoff places.  Although you should also be tightening up at this stage, you should also be taking advantage of the players at your table that tighten up – especially those with short stacks who are extremely unlikely to call a push.

Finally, as it boils down to the final table and the game becomes short-handed you’ll need to open up your hand range.  With an average stack size of just 20BBs at the final table, blind stealing becomes less effective because you are now entering a push/fold situation.  You can use push-fold charts which utilise your M-ratio and starting hands, but in general you just need to be aware that hands such as Ax, Ace suited, broadway card and pocket pairs all have massive value to be 3betting pre-flop at this stage.  Your other hands will need to be folded.

Finally, in heads up play remember that coming 1st should be your objective.  Many players would be happy just coming 2nd place but you have to realise that 1st place generally receive double the payout of 2nd.  This means that all of your previous hard work could effectively be doubled if you successfully managed to come 1st instead of 2nd.  And believe me, when you start playing volumes in the range of a 100 or more MTTs each month this point becomes extremely relevant!

On a different note, many new poker players join online poker sites they tend to learn the game and little by little from experience learn the players, the tactics of the game and finally make money online.

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