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Index > Poker strategy

How does tournament strategy differ from that of regular games?

Author: Ramsey
Last updated: 1998
Copyright © 2004 Ramsey
The official and up-to-date version of this answer is here.

Poker tournaments offer a chance to win a large sum of money for a small, and known, fee and can be an enjoyable alternative to cash poker. However the strategy required to be successful in a tournament can differ significantly from that of the equivalent cash game. This section is therefore offered as general advice to new, or inexperienced, tournament players.

Tournaments work by eliminating players who lose all their chips. To ensure that a tournament ends within a reasonable time the blinds/antes are increased at regular intervals. Your objective in a tournament should therefore be to accumulate chips whilst minimising the chance of being eliminated.

Before the Tournament

Before entering a tournament make sure you know the way it is organised; if it is a 'freezeout' then it will cost you only the initial fee. If the tournament allows rebuys or add-ons then you need to know the exact rules and costs of each of your options.

In your first few tournaments it will probably be sensible to forgo all these options, play your best game with your starting chips, and gain as much experience as possible at minimum cost.

As a general rule it is mathematically sound to rebuy at any stage providing that you are not out-classed by the opposition (and the cost is not a major concern). This is true even if all the other players at the table have far more chips than you.

A good 'rule of thumb' for add-ons is to take the option if you currently have less than the average number of chips *and*, by taking the add-on you will then have an above average number of chips. The add-on is less sound if you have a very small stack or a large stack. Of course the cheaper the cost of the add-on chips the more attractive the option is regardless of stack size.

Make sure you know how many prizes there are and whether the tournament is played to a finish or ends at a fixed time. The correct strategy when you get down to the last few players or the last few hands can lead to some plays which would be irrational in any other circumstances.

Also check the blind/ante structure; how it changes and how frequently it changes during the tournament. The blinds typically double at fixed intervals of between 20 and 40 minutes. This information is important: Suppose at some point you have 1800 chips and there are currently blinds of 200 and 400. After you have paid your next blinds you will have 1200 chips left or 3 times the big blind. If however the blinds are likely to double before you next post then, after posting, you will have 600 chips left which is less than the big blind of 800. Clearly the strategy you need to adopt will vary considerably in these two situations, in the first you can be reasonably conservative whilst in the latter you have to win a pot quickly and will need to be aggressive.

The Early Stages

In the early stages of a tournament keep the following points in mind:

If it is a 'freezeout' tournament a lot of players will play tight in the early stages not wanting to be eliminated quickly. Some players will however be aggressive looking to build a big stack quickly with a fall back of a return to the cash games if things don't go to plan. Selective aggression against the tight players can be effective in this situation.

If rebuys are allowed the play in the early stages will tend to be a lot looser. A lot of the players will be prepared, and even expect, to rebuy and they will play marginal hands aggressively trying to build a big stack early. Players who are not going to rebuy will play a lot more cautiously.

At the start of a tournament the cost of the blinds will be relatively low in respect of the average stack size and will become even lower if rebuys are allowed. This allows you to play much more marginal hands than normal. It is worth risking a small part of your stack (say 5% or less) to see the flop with small pairs, suited connectors and other marginal hands to have the chance to double your stack if you hit big on the flop.

By the same token it can be right to play good hands relatively conservatively preflop. If you hold AK in late position and there are several callers it is often better just to flat call. You know if you raise you will not get the other players to fold. By flat calling you minimise your loss if the flop is not to your liking and you have the benefit of disguise if you hit the flop big.

If you are by nature an aggressive player then use the early stages to try and build a substantial stack. This risks early elimination but when successful it will give you sufficient chips to survive the first few blind increases even if the cards turn against you.

If your natural game is passive or middle of the road then the best strategy is to try for a steady accumulation of chips. Play looser than normal preflop providing that the cost is small in relation to your stack but play slightly tighter than normal post-flop. This generally means not putting in that extra bet or raise when you think, but are not sure, that you are ahead - the saving of a bet when you lose the pot is worth more to you than the extra bet you could potentially win.

Finally in the early stages do not be concerned with eliminating other players. You are too far from the prize list to worry about how many players are left. It is more important to concentrate on keeping your stack in good condition. For example a player raises and everyone else folds. You hold T9s and have a big stack. Your opponent is almost allin so the cost to you even if you lose the pot is small. Even so, fold. Your opponent has almost certainly a better starting hand than yours and even if you win it will not increase your stack by much. Having made a good start you need to be careful not to bleed chips unnecessarily.

The Middle/Late Stages

In the middle and later stages of a tournament the structure of the game gradually changes and the strategy necessary changes too:

As the blinds increase they represent an increasing percentage of the average stack. Winning the blinds therefore becomes more significant and the first player into the pot will normally enter with a raise rather than a flat call.

The converse of this is that it now costs a significant proportion of the average stack to call a raise. Therefore the quality of hand needed to call a raise increases. The result of this is that a lot of hands go raise, all fold and you can go several hands without even seeing a flop.

As players are eliminated the game in the middle/late stages will be played most of the time with less than a full table. This, and the increasing blinds, means that unless a players is winning hands at regular intervals even a big stack can be quickly depleted. To counter this all players, regardless of their normal style, have to play very aggressively.

So the general strategy in the middle/late stages is to increasingly loosen the requirements for an opening raise and to tighten up the requirements for calling. Your objective should be to win, on average, the blinds once per round. Each time you win the blinds you can, in effect, survive one further round of hands.... and each round of hands you survive increases your chance of hitting a premium hand and an opportunity to double your stack.

A player who has an average or large stack commands respect when they raise and will often win the blinds unopposed. A player with a small stack will be called much more frequently because they do not have sufficient chips to seriously damage the larger stacks. There is, therefore, a critical stack size and it is worth a player taking extra risks to try and avoid falling below that point. As a rule of thumb this critical size is about 4 big bets in a limit game and about 6 times the big blind in pot and no-limit.

If your stack does fall below the critical level then a change of strategy is required. It is no longer sensible to raise with marginal hands because you expect to be called. So raise if you are lucky enough to hit a premium hand but otherwise limp in to a pot with any reasonable hand. If there is no raise then you can judge the flop and fold if absolutely necessary. If you limp into a pot and it is then raised be prepared to put all your chips in and keep your fingers crossed. If there is a raise in front of you then you should also loosen your calling requirements when you are very short of chips. A hand such as Ax or a low pair offers a reasonable chance of doubling your stack and you can't afford to wait for a better opportunity.

If you have a big stack (e.g. twice the average or more) then you are in a strong position but this can change rapidly. A big stack allows you to play more conservatively and wait that bit longer for better hands before raising however the blinds will soon eat into even a large stack so you have to remain aggressive. Normally it will pay to be selectively aggressive, that is be prepared to mix it with the smaller stacks but keep out of the way of the other large stacks as they can do you serious damage.

Experienced tournament players with large stacks are likely to call a raise by a short stack even if they have only a moderate or poor hand. They are risking losing a few chips for the chance of moving one place closer to the prize money. There may even be several callers with good stacks and poor hands. It will not be unusual for these players to check down the hand once the short stack is all-in to maximise the chance of eliminating the all-in player.

Whilst this is good tournament strategy it is probably best in your first few tournaments to call a raise only with a very good hand and ignore whether the raiser has many or few chips. However if you do get head to head with a player who is almost all-in you should force the other player to commit their last few chips at the first opportunity; certainly if you would call if they bet then you must bet to prevent them checking. It is a cardinal error to let a player off the hook because no matter how few chips a player has left they can bounce back to being chip leader within a few hands if they get the run of the cards!

As the blinds rise a raise or a call starts to take a significant proportion of the average stack. The effect of this is that most players will continue to play aggressively on the flop if they have even a small part of it and quite often they will play aggressively even if the flop misses them completely (ie bluff). You will have to respond in kind
especially if conceding the pot would leave you with a stack below the critical level. For example you hold AsQd, raise and are called by the big blind. The flop is Jh 8h 2c and the big blind bets. Even though this flop does nothing for you you should call unless you are in a strong chip position. The big blind is as likely to be on a draw or bluffing as he is to have a genuine hand.

The Final Stage

If all goes well you will survive to the point where you are down to the last few players and almost in the prize money.

At this stage the blinds will be so high that virtually all the players left will have stacks at or below the critical size. In addition you will be playing the game increasingly short-handed which means that you can see fewer and fewer hands before your stack is anted away.

You need at this stage to know exactly how near the prize money you are and how many chips each of your opponents has. If you have an average or large stack the correct strategy is still to be ultra aggressive in raising but conservative in calling. However when you have fewer than average chips it can be right to adopt a tighter strategy! There are two reasons why this may be so:

Suppose there are 5 players left and there are prizes for the first 4 only. If the player under the gun does not have enough chips to cover the big blind next hand then you will be probably correct to fold any non-premium hand and hope that utg doesn't get lucky. In general this extends to playing tight if you can survive longer than one or more of the other players left in the game. This will force them to try and win a pot before you have to - if they lose you are one further notch up the ladder whilst if they win you still have a chance to also win a pot and be back in the same relative position to them.

Providing that you have enough chips to see the next few hands then playing tight also avoids the chance of immediate elimination and gives the other players a chance to eliminate each other or to agree to make a deal, either of which is to your advantage.

In most tournaments the last few players are allowed to agree a deal sharing the prize fund in different proportions to that originally envisioned. A lot of tournaments will end in this way because regardless of how big a lead the chip leader has the blinds are so high that who wins will be more a matter of luck than skill or weight of chips.

There are typically three types of deal:

  1. A saver is agreed for all those players still in who subsequently get eliminated outside the original prize scale. For example if there are 6 players left and only 4 prizes then the players may agree that the next 2 players eliminated will receive $100 each and the prize for the eventual winner will be reduced by $200. The game then continues.
  2. The whole of the prize fund is distributed amongst the remaining players and the game is ended at this point. The amount each player receives will be related to the number of chips they currently have but the exact amount will be subject to negotiation.
  3. Part of the prize fund is distributed amongst the remaining players and then the game continues; normally on the basis of the winner takes all of the remaining prize money (and the trophy if any).

If you are going to split the prize money on the basis of chips held then it is probably easiest to let the experienced players do the initial negotiating. They will ask if you would be happy to accept $x and it is then up to you to accept or reject the offer. If you are one of the chip leaders then you should expect to receive less than your chips are worth whereas if you have less chips than average you should insist on receiving more than their face value. For example with 5 players left if you have 10% of the chips you might expect 15% of the prize fund; if you have 40% of the chips you might have to settle for 30-35% of the money.

For new tournament players the important point to bear in mind is that any deal requires the explicit agreement of *all* the remaining players. If you do not like the proposed deal you do not have to accept it simply ask the dealer to carry on. If things continue to go your way you will end up with all the chips and the bulk of the prize money. Remember however that in these final stages luck is more important than skill and a sensible deal leaves everybody happy.

[Several books have been written on the subject of poker tournaments, but none has received universal praise from rec.gamblers. Jay Sipelstein's reviews of McEvoy's "Tournament Poker" and Buntjer's " The Secret To Winning Big In Tournament Poker" are in the Poker Book Review Archive at --ed.]