Get Ready to Make That Call! Poker Tournament Strategy 101

Poker Tournament Strategy

Ask any poker player where the big money is, and they’ll tell you unequivocally: It’s in poker tournaments. The prestige of winning a reputable poker tournament is unbelievable; your name gets recorded in the poker annals of history, and your reputation gets bumped up a few notches. Plus, there is the prize money – windfalls of cash, glitz and glam, and Vegas style celebrity. Sound good? This fantasy can become a reality provided you’ve got what it takes to hang with the big dogs at tournament level.

Too many poker players simply end up feeding the pot for the tournament players to scoop up. That dead money (money you feed into the pot and then end up folding) is great for the poker pros, but it does little to inspire confidence in your own game. These are the types of players that have minimal chance of grinding their way to the final table, let alone winning. That’s not the type of player you want to be – so study this guide to avoid that fate.

Thankfully, it’s possible to adopt a well-structured Texas Hold’em tournament strategy. Once you put those wheels in motion, you must have a winning focus with your poker strategy. This guide will teach you everything you need to know to grind your way through poker tournaments, with a mix of aggressive play, passive play, and passive play. To compete at tournament level, you need a plan that works. We will provide you with all the tools required to stamp your authority on the tournament. Next time you buy in to a poker tournament, nobody will mistake your cash for chump change. You’re about to step up your game with the ultimate poker tournament strategy.

Core Components of a Winning Poker Tournament Strategy

Let’s get started with the 5 essential elements of an effective poker tournament strategy. These are tips, tricks, and strategies that greenhorns and intermediate-level poker tournament players require to become hardened tournament competitors. You know the type – players that nobody wants to see at their table. Why? Because these players are tough nuts to crack and they have a winning mindset.

Right, now that that’s out of the way, it’s important not to overload players with too much information about what to do, what to think, and how to behave during a poker tournament. Tournament play is hard enough without having to worry about all the tactics, strategies, and tips. We’ve narrowed it down to just 5 essential tips that you need to stay focused on your tournament game plan. These tips will serve as your foundation upon which to build all your future poker learning.

Are you ready to get started? Your poker tournament preparation begins now!

#1 – How to Advance through the Beginning, Middle, and Late Stages of Poker Tournaments

Every poker tournament that you play has a beginning. They also have a middle stage, and a late stage. Would you believe that plenty of poker players compete the same way in each stage of the competition? Here’s a golden tip for you: When you reach the late stages of the poker tournament, you should up your game and play far more aggressively than you do in the early stages of the contest. Stay tuned – we’ll tell you why this is the best strategy to adopt.

In the early stages of the tournament, the blinds are small. You don’t need to risk a lot to pick up a couple of extra chips. Additionally, if you can create the perception that you are a tight player, you will definitely earn a lot more respect when you start playing more hands in position (opening up your game) during the later stages of the contest.

Playing Ace-9 Off-Suit during the Early Stage and Late Stage of a Multitable Tournament (MTT)

During the early stages of a multitable tournament, a hand like an Ace-9 off suit is a pretty weak proposition. Especially during the pre-flop stage of the tournament. However, in the latter stages of a poker tournament, after the bubble, this type of poker hand has much greater value. You can even use this hand to raise, and then 3-bet while you’re in position.

As a poker tournament unfolds, you will see a gradual whittling away of players. This happens as the blinds increase. This is the time where you should start opening up your game and being more aggressive. That means taking risks. As the blinds increase, your chip stack/blind ratio gets progressively smaller. If you try to sit out and wait for premium hands, you’ll soon find yourself unable to compete at tournament level (you won’t have the chips). That’s why you’ve got to be proactive during your poker tournament gameplay.

Look around you – poker players at the table, and at other tables are scooping up monster pots and building up impressive chip stacks. Take a look at the big stack players – their stacks are growing, and the tournament leaders are pulling ahead of the pack.

Now that you see what’s going on, it’s important to start getting busy during the middle stages of the poker tournament. Your best friend at this point is the button. As aggressive poker players chase down bigger stacks, weaker poker players will be eager to fold and limp their way through the tournament. These are the guys and gals that you should pounce on. Use their uncertainty against them and steal chips from the weaker players. In poker, you’re playing your opponents as much as you are playing your cards. If you use their fear to your advantage, you can use position to steal the big blind and the small blind. During the latter stages of a poker tournament, the blinds grow huge, making the reward well worth the risk.

Remember to open up your range of playable starting hands so that you can include poker hands that can be pairs. Some of the best candidates at this stage include small pairs and suited connectors.

As you progress towards the later stages of a tournament, your best strategy is to preserve your bankroll. It’s important not to ignore building your chip stack at this stage of the game. Think back to the early stage and the middle stage of the tournament – you worked hard to build up the number of chips that you have. You certainly don’t want to risk everything just because you’ve made it through to the late stage of the tournament. Rather focus your energy on those players who are trying to survive – use their fear against them; i.e. use it to your advantage and knock them over.

To sum it up: As a new tournament online poker player, your default strategy should be to start out with a tight poker game during the early stage and the middle stage. As the tournament progresses, you can start playing a wider range of hands, possibly even doubling your range during each progressive phase. If you focus on this objective, you will survive the early stages of play and you will make it through to the middle stage of the tournament.


#2 – Should You Push or Fold?

Here’s some savvy poker advice: Always maintain a chip stack of at least 10 big blinds. When the timing is right, you should either push or fold – that’s it. Now, if you remember this during your sessions of play, you will certainly improve your poker game dramatically.

Not everything goes according to plan in poker tournaments. You can have the most elaborate strategy mapped out, only to have it unravel right before your eyes. Your chip stack can get whittled away with a few bad decisions, and you may be required to take chances that you otherwise wouldn’t. When your chips are at a premium, acquiring them will take tremendous courage. Now, don’t think that it’s about going all in with no regard for the consequences.

The name of this section is: Should You Push or Fold? It’s not about going all in regardless of the situation.

Let’s take an example of a multitable tournament. If you’re in the middle stage of an MTT and there is a 4 x BB (Big Blind) raise, followed by a 3-bet (a re-raise) all in. If the blinds are now 100/200, it’s pretty silly to risk your $2,000 in chips with an Ace-rag hand. This is where the notion of push or fold becomes important. In this type of situation, you will only be able to win with the strongest hand at showdown. The correct decision to take is to fold and wait for a premium hand, even if you have 10 big blinds left in your stack.

Typically, the only way that you can call all in with a short stack is if you have an amazing hand like American Airlines (Ace-Ace) or a pair of Kings (King-King). Alternatively, if your stack is running on fumes (i.e. it’s so low), then you have no choice – go all in. At this point of the game, there is no reason to pussyfoot around waiting for a miracle to come about.

Alternatively, if you decide to go all in during the pre-flop stage with an average hand, you may double your chances of winning. In case you’re wondering why, consider that other players may decide to fold, in which case you will scoop up the blinds. Even if you happen to get called, luck may still be on your side and you may win at the showdown. In the post-flop stage of the game, multi-way poker is all about knowing when to push or fold, but it gets a little challenging. The more opponents you go up against, the less likely you are of winning.

Poker strategists present players with plenty of charts, guides, and probability analysis to help you determine when you should push or fold. Wherever you are seated at the poker table, you will find a chart that will help you to make the best possible decisions.

#3 – Tournament Bet Sizing

Want to know what can determine whether you bust out early, or make it through to the final table? You guessed it! Bet sizing. There are 2 stages in a tournament where bet sizing becomes all important – the pre-flop stage, and the post-flop stage. Let’s take a look at both of these in the next section.

  • Bet Sizing in the Pre-Flop Stage

In all forms of poker tournaments, you should align your pre-flop raises with the gameplay at your table. Your opponents must be able to understand your bet sizing. If you decide to raise 5 x the Big Blind and everyone else is raising 2.5 x the Big Blind, you’re going to have a huge bull’s-eye on your back.

This strategy works for some players. But, if you’re a beginner player, you should stick to the standard raises. As the poker tournament advances to latter stages of the contest i.e. middle stage and late stage, you can toggle your bet sizing accordingly.

  • Bet Sizing in the Post-Flop Stage

After the first 3 community cards have been dealt, it’s all systems go. You must know what you’re doing at this stage of the game. Almost all the time, if you were the raiser in the pre-flop stage, you should be betting in the post-flop stage. With continuation bets (C-Bets), it’s a good idea to bet 50% – 70% of the pot.

When you bet at this level, your opponents will have an inkling as to the strength of your hand. If you bet smaller than that, you risk being raised, or check raised. If you go in too heavy, you could end up being overcommitted and being forced to call with an average-strength hand.

Let’s turn our attention to an example of the correct continuation bet sizing:

Let’s say you’re in the early stage of a multitable tournament and the blinds are 25/50. You decide to raise 2.5 times the big blind from the hijack with an Ace of diamonds and a Queen of spades. Next, the button decides to call. The small blind folds, and the big blind calls. The first three community cards – the flop – are dealt and they are: Queen of hearts-9 of diamonds-2 of spades.

You already have the top pair with a great kicker. You may be somewhat concerned about the Queen-9 suited, but there’s not much on the board to get you worried. A continuation bet made up of 67% of the pot is a good idea. It’ll get rid of the middle pairs and pull in the Queen with a weaker kicker.

Once the tournament progresses to the latter stages of play, you can reduce the continuation bet to approximately 25% – 30% of the pot size. Why? Because at this point of the contest, your chips are much more valuable, and you want to protect them at all costs. It’s foolhardy to become too aggressive when you are betting with weak hands. Equally important is your ability to maintain control of the pot size, and how your opponents are betting.

  • 3-Bet Bet Sizing during the Pre-Flop Stage

It’s not easy calculating the right value for the 3 Bet, especially when you have callers involved. Let’s say you’re playing a tournament in the middle stage with 45 big blinds. If you end up on the cut off with an Ace high suited, and middle position is 30 big blinds behind and decides to open raise to 2.5 x the big blind, and the hijack player with 25 big blinds decides to call. What happens next?

What you really want to do at this point is place a solid 3-bet. Your only question is how much? Remember, you have position over your opponents for the remainder of the hand, and a 3 x the original raise is a decent amount. You should be concerned about the caller in between, especially in multi-way pots. So, you should add 1 x for each of the callers in between. In this example, there is the raiser, and the caller in between, so your total 3-bet should be 4 x the original raise amount.

If you happen to be out of position, a good strategy is as follows: set your 3-Bet at 4 x the original raise when you are squaring off against a single opponent. If there are several callers, you should always add 1 x the original raise for each caller. Remember to add an additional 1 – 2 the original raise on top of that. Why are you doing this? Because you want to get rid of anyone who is trying to limp into the pot, and those players that are looking to make it through to the later stages.

Your goal is clear: Follow the action like a hawk, tailor your bet size according to the stage of play, and the number of callers in between. This behavior ultimately determines who wins and who loses the hand.


#4 – Reaching the Final Table

Next, we’re going to give you some useful advice on one of the most important aspects of the game – how to play at the final table. Remember – the chips in a tournament are not the same as chips in a cash game. You cannot simply get up whenever you feel like it and simply cash in your stack. In a poker tourney, no player wins all the cash – the total poker pot is divided up among many players.

Having said that, it’s important to focus your attention on the final table. That’s where all the big real money is waiting for you. However, getting to the final table takes plenty of doing. Even as a chip leader, you can never rest on your laurels. Chips are rocket fuel in poker tournaments. The bigger your stack, the more leverage you have with other players. At this point, you should always try to steamroll players that are tightening up their game. They are keen to make the final table, but their strategies are all wrong.

Here are 5 winning tips to make the cut for the final table:

  • Play Aggressively – particularly in the later stages of the game. Remember, most of your opponents will be trying to hoard their chips. You should be aggressively trying to get more. If you see a medium stack player folding their button to the blinds, you can use that information during late position to raise them at every opportunity. If they don’t have any desire to add pressure on the blinds, you should.
  • Ramp up the pressure on short stack players – typically, a bad beat will cause a short stack player to engage in tight/passive play. Luckily, you can take full advantage of this to get to the final table with a big, fat stack. Watch out for the 3-bet from bad beat losers and take full advantage of grabbing the rest of the chips. It’s always a good idea to pressurize tight/passive players into posting their blinds and then folding their cards in the post-flop stage.
  • Scan the table for players tightening up – as soon as you approach the final table, you’re going to see plenty of players who are way too concerned about holding onto their chips. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. These players were the big raisers on the button, and now they’re folding the small blind, and the big blind. Cash in on the action that they don’t want to give you. Steal as many of the blinds and dead bets as possible.
  • Widen your range – this is your strategy if you’re a deep-stacked player. If you’re a big fish in the poker pool, you’ve got plenty of muscle to work with. You can bully other players at the table and forced them to do things that they don’t want to do. The final table is moments away, and nobody wants to crash out at this stage of the game. You’re advised to steal the blinds as often as possible, and you should always 3-bet middle position raisers especially when you feel that they are weak.
  • Petty theft? No, but Steal those Blinds - in poker, stealing the blinds is highly recommended. We say it all the time. During the late stage, when you’re approaching the final table, the blinds are huge. There are typically antes in there as well. Don’t be scared and fold to the blinds, especially when you should be raising regularly.

#5 – Aggression Can Win Tournaments

We’ve said it before – aggressive play can win multitable tournaments. But do you really know what this means? Does this refer to the player who always raises your blinds? The maniac who typically 3-bets on every raise?, Or possibly the player who continually bets into the raiser? The answer is somewhat complicated, but we will attempt to provide clarity on the issue of aggression and winning poker tournaments.

Remember – foolhardy play results in losses. Anyone who simply goes all-in all the time is bound to lose. Your success in poker is a balancing act between accumulating chips and surviving. If you don’t have any chips available, you’ll never make it into the latter stages of a poker tournament. Likewise, you cannot build your chip stack if you don’t risk your chip stack. Savvy?

If you are reckless about the way you play, you will make it very difficult to survive and reach the final table. What is needed is a concept known as timely aggression.

Always look for opportunities to win by being cautiously aggressive. You should maximize these opportunities throughout the poker tournament. Remember, the blinds rapidly increase from the early stage through the middle stage, and the late stage. This requires aggressive poker play. You will be required to increase your level of aggression as you advance through a tournament, if for no other reason other than to keep up with the rapidly increasing blinds, and antes.

Let’s assume that you’re in the early stage of a poker contest and you recently folded a Jack-9 suited from the cut-off. At the late stage of the game, you will invariably find yourself raising from the same position. No doubt the raise will likely be smaller, owing to the big blinds, but the fact remains: You are now being more aggressive. There’s another instance of aggressive play known as isolation play – let’s take a look:

Let’s assume that you’re in the middle stage, or a later stage of a poker tournament and the blinds are currently sitting at 200/400. Under the gun has 10,000 in chips and decides to raise 3 times the big blind. Middle position 2 has 8,000 in chips and decides to call. You currently have 30,000 in chips and you awaken the button with a pair of pocket tens. The blinds are partially short stacked, and they fold rapidly. This is perfect timing for you to bet aggressively with a 3-bet combination, maybe even going all in.

It’s important to remember not to risk your tournament chances. If they call you, they go all in, not you. From your perspective, there’s no problem taking down the pots, or even getting called by a smaller pair or a weaker hand. Besides, you’ll eliminate a player from the table, inching closer towards the final table yourself.

It takes some doing to develop a poker game plan that is cautiously aggressive, assertive, and goal oriented. You are going to have to play from a position of strength, even if you feel a little uncertain at times. If there is an opportunity to steal the blinds, take it. Try to muddy the waters with your game plan; you don’t want other players to understand what you’re doing, or to anticipate your moves. The button and the cut-off are great places to steal the blinds. And if the opportunity arises to go up against continuation bets, especially when your opponent is betting just for the sake of betting, do it.

At the end of the day, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. If you want to get to the final table, you’ve got to be aggressive. This is what separates game changing players from the rest.

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