Looking to learn the most crucial aspects of poker tournament strategy? Whether you’re playing at your local casino weekly tourneys, small stakes online or testing your skills at international live tournaments against a tough competition, you’ve come to the right place.
There are very few moments more exciting than getting deep run in a big tournament with a healthy chip stack to play with – aiming for that precious trophy worth tens or even hundreds of times the buy-in you spent to enter the tourney. And that’s the exact moment you will be experiencing a lot more often, when you have implemented the expert advice from this article on proper play in modern tournament poker.
In this article we will cover the essential areas of strategy with a quick checklist that will help you succeed in tournament poker, such as how to play at early stages of an MTT, what kind of sizings you should use, how to approach the bubble play, what kind of continuation betting strategy you should use and how wide you should defend your BB.
Tournaments have two main driving forces that affect every play: In order to win a tournament, you must win all the chips. But, in order to win all the chips from other players, you must avoid losing your own. Thus there are two objectives: chip accumulation and survival. Handling these two objectives simultaneously can be quite hard for many players – implementing advice from this article will definitely help you in achieving both.
Most tournaments are played over Texas Holdem format due to its popularity. Let’s dive into the world of modern tournament poker strategy that will help you succeed in 2020 and beyond!
Playing the early stages of MTTs
Although playing a poker tournament requires a much different strategy than cash games in general, the early stages of MTTs have many similar characteristics: the stacks are deep and there are no antes in play yet. Also the ICM pressure is close to zero, since everyone has a long way to go to get to the money.
There is one difference compared to cash games though: the recreational players and inexperienced satellite winners are still around, and they are not looking to fold every hand. Many players use the late-reg option and miss the first few levels when no antes are in play, but we do not recommend this strategy if you want to maximize your edge. You should use every chance possible to play with the weaker part of the field, as many recreational players won’t last to the middle and late stages of the tournament.
Although we recommend starting with a conservative hand selection, you should start exploiting weak players as soon as you have labeled them as such: basic moves like isolating their limps with a wide range, isolating their raises by 3betting in position and raising more hands when they are in the blinds should all be part of your arsenal of plays during the early stages of the tourney. Weak players tend to make large mistakes postflop, and you want to maximize the postflop pots you play with them. Besides exploiting the weak & loose players, you should put pressure on the tight, fit-or-fold players who are not fighting for pots (unless it’s clear they have a monster hand and are not letting go!).
When playing the early stages of the tourney, you do not need to clash too much with the strong players when you have marginal holdings, as there are no antes in play. But, when a weak player enters into the pot, it’s your job to take their chips before someone else does – those chips won’t last long! You don’t necessarily need to run big crazy bluffs every opportunity you get, but you absolutely need to exploit the glaring mistakes these players make in nearly every hand.
Middle stages of MTTs
During the middle stages of poker tournaments a few crucial aspects of play change: The stacks become shallower, the antes kick in and fewer weak players remain in the tournament. In freezeout tournaments, the chance of busting the tournament will become much greater for all players except those who have amassed a massive stack at this point. You should keep in mind the following strategies during these stages:
Tip 1: Open your starting hand range
The antes or Big Blind ante in play drastically change the preflop math, since with more dead money in the pot your open raises only need to be successful a small portion of time to be +EV in chips. Hence, we should start raising wider.
Tip 2: Play your stack size, not your cards
You should start to tighten your range again if you fall below 20BB stack size, as with that stack you’re either looking for a good 3bet-shove spot preflop or a profitable spot to open-shove. With a big stack, you can play more liberally as long as the table conditions allow you to bully those middle-sized stacks.
Tip 3: Tighten your calling range the closer you are to the bubble
Having a small edge when facing an all-in close to the bubble might require making some disciplined folds, as you’re not purely playing for chip EV anymore. The risk-reward ratio often justifies 3bet-shoving or 4bet-shoving somewhat wide, but not calling these shoves when you’re likely being just slightly ahead or in a coinflip. Obviously you will sometimes get into situations where your opponent just happens to wakeup with Aces and you have some other premium hand, but that’s the nature of tournament poker – the situation can change very quickly in one hand!
It’s important to learn how to maneuver a 10-25BB stack in the middle stages of a tourney, as a majority of the time you will be facing most decisions playing this stack size and you have to be cautious due to the chance of busting your stack.
Bubble play in MTTs
Playing during the bubble can be exhausting, especially if there are only a few short stacks at different tables looking to just min-cash when someone else goes bust. Your play should depend a lot on the stack sizes at your table and your own stack:
Big stack play during a bubble: With a big stack you should take advantage of the unwillingness of smaller stacks to call 3bet-shoves or big bets postflop with less than premium hands.
Small stack play during a bubble: With a small stack your options are quite limited, as you need to calculate how long you can wait for the bubble to burst. Folding good hands in order to preserve your tournament life might be a viable strategy if big stacks are punishing steal attempts frequently at your table, but there is also another option available if you have the chips to do it: 3bet-shoving over the top after a big stack has opened the pot. It is in their interest to continue the bubble play as it’s a superb chip accumulation opportunity for them, and hence the fold-equity of your 3bet-shoves is increased.
In case you’re one of the smallest stacks in the whole tournament, you basically need to risk your whole stack at some point before blinding out (unless some of the other tiny stacks manage to do risk their tournament lives before you’re forced to!).
Stealing the blinds in MTTs
Stealing the blinds means a situation where a player open-raises before the flop with a primary goal of getting folds and winning the blinds and antes uncontested. Blind stealing is not a priority early on, but once the antes kick in and stacks get shallower, every successful blind steal earns you enough chips for a whole playing round.
You should focus on the following factors when going for a blind steal:
Your position at the table: steal more the closer your are to the button
Players sitting in SB and BB: steal more when they don’t like to defend frequently