Looking to learn the most crucial aspects of poker tournament strategy? Whether you’re playing at your local casino weekly tourneys, small stakes at online poker sites 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 during your poker journey, 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 poker strategy with a quick checklist for new players. The checklist is designed to help you succeed in tournament poker, covering questions such as how to play at early stages of a poker tournament, what kind of bet sizing 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 Big Blind.
Tournaments have two main driving forces that affect every play: In order to win a poker 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 in MTT play: 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 Hold’em 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. However, 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 a poker tournament.
What are some useful poker tournament tips for the early stage? 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 a MTT. 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 a poker tournament, you do not need to clash too much with the strong players by 3-betting or firing a turn or river barrel when you have marginal holdings like suited connectors, 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 a poker tournament, 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 wake up 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 poker tournament, as a majority of the time you will be facing most decisions playing this stack size. You have to be extra cautious due to the chance of busting your stack at this depth!
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 poker 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.
In addition to your cards, 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 the Small Blind and Big Blind: steal more when they don’t like to defend frequently
Stack sizes at the table: steal less when players after you have around 10-15BB stacks, as they are likely to re-steal
How to size your raises and bets in MTTs
Bet-sizing in tournaments has changed a lot in the last two decades. Players used to raise at least 3BB or 4BB or even more preflop, and bet the pot on the flop – in modern poker the bet-sizing is much different. If you watch high stakes players play in an event such as an international highroller tourney, the most usual opening will be between 2-2.2BB and c-bet on the flop somewhere between ¼-⅓ pot, being rarely over ½ pot.
The first player to move towards this direction and to win massively in tournaments is Daniel Negreanu, also known as ‘Kid Poker’. He invented what is called small-ball poker, where you use smaller raise sizings to give yourself room to play a wider range of hands. In case the plays don’t work out, you haven’t risked your whole stack on any single attempt to win the pot. There is no doubt this style of poker was extremely lucrative for Daniel Negreanu, as he implemented it in poker tournaments full of players who didn’t know how to combat this style of play.
While you generally want to size your bets so that they put enough leverage on your opponent while at the same time not risking too many chips, on the turn and river you can start to size up your bets. Especially in situations where your villain is unlikely to have nutted & strong hand combos on a particular board due to the way preflop action went, you can size up your bets and even overbet on the later streets.
Continuation betting in MTTs
Continuation betting 100% of the flops in poker tournaments used to be a powerful strategy in the early 2010s, as many players would just call preflop and fold on the flop if they didn’t hit anything. In 2020, the average tournament player is a bit more savvy than that, and we need to have a somewhat balanced c-betting strategy to do well.
To construct a good c-betting strategy, you should first know how the math behind c-betting works. For example, a 50% pot c-bet needs to go through 33% of the time to break even (not considering equity when called), and a smaller bet sizing like 33% pot c-bet has to work 25% of the time. These are pretty low numbers, meaning you should often go for a c-bet.
Additional factors to consider whether to c-bet or not include the playing style of your opponent: how he has reacted to c-bets before, what kind of range you estimate he would flat against your open, is he likely to bluff you if you show weakness etc. Against aggressive check-raisers, you need to start checking more flops and limit your aggression a bit, and against fit-or-fold players you can push the pedal to the medal with c-bets.
Defending your Big Blind in MTTs (fold your BB less!)
Against a minraise, you get tremendous odds to call from Big Blind – you only need a bit more than 20% equity with antes in play. While you should be more conservative in defending your small blind with one player left to act after you, your big blind should be defended very frequently against late position raises. Even when taking into account those instances when you don’t reach the showdown due to a bad runout or aggression from villain, you don’t need much of a hand to justify playing your Big Blind against an open. When your opponents are opening with a standard 2-2.2BB open-raise, the basic math of poker tournaments leads to the following rule of thumb:
You must defend your Big Blind quite a lot!
How much is exactly quite a lot then? Against late position opens, you should defend at least 40% of all your starting hands either by calling or 3betting. If you have a skill advantage against the opener, you should increase this number to well above 50%.
To learn how to play well postflop after defending your Big Blind, we recommend practicing your HU skills in either cash games and/or HU SNGs. There’s plenty of action in these game formats at online poker rooms like partypoker.
Mastering Final Table Play
The final table is where the big money in tournaments are made. At this point of the tournament, since you got this far, you’ve either played well or been quite lucky – usually it’s both even if some players like to think it’s just them having played well.
Final table is the ultimate test of your tournament poker skills, as due to ICM you have to make some tough folds that you wouldn’t do if the payout ladder wasn’t affecting your decision. But, you also have to stay aggressive to accumulate chips. By purely waiting for premium hands, you might get a payjump or two, but you will not have enough chips to fight with to get the heads-up and play for the trophy. In most table conditions, the right approach is to play tight and use timely aggression to accumulate chips from weaker players at the table. What you want to avoid in pretty much all circumstances, is playing overly tight and passive.
If the lineup is really tough, you have to take more risks not to get run over – still, whereas you might have called 4bet-shoves previously with hands like in the top 10%, due to ICM the right play is to usually fold unless we have a monster. The better players at the table understand they cannot fight back too much preflop with steep payjumps, and hence you’re likely to be against a stronger range when facing preflop aggression. However, if there are players who are 3bet/4bet-shoving light, they will get picked up at some point and you get a payjump – this is another reason to avoid a big preflop confrontation unless you have a monster.
However, you should put pressure on shorter stacks than yourself (unless they are really short like under 10BB) as their best option is to usually fold. Risking their tournament lives is not profitable even if they are a slight favorite. If there is only one big stack and a lot of short stacks at the final table, it’s disastrous to lose your stack. You should avoid confrontation at all costs in that case.
Like always in poker tournaments, you should adapt your play to the current table conditions – final tables are no different. If there are tight fit-or-fold players, you should steal from them relentlessly and 3bet them light. If there are multiple maniacs who are fighting for every pot they enter, you might have to take a stand against them at some point. Still, it’s usually better to be patient and wait for a spot where you have a card advantage against their range before fighting back.
Tournament poker is a fun format and a really profitable one as it’s the game that most recreational players prefer. Playing great poker is accessible to anyone who is ready to put in the hours and practice deliberately. Work on your game, study our poker tournament strategy tips, analyse your hand histories and you might transform into a tournament beast – a true force to be reckoned with!
Become the player you were born to be and start crushing the games – Continue reading more poker content, tips & articles in our Poker Articles!
Poker Tournament Strategy FAQ
How do poker tournaments work?
You can participate in a poker tournament by paying a set amount called buy-in. Buy-ins for poker tournaments can range from anything between $1 to $100,000. If you lose all your poker chips, you're eliminated from the poker tournament. The last player to remain will be the winner, taking home the majority of the prize pool. The last player to be eliminated outside the prizes is called the bubble boy, as bubble means the stage where one more player must drop out before everyone reaches the money. In most tournaments, the top 10% to 20% of players get in-the-money which means earning a part of the prize pool.
Do poker tournaments use real money?
Yes, the buy-ins and prizes of poker tournaments are real money. Tournament chips have only notional value and no cash value. You can only use tournament chips during play.
Do poker players play with their own money in tournaments?
Poker players can participate in tournaments with money of their own or by getting staked. Staked players are people who get financially backed by other players or stakers. It's very common for poker players to buy pieces of each other in tournaments or swapping part of their potential earnings.
What are the odds of winning a poker tournament?
The odds winning a tournament are very slim even for the most skilled players. You will likely face a series of all-in situations during any tournament, and you need to survive with at least some chips to stay in the game. Even with a hand like AA, you're statistically destined to lose about 20% of the time as AA is roughly and 80% favorite over other good starting hands like smaller pocket pairs.
Are cash games harder than tournaments?
The simply answer is yes. Cash games are harder than tournaments simply because the average stacks are much deeper, resulting in more difficult decisions on the later streets, turn and river. Mastering post-flop play all the way to the river with deep stacks is a demanding task and requires a lot of poker training and experience. In tournaments, most hands end up either on the flop or pre-flop due to shallow stacks, which makes the MTT game tree more simple compared to cash games.
What kind of swings I can expect in my results due to variance in tournament poker?
You chances of making it in the money in a tournament is generally somewhere between 10-20% depending on your skills and the level of players in the tourney. Now the chances of winning a tournament are very slim, but the majority of your yearly results can consist of top places you get in large field tournaments. For this reasons, even expert MTT players can experience swings of tens, even hundreds of buy-ins in tournament poker. You can literally go on playing thousand tournaments and never finish as the winner. Thus, it's easy to see the benefits of following a conservative bankroll management system.
In short, it's better to prepare for experiencing some extreme swings in tourneys, especially those with large fields. Therefore you should have a good bankroll management system to play in sustainable way - you can read more about that in our bankroll management article.
What is a good win-rate in poker tournaments?
Good players generally have an ITM (In the money) percentage between 15-20%, and they tend to make final tables more than players with lesser skills once they catch a deep run. Aiming for anything over 15% ITM will be a good goal for serious MTT players.
How does rake effect poker tournaments?
Same as in cash games, you should look for both soft games and a good rake structure with poker bonuses & rakeback when you're playing MTTs. Most online poker sites take a fee between 5-10% from your tournament buy-ins. In general, any poker site taking more than 10% fees should be generally avoided as your edge in the tournaments can vanish quickly with higher fees.
What are the best poker tournaments in Las Vegas?
This depends on the time of the year, but in the summer you have great series like WSOP, The Wynn Classic and Venetian Deepstack going. During less popular seasons, the Wynn Poker Room and Venetian host decent weekly tournaments in Vegas.
How should I measure success in poker tournaments?
Success is usually measured in lifetime earnings. Winning poker tournaments with a huge prize pool and collecting WCOOP trophies & WSOP main event bracelets are something we can see many famous tournament players do, but you should really only pay attention to the long-term profitability of playing instead of big wins from large field tournaments. Those players you see at the top have probably outworked their peers for years, if not decades, to achieve their current results.
We recommend measuring your success by following metrics like ROI and BB/100, and trying to improve those in the long-term (when calculating these metrics, remember take into account also any extra money you have put into rebuys & add-ons during rebuy tournaments). By focusing on playing a profitable overall strategy no matter the short-term fluctuations, you give yourself the best chance to come out on the top over the time span of a hopefully long career as a poker player.
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