Poker Essays

Playing Tournament Poker
By January 2006

Tournament poker has been described in many different ways over the years. For example, David Apostolico applies ancient Chinese war philosophy to tournament play in his book "Tournament Poker and the Art of War". Many other attempts to capture the essence of this exciting playing form have been made, one more imaginative than the next, but basically they are all treating the same problems. Which playing style is the most effective? When is it right to be aggressive? How do I handle different types of players? When should I push all my remaining poker chips into the pot? How should I adjust my game to the size of my chip stack? In this article we will try sum up knowledge gained from reading a vast number of books on poker tournament strategy.

David Sklansky's gap concept

It's almost impossible to write about tournament strategy without mentioning David Sklansky. He has written several books on the subject and greatly influenced the way poker tournaments are played with the introduction of the "gap concept". In short, the gap concept means that you need a stronger hand to call a bet than what you need to open the betting yourself. The difference between the strength of the two hands is called the gap. The size of the gap will vary during a game and between different games. The most important factor is the playing style of the players you're facing. If you're up against loose players the gap will be smaller and if you're facing tight players the gap will increase. Loose players call a lot of raises and might raise themselves with mediocre cards. Tight players, on the other hand, generally enter the pot with really strong hands, and they will certainly think twice before calling a big raise. Note that Sklansky's gap concept doesn't apply if a player acting before you just calls instead of raises. The core of the concept is that it's absolutely vital to take the initiative when you're playing in a tournament. If you become passive you will get bullied around by aggressive opponents.

Playing style - loose or tight?

Which playing style is the most effective in poker tournaments? Loose or tight? The simple, and perhaps boring, answer is - it depends on the player. There are wild and loose world class players, like Gus Hansen, who has won three titles on the world poker tour, and really tight ones like the WSOP champion from 1995, Dan Harrington. The best advice is to try to find a playing style that suits your temperament and personality. Don't try do be someone or something you are not. However, there is some general advice to give on how to act in different situations in poker tournaments:

Strategy in the early stages

In the beginning of a poker tournament the blinds are relatively low compared to your stack size. Consequently you can play a lot more marginal hands if there are no big raises. Small pairs and suited connectors often give huge payoffs when they hit, and if you get to see the flop cheaply you should play these hands. However, there is no need to take big risks early in a tournament. It's a good idea to play conservatively after the flop. You should be prepared to throw your cards away if your hand doesn't hit (unless it's a really good opportunity to bluff). Your goal in the early stage of a poker tournament should be to build up your poker chip stack, don't be concerned with knocking other players out of the tournament (the prize list is too far away). Choose the playing style that suits you the best - well-timed aggressive play or a more conservative approach. As mentioned above, both these tactics can be successful if you play your cards wisely (of course you will need a little luck as well).

Strategy in the middle stages

As the blinds get bigger they become more desirable to win. In the middle stage of a tournament you have to start playing more aggressively. If you're first to act in a pot, you should strongly consider raising in order to steal the blinds. This strategy will actually work rather often since your opponents will be risking a large part of their stack to call your raise. At the same time it will be difficult for you to call if one of your opponents raises. When you do play a hand you have to be aggressive; if you become passive the other players will bully you around and your stack will quickly start shrinking. A rule of thumb is to try to win the blinds at least once a round - this will at least give you some breathing space. If you have a small chip stack in this stage of the tournament you're in a bad position. Since you eventually will be forced to play more marginal hands most your raises will be called by opponents with bigger chip stacks. Have the patience to wait for really good cards as long as it's possible. This strategy will give you a chance to double up (or even better). If you get the chance to limp in with an average hand you should take it, since you don't know if a better opportunity will arise. If you have a big stack you should play aggressively and use your advantage to pick on rivals with small chip stacks. If you get the chance to knock an opponent out you should try to do so. However, remember to don't get careless - things can turn around very quickly in a poker tournament.

Strategy in the late stages

When you've reached the late stage of a poker tournament you're obviously aiming to get into the money. The blinds are really high at this stage and play is normally becoming short-handed (with fewer players at the poker tables). If you want to reach the top spots you have to pick up the pace and make some moves. If you have an average sized or large chips stack, you should generally play very aggressively. Make big raises even though your cards are not that good. However, you will need a really strong hand to call if one of your rivals raises. In general you should only play hands against players with smaller stacks than yours, since they will be afraid to get eliminated from the tournament. This strategy will give you a lot of pots and further strengthen your position in the game. Opponents with large chip stacks should be avoided unless you have really strong cards. If you have a small chip stack (but not extremely small) it might be a good idea to play a tighter game. If you're really close to the money spots you can actually wait for other players to get knocked out of the tournament. You won't win this way, but you at least will get some prize money. If your position is desperate, you have to pick a hand and move all-in with it. If you're really lucky you might fight your way into the game.

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