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Poker 101: Eight Simple Tips for Playing Your First Big Tournament

Tournament tips

It’s officially World Series of Poker season and thousands of players will be playing their first live tournament ever this summer.

There’s plenty of information out there about how to play better cash game poker but tournaments are a different animal. While both tournaments and cash games utilize the exact same rules and poker hand rankings, there are some drastic differences between the formats.

The main difference is that when you play a tournament, you are on a clock. The blinds are always rising and if you don’t find a way to increase your stack (or at least maintain it), then you’ll be out in a hurry. Regardless, large tournaments, like the ones at the 2019 WSOP, can be one of the most exciting ways to play the game and sometimes offer a legitimate shot at life-changing money.

With that in mind, we thought we’d dedicate this week’s Poker 101 to eight super simple tips for poker players playing their very first tournament. Most of these tips are for big No-Limit Hold’em live tournaments but could also be useful for big online poker events.

1. Be Patient

Poker tournaments have a certain cadence to them that the average cash game player might not understand.

There are certain moments in a tournament where you might make a play that you’d never make in a cash game thanks to the finite number of chips and the ever increasing blinds. In other words: chips = tournament life. When the chips are gone, so are you.

In the early stages of a poker tournament, that means playing with a significant amount of caution.

There’s an old saying that states you can never win a poker tournament in the first level of play but you can lose it. Keep that in mind when you’ve got a mediocre hand like pocket jacks or tens and someone re-raises you a massive amount pre-flop early in a tournament.

The blinds are worth very little in the early stages of an event and everyone is likely to be playing tight so you’re bound to run into some very strong hands. Take your time during the first few levels of play and observe how everyone else is playing.

2. Hand Strength is Situational

Relative hand strength is a concept that also applies to cash game poker but there are some added twists in tournament poker.

To understand relative hand strength, let’s talk for a second about the hand Ace-Ten.

A-T is generally regarded as a mediocre hand that gets crushed by legitimate monsters like pocket aces, pocket queens and ace-king. It’s at the bottom of the premium poker hand range.

However, A-T is a good hand … in certain situations. For instance if everyone folds to you on the button. Because there are only two players left, there’s less of a chance for a premium hand to pop up and you should probably lead out at that point.

A-T is also good when you’ve only got five big blinds left. There’s a good chance opponents will call your paltry five big blinds with hands like weaker aces or K-X hands in an effort to eliminate you.

Now the opposite is true when you’re first to act and you’ve got a medium stack. Going all-in with A-T from early position with 20 big blinds is a great way to get snapped off by a player with A-K or pocket kings.

To summarize: Try to play a wider range of hands when you’re short-stacked or last to act. If you’re in early position and deep-stacked, try to stick to the premium starting hands.

3. Think About Big Blinds, Not Chips

In poker tournaments chips don’t really have any cash value. You can’t cash them out. They are there simply to facilitate action and pay the blinds.

Thinking about chip stacks in terms of big blinds (or BBs) instead of just chips is a method that tournament professionals utilize to quickly understand their stack relative to the rest of the tournament.

For instance if you’ve got 10,000 chips and the blinds are 500 for the small blind and 1,000 for the big blind, then you’ve got a 10 big blind stack.

If you had the same 10,000-chip stack and the blinds were 50/100, then you’d have a 100 big blinds stack.

Generally, anything below 10 big blinds is push/fold territory and anything over 50 big blinds is a deep stack.

4. Respect the Bubble

In tournament poker, chips have no cash value. Instead, players are given a pre-defined prize based on where they are eliminated in a tournament.

The payout structure varies from tournament to tournament but first place always pays out the most with 25 to 50 percent of the prize pool generally set aside for first place.

Most tournaments pay the players who finish in the top 10 to 15 percent of a tournament. Usually a min-cash means just getting your initial buy-in back plus a little extra.

For instance, if there are 1,000 people in a tournament, the last 100 will make it into the money using the standard 10 percent payout structure.

That means, of course, that the player who finishes in 101st place will finish out of the money while everyone else gets paid. It’s an unfortunate reality of tournament poker and it’s called the money bubble.

Play typically grinds to a halt when approaching the money bubble. All the short-stack players will be extremely conservative as they attempt to coast into the money running on fumes. It’s definitely something you’ll want to consider if you’re nearing the bubble. Your five big blinds could be the difference between a min-cash and nothing if someone else busts before you.

On the flip side, if you’ve got a big stack, you should be able to pick up a number of blinds and antes with little to no resistance as players attempt to fold their way into the money.

5. Ten Big Blinds is the Danger Zone

Every tournament poker player has a slightly different idea about how to play from the short stack but around 10-15 big blinds is generally regarded as the danger zone.

That means you’ve entered into all-in or fold territory.

You simply don’t have enough chips to call a bet and then fold to future aggression. You’d be left with five big blinds and likely be forced all-in by the blinds in relatively short order.

Instead you should take some risks with even mediocre hands and potentially get some folds from your opponents or even get lucky and double up to a healthy 20+ big blind stack where you can take more time.

6. Don’t Be Intimidated

Large poker tournaments can be intimidating for new players but there’s really no reason to worry.

More players is better for the prize pool so poker is hardly elitist in that sense. All are welcome, provided you’ve got the cash.

Just take special care to follow the play and pay your blinds at the correct time. That’s the No. 1 thing that new players tend to miss and — while it’s not the end of the world — most players dislike anything that slows the game down.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your time when you are in a hand. Feel free to take a minute or two and think out important hands.

7. Protect Your Blinds

A lot of people underestimate just how important the forced bets are in tournament poker.

We’re talking about the small blind, big blind and — in later stages of a tournament — antes.

The blinds will make or break a short-stack player as they careen toward elimination. Smart players can build huge stacks by successfully stealing blinds in relatively low-risk situations.

Simply put: How you play around blinds (and antes) is a pivotal part of tournament poker.

With that in mind, you should attempt to protect your blinds when possible. That means if someone makes a min-raise, you should call with any decent hand (a pair, any ace, some connectors).

Protecting your blinds is situational but you don’t want to be the player who always gives up their big blind. Constantly folding your big blind is like death by a thousand paper cuts. Well, maybe not that bad, but it adds up.

On the other hand, it’s absolutely worth stealing the blinds when you can. It’s especially important when there are antes in play.

8. Pick Your Spots

Poker players often talk about selective aggression.

That means not firing at every single pot but getting aggressive when the time calls for it.

There are plenty of times in the average poker tournament that it pays to get more aggressive and throw out some significant bets. That’s especially true when you get to the final table and players start vacating the table, but it also applies to the middle stages when you start getting an idea about which players are too conservative.

It’s also important when you’re fighting from the short stack. You want to double up while it still has meaning. For instance doubling up a 10BB stack gets you to a healthy 20BB while doubling a 1BB stack to 2BB doesn’t really do anything. You’re going to be all-in again regardless.

Passive play is probably the single biggest problem that plagues new poker players. The reason that aggressive play works in poker is that, the majority of the time, you’re going to miss the flop but so are your opponents. The player who displays more aggression (i.e. the last player to bet) will likely take the pot in those situations.

So pick your spots and don’t be afraid to rip it in the middle when the time comes.

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