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Poker Tournament Strategy

Poker tournaments are arguably the more grueling test of skills for any player. Whatever the game variation, competing in tournament play introduces new factors and considerations you need to take into account to progress to the latter stages.

Tournament play differs significantly from how you would approach a cash game. Even players who don’t outright win a tournament can expect to pick up money if they reach the final phases of play. With this in mind, the best blend of strategy is one that goes big when it needs to be aggressive, but that generally stays conservative throughout the early rounds of play.

Conserve Early

When you first sit down with your massive stack of chips to start your tournament, spare a thought for your future self. Tournament play is a marathon, rather than a sprint, so you need all the help you can get to see it through to the end.

Good players will sit tight in the early rounds, not pushing on too many (if any) bluffs, and holding out for the best hands in a low-cost way. Think defensively, and take your wins when they come along. There is little value to be gained from being too gung-ho in the opening stages, so don’t get sucked in to mediocre hands, or playing for big pots when your cards don’t justify it.

Push on Short-handed Play

At some stage or other, you’re going to find yourself playing on a tournament table that’s less than full. The fewer players at the table, the higher the value of each strong hand. When you’re in this scenario and you draw a decent hand, it’s time to push the boat out and be a little more aggressive in your play. This is the phase of the tournament where you want to start maximizing your advantages, and conserving too much in short-handed play will see you lose out to more experienced players.

Hands that wouldn’t merit such aggression early doors come into the spotlight, and the fewer people at the table, the truer this becomes.

Manage Your Stack

Your run in any tournament is only as strong as your stack. Money management is key to long-term tournament survival, and you need to hold on to every chip you can — as well as picking up wins along the way — to make it to the end. Don’t shoot away chips too cheaply. It’s easier to conserve than to win it back, and you need to get to the later stages anyway if you want to walk away in the money.

The time to be aggressive in tournament play is when you’re playing short-handed or heads-up — where you have the opportunity to really get on top of your opponent and end their run. Preserve your stack as much as possible for these phases of play.

Watch Out for Deals

Deals are a natural part of tournament play, and crop up from time to time in the later stages. Most commonly when you’re down to the final table, someone will propose divvying up the prize money on a share of current chips. The idea is that by agreeing to split what’s left in the prize fund, players can cash out in the here and now — often feeling like a good idea when every player at the table is in line for a prize payout anyway.

While this can be to your advantage, especially if you’re facing off against much more experienced players, it’s always advisable to think about whether you’re actually getting a good deal from the offer on the table. Don’t sell your seat too quickly — by the end of the tournament you’ve already invested a lot of time, energy and skill in your game, so make sure you are comfortable with any split share proposed before jumping in.