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Poker Tournament Strategy

Tournaments are one of the most exciting and fun ways to play No-Limit Hold’em poker. For years the only way to play poker was the cash game but the tournament format (also initially known as the freezeout) wasn’t invented until the early 1970s.

Tournaments are strikingly different than cash games because you can’t buy back into a tournament. Once you’ve expended your last chip you are eliminated from the event. Tournaments are also different because there can be only one ultimate winner and that player will receive the lion’s share of the prize pool.

That’s what makes tournaments so exciting. You have a chance to make 10x, 20x or even 800x your buy-in in special circumstances. That would be virtually impossible in cash game poker. Because of all the aforementioned factors there are different strategies to playing tournament poker. We’ll guide you through the basics below.

Play Tight Early

In the early stages of a tournament the age-old adage “Tight is right” tends to be correct.

When you start a tournament the blinds are so low that you’re really under no pressure to make ill-advised moves.

This is the time of the tournament when it’s OK to wait around for premium hands or attempt to flop three-of-a-kind with a pair. This is also a good time to see cheap flops when you can and attempt to hit a monster hand.

The moment people starting shoving all-in you’ve got to tighten right up, however. Shoving all-in pre-flop with K-Q with a stack that consists of 10 big blinds is a fine play. Meanwhile if you make that same play with K-Q and a stack that has 100 big blinds then you’re effectively guaranteeing opponents will only call you with pocket queens or better.

It’s a high risk, low reward move and that’s exactly what you want to avoid when playing poker.

Loosen Up in the Middle Stages

Once you’ve survived the early stages of a poker tournament you can start loosening up.

For many players this will be make or break time and your chip stack will define your strategy to a great degree.

If you’ve got a ton of chips then you can definitely loosen up and start bullying players at your table by playing a large number of hands.

On the other hand if you’re playing from the short stack you’ve got to start thinking about finding a decent hand and shoving all-in.

If you’re a short stack player then the dream situation is getting a premium hand like pocket aces or kings or queens, going all-in and getting someone to call. That’s usually an easy way to double up, which is the name of the game at this point.

Meanwhile if you’re sitting on an average stack then it can still be OK to play fairly conservative.

Beware the Bubble

The money bubble in a poker tournament is when you reach the point where everyone remaining makes it into the money.

Generally multi-table poker tournaments pay the around the top 10% of the field. That means if 1,000 people enter a tournament than 100 players will get paid. That means the player who gets eliminated in 101th place walks away with nothing, despite the fact they made it further than the vast majority of the field.

The bubble creates a unique dynamic in the tournament where many players are simply hanging on, desperately hoping to at least make it into the money.

If you’ve got a surplus of chips than this can be an excellent time to start raising with marginal hands because the vast majority of players are going to be folding.

Defend Your Big Blind

One strategic aspect of No-Limit Hold’em that often gets overlooked is the blinds. The big and small blind represent the only time that you’ll be forced to put money in the pot.

Because the big blind is generally a small bet most new players think nothing of folding it away to a single bet.

The reality is that blinds become much more important as the tournament progresses and players who pick up the blinds with no resistance are essentially getting free chips.

That’s why most poker experts recommend at least considering a call when someone is frequently raising your big blind.

You don’t want to be calling an all-in with 2-7 or anything but if someone is raising the standard three big blind amount then you really only have to contribute two more big blinds to get a look at the flop.

This is called defending your big blind and it can be a game-changer if you manage to hit a big flop or even bluff your opponent off the hand.

You should never automatically throw away your big blind. Make sure to give it at least a little thought each time.

Adapt to the Final Table

The final table of a poker tournament is a dramatically different experience than the rest of a poker tournament.

For most big tournaments everyone has guaranteed a decent payday at this point but the reality is a lot of poker tournaments dedicate a lot of the prize pool to the top three spots. You’ll want to keep that in mind as the final table plays out.

The final table will give you a chance to develop reads on players so you should contemplate your decisions and really watch how everyone else plays.

You chip stack will dictate your play to a large degree and if you’re short you’ll have to play aggressively to try and find the double up.

You’ve also got to keep pay jumps in mind, however. If the difference between seventh and eighth place is significant and there’s a player with fewer than 10 big blinds then you’ll want to take your time and hope they bust.

Keep your eye on the prize.

Learn to Play Heads-Up

If you’ve made it to the final two then you’ll experience a new form of poker called heads-up.

Heads-up poker is more intense than any other type of poker where almost every hand is important.

Because there are only two players left you can’t just fold every hand because you’ll quickly deplete your stack thanks to the blinds.

In fact you’ll want to play much more aggressive when you’re heads-up and open with a large variety of hands.

Heads-up poker essentially requires people to bluff so you’ll have to get comfortable making moves with sub-optimal hands. Do everything in your power to get a read on your opponent and get in their heads.

Heads-up poker can be one of the most exhausting ways to play so you’ve got to always try and keep pressure on your opponent.

No matter what happens you’ve generally already racked up a big pay day so don’t worry about the money that’s at stake and instead focus on playing good poker.

The Art of the Deal

One aspect of tournament poker that doesn’t really have anything to do with the game itself is the deal.

Tournament poker can be a marathon and some players don’t feel like playing even more poker once they get to the final table. That’s when the deal comes into play.

Most deals in poker payout players based on their individual chip stacks. This can be exceptionally smart for inexperienced players who would get exploited by long-time players.

The deal also takes away some of the variance because the huge first-place prize is usually flattened slightly and spread more evenly between players at the final table.

If you’re in a position where a deal is being presented to you just make sure you are getting what you want. Ask for a straight ICM (Independent Chip Model) chop or chip chop, which essentially assigns a cash value to every chip.

Beware any player that is asking for extra cash in addition to the chip chop.

If you’re really not comfortable don’t be afraid to say you just want to play. That’s always acceptable and — in many ways — is the purest way to play poker.