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Tournament Strategy


This guide is geared towards the average poker player who wants to win at multi-table tournaments (MTTs). There will be five different sections to this guide covering each level of play.

The key to these tournaments is patience. If you fold enough hands, you'll get yourself closer and closer to the final table. Let's talk about what type of bankroll and outlook you should have before embarking on a discussion about multi-table tournaments.

Bankroll for MTTs

You'll learn that my articles preach the importance of bankroll because it's the deciding factor in whether you're a winning or losing player. There's only so much skill one possesses in the game of poker. The key is to limit your losses by playing within your limits. Remember that.

I advise having a pretty big bankroll for multi-table tournaments since you'll lose most of them. Remember, all it takes is one big payday to replenish your bankroll. I play a lot of tournaments with 500 to 1,000 people, and I would say I make it to the final table once in every 10-20 tries. I will share with you my main secrets to winning MTTs shortly, but first I want you to realize how important your bankroll is.

Unless you're rich, you always need to play within your limits. This is because there's quite a bit of luck involved in poker. If I had to guess, I would say that poker is 60% skill, 40% luck. That means on any given day, you could lose your bankroll when playing over your limit. The most important aspect of poker will always be bankroll management. Boring as it may seem, way too many good players lose their bankrolls every day because they step outside of their limits. Bankroll management is serious business.

MTT Outlook

You're going to have to be patient because tournament play can be almost as boring as watching paint dry. I'm serious. You must be a patient player to win MTTs consistently. You may get lucky from time to time, but to win time and again a player must be patient.

Before even joining the tournament, understand that it's not uncommon to wait an hour to play a hand. Some tournaments, I wait even longer to strike.

MTT strategy requires three key components to be successful:

1. Skill (30%) - A player must be skilled in order to win multi-table tournaments. You have to know when to hold'em and when to fold'em. When a tricky situation arises, you'll almost always want to fold more than call. I will get you closer to the final table by teaching you the basics of successful MTT play.
2. Discipline (30%) - To win consistently you must have strong mental discipline. Most of the time, you'll be folding because in MTTs folding makes the money. The only tip I can give you regarding patience is to keep yourself occupied. Always try to predict what people have and take each blind level step by step.
3. Luck (40%) - Luck is a big factor in MTTs. We can't control this factor at all.

The fundamentals has now been introduced of multi-table tournament play, please continue reading the rest of the series in order to obtain a more detailed understanding and a greater knowledge of what it takes to kick butt at MTTs.

Multi-Table Tournament Strategy: Early Blind Levels

This is the easiest blind level to play. You really want to fold most hands in this blind level until the fishy players are weeded out. The key is to stay calm, collected and in the zone until the middle rounds.

Strategy Overview

I generally stick with the basic strong, premium hands for the first blind level. I'll tell you exactly how I would play each of these hands regarding the blinds, but before I get started, you should take a couple of things into account:

1. This is basic tournament strategy. This strategy alone will win tournaments for as long as you use it. You also may want to incorporate other elements that you find beneficial to your overall play. Although most people stick straight to the formula, there'll be times when you need to change it up. I will talk about this later.
2. You may want to play more hands. My strategy is stone cold tight. I've found that if you possess this kind of patience, you'll win your fair share of MTTs. A lot of people say this strategy is too tight. You can choose to play suited connectors if you please, but let me warn you, your bankroll will take big swings when you're in a lot of hands.

Starting Hands

1. The Big Three - AA, KK, and QQ
2. Ace-King
3. Pairs - 22 through JJ
4. A-x suited

Let's talk about how to play each hand. Try your best to wait on one of the big three hands. When you're in late position, you want to limp in with pairs and A-x suited.

When playing one of the big three hands, take into account the average raise at the table. If you are seeing huge raises on your table you may want to throw out a huge raise pre-flop. On an average table, I will usually raise four or five times the big blind. On the flop, I bet no matter what, as long as there are two people or less in the pot. With more than two people in the pot, the flop must be optimal, and I must have what I think is the best hand. Bet huge with these hands and take it to the river. In most cases you'll win because you were a favorite pre-flop.

Ace-King is a hand that can make or break your tournament. I usually like to raise this hand from any position, but if I'm re-raised pre-flop, I immediately become defensive. I must hit my ace or king on the flop, or I won't bet. The players in the early rounds are usually fishy and will call bets on the flop with drawing hands or even low pair. If you have to, give up ace-king. It can be beaten consistently by a pair of 2s heads-up. The reason to play it hard is because it has the possibility of becoming the best hand when you hit the flop. I would raise ace-king three times the big blind because I like to play it cautiously.

Pairs and A-x suited are played in a straight forward manner. These hands are good for busting big pots with a lot of players in them. We want to limp in with them from late position. If there are a ton of people in the pot pre-flop on a small raise, I might call in hopes of trips or a flush/flush draw. These hands become worthless when the blinds become high because you will usually miss them on the flop. Also, as the tournament progresses and the blinds go up, short stacks push all-in way too much for you to be limping in with these hands.

That essentially covers the early rounds. Stay tight and if someone puts you all-in with ace-king, just fold it. There will be plenty of opportunities to go all-in as the tournament progresses.

Multi-Table Tournament Strategy: Middle Blind Levels

The middle blind levels are a little more complex as you'll soon see. Most of the bad players have been weeded out, so you'll have to loosen up, but also remain on guard. There will still be a lot of really tight players waiting to crack you with aces so be careful. Playing a tournament is a lot like walking on a minefield. You need to avoid as many tight situations as possible by playing the best hands. Unfortunately, you can't wait all day long for premium hands unless you're a big stack. This article will discuss how to proceed playing hands according to your stack size.

Large Stack

We all love playing with a large stack. Although it might seem easy, there are a few things you need to know before you start loosening up. First, evaluate the current status of your table. If it's really tight, you'll need to put that big stack to use and double shorter stacks' blinds as frequently as possible (with decent hands, of course). If the table is really loose, you'll need to keep playing premium starting hands. Another pointer is to raise blinds only when you're in good position. I'll talk about this more towards the end of this article.

Average Stack

This is where most of us will be in the tournament. You want to loosen up a little here, adding hands such as A-Q and JJ to your starting hand list. When you decide to raise, you probably want to bet the flop regardless. If you spot a tight player next to you, raise his blinds double with any two cards and bet the flop. You'll need to pick it up a little here, but for the most part remain tight.

Small Stack

The small stack must become aggressive in the middle rounds. When you spot weakness bet all-in. Go out of the tournament with a bang. Never get blinded out. Raise blinds by going all-in with decent hands. You want to add any pair to your list of starting hands as long as you're in late position to raise the blinds. If you have a pair such as 9-9 or 10-10, don't be afraid to go all-in from any position. You need to double up to become a threat in this tournament.

Advice on Raising Blinds

I'm frequently asked questions about raising blinds. I believe the good players are separated from the bad players when the blinds get higher. I always choose my opportunities to raise blinds wisely. You should only raise a player who you know is really tight. In the late stages of a tournament you may need to raise any player, regardless of his image, with decent cards. But, in the middle rounds you want to spot a tight player and lean on him hard. Towards the end of the middle rounds, you might want to lean on the blinds harder than normal. You should be getting closer to the money, and people will start playing really tight.

For example, say a tournament has 500 people in it, and it only places the top 80. When there are about 100 people left you'll see everyone tighten up. This will probably be around the end of the middle rounds or the beginning of the late rounds. This is when I make all of my money, and I'll share this strategy with you in the next article, "Multi-Table Tournament Strategy: Late Blind Levels."

Multi-Table Tournament Strategy: Late Blind Levels

Congratulations! You've made it to the late blind levels. This is where you'll face your toughest decisions. Generally, I'm either eliminated right out of the money, or I make it to the final table. If you're like me and are more interested in winning the tournament rather than placing, I'll show you exactly how to build a huge chip stack in order to do just that.

You Don't Need the Cards

You read it right. I almost never get the cards in the later rounds but the majority of the time I build a huge chip stack. How you might ask? I do it by raising the blinds when everyone else is trying to make it to the money. This is a surefire way to either: (a) Get eliminated or (b) Go on to win the tournament.

I love this strategy so much that it pains me to reveal the secret that separates a normal tournament player from a dangerous tournament player. I'll tell you up front, there will be a lot of risk involved, but usually people won't call you when you raise their blinds. If you've been playing tight all game, you now have the opportunity to steal blinds left and right.

Out of the Money Strategy

My favorite way to build a huge chip stack is to raise blinds. The reason I play tight the whole game is because sometimes cards run cold. If you've been playing tight the entire game, you have the license to bluff.

When the blinds get high, I'll take just about any two cards to raise them. I will look for tight players, but even if I don't find them, I'll put players to a decision for every chip in front of them. A lot of times, I'll raise the pot, and if I get a caller, bet the flop regardless. Usually your opponent will miss the flop and you can take the pot down. If they re-raise, just fold and do it again on the next round of blinds. I rack up a ton of chips doing this throughout the later rounds of a tournament.

Sometimes you'll get called on a bluff. The key here is to just back off and let your opponent have the hand. Even when I have maniacs behind me, I'll put people all-in effortlessly. The reason this works is because you've been sitting tight all game. If you happen to run into aces, you must shake it off and recover for the next tournament. This strategy may seem very risky, but it's less of a risk than it might appear. Most people will not call you unless they have aces, especially if you've kept a tight table image.

Large Stack Strategy

If you have an average stack or small stack, you want to stick with the above strategy. If you happen to be the chip leader of the tournament or within the top 10, you may want to play a little tighter. Play as you did in the early rounds until you get to the final table. The exception is if you have a tight player left to act behind you. In this case, you can raise his blinds with any two cards and expect to make a profit. I've blown so many tournaments as a large stack because I was greedy for blinds. Don't make this mistake.

If you have a really large stack, I recommend sitting tighter than usual. If you're catching some decent pairs you may want to raise the blinds occasionally, regardless of the player. Just remember that all those chips can disappear really quickly if you're not careful.

Multi-Table Tournament Strategy: Final Table

The final table is where every poker player wants to end up in a big tournament. Once there, you should be facing all experienced tournament players. This will require you to take a certain attitude toward the table as well as a certain unique strategy. When I make it to the final table, I almost always place within the top three. The way I like to play the final table differs greatly from all the other blind levels. Let's talk about crushing the final table.

Study Your Opponents

I usually don't study my opponents in the early rounds since so many players are moved to and from my table. At the final table, though, all of the players around you are most likely great tournament players. Very rarely will you run into a fish that caught a mad streak of cards and ended up at the final table, although I've seen it happen before.

For the first ten or so hands, play extremely tight. Get a feel for the table and how people are playing. Poker brings out different emotions in different people, and you must learn the current state of every player. Have you spotted a player who's loosened up? Is there a large stack leaning on people? Is someone to your left folding almost every hand?

More than likely you'll notice mostly tight players at the final table. You'll also run across a few people utilizing the maniac tournament approach. Identify these players and adjust your play accordingly.

In essence, final table play involves playing the player and not the cards. A lot of times I'll raise really tight players with next to nothing in the blinds. I'll also be very careful of my pre-flop starting selection against maniacs.

Wait It Out

The final table will bring about some of the best poker you'll witness. This is simply because most of these players feel grateful to be there. They'll be on their best behavior and play the best hands possible.

If you spot a maniac at the table, let him take a few people out. Sit back and feel your way around the table until a few people are gone. There will come a time when you make your move, but don't go out unless you have a good hand. Conversely, if the table is really tight, you may want to take a few risks and rain on the blinds. A good tournament player's motto for the final table should be "playing the player, not the cards."

Luck and the Final Table

I would be lying if I said you could finish first at the final table without luck. It's impossible. Most players at the final table are great tournament players, meaning that more than likely it will be a dogfight for each ascending place. I could sit here all day and preach to you about starting hands, but by now we all know which hands to play.