Anyone interested in poker has seen a WPT broadcast, where six players play against each other for hundres of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions. With millions of chips on the table and a fortune on the line, we are frequently treated to all-in preflop plays where players push marginal edges and rely on fold equity (the likelyhood your opponent will fold his hand preflop, allowing you to win the pot uncontested), or upon the probability their hand will be best after all five community cards are dealt. It’s very exciting, especially with life-changing money on the line, which accounts for the WPT’s survival through a recession and now filming their tenth season. So it occurred to me, what about the local tournaments here in Tulsa? Perhaps my readers would like to get a perspective on local tournaments and a strategy to use when playing them.
I don’t think it would be fair to you to offer advice if I wasn’t a winning tournament player. So let me justify my advice by sharing with you some recent results. From June 11th to July 11th, 2011, I played in ten NLHE tournaments. Nine were played at River Spirit, one was played at Hard Rock in Tulsa. Here are my results:
Date, Start Time, End Time, Hours, Win/(Loss), Hourly Rate
1) 6/11, 10am, 4:30pm, 6.5, $841.00, $129.38
2) 6/20, 10am, 12:15pm, 2.25, ($50.00), ($22.22)
3) 6/20, 7pm, 11:30pm, 4.5, $369.00, $82.00
4) 6/22, 7pm, 11:15pm, 4.25, $437.00, $102.82
5) 6/27, 7pm, 8:30pm, 1.5, ($60.00), ($40.00)
6) 7/2, 9:30am, 1:30pm, 4.0, $365.00, $91.25
7) 7/6, 7pm, 11:30pm, 4.5, $695.00, $154.44
8) 7/7, 7pm, 9:30pm, 2.5, ($70.00), ($28.00)
9) 7/9, 10am, 12:15pm, 2.25, ($10.00), ($4.44)
10) 7/11, 7pm, 10:00pm, 3.0, ($40.00), ($13.33)
Total Hours: 34.75 Total Profit: $2,487.00; Average Hourly Rate: $71.28*.
* 8/25/11 – EDIT: I found two errors in the data above since I first published this article on 8/11. My actual profit on line 1 was originally reported as $851.00. In actuality, I failed to deduct $10 for the add-on, making my actual profit for this tournament $841.00. On line 9, I originally reported I’d spent 4.5 hours in the tournament, rather than the actual 2.25 hours reflected by the start and end times. After correcting these errors, my total profit has been corrected from $2,487 to $2,477 and my average hourly rate has been recalculated at $71.28 per hour, rather than $67.22 as originally reported.
As you can see, my results have been good lately. In fact, if I had the time, I would play more tournaments. I haven’t played a tournament in the last month, unfortunately, due to other commitments–and trust me I miss them. They are by far where I earn the highest hourly rate. But I’m also showing you this chart to point out the one drawback to playing tournaments. That is, it takes time to make the final table and earn money. If you look closely, you will notice that in the tournaments where I cashed, I had to play for anywhere from 4 to 6.5 hours. You’ll also notice that I only cashed five times in ten tournaments, but my overall profit justifies the time investment. Incidentally, the above reflects my net profit, after deducting buy-ins and tips.
For those of you who have never played a poker tournament, here’s how they work. Players buy-in for a specified amount and are given a certain starting stack. The most common buy-in for local tournaments is $50, and generally start with 4,000 chips. Most local tournaments offer a $10 “dealer appreciation” add-on which doubles your starting stack. Tip: take advantage of the add-on if it is offered. The goal of any tournament is to accumulate all the chips, and $10 for 4000 chips is a deal you should not pass up.
So you now have bought-in and received 8,000 in chips. Play begins with the blinds at 25/50 (and some start at 25/25). With 8,000 chips, you start the tournament with a stack of 160 big blinds. The blinds increase in regular intervals, called blind levels. Each level has a specific time limit, most commonly 20 minutes (rebuys use 15 minute levels, large buy-in tournaments are typically 30 minutes or longer). With 160 big blinds, you are starting out deep-stacked, as is everyone else. As the blinds go up each level, your stack-to-blinds ratio will decrease, making decisions more and more critical as the tournament continues.
Hands are dealt and played out, chips are won or lost, and the blinds continue to go up. Players are eliminated when they go all-in and lose. As players are eliminated, the remaining players are redistributed to keep the remaining tables full and/or balanced. Typically, when only one table is left (the “final table”), the players remaining are either in the money or very close to it. It is at this point that players begin discussing a chop. Chopping the prize money involves distributing the remaining prize pool among the remaining players. If the players negotiate a chop and everyone agrees, the tournament ends and players are awarded the prize pool according to the agreement. If anyone refuses the chop, play continues and prizes are awarded according to the original prize structure. I’ll discuss chopping in a future article.
The early stages
The first two blind levels are what I call the early stages. If you manage to double your stack in the first two blind levels, you can continue this strategy into the third blind level as well, if you still have more than 100 big blinds (and your opponent in a hand does too). Throughout the first two levels I have one goal: play as many hands as I can as cheaply as I can, try to make a big hand and win a lot of chips with it. With 160 big blinds in my stack, I can afford to limp into a lot of pots, or call small raises, and hope to connect with the flop in a big way. It’s even more attractive if several players limp in for 50, a player to my right makes a small raise to 200, and I have been dealt a speculative hand I can call with in position. It’s unlikely that any of the limpers has a premium hand and will reraise. It’s also unlikely, in my experience, that players with a strong hand like AQ or 99-TT will reraise preflop into 4 or more players. So my hand selection in this situation is very wide. I am also comfortable limping in from early and middle position with these type hands, and will call a single raise if 3 or more players call the raise before the action gets back to me. In short, I’m willing to make a small investment pre-flop for the possibility of making a strong hand and winning a big pot.
So let’s talk about what I mean by hand selection. Early-stage hands fall into four categories: raise or reraise, raise or call, call or fold, and fold. During these levels, my table position is not a significant factor when considering which category these hands fall into, but it will in the later stages, when position over your opponents is more valuable. Instead, I’m playing a more fit or fold style, trying to make a hand and get my opponents to make mistakes with a 2nd-best hand.
Hands to raise or reraise with: AA-JJ, AK. If you have one of these hands and the pot has been raised, you should definitely reraise. A good amount to raise is 2.5 to 3 times the size of the last raise. With AA or KK, if your opponent re-raises you, your next action should be to push all-in and make your opponent decide if he wants to risk his tournament life. It’s a move you don’t want to make this early in a tournament with any hand but AA or KK. With AK, this early in the tournament, it’s best to call and see a flop. AK is going to miss the flop 65% of the time, and you can safely fold if you miss and your opponent continues his aggression post-flop. Calling a big bet on the flop with ace-high is a waste of your chips. Fold and save them for a better spot.
Hands to raise or call with: AQs-ATs, TT-77. If you have one of these hands, raise if the pot hasn’t been opened. If one or two players limped-in, raise. How much should you raise? Three big blinds plus one big blind for each limper. If another player has raised in front of you, call. In the early stages, reraising preflop with these hands could illicit more action than you can withstand, so call and see the flop. If it’s a good flop for you, bet or raise the flop or turn to realize your equity. But a word of caution regarding pairs TT-77. If the board comes with all low cards (and you didn’t make a set), be careful not to call big bets on the turn or river. These hands are too easily dominated by bigger pocket pairs AA-JJ, and you don’t want to go broke on the hope your opponent is overplaying an ace-high hand. If there is a raise and a reraise, these hands go way down in value, as your hand is almost certainly dominated by a bigger pair or a bigger ace. In these rare cases, you can either call or fold, but folding is usually best.
Hands to call or fold with: Suited connectors KQs-76s, small pairs 66-44, suited aces or kings, and suited one-gappers (QTs, J9s, T8s, etc.). With these hands, you can limp in or call a small raise and see the flop. Your goal with these hands is to connect with the flop in a big way. Two pair, trips, or straight or flush draws are what you’re looking to flop. The easiest way to think of it is you have to hit the flop twice. If you flop one pair (with no redraw to a straight or flush), play your hand cautiously. Your hand could be dominated by an overpair or the same pair as you but with a bigger kicker. Be prepared to fold top pair if your opponent still likes his hand on the turn; it’s usually a sign that your hand is second-best. It’s best to play these speculative hands in position, where you have a better chance to control the size of the pot, but if your table has been passive, you can play them from any position. You should fold these hands if an opponent makes a big raise (5 big blinds or more) and no one else has called the raise before it’s your turn to act. You should also fold these hands if there has been a raise and a reraise; you’d be risking too much of your stack to try to play these hands for a lot of chips pre-flop. You generally won’t be able to realize your equity if you flop a draw because your opponents are likely going to make it too expensive for you to continue past the flop.
Of course, everything else falls into a fold category. Hands like K5, T6, 63, 92, 33-22. You may be tempted to play these hands in multi-way pots when it’s cheap to do so. The problem is the best you can hope for is to make two pair, but rarely would it ever be the best two pair, so you can still make a strong hand and lose all your chips. If you flop bottom set–or even a full house–with 22 or 33, you could still go broke against a higher set, a straight, a flush, or (worst of all) a bigger full house. Avoid the risk and fold these hands pre-flop.
Early stage philosophy
Tournaments are about survival and accumulating chips with as little risk as possible. Keep this in mind through the early levels. Don’t risk your tournament life with top pair-top kicker (or worse) unless its against a reckless opponent. Value bet your made hands but beware if you get raised. People aren’t bluffing very often early on; there’s just too much downside to losing a lot of chips on a bad bluff. Bluffing this early is extremely rare. It’s okay to call the flop or even the turn with one pair for reasonable amounts, but beware the big bet. When the big money goes in, it generally means your opponent has a monster.
The goal of this early-stage strategy is to win one or two big pots, and grow my stack to 12,000 or so. But if I only manage 10,000, or even break even with only 8,000, that’s still okay. As the blinds increase, it gets easier to double-up through an all-in at an opportune time. Stay patient and be disciplined in your hand selection.
Finally, pay attention to how your opponents are playing, even when you’re not in a hand. What you’re looking for is players who call too much pre-flop and fold a lot post-flop, who like to call all bets (especially big ones) with one-pair hands, and those who overplay their hands or bluff too much. These are the players you want to play more hands against; they are more likely to make mistakes and donate chips to you.
Want more? Check out Part 2!