This is Part 2 of a series of articles about my strategy for playing (and winning) Tulsa NLHE poker tournaments. Part 1 can be found here.
In Part 1, I outlined a fairly loose playing strategy, where I recommend playing a lot of hands and playing a fit-or-fold style post-flop. This is an effective strategy when the stacks are 100 BB deep or deeper. A less skilled player (half the tournament field falls into this category) overplay or overvalue top-pair hands. You can win a lot of chips early if you flop two-pair or better. So that’s what I recommend you do in the early stages of a tournament.
You may have noticed that I did not discuss how to play your hands post-flop. This was intentional, and for two reasons. First, this is an article on tournament strategy, so I’m mainly interested in staying on-topic. But second, I’m assuming you already know what hands beat what and have a basic grasp of the fundamentals of playing a hand. If you are looking for more in-depth strategy for playing hands in tournaments (or cash games), I recommend you purchase Dan Harrington’s series, Harrington on Hold’em and Harrington on Cash Games. Both are highly recommended.
There are far too many variables involved with post-flop play to try to outline a useful strategy within this series. But I will give you a couple of examples from my own experience in Tulsa’s local tournaments. This first hand is from a tournament I played on a Saturday morning in January 2010 at the River Spirit casino. There were 10 players at the table, and I was in the big blind (BB). This was the first hand dealt of the tournament, and everyone had their starting stack of 4,000 chips (they didn’t offer the add-on back then). With 25/50 blinds, the player to my left limped, as did 6 other players. I looked down at Kh5h and checked my option. The flop came Ah6h4h. I had flopped the nut-flush. There were 400 chips in the pot. I didn’t want to check and have it possibly check around, so I bet 300 chips. The player to my left called, 2 players folded, and then a middle position player raised to 1000. It was folded back to me. Now, the middle position player was a woman in her 40’s and she looked like she meant business. Being that this was the first hand of the tournament, I had no specific read on her, but she had made a large raise on a scary board with a bet, a call, and three players left to act behind her. There’s no hand she could have that had me beat at that point, but if she had a set (three of a kind) or two-pair, I could lose the hand if the board paired. If I called the raise, what would the player to my left do? Well, if he had a small flush, he’d probably call or go all-in–both would be good things for me. If I re-raised, however, I might force them both to fold. I decided I could win more chips later by just calling, so that’s what I did. The player on my left called behind me. The turn was the Ks. I thought that my call was sufficiently scary that if I checked, it might check around, so it would be a good idea to bet. There were 3400 chips in the pot. I thought about betting small, 1300 or so, to try to get both players to call, but I decided it might look too strong, so I bet 2000. (This is actually a really strange bet considering I had 3000 chips in my stack.) The player to my left thought for a moment and then asked me, “Well, I guess we’re going to get it all-in, hm?” I didn’t answer. Finally he announced he was all-in. The lady in middle position looked, well, she looked sick. Ultimately, she showed her hand to her neighbor and folded, while I made the call. My opponent tabled JhTh for a worse flush. The lady who folded claimed she had 6c6s for a set. The river came the 4c, pairing the board, so the way the hand played out couldn’t have been better for me.
In this example, we aren’t dealing with one-pair versus a set. It’s flush vs set vs bigger flush. Needless to say, it’s a rare scenario. But I’m sharing it with you for a reason. In a cash game, it often makes sense to slow-play a big hand. You allow your opponent to catch a hand he can’t get away from before losing a lot of money–or allow him to get committed to a pot with a second-best hand. But in a tournament, you only have one life. You have to get your chips in while your hand is good. You’re relying on the probabilities that your hand is best and will hold up against your opponent. It is better to put your opponent to a decision for all his chips than it is to be put to one for all of yours. And it is also always, forgive the cliche, better to win a small pot than lose a big one.
In this next example, I completely failed to heed my own advice. Granted, as you will see, I got extremely unlucky in this hand, but even so, I missed out on a big opportunity.
This hand is from the same tournament as the first example, and took place about 20 minutes later. The blinds were 50/100 and there were nine players at the table. I had won a pot between the first hand and this one, putting my stack at about 9,500 chips. My opponent in this hand had also doubled-up to around 8,000. A couple of hands before, he had 3-bet with pocket Queens against another player who had open-raised. His opponent called, and they saw a flop of J84. They got the rest of their chips in on the flop, and his opponent tabled AJ. So in this hand, he raised preflop to 300 in middle-position. I was on the button and woke up with pocket Aces. I re-raised to 800, everyone else folded and he called. The flop came AJJ. He checked. I didn’t want to scare him off, so I checked behind. The turn was a blank–a 4 or a 6–I don’t remember for sure. He bet 1,200 into a pot of 1,750. I realized at the time that he would only bet if he had an Ace or a Jack. If I raised in this spot, and he had a Jack, there’s no question I would win all of his chips. But wanting to get value from an Ace, I simply called. Tragedy struck on the river when the case Ace hit the board. He checked. He was disgusted. He was angry. He was hating that card. Realizing now that I had gotten extremely unlucky, I bet 500 chips. He proceeded to tell me how lucky I’d been to catch that Ace, and what a bad player I was, and mucked his Jack face-up.
Sure, it’s pretty funny to me now, when I think about this hand, and I hope you get a laugh out of it, too. I thought about showing him my hand, to let him know just how lucky he had been for that card to come out, but emotional players are generally bad players, and I kept it to myself in hopes that his emotion would get the better of him later on. Unfortunately, they broke our table a few hands later and I didn’t see him for the rest of the tournament.
If I had to sum up my post-flop advice in a sound-byte, it would be this: Play fast! If you have a hand, play it strong. If you don’t, give up.
Now, let’s get back to tournment strategy. You’ve played the first three levels and made it to the first break. What should you do before you leave the table? Right. Count your chips. Count them again when you get back. If you have less than when you left, make inquiries. I’ve only had it happen once, and it was a dealer’s mistake when coloring-up my chips, but even so, I recommend it.
However many chips you have, you want to have double that amount by the second break. Between the second and third break, you want to double-up again. That’s your goal for each hour of the tournament until you reach the final table. Now, let’s look at the math to explain why.
After you count your chips, the next thing I do is find out how many players entered the tournament. You can find this out in one of two ways. If the casino is using tournament software on the big screen to display blind levels and the tournament clock, they may also have the number of players entered displayed. If they don’t you can find the sign-up sheet, either at the cashier’s counter or at the podium. Each player’s name is written on that sheet and each line is numbered, so just take a peek and you’ll know how many players entered.
Local tournaments pay 1 place for each table spread for the tournament. Take the total players entered, round up to the nearest 10, and then divide by 10. So 76R10 would be 80, for 8 places paid. 83R10 would be 90, for 9 places paid.
Now let’s do that math. Take the total number of players entered and multiply it by the maximum starting stack. This gives you the total number of chips in play. Divide this number by the number of places paid. This tells you what the average stack will be after the bubble has burst. Or, to put it another way, how many chips you need to accumulate in order to cash. Want to do an example?
Let’s say we are playing a Wednesday night tournament at River Spirit. 78 players entered, the maximum starting stack is 8,000 chips.
Total chips in play: 78 x 8,000 = 624,000
Average stack after bubble: 624,000 / 8 = 78,000
If you doubled-up during the first hour, you made it to the first break with 16,000 chips. If you double-up again each hour, you’ll have 64,000 chips going into the third break, or just under the average you’ll need to cash.
Some players I talk to think I’m nuts for bothering to do the math on this. For them, simply knowing they have to double-up every hour is all they need to know. But I find it a useful part of my routine.
One of the challenges to playing tournaments is being patient. When the blinds get high, playing too many hands and overplaying a medium-strength hand are both paths to an early exit. I do the tournament math because it helps me stay patient during the next two hours of play. I have a definitive number of chips as my goal. Since I only have to double-up once each hour, I can play the hands I’m dealt based on one question, “Can I double-up with this hand in this situation?” If the answer is yes, raise or shove. Otherwise, fold. Very simple.
Your objective in a tournament is first: to cash. And second: to finish first. (Not all players you find in the tournament share these goals. Some simply want to cash, and don’t particularly care for how much. But I’ll go into that in a future article when I discuss the chop.) In order to achieve either of these objectives you must first survive, and second acquire chips, in that order.
In Part 3, I discuss the playing style I use during the middle stages of a tournament including hand selection, shoving ranges, calling ranges, and stealing blinds.