This is Part 3 of a series of articles about my strategy for playing (and winning) Tulsa NLHE poker tournaments.
Click here to read: Part 1 Part 2 Part 4 Part 5
In Part 1, I advocated a loose-preflop, tight-postflop style for the early stages of a tournament, when the stacks are 100 big blinds deep or deeper. Because of the depth of the stacks, you can afford to call a small percentage of your stack for the opportunity to win a huge pot. As the blinds get higher, however, everyone’s stack gets shorter and shorter. Add to this those players who have been unlucky (or foolish with their chips) who are now short-stacked, and the dynamics of the game have changed dramatically. As a result, you should change your strategy to exploit these conditions. Part 3 defines the strategy I use to survive and accumulate chips through the mid-stages of the tournament.
The major differences between the first hour of a tournament (the early stages) and the second and third hours (the middle stages) are the size of the blinds and the size of the stacks at the table. Early on, everyone had relatively even chipstacks and very low blinds. But the first level after the break is usually 200/400, sometimes with an ante. This is eight times the size of the blinds during the first level. Add to that the stack sizes: some have doubled, while some have dwindled to half or less. I’ve never seen anyone octuple their stack in an hour, and don’t expect I ever will. Most of the time, I manage to increase my stack to 12,000 to 16,000. (In rebuy tournaments, where the first hour action is fast and furious, I usually manage 16,000 to 22,000. But for this article we’re going to focus on a standard open tournament.) With 12-16k chips, I’m starting the 200/400 level with 30 to 40 big blinds. 30 BBs is on the low end of a medium stack, and 40BB is a solid medium-sized stack. A big stack has over 50 BBs.
A short stack has 15 BBs or less. Then there’s the weird small stack zone of 15 to 25 BBs, which some players just don’t know how to play. Should you open-shove with 20BBs or make a standard raise? For now, I’m going to present the strategy I use with an average/medium stack. I’ll get into small and short stack strategy in Part 4.
One of the biggest mistakes players make is not paying attention to stack sizes. I count my stack every other hand, and sometimes every hand. It’s important to know who has more chips than you do, and who has less. Why? Again, it’s about survival. You want to pick on the short stacks and only play against the big stacks when you have the goods. Short stacks have to be very selective about what hands they play. As a result, they are only going to play back at you with premium hands. On the other hand, a big stack can continue in a hand with a much wider range, so if they do, you want to have a strong hand. There’s nothing worse than being outgunned in a fight where you’re also outnumbered. Make sure you bring the deadliest weapons with you when you tangle with a big stack.
We spent the first hour playing any reasonable hand we were dealt for a single raise. As a result, we have developed a loose table image. With the blinds going up, however, now is the time to tighten up. This accomplishes two things. It allows us to shove with our premium hands and get called by an opponent who remembers that you played 67o for a raise and caught a straight against pocket Kings. He’ll likely think you have a weak pair like 66 through 99 and call you with his KQo. That’s what we want. We want to exploit the table image we created in that first hour.
Now, if you do manage to shove with AA-QQ and get called by KJ (or worse) and win at showdown, don’t expect the rest of the players at the table to continue to give you action on your open-shove play for long. Use this to your advantage. If you have open-shoved with AA-QQ, got called and won, you now have license to use the open-shove play to steal blinds. You don’t want to overuse it–but now that your opponents know you open-shove with premium holdings, they’re much less likely to call your all-in from the blinds with just any high-card hand.
The second thing it does is allow us to play small-ball post-flop with our good hands (top-pair, top-kicker [TPTK] or better) and get paid off by a player who judges us to be reckless or (even better) easy to bluff. Of all the hands we played in the first hour, we called preflop and then folded the flop 75% of the time, if not more. So we look like someone who can be bluffed out of pots after the flop comes out. But now that we’ve entered the mid-stages of the tournament, we are going to change our strategy to exploit this image. In position, we’re going to call down with TPTK against a player who bets into us, and we’re going to bet into our opponent with TPTK when we are out of position. If they fold, that’s fine; TPTK is a vulnerable hand and we’re happy to take what’s already in the pot. The point is to keep track of the image you are presenting to your table. You don’t want to adjust your hand selection per se, but you want to vary your play between shoving, raising and calling to disguise how tight your range has become.
Now that the stacks are much shorter, position in a hand is much more important. Early position means the small blind (SB), big blind (BB), and under-the-gun (UTG). Late position is the button (BTN), cut-off (CO), and hijack (HJ). The middle positions are the one-to-four seats between UTG and the HJ. (In the middle stages you are often playing with less than 10 players at the table.) We are going to play premium hands and only premium hands from early and middle position. If it is folded to you in late position, you can open up and play non-premium hands. Yes, you must have a lot of patience to do this, but anyone can do it with a little practice. Let’s first define what the premium hands are.
The top 10 hands in NLHE poker, in order, are: AA, KK, QQ AKs, AKo, AQs, JJ, TT, 99, and 88. In terms of value, AKo, AQs, and JJ are all equal, unless they’re competing against each other, in which case JJ has a small advantage. These are the hands you can play from any position.
Marginal opening hands: KQs, QJs, JTs, T9s, 77, 66. These hands can be played from middle or late position, but only if it has been folded to you. You don’t want to call raises with these hands. Perhaps the only exception is JTs and T9s, where there has been a raise and a call in front of you and you think other players may call behind you. These situations come up occassionally, and if you have a medium or big stack, it’s okay to take a flop with them. But remember the hit-it-twice rule. If you don’t flop 2-pair, a flush draw or a straight draw, be ready to give up. You don’t want to lose your stack in a marginal spot.
From early position with a premium hand, put in a raise of 2.5 BBs. Be aggressive on the flop with your pocket pairs and put in a continuation bet of 4 BBs. If you get called and there are overcards on the board, you generally want to give up unless you have a redraw. With big cards that missed, if there’s a K or Q on the board, go ahead and bet 4BBs. You may get called, but you are not likely to get raised. Bet the turn if you hit a pair (or better). You could bet the turn if you pick up a draw, but if you do you’ll have to decide what to do if your opponent shoves. If you’re up against a chronic folder, bet; against a calling station, check.
From middle or late position, where everyone folded to you, play the same as recommended for early position. If, however, someone has raised in front of you, I’m usually folding 88-TT and reraising to 6 BBs with the rest. If my opponent shoves, he almost always has an AK/AQ type hand and I call with pairs and AKs/AKo. If he 4-bets (without going all-in), that’s a sign of a monster and I will only continue with AA and KK, and sometimes QQ, depending on my read and the size of our respective stacks.
The stop-and-go play
This is a play I use a lot with middle pairs, 88-JJ. A player raises preflop and I have a stack size of 25-30 BBs. I will call the raise and see a flop, especially if I’m out of position. If I flop an overpair, I will either lead out on the flop, or check-raise the flop, based on how aggressive my opponent is. If I can’t count on him to make a continuation bet on the flop, I’ll lead into him. Otherwise, I’ll check-raise. Most of the time when I make this play, I’m shoving on the turn if my opponent calls and no overcard comes.
Just to break even against the cost of the blinds, you need to win the blinds and antes once per orbit, if you don’t win a pot otherwise. So if you find yourself without a premium hand in early position, you should definitely consider stealing the blinds. Stealing works best if you are in late position and everyone folds to you. Now look at the stack sizes of the players to your left. Are they small- or short-stacked? Do any of them look eager to play their hand? If you have small to short stacks to your left, and no one looks interested in the hand, you’re in a prime spot to steal. It has nothing to do with your cards. Just raise to 2.5 times the BB. See what happens. You don’t even need to look at your cards if you think everyone is going to fold. But okay, go ahead and look at one. Did you see an Ace, King, or Queen? With any one of these three, and 30-40 BBs in my stack, I’d lean towards stealing. If I get called, it’s not the end of the world. If everyone folds, I just put 2 or more BBs in my stack uncontested. Obviously, if I get reraised, I need to reevaluate.
If someone from late position raises and you find a premium hand behind them, either from the CO, BTN, or in the blinds, give serious thought to shoving. Late position players open with a wider range. This is highly recommended if you’ve shown down big hands recently. This play is high-risk without a premium hand, so don’t be careless with it.
Let’s say we opened a pot for 2.5 BBs from the CO with QJs. The button folded, and the small blind, a short-stack, shoved all-in. Do you call? If it’s less than 10% of your stack to call, yes. You can call an all-in as a medium stack for 10% of your chips with pretty much any two cards. That’s because for this little, you’re getting 2 to 1 or better on your money. 72o vs AKs is almost exactly a 2 to 1 underdog. If you lose, you still have 90% of your stack. So take a shot and knocking out a short stack. He has to double up two more times before he’ll be a threat to you. Go with the math and take a shot at knocking him out. (And don’t forget how it will affect your table image!)
What if you have to call 25% of your stack to call the all-in? Well, now you need a real hand. You need a hand with at least 40% equity. 88-TT are now marginal hands you should fold. JJ is situational and requires you to have a read on your opponent. QQ-AA and AKs/AKo are an automatic call. Anything else you call with should be read-based. But know this, if you were stealing from late position, and the shove comes from the blinds, their range is wider simply because they could be re-stealing light. I’ve had players shove against my steal raise with hands as weak as 87o, 33, and J9s. The pressure of the blinds affects players who find themselves short-stacked. If you have 40BB or more, you can risk it. If, on the other hand, the shove comes from a limper, fold all but the top half of your range. Same goes if you raised from early or middle position and someone shoves over the top of your raise.
Factors in making a decision
How you play hands is based on your position, the size of your stack, the action that has occurred in front of you, the number of opponents left to act, the size of their stack(s), your table image, and (finally) your cards. Play aggressive against everyone, but don’t over-commit yourself in a hand against a big stack. When gambling on draws: make sure you’re getting the right price, or at least close to it. Beyond that, it’s better to fold and survive against a big stack; it’s better to call and gamble against a small stack.
Ultimately, winning tournaments comes down to not making big mistakes, avoiding coolers, and running good (winning coin flips and making hands). You can’t do much about the latter two, but the strategy I’ve outlined here will help you avoid the first. When you practice this strategy, you will most often have the best starting hand against your competition, you’ll be winning more uncontested pots, and as a result you’ll be making it to the final table more often.
In Part 4 I’ll discuss short-stack strategy. Until then, good luck at the tables!