This is Part 6 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 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 7 Part 8
In this article I am going to discuss my strategy for playing a tournament from 15 players down to the money. Now, if you play the local daily or nightly tournaments, the number of places paid is almost always between six and eight places. You may find the Monday night rebuy tournaments pay 10 places, and once in a while you’ll see that for Saturday morning. But otherwise, six to eight is where the money starts.
Now that we’re six chapters into this series, I suppose it’s overdue for me to share with you my goal when playing a tournament. Regardless of the size of the field, if I’m playing a tournament, I’m trying to finish in the top three spots. The most money is in the top two, and of course I’m gunning for that #1 prize, but if I finish in the top three, or collect third place money, I’m okay with it.
One reason I have settled on third place is because it’s where the real money starts. If you finish fourth or fifth, you aren’t going to show that much of a profit from an individual tournament. You may get the equivalent of three or four buy-ins as profit. But third place is upwards of six buy-ins. The other reason is that I feel I have a skill edge against the average tournament player, and I feel a top three finish is within my ability as long as the cards break even when I’m all-in. Once you get three-handed, luck plays a large factor in the outcome of any hand, so I’m flexible when it comes to which of the top three spots I ultimately claim.
Do you have a goal for the tournaments you play? If you don’t, perhaps you should think about setting one. If you’re just there to have fun and you don’t care about the money, that’s great. (But if that’s the case, how did you make it to Part 6?) Perhaps you just want to cash and get your buy-in back. Perhaps you’re like me and want to finish first. Whatever it is, fix that goal in your mind.
You can figure out what your opponents’ goals are by how they play. The ones that just want to cash are usually short on chips and folding everything but the top five starting hands, hoping to hold on until the money. Don’t get me wrong, with 15 players left, most players stop gambling because they don’t want to go broke and miss out on a payoff. But it’s one thing to play tight and another thing altogether to fold every hand and hope seven players bust out before you run out of chips.
I think the best description I’ve read that describes these varying attitudes was written in an article by Steve Zolotow for CardPlayer Magazine. In it, he relates an economic theory as it applies to poker called “The Diminishing Marginal Value of Money.” In it, he also goes into principles of the Independent Chip Model (ICM), which can be a very complex set of calculations used to figure out your equity both in the tournament as a whole and in making decisions regarding the best play for a specific hand or situation.
If you are not familiar with the concept of the ICM, you should educate yourself. It’s far too vast a subject for my tiny little column to attempt to instruct you here. Just Google it or pick up a volume that covers it. Two I can suggest are Secrets of Sit’N’Gos by Phil Shaw, and Kill Everyone by Lee Nelson, Tysen Streib, and Kim Lee. There are even sites on the internet where you can plug in the chip counts and have them do the calculations for you. The one I like best is The ICM Poker Calculator. While it’s not that effective for 100-player tournaments, I used it constantly when playing 1000-player tournaments online, back when Americans could still play online, that is.
But let’s get back to the reason why we’re here and discuss tournament strategy. By the time the field has dwindled to just 15 players, you should have identified who the good players are. If you haven’t, or if you were moved to a new table and don’t yet know, don’t worry. Once the button makes a trip around the table, you should have a good idea. Good players are the ones who either raise, bet, or fold. They rarely call, and usually then it’s to call an all-in. Now, I don’t really want to infer that players who regularly call (rather than bet, raise, or fold) are bad players. The problem is I can’t think of a more appropriate word other than “bad” for someone who routinely calls bets with 15 or fewer players left.
Why is it bad to call? Unless you have the nuts, all kinds of bad things can happen. Scare cards can come that kill your action. Scare cards can come that beat you. Your opponent’s marginal draw comes in and you pay him off. If you think you have the best hand right now, raise it. Either your opponent was bluffing (or betting with a weak hand) and you’re going to win it right now (most likely), your opponent may read you for a better hand and fold (likely), and if he has you beat he’s going to go all-in (less likely–but if it happens you can fold). You don’t have to raise a lot, just a little more than double the bet is all you need.
The reasoning is simple: players do not want to go broke this close to the money. As a result, a bettor’s fold equity skyrockets. If you have a stack of 20 BBs or more, you should be using this to your advantage to amass the chips you need to prevail at the final table. You don’t have to bet big, either. Just small stabs is all it takes. Raise to 2.5 BBs preflop. Bet 3 to 3.5 BBs on the flop. You can bet as little as 4 BBs on the turn, if you think your opponent is weak. Your cards don’t matter if he’s going to fold. And believe me, they are going to fold more often than they’ll call. You just have to target the right players, that’s all, and know when to give up. So when you reach the final two tables, pay extra attention.
As always, you want to pick on the short stacks and target the big stacks when you have a hand you can go all-in with. As you play down to the final table, you’ll also be playing short-handed, which helps this style immensely. With seven or fewer players at the table, hand values go way up. Where you might’ve folded ATs UTG at a full table, at a 7-handed table you’re going to raise it. Where you might have folded 77 on the button to a raise, now you can reraise it. Where at a full table QJs would be a trouble hand, now it’s more likely to be the nuts.
It’s at this point in a tournament that your average player no longer wants action. They may have AK and raise preflop, but they do not want to play post-flop with it. If you have chips to work with, you should be raising or three-betting with any playable hand when you have position. AK is going to call your three-bet preflop, and then most of the time he’s going to flop nothing. You’ll bet and win the pot two-thirds of the time. If he started with a middle pair, he may call the flop and fold the turn if overcards come out, but if he has you crushed with a big pair, all the money will go in right away, and you’ll have an easy decision.
The simple rule
There is only one rule: You may fold, bet, or raise. You may not call, unless it’s to call an all-in. If you can call, you can raise! So raise it!
The only play you need to avoid is the all-in bluff. Keep your bluffs small–you do not want to get knocked out at this stage by running a suicidal bluff. Just bluff small, and often. With so many chips in the pot every hand just in blinds and antes, it’s worth it to make plays. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m bluffing about a third of the time at this stage of the tournament. But there are two things I’m not doing. I’m not putting a large percentage of my stack at risk without some kind of equity, whether it’s a draw or overcards or both. And I’m not being reckless with my table image; I’m going to slow down if I’m called down twice in a row.
While I’m advising you to be a lot more active at this stage of the tournament, you still need to be mindful of your table image. If your opponents see you show down busted draws or Ace-high hands back-to-back, they’re going to be emboldened in pots against you. If that happens, you are going to have to wait for a hand with showdown value before you get aggressive again.
For an idea of the hand ranges, I refer you to the range I gave for playing a short stack of 15 BBs (see Part 4). This range is sufficiently wide to allow you to play 20-30% of the hands you’re dealt, but it’s also tight enough that at a short-handed table you’ll usually have the best hand or decent equity against a better hand.
In Part 7 I’ll discuss the chop (finally), and we’ll wrap this up in Part 8 with the end game.