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Tournament Strategies

TOURNAMENT STRATEGIES

Many of the strategies that you use in regular casino and home games are employed in tournament play as well. Take a look at our poker strategies page in addition to reading our tournament strategies outlined below.

If you mostly play in home games, you should get casino experience before playing in a tournament. You can do this from the comfort of you own home by playing in online tournaments. We can’t stress enough the importance of developing your tournament skills playing online. You can play for free or for pennies a game, which is perfect for beginners. Freeroll tournaments are great for starting out as you play for free (or a very low buy-in), and you can win prize money (in addition to online sites’ bonus points and non-cash prizes) this is great for building your poker bankroll. Poker Stars has daily freeroll tournaments with cash prizes up to $2,000! They also have very low buy-in tournaments of various game types starting every few minutes.

It’s also a good idea to watch a few tournaments on TV, as they normally only broadcast the final table. It’ll give you a good idea of what hands the pros play and offer some insight into their strategy.

Before playing in a land tournament, which can last up to 14 hours in one day, make sure to get plenty of sleep the night before. You’ll need your stamina in order to concentrate for such a long time, so save the drinking until after the tournament. That goes during play as well: alcohol will make you tired and slows you down, so don’t drink too much. And if you read the side of a can of Red Bull, it says two maximum per day pace yourself!

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Remember that nobody at the tournament has played you before and knows nothing about your abilities. Don’t let them intimidate you; there may be experienced players who’ll try to weaken your confidence. You’ll need to develop a shell against this kind of psychological attack. The more you play, the better you’ll be at handling it.

Try to figure out the other players’ strengths and weaknesses right away and play aggressively with the ones that are weak. It’s best to eliminate them early and take their chips.

Although it sounds obvious, it’s a key element to successful tournament play: get as many chips as you can and don’t waste them. You don’t want to play too tightly in tournaments, but don’t bet an extra round if you should have folded instead. This will cost you a lot of chips, and if you make it to the end when the blinds are expensive, you’ll need a big stack of chips to stay in the game.

If the game you’re playing has re-buys and add-ons, buy more chips. You might need them to pay for the increasing blinds and having extra chips allows you to play more aggressively. There is a maximum number of chips that a player can have that determines whether they’re allowed to buy more chips. If you’re just slightly over the maximum, you may choose to lose a hand or two on purpose to bring your chip level down enough so you’re eligible for the re-buy. If you’re not planning on buying more chips, keep an eye on other players who might be losing on purpose to bring them down to the chip-buying level. Play aggressively against them to get their chips.

There’s no one definitive way to play in tournaments, but some players’ strategy is to play more aggressively at the beginning and try to get as many chips as you can while also eliminating players. Once you have a sizable stack, you should play tighter (that means only play really good hands). Some players say you shouldn’t ever play tight in tournaments if you want to finish and make money. Another strategy is to play tight at the beginning, ease up a bit in the middle, and then play more aggressively at the end (this is the most popular strategy). Try both strategies out online and see which works best for you.

One mistake a lot of people make is to play too many hands. Develop a list of hands that you’ll play and make sure to fold if they don’t come up. You’re going to lose chips quickly if you play too loosely.

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Play aggressively when you have good hands. If you have very strong hole cards, raise if nobody else has raised yet and call if they have. If you’re in early position, raise. You do this in order to rack up the chips in the pot and to scare off anybody with average hands you never know what the flop might bring and you don’t want them to luck out. This also forces the two players who posted the blinds to pay more if they want to see the flop. If you get a high pocket pair, like AA, KK or QQ, definitely raise you may even want to re-raise to scare everyone off (so you can take the pot right there) or at least make it very expensive for anyone to see the flop.

Don’t play too aggressively with other aggressive players as they can cost you a lot of chips. Wait until they’ve folded to attack the other players. When you see that a player is low on chips, they’re going to fold more often in order to stay in the game, so play aggressively with them and you’re sure to bleed them of their chips.

Adjust your play to the situation you’re in. If there are three aggressive players at your table, don’t play aggressively yourself. Instead, let them battle amongst themselves and eliminate each other. After more players have been eliminated, you can attack.

Be careful with players who raise and re-raise assess your hand and stay in only if it’s strong and you don’t think the other player is bluffing. Even if your hand’s a KQ, the other player might have a KK, so your best bet is to fold and conserve your chips. But if you have really strong hole cards, like AA, then re-raise or go all-in if you’re low on chips (that means to bet all of your chips).

If you get a flop that gives you either a strong pair with a high kicker, three of a kind, a straight or flush, then play aggressively. Be attentive for flops that might give other players a flush or a straight, though.

Bluffing in tournaments should be used, but not too much or people will learn to call your bluff. A good time to bluff is when the flop looks like it might make a flush or a straight as this is what your opponents will think you have.

The following are format-specific strategies:

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SINGLE TABLE STRATEGIES

Much of the strategy used in single table tournaments can be applied to the final table in multi-table tournaments as well since the situation is the same: as players lose their chips, they’re eliminated and nobody replaces their seat.

You should generally start the game off playing on the tighter side and maximizing pots whenever you hold a strong hand. You want to get as many chips as you can and not sacrifice them with playing weak hands. You can play more aggressively and with less-strong hands once more players have been eliminated since your chance of winning increases with fewer hands to go up against.

Be attentive for when the blinds increase, because you should adjust your style of play when they go up. When they do, you need to pick hands to play and play aggressively if you’re low on chips. If you have a lot of chips, protect them; there’s no urgency to gamble like there is when your stack’s low.

EARLY PLAY

Don’t bluff too much in the early stages of the game: the blinds aren’t worth it and there are still too many players who may call and force a showdown. Play tight, don’t waste chips, try to make chip gains on really good hands and let the aggressive players eliminate themselves.

MIDDLE PLAY

Middle play starts either when a certain amount of players have been eliminated or you’ve reached the point when the blinds go up. Now’s the time when you can relax a little and play like you would normally; you don’t need to be as tight as before. Bluff a bit during this time especially if you’re in late position and can spot a player you think you can bluff.

END PLAY

How you play at the end of the game depends on how many chips you have left. If you’re low on chips, you need to play aggressively with average hands because the expensive blinds will force you to go broke if you don’t win chips. A good strategy is to go all-in when you’ve got a reasonable chance of winning the hand (doesn’t have to be a premium hand like AA). Most players will simply fold when you do this, resulting in you doubling your chip count!

If you have a lot of chips going into the final stages of the game, guard those chips and try to force more players out.

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MULTI-TABLE STRATEGIES

Multi-table tournaments are played one of two ways: play aggressively at the beginning to rack up your chips or play tight and hope to win enough hands to last longer in the game. Both styles have their pros and cons you’ll decide which you prefer once you start playing in a few tournaments. You’ll most likely find, though, that by always playing tight, you won’t win enough chips to pay for the blinds near the end of the game. So some smart, gutsy moves are in order if you want to win!

EARLY PLAY

It’s generally a good idea to start off tight and develop a good image. If people think you only play tight hands, later in the game you can relax a bit and steal the blinds with average hands (everyone will most likely fold if you raise since they think you only play strong hands).

Some good starting hands to play at the beginning of the game are: AA, KK, QQ, JJ and AK suited.

Also, it’s best to avoid bluffing at the beginning of the game. You don’t want the other players to think you bluff a lot.

MIDDLE PLAY

Now’s the time to relax your game and play like you normally do. This is also when you should bluff and try to steal the blinds. Hopefully you were able to establish yourself as a tight player at the beginning of the game and players will be more responsive to your raises (by folding).

END PLAY

At this phase of the game, you can play a bit looser especially if you’re low on chips. If you have a lot of chips, you should be cautious not to waste them, but you should also throw your chip weight around: force players to go all-in if you have a decent hand in an attempt to eliminate them.

ONLINE TOURNAMENT STRATEGIES

Strategies used in STTs and MTTs in casino and home games apply to online games as well. Usually that is to play tight(ish) at the beginning, regular in the middle and looser at the end.

But not being able to see your opponent does offer a challenge unique to online poker. As such, you’ll need to pick up tells to read the players by means other than those used in land games. Read our section on online poker tells to find out what they are.

Visit Poker Stars for free online tournaments starting every few minutes. They have regularly-scheduled satellite tournaments where you can win a seat at the World Series of Poker and they have nightly tournaments with a first prize of more than $20,000 sometimes it’s up to $70,000!

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