Saturday, December 8, 2007

General Holdem Tournament Strategy

This poker article proposes general a poker strategy that you can use in large multi-table tournaments, meaning hundreds and sometimes thousands of players. These strategies apply to "normal pace" tournaments. By that, I mean a typical structure found in tournaments where the blinds start low, and the blind increments from level to level are not excessively steep. Also, the total time between level increases is average (10 minutes or so is common). These strategies do not apply to "turbo" tournaments where the blinds increase very quickly.

Starting Strategy

Because this is a slower pace tournament, I will advise you to take your time when you first start out. Semi-conservative play is good at first. You’ll notice that what tends to happen in the first 10 hands of any freeroll or low stake tournament is that a lot of people go all in early. Some players go all in because they have an ace in their hands and hope to get lucky. Others may have a pair and try to win big. Then some people just go all in no matter what they have and hope to win the "first hand lottery". Unless you have a monster hand, your poker strategy should be to avoid getting involved with all your chips at this stage, simply because too many people will call all in bets. Remember that in general, you only want to be all in against one opponent at a time. Even with a hand like K-K pre-flop, if you have 3 callers as opposed to just one, your odds of winning the hand are significantly reduced.

As an experiment, I’ve tried the "all in" move early in the game when a bunch of other players would also go all in. The majority of the time, I would loose because someone with nothing, like 5-8, would get lucky and pick up two of a kind or something silly like that. I would often loose even when I had great hands like K-K or A-K and it was frustrating. So I repeat, unless you have a monster hand, don’t go all in on the first rounds, especially when you are acting in early position. When you have a good hand and the tournament just started, and you are in early position, then just come out with a good raise. 5 to 10 times the big blind is a good raise in early position. It shows you mean business without committing all your chips. You may have a great starting hand, but it’s a beatable hand especially with 3 callers! It would be a shame to get eliminated early because you put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s OK to go all in when you have a hand to back it up, and when you’re in position and a lot of opponents folded already. Then again, going all in may just be a waste of a great hand at this point. Perhaps raising pre-flop is a better play. That depends on your play style, and the style of those who are still active in the hand.

In general, you don’t want to be over involved early in the tournament. Take your time, wait for good cards and if you’re going to bluff, do it when you’re in position. Bluff sparingly at first because you’re also working on building a table image as well. When you fold, keep your eye on the game. Pay attention to the other players and take notes. Determine who’s aggressive and who’s not. Determine who can be bluffed and who’s going to call you. That will help you determine how to play future hands.

You can ignore my advice and try to get lucky. If you do win against 3 opponents who were also all in, then congratulations! You probably just got lucky! It’s still not sound strategy on your part to play like this. Also, don’t bother trying to steal the blinds early. They’re just not worth it yet. Wait for them to go up a few levels before attempting to steal.

Mid Game Strategy

At this stage, you should have established your table image, and you should be exploiting it when possible! Now that the blinds have gone up a few levels and you haven’t played like a crazy reckless maniac, your chip count should have steadily increased. Now is the time to be a bit more aggressive, but selectively. More specifically, target the small stacks. At this stage, these players are looking to double up and they normally play a looser game. They grow desperate as the blinds increase, and the longer they wait, the worse their situation will get. At some point, they’ll go all in, and many of them will do so without a good hand. Use your bigger stack to put the pressure on them and take their chips gradually, or all at once. Don’t allow them to get free flops. Make them pay for any card. If no one else raised pre flop and you are one of the last people playing, then raise or fold. You either don’t play the hand, or you want to play it by putting pressure on everyone else. That particularly puts pressure on the small stacks who were hoping to get a cheap flop. When they are faced with this situation, they will either fold, or go all in. That’s exactly what you want!

Unless you are the short stack, try to avoid making all in bluffs against people who have more chips than you do. If you get called once and loose, you’re out of the game. You don’t want that to happen right? Just focus on getting chips from the small stacks, and bluff occasionally when in position against the bigger stacks, but not for all your chips. If you do pick up a monster hand, then it’s OK to go all in against the big stack, but remember that there are no guarantees. Even your Pocket Aces can be defeated.

Ending Strategy

Let’s recap: You stared with conservative play, established a table image, and over time became more and more aggressive. You’re doing well and a lot of players have been eliminated. You’ve been targeting the small stacks. Now what? Well, you need to keep doing what you’ve been doing because it’s been working for you! Depending on how many chips you actually have in comparison with the bigger stacks at the table, you may need to try and make a move against them to double up. If you want to win one of these big tournaments, you’ll have to take a risk and put all your chips in at some point. Hopefully you will be wise enough to determine when to do it, and against who.

Nearing the end of the tournament, you really need to hit the brakes. You’ve made it this far and you want to be sure to place yourself in a prize winning position, and ideally make it to the final table! You’ll notice that in a tournament that rewards the top 10 position for example, everyone plays tighter when there’s like 30 people left. It’s because they are waiting for the small stacks to get eliminated and this will happen either because the big stacks are pounding on them, or because the blinds are so expensive that they’ll just run out of chips. People don’t want to go out when they can smell the prize money. You’re close… Don’t do something stupid!

At this stage, go back to targeting small stacks exclusively, unless you get a monster hand. With a real good hand, you can target anyone, but don’t commit all your chips against opponents who have more chips than you do, unless you are absolutely convinced that you’ll win if they call, or you are convinced that they’ll fold. Be very careful when going against someone who has more chips than you do because it would be a shame to get knocked out when you made it this far. Hopefully, you’ll make it to the final table and end up playing head’s up for the 1st place finish!

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