As we start the new year, I thought I would reflect back on some of the insights I have learned during the last year playing tournament poker. I have played online poker for about 4 years, but I have only played tournament poker for about 15 months. I have moved through an evolution in playing style during the past year that is probably similar to a lot of tournament poker players. I started playing very TAG (tight aggressive) then moved to very LAG (loose aggressive) and now back to a hybrid with very specific playing styles for different stages of the tourney. I will cover my specific strategy in more detail in a future write-up, but first lets lay the foundation with some of the key lessons I have learned during the past 15 months.
10. A Very Tight Player Can Win a Tournament. Like many players that start playing tournaments, I started out very tight. I was playing the way I might play a 10-handed NL cash game -- very TAG. I had some early success and won a tournament on SunPoker. However, what I did not realize until about 4-5 months later was that my win was complete luck. The cards aligned, all my big hands held up and I did not lose any races. That will happen once in a while, but playing very tight in tournaments will lead to a lot more frustration than a hybrid approach. Loosen up, steal and resteal and try to win a lot more pots after the flop without committing all your chips -- that strategy in the long-run will win a lot more tournaments for you.
9. LAG Does not Mean Wild. I often hear people describe LAG players as wild, impulsive or out of control. Ignorance is bliss -- and these people just don't get it. Good LAG players are anything but out of control. They know exactly what they are doing. Their strategy is to play a lot of small pots in order to accumulate chips without risking their tournament. If anything they are more in control than a TAG player that pushes in with big pocket pairs. Who is risking their tournament more often? However, this style is not easy to play and you should develop the ability to use the style for some of the tournament, but you need to be very good if you are going to try to use it for most of a tournament. The real key to this style is being able to get away from a hand post-flop -- good LAG players rarely commit all their chips unless they have a big hand.
8. Playing More than 4 Tourneys at Once is Negative EV. I have played up to 8 tourneys at once and the results just suck. I know that my results are just one sample, but I just do not see a way that someone can pay enough attention in tournament style poker to win consistently playing so many tourneys. With 4 you can pay close attention to one table and you have enough time to make good decisions when you are in a hand. But with more than 4 the decisions come too quickly to even think through your good hands. I highly recommend you stick to 4 or less tourneys at one time. BTW, try playing just 1 or 2 tourneys for a week or two to see if your win rate goes up -- it did not for me but it might for you.
7. Large Tourney Fields are Hugely Negative EV. For a while now I have really struggled with the question -- why do I suck at Stars so badly? I have negative results there since beginning tournament play. After analyzing in detail my results there I have come to the conclusion that my lack of success has everything to do with the tournament sizes. I do not think the players are any better at Stars than at UB or FTP, but the tourney field sizes are much bigger. I mostly play tournaments with buyins ranging from $20 to $50 (including $3 and $5 rebuys that end up in the same range). At Stars, tourneys in this range rarely have less than 700 entrants and often have over 1,500 entrants. Based upon my results, while I reach the FT in about 10% of the tourneys I enter under 600 entrants, I only reach the FT in about 3% of the tourneys over 600 entrants -- and it is even much smaller when you look at tourneys over 1,500 entrants. If you play these huge fields all day long, you are going to end up banging your head on the wall a lot. It is incredibly frustrating to spend 4.5 hours in a tourney to then get knocked out on a bad beat and only win back your initial buy in --- argghh I have done that too many times to count.
6. Resteals are More Valuable than Steals for Chip Accumulation. When I went through my early loose stage of tourney play, I thought LAG meant stealing a lot of blinds. I would raise on the button, cutoff and 2 off the button if it was folded to me with any two cards. The problem with this strategy is that few people give you credit for a big hand when you raise in late position. You will get repopped often and if you are sitting with air, you have to lay it down. While you do want to try to steal, I really try not to get out of hand stealing blinds unless I have a big stack. Rather, I like to watch the table and see who is raising more than others preflop. That person is an excellent target for a resteal. Lets look at the math -- say you try to steal the blind 2 times per round by raising 3x the bb. If you are successful each time you will win 3bbs per round and give back 1.5bb with the blinds, to net 1.5bb per round -- pretty good. Now, assume you resteal once per round -- a LAG player raises 3x bb and you come over the top for 3x his bet. If you win that confrontation, you have taken 4.5bb and you give back 1.5bb with the blinds, to net 3.0bb per round -- better. Of course the devil is in the details -- you need to be able to get away from your hand if your opponent moves all in or if you go to the flop and do not hit anything. It is a higher risk, but much higher reward strategy that will yield big results if you don't get out of control with it.
5. Slowplaying Big Hands is Key to Accumulating Chips. I know all the books say don't slowplay your big hands and that is probably true for cash games. However, in tournaments your chips are finite and your big hands are limited, you have to maximize the return you gain from these hands. Yes you will get sucked out on a few times and probably end up out of a couple tournaments as a result, but the bigger pots you pickup when it works will help you to your goal of a top 3 finish. For instance, late in a tourney and you look down to find AA. There is one raise in front of you and you are in the cutoff. Do you reraise or call? I suggest you call and hope that you get to the flop with 2 or less opponents. Flop comes all small and the raiser leads out -- I just call here and raise on fourth street. Yes he might have caught trips because I did not reraise preflop and I likely will get stacked in that case. However, if I can get him to bet off pot sized bets on the flop and 4th street, the pots I win are going to be huge. You might even get lucky and your opponent will put all his chips in with TT or JJ, while he might have folded those hands if you moved all in preflop.
4. Tournaments are Often Won or Lost Near the Bubble. You have to take advantage of this key time in a tourney. Most players tighten up considerably both on the money bubble and the final table bubble. Both are great times to increase your preflop raising, however you want to slowdown your resteals here. Most players have tightened up, so if they raise you have to give them credit for a hand -- don't resteal unless you can push in for all your chips and feel good about it (for me that is probably AK, AQ and TT or above). However raising preflop now is positive EV because most people don't want to get involved unless they have a big hand. Additionally, the table is likely short-handed so your aggression should increase as a result. If you see a flop that you raised pre-flop, you should continuation bet unless the flop is very dangerous to your hand. Most of the time, you will be heads up and your opponent will not have hit the flop --- most players will not call or raise at this stage unless they hit the flop hard.
3. Tighten up Once you Reach the Final Table. Going out of a tourney 8th or 9th is not much better than going out 12th, but for some reason a lot more people will gamble needlessly once they reach the FT. You are much better to gamble when most of the field is tight (on the bubble) than when the field has loosened up (in the money or at the final table). I like to sit back and only play big hands until a few people go out at the FT. You don't want to reraise all in with 88 here and then lose to a gambling loose call by a player with AJ or AT. All the money is in the first 6 spots in a tourney, so when you reach a FT make sure to make it to the top 6 spots!
2. Getting to the FT Requires a Delicate Balance of Fear and Reckless Abandon. Having just one of these two traits is going to limit your success dramatically. You need to have both and balance them just right to win. If you are always willing to push in with JJ or TT, you are going to go out of a lot of tourneys to a race or dominated by a bigger hand -- I would call this reckless abandon. However, if you are never willing to call all in with JJ or TT you are giving up too much hand equity -- I would call this fear. Balance is the key, especially with a small to medium stack. You need to be willing to push in your chips when it folds around to you, but you should not be doing it recklessly with hands like A4 or A9 unless you know your opponent will fold. It is this balance that is the hardest thing to master in tournaments, but also the most rewarding when you do master it.
1. Don't go it Alone. To really become successful you need a mentor. If you don't have a mentor, then join a training site like PokerXFactor, Cardrunners or PokerMentors. If you are playing a stage of tournaments incorrectly, you will not correct it simply through experience. You need another perspective. Read the tournament forums, watch the best tournament players play the weekend tournaments, just don't try to go it alone. Your improvement will be much quicker with help.
Good luck all and happy new year.