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Poker Tournament Strategy – A Beginners Guide

Everyone loves the rush of a $1 million guaranteed MTT (multi-table tournament). Weekly MTTs such as the Stars Sunday Million present new players the best chance to cash out serious bucks so it’s no wonder why the majority of traffic is in the tournament lobby.

However before you start your first tournament, you’ll need to change several elements of your playing style. Tournaments reward sheer aggression and bluffs more than cash games. You’ll have to raise steal more pots pre-flop, cbet and re-steal pots post-flop, and generally be willing to shove more often than in a cash game.

Not many people realise this but the value of chips actually decreases in tournaments. This makes the rewards of doubling up your chip stack greater than crashing out. To prove this, let’s say you bought into a 100 man MTT for $100 with 1,000 starting chips, each chip is worth $0.10c. However if the 1st place prize is $1,000 (10% of total prize pool) and the winner ends up with 1,00,000 chips, then the value of each chip now drops to $0.01c.

Playing Through the Tournament Stages
Normally, we break down MTTs into 3 sections that determine how we play:

  1. Early Stage: The early stages include the first few blind levels or until the antes begin. Players need to be play super tight with only their top 5% of hands such as QQ+ and AK+ (JJ can be played from late position also). All other hands need to be folded, this is something a lot of beginners fail to do. There’s no need to steal pre-flop pots or bluff on missed boards right now. You don’t want to go broke either. Just play super tight and bet aggressively on your premium hand to extract maximum value from the table.
  2. Middle Stage: Once the antes kick in the value of pre-flop pots shoots up massively and all of sudden the blinds become worth stealing. Open up your hand range to include marginal hands such as low pocket pairs, suited connectors and broadways from mid-late position and aim to steal more pots. Continue to fold all non-premium hands from EP. Bully tight-passive players, regularly raise from the cut-off and bluff your way into doubling up. Tournaments are a race to the finish and you need to accumulate chips fastest at this stage – sometimes it might even mean shoving all-in out of position with your top 15% of hands (with less than 10BBs). Most importantly, you need to tighten up as you approach the bubble (payoff places) because of a principle known as ICM. This states that the risks of losing chips outweigh the gains. Even when your 5% favourite in a coinflip, the risks of calling all-in and busting out with nothing from the MTT means you should fold. At the same time you still need to take advantage of table tightness and players sitting out (contradictory I know but it does make sense).
  3. Final Stage: As you’re relocated to the final table the game becomes short-handed and you have to loosen up. Hands like Ace suited and A6 suddenly become playable and you need to take down pots pre-flop if possible. Raise your premium hands 1010 to take it down there and then. Blinds can be worth 5% or more of everyone’s stacks and there isn’t much room for post-flop play (most will be pot-committed by the flop). Avoid showdowns with big stacks unless you’re confident of winning.