pokercc Anyone can win a poker tournament by getting the right cards at the right time, or by playing against terrible poker players. And we all know what the ultimate secret to winning poker is: aggression. But how can you more consistently win poker tournaments when the cards aren’t falling your way, your opponents are decent, and without risking your tournament life with over-the-top aggression? After all, the all-in move will work every time but once: then you’re walking past the rail.
The secret to winning poker tournaments is to recognize the three key periods in any tournament: (1) the early game; (2) the mid stages; and (3) the late game. The secret to winning Texas hold em tournaments is to have a distinct strategy for each of the critical crunch times in the poker tournament:
The early game – There are two schools of thought to playing the early game in a poker tournament. The conservative approach, what I will call the Harrington school, is to buckle down, play tight, and wait for the right spots to come to you. The goal is to preserve your chip stack for the later stages of the tournament without risking any dangerous, early all-in confrontations. This is not to say that you won’t play your premium hands (the top 5% of all cards dealt), but you don’t ever want to invest the majority of your stack without a very strong hand. You certainly don’t want to speculate and gamble without a strong advantage. The advantage of this strategy is that it reduces your beta: you’re unlikely to build a big stack early on but you’re also much less likely to stage an early exit.
This strategy should be preferred at the lower limits and at tables full of loose, inexperienced players. Let the loose, erratic players bust out without engaging in reckless gambling yourself. On the other hand, you might apply maximum aggression in the early game with the goal of doubling up early. You do this by speculating with a variety of hands, in or out of position (including suited connectors, all pairs, and complete trash if you can push a tight player off their hand after the flop). The key to this approach is to be a balanced loose player. You can absolutely not afford to be a calling station: loose play is only justified if you’re willing to turn up the aggression to compensate for playing these weaker hands. But while loose, passive play is the worst possible poker strategy, becoming a maniac and going all-in without rhyme or reason is (nearly) as bad.
Loose, aggressive players looking to build a big stack early will raise and re-raise frequently, but preferably pre-flop and on the flop when the betting is cheap. When you start seriously gambling, you should either have the best hand, a lot of outs, or a good reason to think your opponent will fold. This loose, aggressive double-or-nothing approach is best-suited for a table full of tight aggressive players schooled in the Harrington strategy of preserving their starting chip stacks for the later stages. You can exploit these players’ conservatism to garner an early chip lead.
The mid game – If there is a single secret to winning poker tournaments, it’s found in your mid game play. This is when most players begin to tighten their game, afraid to risk their remaining chips as they edge toward the payout. This is a natural tendency: while it’s cheap to speculate with low blinds in the early game, the rising blinds cause players to reassess the value of speculating with marginal hands. If this happens at your table (and almost always it will), you should once again take the opposite approach. You need to view the mid-game as make or break for your tournament life: you absolutely must build a big stack heading into the high-blind late stages by any means necessary.
You must raise in position, re-raise pre-flop, and gamble aggressively, especially against tight medium-stacked opponents. You also need to pull out the occasional big bluff on the turn and river on a board that turns scary after the flop. If you can steal two or three big pots with the worst hand and steal more than your fair share of pots without a fight by constantly raising in position, you’ll give yourself enough chips for the late stage. Since the high-blind, late-stage of the tournament will rapidly devolve into pure gambling, you need this big stack to maximize your chances of winning the tournament.
If you’re going to come in one of the top spots, you can’t risk your entire poker tournament on one big gamble. Without building a big stack in the mid-stages, you’ll end up getting all your chips in for one big gamble sooner or later. If the cards don’t fall your way (and there’s always a good chance of that happening), you’ll bust out in one of the lower-tier payouts. Even if you finish in the money, you’ll miss the lucrative top payouts.
The late game – This is all aggression, all the time. Ideally, you’d like to pick on tight, medium-stacks. Alternatively, gamble with short stacks that are forced to make desperate all-ins. The only real rule to follow is to avoid a big gamble with another big stack. You never want to put your poker tournament life on the line on a single deal of the cards, if you can help it. That said, you’ll be forced to make some gambles in the late stages, and it’s better to be the aggressor. Challenge the other players to fold to your aggressive plays.
With a big stack, you’ll intimidate the other players and can afford to lose a couple of coin flips. If you find yourself short-stacked, use the best opportunity to push all-in. Never allow yourself sink below 5x the big blind without moving in, regardless of cards. This is the most random part of the poker tournament, but if you’ve built your stack in the mid-game you’ll maximize your chances of placing in one of the top-tier payouts. Dominating the mid-game is the ultimate secret to winning poker tournaments.
Divide your play and adjust your strategy for the three key phases of a poker tournament, and you’ll profit from the result. The secret to winning poker tournaments is to have an appropriate strategy for each phase, and building the biggest possible chip stack before the blinds rise to prohibitive levels in the late game. Sometimes this means an early exit, but you have to be willing to die in order to live (and profit).