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Poker Strategy | Tournaments Strategy

The different stages of a tournament

Aaron Hendrix
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In every poker tournament, there are different stages that require different tactical approaches. In this poker tournament strategy article, I am going to discuss these stages and a few ideas on how to approach them.

Early Stages

This should be the stage of the tournament where you do the most limping/calling of raises/playing of marginal/speculative hands. Why? Well because the cost relative to the percentage of your stack. For example, 8-7s for a 3x BB raise in the first couple of levels will usually be a small percentage of your stack. In the later levels, it'll be a much larger percentage. You should be looking for as many opportunities to see flops and pick up pots as you can at this stage.

This is the stage when the really bad players will either build big stacks or give their chips away - don't sit back and let other people do the picking off, get in there and try and get some of those chips yourself. It's all about implied value at this point. Make the 200 call with a speculative hand - your goal with the hand is to not win the 200 bet your opponent made, but to win the 10K he has in his stack.

Small to middle pairs are GREAT at this stage as their implied value if you flop a set is high. Most important at this stage... play small pots. Don't over commit yourself to marginal hands. Make your stab if you think you can win the pot, but be careful if you face any adverse pressure. It's ok to fold the best hand at this stage because if you are wrong, it's harder to recover.

Middle Stages

This is typically the stage where the antes kick in. How you play here will depend on how you did in the early stages, so we'll separate this into three categories:

SHORT (< 20x the BB) - basically, you're going to have to look for two types of pots. 1) Ones where you can double up with premium hands (and you should push these hands aggressively) and 2) Ones where you can pick up pots with minimal risk despite holding marginal/poor cards (some good examples - being on the button with two players you know are very tight in the blinds or my personal favorite, moving all in from late position or the blinds when two weak/passive players have limped in, these are easy stack builders).

MEDIUM (20-40x the BB) - here it's important to play positionally strong poker. Don't be raising with pocket deuces under the gun (but at the same time if you think you can limp in with it and see a cheap flop, by all means do so) and don't be calling raises with K-J. Use first in vigorish to your maximum advantage. Re-raise positional raises if you feel they are just that. Don't play overly tight, but pick the right spots to make your "gap" steals.

BIG (>40x the BB) - you still want to play positionally strong poker, but you can afford to take a few more luxuries. Where you might have limped with pocket deuces under the gun with a medium stack, with a big stack you can raise. You have the chips to induce fear - use them. You should be applying the gap concept liberally, open raising at least 1-2 times an orbit. This will pay off when they eventually 1) play back at you when you have a hand or 2) just call you and you hit the flop with your marginal hand and they pay you off.

Late Stages

Again, much of what you do here will depend on your stack size.

SHORT (<10x the BB) - you can't afford to sit back and wait. Many people will advocate moving all in with any ace first to act, and there are certainly times to do so (I'm much more likely to move in with an ace in later positions than I am earlier), but generally you want to move in with a hand that you know if you get called has "outs" - the best hands to do so with are connected cards ten and under and pairs. Obviously, you're still going to move in with your big aces, your K-Q suited type of hands, etc; but if push comes to shove, don't be afraid to move all in with 8-7s. You aren't in the position to be folding your way into victory so quite simply you're just going to have to take some chances to maintain your stack (meaning you should be doing this at least once per orbit in order to maintain your stack until you do hit that premium hand).

MEDIUM - much like the middle stages of the tournament, you want to play positionally strong poker and avoid coin-flip confrontations with stacks that are bigger than yours and embrace coin-flip confrontations with stacks that are <50% the size of yours. Use the gap concept in the right spots. Generally speaking, you should only be coming into pots at this stage for a raise.

BIG - Keep attacking until they start coming back at you, and when they do start to play back at you, adjust and pick your spots. Attacking doesn't mean doing so blindly (i.e. re-raising a raiser with 8-5 offsuit when you know the raiser only raises with good hands) but doing so in the best spots (for example, you are in the SB and a player that you know is capable of raising with any two raises first to act from the cutoff - this would be a good time to pop them back and use your stack).

Knowing where you are at relative to the stage of the tournament you are in can have a significant impact on your long term profitability in tournament poker. Too many players make the mistake of panicking because they feel as if they have to have a certain amount of chips. There are times to panic, so know when those times are and adjust accordingly. Otherwise take advantage of your opponent's fears and panic and you'll find yourself making it much deeper in the tournaments you play in.

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