It is difficult to prepare an article that discusses general Holdem tournament strategy, mainly because there are so many different variables that factor in to how you should play. The best approach perhaps is to look at a tournament as having different stages that require different tactical approaches. This article is going to discuss these stages and what types of things you should be doing during these stages.
The early portion of the tournament should be when you do the most limping and calling of raises and playing of marginal and speculative hands. The reason for this is simple. The cost to speculate is low, while the reward is high. When you have 100 big blinds and it is 3 big blinds to see a flop with a potential of winning an additional 97 big blinds from your opponent, there is value in seeing flops with hands that most people would not think have value. In the later stages, the exact opposite is true. It'll be more of your stack to see a flop and there will be less you can usually win from your opponent.
Another reason to play a lot of hands at this level is because this is when the really bad players are either building big stacks or giving their chips away. Don't make the mistake of sitting back and letting other people get those chips. Get in there and try and take some of those chips yourself.
During this stage, it's all about implied value. Make that 2-3 big blind call with a speculative hand. Your goal shouldn't be to win the 2-3 big blind raise that your opponent made but to win their entire stack. This is the reason small to medium pairs are great at this stage. Their implied value, if you flop a set, is extremely high, especially if your opponent has a big pair or big cards that have hit a big pair.
The most important thing at this stage is to play small pots. Try to not over commit yourself to marginal hands and situations. If you think you can win the pot, then go ahead and bet. If you face adverse pressure though, err on the side of caution unless you have absolutely no doubt that you are ahead. It's alright to fold the best hand during this stage because if you are wrong, it's hard to recover.
The middle stages usually occur when the antes first kick in. How you play during these stages will depend on how well you did in the early stages. There are three different categories of middle stages play.
Short stacked (<20 big blinds) – when you are short stacked you are looking for two types of hands. One, where you can double up with a premium hand. Two, where you can pick up a pot with minimal risk despite the cards you are holding. Some examples are: raising on the button when there are two very tight players in the blinds or perhaps moving all in when two very weak, passive players have limped in.
Medium stacked (20-40 big blinds) – when you have a medium stack, you want to use position as much as possible. It's better to not raise with small pairs in early position here, but it's ok to limp in with them if your table is being passive. Avoid calling raises with marginal hands like K-J or Q-10. If you are first to act, use it to the maximum advantage. Also feel free to re-raise position raises if you feel that is what they are. Try not to play overly tight, but make sure you are picking the right spots to make your raises and re-raises.
Big stacked (>40 big blinds) – with a big stack you can take a few more chances than you can if you are short or medium stacked. Obviously you will still want to play positionally strong poker but where you might have limped with a small pair with a medium stack, with a big stack you can raise. Your stack is a weapon that induces fear in your opponents – use it.
You should also be opening first to act liberally, at least one to two times an orbit. In addition, you should be testing the medium stacks that are open raising with re-raises, regardless of your cards. Tournament poker is all about survival and your opponent will be hard pressed to play with you unless they have a very strong and legitimate hand. This aggressive play also lends itself to adding to your stack because eventually players will start playing back at you and they will do so when you have a legitimate hand.
As with the middle stages, what you do here will depend on how big your stack is.
Short Stacked (<10 big blinds) – a mistake too many players make here is to sit back and wait. You can't afford to, so don't. Many players think you should move all in with any ace first to act and while there are times to do so, your best move is usually to move all in with a hand that will have outs if you are called. Connected cards and pairs fit best into this category. You will still obviously move all in with big aces and K-Q type of hands, but if you are first to act and look down at 8-7 suited, don't be afraid to move all in. You don't have the luxury of folding your way to victory so you are going to have to take chances in order to maintain your stack until you are dealt a premium hand. You should be open raising/shoving at least once an orbit in order to keep your stack size at the same level.
Medium Stacked (10-25 big blinds) – as with the middle stage of a tournament, you want to use position and try and avoid coin flips with stacks that are bigger than yours while embracing coin flips with stacks that are less than ½ your stack. Open raise in the right spots, and for the most part, raising is the only way you should be entering a pot at this stage.
Big Stacked (>25 big blinds) – with a big stack at this stage you should pound away at your opponents relentlessly. Keep attacking them until they can't take it any more. When they do start re-raising you, tighten up your game and pick your spots.
Understanding how you stand relative to the stages of a tournament is an important part of knowing how to play tournament poker properly. Don't make the mistake of panicking just because you feel you are short stacked. There are times to panic, so understand when those situations are and adjust your game accordingly. When it's not that time, however, take advantage of your opponents own fears and panic and you'll find yourself being the one stacking up all the chips late in the tournament.
The Main Holdem Strategy Index: The Great Game of Holdem