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Poker Strategy | Tournaments Strategy

Playing Deep Stacked Tournaments

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If you've been fortunate enough to win a seat into the World Series of Poker Main Event, you'll be playing in a structure that very few tournaments offer. You'll start with 20,000 in chips and the blinds at 50/100. That's 200 big blinds. A typical online tournament for example will start with 1,500 in chips and blinds at 15/30, or 50 big blinds. Then there is the additional benefit of having an amazing two hours per round. The slow pace of blind escalation coupled with the larger stack size creates an entirely different type of play and many poker players have problems adjusting.

What usually will happen is an aggressive online player who is used to making lots of re-raises and all in moves pre-flop will find that this strategy does not work in a deep stack tournament. The only time your all-in will get called is if you are beat. Reraises also lose their effect because the stack sizes are so much deeper. In a typical online tournament with the blinds at 15/30 with a player opening the action to 90, a re-raise to 300 has significant meaning because it is 20% of your starting stack size. In a deep stack tournament like the WSOP, however, a typical opening raise to 300 with a re-raise to 1,000 is only 5% of your starting stack. Players are much more likely to give you unwanted action in a deep stack event and many players have difficulty making this adjustment.

The failure to adapt usually leads to a players stack size shrinking and the player becoming frustrated and moving away from their best game. While it is important to be aggressive and constantly look to accumulate chips when the situations arise, it is perhaps more important to maintain discipline and to be patient. The WSOP isn't won in one, or even two, hands. It's a long grind of a tournament that will see you suffer numerous bad beats. Your goal will be to have enough chips to withstand the bad luck.

That being said, however, it's important that you play the style of poker that got you there in the first place. Another common problem is that players get intimidated by the big buy-in, the big name professionals, and the general overwhelming atmosphere that is the WSOP Main Event. Loose fish become rocks and rocks become calling stations. You still want to be patient and disciplined, but do so within the framework of your game and not someone else’s.

What's the correct style of play?

We're not going to go into end game play here as your first goal should be to accumulate enough chips to get you to that point. There are numerous approaches to chip accumulation and the style you employ will depend on your personal playing traits and how your table is playing. Let's look at three common chip accumulation approaches:

#1 – The passive, limp in and see a lot of flops approach – with this approach your objective is to limp in and see as many cheap flops as you possibly can, including calling small raises with a wide range of hands. Your reasoning for doing this is to take advantage of your opponent's post-flop mistakes. For example, let's say you limp in after two other limpers with 6-5 off suit on the button. The big blind, who has pocket aces, makes it 400 to go with the blinds at 50/100, both limpers call and you do as well. The flop comes K-6-5. A dangerous flop for your hand, but one that is most likely best. The pocket aces guy bets 1,200 into the 1,600 pot. The other two players fold. You make it 3,500 to go and your opponent snap pushes without thinking through the hand. You call and bust him and have accomplished your goal of accumulating chips. This is the main reason behind employing this approach; however, it does come with some risk. In order to pull this off, you will need to be a very strong post-flop player.

#2 – The small ball approach. This is the approach commonly used by pros like Daniel Negreanu and Gus Hansen and it's very similar to #1 with the exception being that instead of limping in, the small baller will take control of the action with small pre-flop raises and post-flop bets. The goal is the same as in #1 – get players to make post-flop mistakes but the raising and betting induces more action and also allows you to pick up pots on bluffs. In #1, you're relegated mainly to picking up pots when you have hands and even when you do have hands your opponents might notice you waking up and not give you action. The small ball approach, however, keeps your opponents continuously guessing as you are constantly applying pressure.

#3 – The tight aggressive big pot approach. If you're not comfortable with post-flop play, this is the approach you should consider using. A player using this approach will only play big hands or play hands in position. Their goal is to get as much money in the pot pre-flop so that their post-flop decisions are relatively simple to make. For example, let's say a player has opened the action to 300 with the blinds at 50/100. Our hero has kings and rather than just making a standard raise to say 1,000, he makes it 2,500 to go. He's looking to get all his money in pre-flop if possible and if he is just called, he knows that most likely the rest of the money, or a good chunk of it, is going in on the flop. Believe it or not there is actually some merit to using this approach because of the hyper-aggressive nature of today’s players. A surprising number of players would have no problem calling a re-raise that is over 10% of their stack because after all, they have “implied odds.”

Don't turn into a calling station.

What happens most often for a newcomer coming into a deep stack, big buy-in event is that they turn into a calling station overnight. It's as if they stepped off the plane and morphed overnight into this ugly little butterfly that only knows the words “I call.” There are a number of factors that lead to this strange behavior. The pressure of the money and the incredible stage that the WSOP Main Event are certainly lend a hand, but most likely it is a player not accustomed to playing with such a large stack and their natural curiosity gets the best of them. Here's a typical hand for a first timer playing in the WSOP:

Our hero has A-K and opens the action for 300 with the blinds at 50/100. He gets two callers and there is 950 in the pot. The flop comes K-8-6. A great flop for our hero as he has flopped top pair, top kicker. He bets 600 into the pot and is raised by one of his opponents to 1,800. The other player folds and our hero calls. There is now 4,550 in the pot. The turn is an innocent looking deuce. Our hero checks and calls a 3,000 bet from his opponent. There is now 10,550 in the pot. The river is a harmless three. Our hero checks and calls a 5,000 bet from his opponent who turns over a flopped set of sixes. Our hero has lost half of his stack in one hand, when his best course of action would have been to put in a third raise on the flop to define his opponent's hand. Make a raise to say 4,500 there and when your opponent puts in a fourth raise, you can fold and save yourself nearly 5K in chips. Or you can even lean on the side of caution and fold to the initial 1,800 raise. Regardless, calling as you can see only leads down one road... and that's the rail.

If you find yourself playing in a deep stack event like the WSOP Main Event, remember that you cannot get information about your opponent's hand by calling. Yes, there are times you will want to call when it is likely you have the best hand and want to keep the pot small, but generally it is best to be aggressive with bets and/or raises. Your opponent's reaction will typically tell you what you need to know. If they fold, they had nothing and you had the best hand. If the call, they are most of the time, but not always, on a draw or have a hand that they feel might be the best but are unsure. If you have a strong hand, you should continue firing. If you're bluffing, you should proceed cautiously but another bet is probably not out of line. If your opponent raises, unless they are a maniac, it usually means they really like their hand and you should only proceed if you have a very good read on your opponent or feel that there is a chance that they are making this bet with a hand that is worse than yours.

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