This article focuses on 6-max sit and go's (SnGs), but much of what will be said can also be applied to full ring games. The strategy in this article is based on experience in SnGs with buy-ins of up to $13, but can also be relevant for slightly higher limits. The article about
6-max cash games for beginners
provides a good basis.
Statistics aren't really that important when playing SnGs. In the beginning you play against unknowns anyway, at which point statistics won't help you much. By the time you've played enough hands to make use of statistics, there will often have been a couple of eliminations at the table and the game turns into more of a maths game than a game with reads. There are moments when statistics can be very helpful, but we'll talk more about that later.
We can split up the SnGs into three phases:
1. the early phase: the blind levels 10/20 up to 25/50
2. the middle phase: the phase up until heads-up
3. the end phase: the heads-up
. Each of the three phases is discussed separately with a couple of annotations on preflop and postflop play.
The early phase
During the early phase of a SnG it is sensible to play very tight. The goal is to find out who the fish are at the table. These players reveal themselves by often (open)limping and playing big pots on later streets with marginal hands. At the lower limits most of your opponents will show some or all of these characteristics, but also at the higher limits you will often see one or two of these players at your table. If the right situations come up you can pick up some big pots against these fish in the early stages, but generally these pots will take place during the middle phase.
Another important aspect of SnGs is that the chips don't have a linear value. With this I mean that a stack which is double the size does not mean the player will cash twice as often. Assuming that every player at the table is equally skilled, everyone has an equity of 16.7% (1/6) at the beginning of the tournament. If there are only 3 players left and you still have your starting stack in front of you, your equity has already increased and now lies at around 25%. In other words: if you can maintain your stack for a couple of blind levels and players are eliminated, your equity increases. This is another reason to play tight in the beginning.
Something you should (almost) never do in 6-max SnGs is to open-limp. Especially in 6-max games aggression is very important and open-limping represents everything but strength. Your premium hands should also be raised as you don't want to end up in multiway pots and you want to get paid off with them.
We also seldom overlimp. If, for example, you have J7o on the button with one limper in front of you, just fold the hand. We should try and avoid marginal spots as much as possible. You also wouldn't want to end up losing a big pot against the BB with a hand like 83o and a J83 flop. We can limp with pocket pairs up to 99 (or raise if we are first to enter the pot). We can also choose to limp in if we get the right odds for doing so, like when there has been a series of limpers in front of us. A mistake that is often made is limping in the small blind with almost every hand. The first disadvantage is that you are in the worst position and secondly you seldom hit a good enough flop to justify your call (make it +EV). You can call in situations where there have been 3 limpers in front of you, but get used to folding your rags if there have only been one or two limpers.
A raise during this phase should be three or four times the big blind plus one extra big blind for every limper. If you are first to enter the pot, make it 3BB. If two players have limped in front of you, make it 6BB. Whenever you see a flop against 2 or more players, you should only c-bet your strong hands such as top pair/top kicker, an overpair, a combo draw or better. Exceptions here are situations where you (practically) flop the nuts. In this case it could be sensible to check the flop, depending on the aggression level of your opponents. If you see a flop heads-up, you can also c-bet if you miss on a dry board (a board without many draws). A c-bet should always be around 60% of the potsize with the exception of drawy boards, where a c-bet should be more around 100%. If you encounter resistance and still haven't hit on the turn, then just let the hand go and don't continue betting (2nd barrelling). This is just not profitable in these types of SnGs. I would suggest to c-bet big (at least 75% of the pot) with a big hand if it is likely that villain is chasing a flush or straight. If you allow them to chase as a result of light, -EV bets, then their play can become +EV again as you will have to call a small bet on the river because of your odds. Your biggest edge lies in the middle phase so it's not a disaster if you scare them out of the pot by aggressive betting.
For an openingsrange I can again refer you to the before mentioned article on 6-max basics for microlimits. If you have players to your left who are relatively aggressive or loose, then you will have to adjust your openingsrange accordingly. In this early stage you don't want to sit out of position against a loose player without a good hand.
Low and medium pocket pairs we play for setvalue when calling a raise with them. The rule here is that you can call preflop as long as both your stack and your opponents stack are at least ten times the size of the raise amount you need to call. In SnGs it might be better to stick to a value larger than ten, as it unlikely that you will get your opponent to go all-in every time you hit a set. Against a raise from a player in early position you can stick with the factor ten, as villain will often be holding a monster in this case, but against a raise from a player in the CO I would recommend to stick to a higher factor.
Example: the CO with a 1,500 stack raises to 100 during the 15/30 level and you are on the button with 1,200 in front of you holding pocket 4's. This is often a fold, because you won't win 1,000 chips from the CO often enough to make the call profitable, as his range is a lot bigger than just premium hands. However, against a player who is UTG (or UTG+1), you could call this hand.
Besides that we will only call raises if we get the right odds, for example after a minraise when we're in the big blind or we're sitting on high suited connectors and a couple of players in front of you have already called the raise.
The middle phase
The blinds are now 50/100 and are starting to become worth stealing. In some cases you might have been able to pick up some pots at this stage, but especially in turbo SnGs your stack will often still be around 1,500 or lower. This is not really a problem, as you can be back in the game in no time if you manage to double up, win a few small pots or steal the blinds a couple of times. During this phase you have the biggest edge on the fish at the table who like to see flops and play marginal hands. For this reason, this is the most important phase of a SnG. At the start of this phase there will often be around 4 players left. This phase is also referred to as the push/fold phase, as many of the remaining players won't be able to see a flop +EV anymore.
The first thing you should do is calculate the 'M' of your stack, as this value will determine how you have to play. Your 'M' value is your stack divided by the starting pot (BB+SB(+antes)). If, for example, you still have a stack of 1,500, then your 'M' at this level with blinds 50/100 is equal to 10. By the time your 'M' is smaller than 10, you don't really have the option to raise +EV preflop anymore. The reason for this is that you will be committed after a possible c-bet. Your stack is now so small that you don't have much leeway after the flop.
Once your 'M' is smaller than 5 it's high time for you to double up. In this phase you play all pocket pairs like they are the nuts and will always play them for stacks. Exceptions might be if there has been a lot of action in front of you and you only have a low pair. You no longer have the luxury to wait for a premium hand with which you are going to be a big favourite when going all-in. A chance of 50-55% to more than double up isn't that bad. You can stick to the range from the article on 6-max microlimits, the only difference now is that you no longer raise these hands, but shove. Do, however, watch out for limpers in front of you. Ask yourself with what kind of hands these players will limp and whether or not you are likely to be ahead against their range. This is a phase when statistics do come in handy. If it gets folded to you in the SB then you push with any 2 cards, even rags like Q5o, 86s and even 27o. The BB will still fold some of his hands, which gives you fold equity, and if he does call, you have the chance to double up. The more the player in the BB folds, the more lucrative the play becomes, but it is always +EV.
Like I said before, if your 'M' is smaller than 10, you can no longer raise and your only options are to push or fold. Only with AA or KK you can decide to deviate from this line. This situation is just a little less dramatic than the one described above. If an average aggressive player raises to 3xBB, you can decide to push with pocket pairs 66+. You will be amazed by how often villain will still fold, and even if he doesn't, you will often have a coinflip situation to double up. Strong aces (AJ+) are also good hands to shove against these kinds of raises. Depending on your reads, you can choose to shove more often or not as much. If your opponent has been raising a lot of hands, you could also shove with KQ, and if you think he will play Ace-rag for stacks you can also decide to push with AT or A9. Especially at the lower limits you will be amazed at the hands villain will call your all-in with. Sometimes they will even gamble with JT or similar garbage. The main point of the story is that, once shorthanded, you can shove a lot of hands that, during the early phase, you would've folded to a raise. If your 'M' is getting close to 10, just wait a little bit longer for that good hand. And if your 'M' is getting close to 5, then ask yourself how often you are going to get called by a better hand if you shove in that spot with respect to the pot.
If your 'M' is smaller than 15 you still have some leeway. However, you should only raise here if you still have fold equity or are willing to call the shove by the shortstack sitting behind you. In other words, don't start raising JTs on the button with blinds 75/150 if the BB only has 800 left. There is a chance of him pushing with a hand like K-6, in which case you would be risking a big part of your stack with a marginal hand. You have fold equity if the players in the blinds also have an 'M' between 10 and 15, in which case it is worth trying to steal the blinds. This will especially be the case once you get down to 3-handed and the average stack is 3,000, with blinds of 50/100 or 75/150. If your 'M' is greater than 15 you are in a position to play some more hands against other big stacks, but the same rules apply for playing against the shortstacks.
Once you've reached the middle phase you should reduce your raise to 2.5xBB. First of all, it makes it easier for you to lay down your hand when encountering a lot of resistance, and you have more leeway for a possible c-bet on the flop. C-bets are usually 50-60% of the potsize, regardless of whether you hit or not. On drawy flops that you missed completely, try and check it out, and fold to any bet if you have little or no outs. The only exception here are blind battles, where you would still raise 3xBB, both in the SB and in the BB is the SB just called.
If you get raised in the blinds you can play back by calling in case of a minraise, or by shoving if you have a good hand. Your opponents will also try and steal from you and if you play back at their steal attempts they will still often fold. If you are sitting 3-handed and facing a raise with a pocket pair you can often decide to go all-in. First of all you still have fold equity here, and often enough you will also have the best hand. If you still have some leeway you can also decide to fold small pocket pairs as many villains will call your shove with any pair, and it can be quite annoying to run into 44 when holding 22.
I would also recommend using poker tools such as SnG wizard. This is a program that can predict if a hand should be folded or pushed all-in by using some complicated mathematics. It really is a must for SnG players who want to improve their game. The program is very user-friendly and you will have it figured out in no time.
The end phase: Heads-Up
Congratulations, you made the money! There is just one little thing left to do; you want to win. Unfortunately there isn't really a winning strategy that works against everyone, so you should try and find the weak spots of this villain as fast as possible. Villain could be playing very passive, he could often open-shove, or it could be a villain who knows how to play HU. Although the latter won't often be the case, you will often see that villain suddenly starts playing differently once HU.
Sometimes you will be holding the bigger stack at this point because you were the one that eliminated the last player, or you will enter HU with a chip-disadvantage. The better you do during the push/fold phase, the more you will enter HU play with the chiplead. As before, an 'M' of 5 means that you can only push or fold, although you should probably adopt this line with an 'M' of 8 or less. Since you are in the blinds every hand during HU play, you will either quickly double up or be eliminated. The one thing you can't do is wait too long for a good hand to come.
You can easily recognize if villain is too passive if he often folds preflop after you raised, and also if you often see a showdown by checking down the hand. If, however, this type of villain does suddenly raise, you can be pretty sure he's holding a strong hand.
Then there are other villains that play much too aggressive. These players are characterised by big preflop raises or even open-shoving. Here you just have to wait for a hand that is good enough to call his all-in with, or to go all-in with yourself after villain raised. Bluffing has little point here as villain will often dig his own grave anyway. High pocket pairs and strong aces are great hands to play back with in these situations.
Something you could also experiment with is limping with your first monster HU. It is amazing how often villain will see this as a sign of weakness and you will regularly be confronted with a 3xBB raise, or even more. They aren't used to you limping, and therefore they put you on a weak hand. After villain's raise you can shove and the chance is big that you will even get called.
Every now and then the HU will reach blind levels of 200/400 or even 300/600. In this phase we shove with pretty much every acceptable hand. If you have around 2,500 left, you just shove every time you're on the button and with every acceptable hand when in the BB and the button limps. You still have quite some fold equity left as villain is looking for that one hand to bust you with. But also when ahead in chips you should keep on shoving regularly. Your opponent is the one who needs to survive the all-in, and if you lose, you still have some chips left. Many opponents are so passive during this phase that pretty much anything can happen. Sometimes, with a stack of 2,500, you hope that the blinds go up to 200/400 to make it easier for you to double up. Once you've reached 300/600 it's pretty much a lottery and you will just have to shove every hand on the button. You will be amazed at how often your opponent will still fold. Often they also fold if they themselves are on the button. So even if you happen to lose an all-in, you can back in the game in no time.
Early phase: Start off playing tight and don't play too many marginal hands. Never open-limp, since that shows weakness. Don't c-bet too much, unless you have a made hand. The more dangerous the board, the higher your valuebets should be. Your biggest edge lies in the middle phase, and it is more the rule than an exception to end the early phase with a stack of 1200-1500.
Middle phase: Calculate your 'M' before every hand, which is equal to your stack divided by the starting pot. Once you have reached an 'M' of 5 or less, you should shove with every acceptable hand, and with an 'M' of less than 10 you can no longer raise preflop. This also counts if villain is a shortstack and you yourself are the big stack. If you have a bit more leeway, then raise if you have enough fold equity, or if you are willing to call an all-in from the shortstack behind you. 'Seeing flops' is not really an option anymore during this phase.
Heads-up: Try to find your opponent's weak spots as fast as possible. This works best by raising or folding every time you're on the button. Within 10 hands you should know whether your opponent is passive or aggressive. If he is passive, then you need to be aggressive by often opening, and if your opponent is aggressive you just have to wait for a good hand with which to play back at him preflop or wait for a good flop like top pair. If either you or your opponent is very shortstacked, it's a question of pushing or folding.
General: As with most things in poker, the best way to learn is by playing often and learning how to recognise situations. If you really want to improve your game, then the SnG wizard is a great tool to help you during the push/fold phase. It's not wrong to deviate from these tips every now and then, but when you do, make sure your actions are based on reads.