Five Common Tournament Mistakes Made by Poker Players
Poker tournaments differ from cash games thanks in part to the always increasing blinds and antes. While the blinds in a cash game never change, that's not the case in a tournament where blinds go up at regular intervals, as do the antes. That feature of tournaments is obviously in place to force players to commit chips and be eliminated, thereby ensuring the tournament eventually reaches a conclusion.
The other big difference between tournaments and cash games, of course, concerns the way winners are rewarded. While money is won after every hand of a cash game, in a tournament no one wins anything until the end when the top finishers divide the prize pool according to a predetermined schedule of payouts. Usually only a relatively small percentage of participants make the money, with the largest prizes reserved for the winner and those who make the final table.
For example, at most World Series of Poker events this year the top 15 percent of the field makes the cash, with first-place finishers usually earning somewhere around 12.5 percent of the total prize pool. (There are some exceptions — e.g., in some of the smaller field, higher buy-in events the winners are getting 25-30 percent of the prize pool.)
These two factors — the structure and the payouts — mean circumstances are constantly changing in tournaments when compared to cash games. Deep stacks necessarily become more shallow as the tournament progresses, affecting players' decisions when playing particular hands. Then when the bubble approaches and bursts and the payouts begin, that also greatly affects players' strategy.
Or at least that should be the case, if players are sufficiently aware of the changes happening around them.
Here are five common mistakes made in tournaments, all of which are related to players failing to recognize how the tournament format introduces important differences that necessarily change how the game is played.
1. Not Recognizing the Structure
You may start a tournament with a comfortably deep stack of 100 or 200 big blinds (or even more). But if after a few levels you remain around the starting stack, you chips might be worth only 30-40 BBs and be a "medium" stack. Not long after that you still might be where you started but you could be down to 10-20 BBs and "short."
Tournaments with fast structures such as "turbo" events often have rapidly increasing blinds and antes as well as levels of short duration. That means players can't always be as selective with their starting hand requirements as they would be if the structure were slower. That also means players might not need to be so worried about defending or trying to steal blinds early (when they are relatively small) but should be more so later on (when they have increased).
Always be aware of not just how many chips you have, but of how many big blinds those chips are worth in the current level. And keep an eye as well on what the blinds and antes will be when the next level starts. Sometimes (especially in low buy-in, fast events) the jumps can be big ones, and you don't want to be caught off guard.
2. Not Recognizing Changing Stack Sizes
In cash games stack sizes do change, although players can always replenish their stacks if they become short. That's not the case in a tournament. When looking around the table at any given point in a tournament, it will often happen that stack sizes vary wildly, with some players being very deep and others very short.
Your own stack size obviously should affect your decision-making in a tournament. For example, with a short stack you might not want to get involved preflop with a speculative hand, whereas if you are deep you might be more willing.
You also need constantly to be aware of the depth of your opponents' stacks, including whether or not they have you covered at the start of a hand (or if you cover them). A short stack in the blinds might prevent you from trying a late position raise with trash when you know you won't want to call a reraise-shove. Or if you become too shallow you might find it uncomfortable to make a standard preflop raise knowing that any further action will necessitate committing the rest of your chips.
3. Not Recognizing the Bubble Approaching
Experienced tournament players know that strategy changes from the early to middle to late stages of an event. The approach of the money bubble often introduces a dramatic change in approach by many players.
Some become more aggressive when the bubble nears, especially if they have chips with which to pressure others. Others tighten up considerably, especially if they are short, although even some with medium and big stacks will not want to get involved and risk missing the money.
Don't be oblivious to the significant change in the tournament's dynamic caused by the money bubble drawing close.
4. Not Recognizing Pay Jumps
Once a tournament gets into the money, some players disregard pay jumps until the money "matters" to them — say, once they reach the final table and the differences from one elimination to the next become signficant.
Often the pay jumps are quite gradual early on, meaning most players probably shouldn't be worrying too greatly about the difference between busting right now or a few minutes later. Later, though, and especially at the final table, the differences in payouts should be an important factor affecting decision-making in particular hands. That is where "ICM" or the Independent Chip Model comes into play, helping show the "real money" value of tournament chips.
Even without knowing exact ICM calculations, players at a final table have to recognize the importance of not taking undesirable risks to their potential profit, as well as how and when to exert pressure on others who are themselves wary of going out before the next pay jump. This is why two final table big stacks will often try to avoid clashing while there are other short stacks still alive.
5. Not Recognizing the Mental Challenge of Tournaments
Poker is a mentally challenging game, no matter the format or variant. But tournaments especially require a couple of special "mental game" skills some players fail to recognize, especially those who are used to cash games.
One of those skills is patience. As in cash games, tournament players need to be patient when selecting starting hands, being mindful of opponents' tendencies and position when they decide whether or not to get involved.
But tournament players also have to be patient with regard to the rewards tournaments offer, knowing that even the most successful tourney players fail to cash more often than not, and that the really big prizes for winning or going deep also come around only rarely. Tournament players have to be mentally prepared to come up short a lot as they strive for those big paydays.
Another often overlooked skill in tournaments is endurance. Cash game players can come and go as they please, putting in short sessions or taking breaks whenever they desire. Tournament players don't enjoy such freedom, having to stick with an event from the time they sit down until they bust or win.
Players with less experience are often surprised by both the physical and mental fatigue that affects them after many hours (or days) of poker. Often in tournaments the players who can remain alert and focused for long, uninterrupted stretches have an enormous edge over those who cannot.
We've characterized these mistakes as failing to "recognize" differences between tournaments and cash games, although in truth most players are likely at least aware of these differences whenever they buy into a tournament and take a seat.
However, many don't always appreciate just how significant these differences can be. Learn to anticipate how these broad differences between tournaments and cash games dictate how best to approach the game, and you'll soon be able to tackle other more subtle shifts in strategy tournaments require as well.