I myself am more of a cash game player, but due to the increase in demand for tournament strategy articles (and because it's nice to take a break from grinding every now and then) I decided to go play some tournaments for a change. This article is meant as an introduction to some of the basics of tournament poker.
Just like with cash games, a good game selection is very important when it comes to playing tournaments. Take into account your bankroll requirements for playing MTT's, the blind structure and the level of opponents you will have to deal with. I started playing tournaments with buy-ins of 1% of my total bankroll on the same site I play cash games on. These were predominantly Sit&Go's with 45 or 90 players. I then started playing the $4.40, 180-player Sit&Go's on PokerStars because many of the forum members were playing them and because they are ideal for multi-tabling. There is a new one starting up about every 10-15 minutes, making it easy to play between 8 and 10 on one night. Furthermore, these tournaments offer a nice payout for the top-spots, which is good for us, seeing as we are always playing for first place (and not to just finish in the money and double our buy-in). These tournaments also don't take very long, usually about 4 hours, so you don't have to start playing endless sessions and are still pretty fresh towards the end of the tournament. The blind structure is also relatively good so at least these tournament don't all end up being a total crapshoot.
ROI and ITM%
ROI (Return On Investment) is a measure of calculating your winnings when playing poker tournaments. In cash games you do this by calculating your winrate. Simply put, your ROI is your total winnings, divided by the total of all your buy-ins, converted into a percentage. Lets say you play a total of 50 donkament Sit&Go's like the ones mentioned above. You win one, come 5th once and 12th once. In total you now spent 50 x 4.40 on buy-ins (which is equal to $220) and you won $216 + $47 + $9 = $272. Your ROI is therefore (272-220) / 220 = 0.236, or 23.6%.
Luckily you won't have to keep track of your ROI yourself, as there are various sites like Sharkscope and OPR that calculate not only your ROI but also that of your opponents. This can be quite handy when you are interested to see how much experience one of your opponents at the final table really has.
An "In The Money %" comes in handy to see how good you are performing. For a 180 player Sit&Go, where the top 18 get paid, you would be expected to make it into the money 10% of the time. Hopefully, however, you are a little better than the average player and make the money more often than that.
In order to make good use of these statistics, however, you need to make sure to have a relatively large sample of tournaments. For example, you would need to play at least 100 donkaments before the statistics give you a proper indication about your game. If you want to be really accurate you will however need many more than that.
When playing No Limit tournament poker, your "M" is an indication about the health of your stack in relation to the blinds and antes. It is defined as the total number of chips in your stack, divided by the total cost you incur during one orbit. Lets say you are sitting full-ring and the blinds are 100/200, with antes of 25 and you have a stack of 5,000. Your "M" would now be 5,000/(100 + 200 + 10x25) = 5,000 / 550 = 9. This means that, if you don't play a single hand, you will be out of chips after 9 orbits.
You M is important when it comes to choosing the appropriate strategy. When you have a large M (greater than 20), you can pretty much play the way you want (be aggressive and pick up pots or wait for strong hands) without getting into a lot of trouble. The more your M value decreases, the sooner you will have to start winning some pots before the blinds completely eat away at your remaining stack.
We can classify the different M values into 5 groups like in the table below. For each zone you can also see the optimal strategy for that specific M.
Expected value is just as present in tournaments as it is in cash games, however there are some differences, seeing as you don't have the option to reload for example. The number of chips you have during a tournament are equal to a percentage of the total prizepool, which is going to affect your EV calculations when compared to playing cash games. Situations that are –EV are still unprofitable in the long run and you will have to try and avoid these situations.
The different stages of a tournament
A tournament can be split up into different stages (early, middle and final), each requiring a different strategy.
In a freeze-out tournament the blinds start off relatively small in relation to your stack and you have two possible ways to play during this phase. There are players who play very tight in the beginning because they want to avoid being eliminated early on and because they still have the time to wait for strong hands. Another strategy is to try and see as many flops as possible with potential hands like or even . These are hands with which you can win big pots against players only playing their top 10 hands, seeing as you will often play for stacks when you hit with your suited connectors against players with an overpair.
Especially when playing the lower buy-in tournaments I would recommend to play extremely tight during this early stage because there are a lot of bad players in the field who will call you down to the river with while you are holding . This also gives you very little fold equity, which makes it difficult to semi-bluff with certain types of hands.
The blinds are now increasing and your "M" is getting smaller. You now no longer have the option to wait for premium starting hands and you will have to become more creative. Hopefully by now you will have established some reads on the other players and you know against which players you can valuebet 3 times and which players know what's going on (and could therefore be bluffed out of a hand). Limping with marginal hands is now no longer an option. Preferably you want to find yourself in a raised pot and you are looking to take the pot down as soon as possible. Every time you flop a set and find yourself all-in against a flush draw, there is always the possibility that you might get eliminated. If this situation occurs 4 times during a tournament, the chance that you will win them all is very small, which decreases your chance to survive in the tournament. You don't always have to go for coinflips to stay alive in tournaments as there are many other ways to collect some chips.
With the blinds increasing, stealing blinds also becomes more and more important, especially once you have reached the "money-bubble". Many players completely tighten up with only a few players to go before the payouts, and you can exploit this but continuously stealing their blinds. You don't only need to do this when on the button or in the cut-off but can also try stealing from Under The Gun every now and then. A concept that becomes very important during this phase is the Gap Concept, which is in fact one of the reasons why we are stealing blinds from our opponents.
By now we have reached the payouts and there are only a couple of players left who have all made it into the money. The (shortstack) players that are left now will try and double up their stack as quickly as possible and hopefully reach the next payout level, while other players are tighting up in order to make a deeper run. Reads on your opponents are now more important than ever before, and this is also the time when you can start re-stealing when you have the feeling that the player a few places to your right is opening with a relatively wide range in order to steal your blinds.
As mentioned before, we are playing for first place, so play aggressive and try to pick up as many chips as possible from your tight opponents, but watch out when they start putting up resistance, in which case you should just lay down your hand.
At the end of this late stadium you naturally hope to find yourself heads-up and beating your final opponent. There are numerous articles written about how best to approach these situations, but it often comes down to your opponent not playing aggressive enough and not being aware of the size of the blinds relative to the size of the stacks.
To finish off with, here are a couple of additional tips to help you through the different stages of a multi-table tournament:
- Don't pay too much attention to the average stack over the course of a tournament, your own "M" is much more important.
- Exploit the bubble and don't start playing tighter when the bubble is approaching.
- Play a number of tournaments at the same time, as the variance is still pretty high, but don't let this affect your reads too much. These are especially important during the bubble time and at the final table.
- The last chips in your stack are worth more than the first ones you lose. Therefore, a continuation bet of 1/4 the size of your stack is much more risky in a tournament than it would be in a cash game.
- Towards the beginning of a tournament you can calculate roughly how many chips you will need to reach the final table. This can come in handy if you want to set yourself some mini-goals.
Ok, this was it for today. As always, feel free to use the forum to post any comments or questions you may have.