This article describes the early stage of a multi-table tournament (MTT). With early stage I mean the time between the start of a tournament until the bubble is reached, a phase which is becoming more and more important with the increasing number of players in these tournaments. The early stage of an online tournament can sometimes take up to 4 hours, which is usually more than half the duration of the entire tournament. Therefore it is important that you take your time during this phase and don't make the mistake to try and double up your stack. There is nothing wrong with being aggressive, aggression might even be necessary in today's poker scene, but there's a big difference between being aggressive and check-raising all-in with every flush-draw or overpair. Patience is a virtue, especially in a MTT.
When starting to play, make sure you understand the type of MTT you're in. I myself play a wide range of MTT's, from a $3 rebuy up to the $162 Nightly Hundred Grand, and I try to adjust my tactic accordingly. In a $5 freezeout I will rarely try to bluff one of my opponents in the early stages of the tournament. This is because at this level players already have difficulties folding something like top pair. Phil Gordon once said "It's hard to bluff someone who's not paying attention" and therefore a bluff at this stage is â€"EV. If you do decide to bluff, however, at least make sure you still have some outs incase you get called and that you never risk more than 30% of your stack on a bluff during this stage. This is also where the difference lies between a freezeout and a guaranteed tournament. The guaranteed tournaments on PokerStars have double the starting stack compared to normal MTT's. This means you start with 3000 chips instead of 1500. Therefore you can play a little looser in a guaranteed tournament as you would do in a normal MTT since your M is much higher. Also try and play with your opponents' chips and not your own. By this I mean that you should collect chips from other players before risking your own chips on a bluff.
An important aspect in an MTT is position. Most players understand the importance of being in a good position and play accordingly. However, many players only focus on their absolute position. So is there another position? Yes, this is your relative position. Your absolute position is your position before the flop. UTG is early position and the button is late position. Your relative position is your position after the flop with respect to the initial raiser. During the early stages of a MTT (especially one with a low buy-in) you will often find yourself in 5-way pot. Try to make it easy for yourself after the flop. Let's say you're in level one of a guaranteed tournament and you get a nice drawing hand on the button. Your first thought: "Nice, I have ace crackers in the best position." Then you get the following situation: blinds are 10/20, UTG limps, MP and MP+1 limp as well and the cutoff raises to 100. In a regular freezeout I would fold this hand anyway because this would just be too big a percentage of my starting stack to risk. In a guaranteed tourney however, I would really like to play this hand, but as you will see this could get you into a lot of trouble. You have a great position here preflop, but after the flop you are in the worst relative position. You obviously won't raise this hand as you want to see a flop as cheap as possible, but calling isn't a good option either. This is where a lot of players make the mistake. I'm going to assume that there is no player in the pot who limped with a high pocket pair to then fire out a re-raise. If this would be the case then we fold our hand anyway. But look what happens when you call here. Once you call, the other players will be getting good odds, and you will see that, in most cases, the rest of the limpers will call as well. In this situation the big blind calls, as well as MP and MP+1. The flop shows , so it's not a bad flop. If the cutoff has you can stack him here if, for example, a shows up on the turn. But what happens? Everyone often checks to the initial raiser, after whom you are next to act, with 3 players still to act behind you after the initial raiser fired out a C-Bet.
As you can see you are in the worst relative position in this situation, and many players often make the mistake and call with their straight-draws, after which the other players are free to check-raise and pick up the dead money you left in the pot. Because when this happens you are done with this hand, unless you are willing to risk all of your chips on a draw with 8 outs. On the other hand, if the flop would have shown , you would have had enough outs to fire out a raise. You are favorite against any overpair, and will pick up the pot against any mixed combination of high cards anyway. But back to the relative position. If we take the example from just now but have you sitting in MP+1, you would be in the best relative position, as all the other player would have to act before you after the initial raiser bet, after which you have a lot more information to base your decision on. This will save you chips that you will definitely need in the later stages of the tournament.
Big hands, what now?
Another important aspect is playing with big hands. My advice here: play the game in this phase of a tourney, and don't such toss chips into the pot because you have a nice hand. I see it more and more often how players go all-in preflop in level 1 of a tournament with against or, even worse, against . To me that seems more like gambling than poker. Yes they are nice hands, but there will be better situations in which you will have a lot more information. If I get in this phase, one player limps and another player goes all-in, then this is an easy fold. Even if you are up against a LAG player with As-Js or some other junk, there's still the chance of an Ace appearing on the board and you throwing away a whole tournament. Of course you will have to go all-in on coin flips and other situations where you are favorite, but this is not the phase in which to do so. Although there might be situation where I do call (lol what a contradiction) this would only be towards the end of the early stage. And then I also base my actions on stack sizes. Will it cost me more than one third of my stack? Do I myself still have a good M or am close to the danger zone? I am absolutely no fan of just pushing all-in before the flop and also advise not to do so. If you want to keep on winning in MTT's, then just stay calm and wait for the right situation. The early stage is about playing poker and not playing push or fold.
And with this I mean fold a lot and don't defend your blind! Imagine you're in blind level 3 30/60 and you're in the BB. Everybody folds to the button and he makes a standard raise of 180. You both have about an equal stack of 4000 chips after picking up a few small pots. You look at your cards and see on the BB. Let it go!!. Even though you might be thinking you're up against a steal attempt here. You can't win a marginal hand out of position without flopping a monster or risking an even bigger part of your stack on a bluff. Calling is a bad play anyway. In the first couple of levels it doesn't seem to matter that much because you are only risking a small part of your stack. But let's say you defend your blinds 3 times for a total of 500 chips. A couple of hands later you get and you manage to get your remaining 3500 chips all-in before the flop against a fish with . You double up to 7000, but you indirectly lost 1000 chips by defending your blinds in the previous hands. Another advantage of folding your big blind is that the button will think it's easy to steal your blinds and will keep on doing so in later stages when the blinds are higher. All you really need is to pick up one pot with a good hand and you've made up for all the lost blinds early in the tournament. Even if you only get bad cards on the BB, a bluff works a lot better after you have been folding the whole time. You are building up an image. And trust me: Even if players don't always remember the image of each opponent, every player will remember the players in the blinds when they are on the button.
In the early stages of an MTT it is better to play premium hands, let the situations work to your advantage by using position and optimize your winnings by not losing unnecessary chips. Aggressiveness, re-steals and other aspects will be covered in the later stages of an MTT.