Once we reached the "Valhalla" of a poker tournament, the final table, we need to adjust our strategy once more. At the final table, the game is predominantly played preflop, so you will have to pick up some pots with less information. If you end up being card dead, which can easily happen at a final table that often only takes 1 hour, it all comes down to aggressiveness, courage and read. I'm going to be assuming a couple of things in this article: Everybody at the final table knows which hands to push with if their M forces them too and how to play their strong hands. Furthermore, I will assume that we are not one of the short stacks but have an average stack in front of us.
Pick a target
We have arrived at the final table and have gathered quite a bit of information from looking at the other tables when only 3 tables were left. However, that is usually not enough to pick a target. The first thing that players usually do at the start of a final table, is look at the payouts and compare the size of their stack with those of the other players. The short stack then automatically becomes the first target. Nobody wants to be the first one to leave the final table, and there a quite a few players who will just fold their way through a final table until some of the short stacks are out. Of course it is true that the payouts increase decisively for every player that leaves the final table and there is nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the prize money, but don't let it determine your game. If the chips have to go in, they have to go in. And isn't it a lot nicer to have a target that isn't a short stack but actually has some chips in front of him that you can take? In other words, we are looking for the weak player with a lot of chips.
In order to identify the weak player at the table it can be very handy to use statistics from sites like OPR. You can find a lot of information on players here. For example, you wouldn't pick a player with a high ROI as your target. A player like this will have been at a number of final tables before. You can, however, attempt a couple of re-steals against players like this with any 2 cards, as these players are capable of folding a hand after they open-raised. Sometimes you have players at the table for which OPR shows that they have only won very small amounts of money so far. These players are often at their first final table and will only pay attention to the payouts rather then the situations. If these players have a big stack you can steal their blinds more often because they won't play anything but premium hands. The same counts for players who have, up till now, only been playing $5 MTTs and are now sitting at the final table of a $50k guaranteed tournament. Then there are also players who have won $80k in prize money but have a very low ROI. These players may have the experience but are also the gamblers at the table. These players will call your all-in steals more often as they are more willing to gamble on coin flips. Keep an eye out for these players and only try and steal with strong hands. Statistics from sites like OPR can really be very helpful in these situations.
But even with the information from OPR you will still have to rely on the notes you made earlier in the tournament and properly analyze the situations at the final table. It can easily happen that a player, who has been keeping a low profile for most of the tournament, starts doing very strange things at the final table, maybe out of fear or lack of experience. I mentioned before that at a final table, most of the game is played pre flop and you won't be seeing many showdowns. But there are thing apart from showdowns that can help you identify a weak player.
The other day I saw a player with a stack of 750K raise to 120K UTG (blinds 20K/40K, ante 2K). Everybody folded to the big blind, who went all-in for 190K, and the IR folded despite the massive odds he was getting and the fact that his tourney life was not in danger. Once you see something like that you know that this is a player who you can get a lot of chips out of because he just doesn't understand the game and is desperately trying to move up in the payouts. So we started exploiting that. The very next hand he was in the BB and I raised to 120K in the cutoff with . He raised to 240K and I went insta all-in (had him easily covered in chips). And, as was to be expected, the guy folds his hand and loses a large part of his stack again.
Another concept that many players don't understand is Cooperation play. The BB and I both had about 250K in chips with blinds of 5K/10K and a 1K ante and the SB was the short stack with 19K. Everyone folded to me on the button and instead of raising, I flatcalled with . A very marginal hand I know, but I was making it very clear (without typing anything into the chat, which would've been collusion) that I wanted to get out the SB together with the BB. As expected the SB moved all-in for 19K but WTF: the BB folds! I called the SB in the end and lost the hand, which didn't matter, but those are the clear signs that a player just doesn't understand the game and saves all of his chips for premium hands. I went on to raise this player from the SB (shorty busted the next hand) 4 times in a row and finally busted him the 5th time when he moved all-in and I, very coincidentally, found in my hand.
Aggression and Bluff Stack
Apart from looking for targets, you should be looking out for situations to pick up the pot preflop. Unfortunately it is often the case that you only get very few good hands at a final table, so you will have to make the best out of every situation that presents itself. Re-stealing button raises is a common way of doing this. I've mentioned before to do this with hands that have potential, like suited connectors or low pocket pairs, incase the button decodes to flat call. Of course there's a slight risk attached to this as you are investing a greater portion of your stack. If the button or the SB (where ever the steal is coming from) decides to flat call, then don't invest any more money in the hand if you missed the flop completely. The point of a re-steal is to pick up the pot preflop, so don't bluff away your tourney life. There is nothing wrong with folding after an attempted re-steal. You play didn't work out and you lost some of your chips, but you're still alive and kicking.
I usually set the following conditions for a re-steal attempt; A re-steal won't cost me more than 1/3 of my stack (which I see as my bluff stack) and I keep an M of at least 5 in case I lose the pot or am forced to give it up. Note: this only counts when I have a good stack at the final table. There are also situations where I will re-steal all-in with suited connectors or low pocket pairs, but that only happens when I'm a shorty and chose to either double up or bust.
Make use of the short stacks
Everyone who raises could potentially have a hand or they just open-raise to steal the pot. And as mentioned before, the shorties are watching each other as every place higher in the payout means extra $$. Make use of this.
An example: blinds are 25K/50K with a 3K ante, everyone folds to MP (stack = 460K) who open-raises to 150K. Everyone folds to me in the BB with 1.5 million in chips and a monster . I put the shorty all-in. "Why are you doing this?" a friend of mine asked me on skype. The reason for this was the following. If I get called and lose, I still have over 1 million chips left. My hand is live and might even stand a chance against an overpair. But the most important reason was that there was a shorty in front of the IR with only 210K chips left. Therefore I thought it was very likely that the IR was going to fold. Very often a shorty will fold here because he has another shorty sitting to his right, who will be in the blinds before him, which again increases the chance of this player getting busted first. By putting pressure on the other shorties you can often pick up some nice pots, and if not then you just flop a straight.
Unlike in my previous articles, I deliberately chose to talk more about situations than hands. I believe that this can make the difference at a final table. You don't often get to sit a final table, and if you do you are often card dead. By looking up information about your opponents and analyzing situations correctly you're making life a lot easier for yourself.