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Thinking Poker: Playing Bad Hands in Tournaments

Pablo Gordillo

Proper tournament play requires you to fight for pots. This doesn’t just mean you should raise and re-raise before the flop. It also means that the big blind needs to defend with far more hands than in a cash game.

Under conditions where opponents are eager to take down the blinds and antes, and where those antes are improving the pot odds for the big blind, it becomes necessary to call opening raises with hands that are almost always too weak to call with from the same spot in a cash game.

There is, therefore, an under-appreciated skill that is largely tournament-specific: adjusting to the preflop viability of those bad hands.

In cash games, blinds who are defending figure to have the hands that get the most ink in the preflop chapters of strategy books — namely, Broadway hands, pairs, and fairly good suited and connected hands. But in tournaments, the big blind will sometimes be getting such a good price that worse hands than these will become tempting.

At the final table of last spring’s European Poker Tour Vienna Main Event there were two hands in particular that well illustrated these and other principles of tournament play. I’ll discuss one of these hands here and the other one in a future article.

Preflop: Pot odds compel big blind to call

For the first hand, the blinds were 40,000/80,000 and the ante 10,000 with seven players left. Anthony Ghamrawi, chip leader at the time, opened the action by raising to 165,000 from the hijack seat with {A-Diamonds}{K-Clubs}. Simeon Naydenov then called the raise from the button with {K-Spades}{Q-Diamonds}.

Although Naydenov’s hand was dominated in this situation, {K-}{Q-} is an appropriate calling hand here. Ghamrawi ought to be opening the pot aggressively, so {K-}{Q-} generally fares well in position in this situation.

The action folded to Pablo Gordillo (pictured above) in the big blind. There was already 520,000 in the pot and he had only 85,000 more to call, so his pot odds were better than 6-to-1. Holding {K-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds}, he had a clear call. (He appeared to need to think about the decision, however, leaving his cards unprotected before double-checking them and then finally putting in the 85,000.)

Although it would usually be correct to fold {K-}{5-}-suited out of the big blind in a cash game, it would have been a serious error for Gordillo to fold here. Indeed, even worse hands such as {K-}{5-}-offsuit and {9-}{5-}-suited ought to have called this bet.

Flop: Ghamrawi continues, Gordillo calls

There was 605,000 in the pot going to the flop. Gordillo had over 3 million in his stack, Ghamrawi had over 5 million, and Naydenov had just over 2 million.

The flop came {J-Diamonds}{9-Diamonds}{7-Spades}. Gordillo checked, Ghamrawi bet 225,000, and Naydenov made an interesting fold. Much could be said about this fold. It is often incorrect to ditch hands with two overcards and a gutshot against a continuation bet. Perhaps he couldn’t justify either calling 10% of his stack or jamming (which would not have been such a severe overbet), especially with Gordillo left to act and in a tournament setting that encourages risk aversion.

Whatever Naydenov’s reasons for folding, it left Gordillo in an interesting spot. With a flush draw and an overcard, {K-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds} had good equity against any plausible set of hands on which he could put Ghamrawi.

Having such a strong hand would often be a reason to raise, but Gordillo decided just to call. There are many possible justifications for such a play. For one, calling instead of raising might disguise a flush, if Gordillo were to make one. Gordillo might also have figured that Ghamrawi would not have made a continuation bet with a weak hand and concluded that a raise offered little fold equity, and Gordillo’s stack size (roughly three times the pot after the 225,000 call) might have made it difficult to choose a proper raise size.

Thinking Poker: Playing Bad Hands in Tournaments 101
Anthony Ghamwari continued with a flop bet, but slowed down afterwards

I think another set of reasons ought to be considered, though, for Gordillo calling, and they have to do with his preflop decision.

One reason that raising is often a strong play for a big blind on this board with a hand like a good flush draw is that many other hands with which the big blind figures to have called — e.g., {J-}{10-}, {10-}{9-}, {7-}{7-}, and so on — connect well with this board and indeed connect to make strong made hands. In this case, though, everyone knows that Gordillo was getting better than 6-to-1 before the flop, meaning he could have hands like the aforementioned {K-}{5-}-offsuit or {9-}{5-}-suited, or he could also have {7-}{4-}-suited, {7-}{6-}-offsuit, {10-}{3-}-suited, and the like.

In short, in this tournament setting, many more of the hands that connected in some way with this board connected with it weakly. This makes it somewhat harder to represent a strong hand, and especially a strong made hand, by raising. I’m not claiming that this was what Gordillo was thinking when he chose to call, nor even that Gordillo made a good play by not raising. It does, though, demonstrate how the preflop adjustments of tournament poker ramify through a hand.

As Andrew Brokos and I discuss in our tournament podcasts, one of the many ways in which players fail to evaluate their opponents correctly in tournament poker is by overlooking the differences between tournament play and cash games. These mistakes are easy to make, because they are often subtle and require multi-street thinking. This {J-Diamonds}{9-Diamonds}{7-Spades} flop plays very differently here than it would in a cash game.

Turn and River: Ghamrawi slows down, Gordillo takes advantage

The turn came the {10-Clubs}, and both players checked. When the river brought the {7-Clubs}, Gordillo took the opportunity to bluff at the pot, and wisely so, both because king-high is very weak on this board and because even having a very wide preflop range doesn’t prevent the blind from having enough to value bet after Ghamrawi has shown weakness on this scary board.

The bluff worked. Gordillo bet 310,000, and Ghamrawi folded his ace — and justifiably so.

Whereas in cash games against good opponents, the big blind will often confine himself to decent preflop hands, in tournament play he often figures to be playing some stinkers, too. Accounting for these possibilities takes practice, and learning to do so will give you an advantage over your competition

Be sure to check out Nate and Andrew Brokos on the Thinking Poker podcast, and for more from Nate visit his blog at

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