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How To Win At Tournament Poker

By Chris Ferguson, June 20, 2005

chris-fergusonPeople often ask very specific questions about how to be a winning tournament player:

  • How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?
  • Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, then tighten up later as the blinds increase?
  • I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up more as I get close to the money, or try to accumulate more chips early on?

Surprisingly, all three questions have the same answer:

Stop trying to force things to happen. Just concentrate on playing solid poker, and let the chips fall where they may.

In fact, that's the best answer for almost any specific tournament question.

Here is a more useful question:

How much of a difference is there between ring game strategy and tournament strategy?

The answer: Not as much as you think

Before you worry about adjusting for tournaments, concentrate on adjusting for the other players. The most important skill in poker is the ability to react to a wide range of opponents playing a wide range of styles. Players who can do this will thrive in both ring games and tournaments alike.

Many of the most costly tournament mistakes are the result of players over adjusting for tournament play. Let's look at these questions again:

How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?

The short answer is: As many as you can get.

Play your cards. Play your opponents. Do not try to force action simply because you think you "need" to have a certain number of chips to have a chance of winning. You should be thinking about accumulating more chips, while trying to conserve the chips you already have. The more chips you have, the better your chances of winning. The fewer chips you have, the worse your chances.

Forget about reaching some magical number. There is no amount below which you have no shot, nor is there any amount above which you can be guaranteed a victory. A chip and a chair is enough to win, and enough to beat you. Getting fixated on a specific number is a good way to ensure failure. Next question:

Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, and then tighten up later as the blinds increase?

Your play shouldn't change much as the tournament progresses. Gear your play to take maximum advantage of your opponents, irrespective of how far along the tournament is. Most players are too loose in the early stages of a tournament. Rather than become one of these players, adjust for their play instead:

  • Attempt to steal the blinds less often
  • Call more raises
  • Re-raise more frequently

Likewise, when opponents typically tighten up later on, you should steal more often and be less inclined to get involved in opened pots. Again, this should be a reaction to the way your opponents are playing, not an action based on any particular stage of the tournament.

Last question: I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up more as I get close to the money to avoid this, or try to accumulate more chips early on?

Usually the people asking this question are already tightening up too soon before reaching the money. In other words, they are over-adjusting to tournament play. Not only is it incorrect to tighten up considerably before you are two or three players from the money, doing so is the surest way to finish on or near the bubble. Just play your best, most aggressive game, and try not to let your stack dwindle to a point where you can't protect your hand with a pre-flop all-in raise. If you do, your opponents will be getting the right pot odds to call, even with weak hands. Look for opportunities to make a move before you let this happen, even if it means raising with less than desirable holdings.

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