Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Simple Tournament Strategy

Well, I've got my monthly tournament tonight, and my son will be sitting at the tables with his old man for the first time ever. It's his first live tourney. In fact, he's played hardly any poker previous to this, so I'm hoping (a) he doesn't have his expectations too high about going deep; and (b) he enjoys it enough to want to come back next month and/or learn a little more about this greatest of American pastimes.

With that in mind, I've been thinking about what kind of simple advice I would give to someone relatively new to poker who is about to sit down at their first live poker tournament. There are hundreds of things you need to know to navigate your way through a tournament and win it, but this would clearly be overwhelming for a newbie. In fact, it might be discouraging. Ergo, what are the simplest things to get someone started so they have fun and enjoy themselves? Here's what I'm thinking early this morning:

  • Stages of Play: Early in Tournament. Think about the tournament as being in three basic stages: Early, Middle, (and if you're lucky) Late. In the early rounds, almost everyone is being cautious. You should be, too. Your goal isn't really to win the tournament (though it would be great if you did). Instead, your goal is to survive and learn. People in the early stages of a tourney are rarely looking to get it all in unless they have a very strong hand. Just play a relatively tight, selective, "ABC" game. Don't worry about stealing blinds at this stage, as they're too small to worry about. Spend this early stage time just observing how the other players are acting. Who is involved in every hand? Who seems to be waiting for a big hand before playing? Who is being aggressive? Who is being passive? How much are they betting before and after the flop? Can you guess what kinds of hands they have? At this early stage, you should play any pair, but don't commit very many chips with pairs under eights. If you have aces, kings, queens, or AKs, you should bet very hard. In fact, with aces or kings, you should be willing to get all your money in before the flop. After the flop, however, you need to slow down and be cautious. You can also play big Broadways, especially suited cards. The only aces you should play at this stage are ATo and above, and possibly A8s and above. If you flop top pair, figure out if your opponent is a "calling station" or not. A calling station is someone who just wants to play a lot of hands and call down to the river and see if he's won or not. If your opponent is like this and you have a strong hand, just bet, bet, bet. If he seems like a good player, be cautious-- and be willing to fold to big bets he makes. The good players are the smart ones paying attention-- and they're definitely paying attention to you.
  • Stages of Play: In Middle of Tournament. In the Middle stage, you'll have to start opening up your game more and playing more hands. The bigger the blinds and the shorter the blind levels, the more hands you have to start playing. Look for opportunities in late position to raise and steal the blinds. You can't afford to sit around too long at this stage. You're probably going to bust out during this phase anyway, so don't worry about taking some chances. Poker is a game of skill in the long run, but you have to get lucky a few times in a tournament to win it. Don't be afraid to bust out if you have a relatively strong hand. Bet hard. It's always better to take a risk to keep yourself sitting with a healthy stack and fairly decent cards than to wait until you've been whittled down and forced to shove with any two cards just to stay alive. It's a sin to get blinded away to just a small stack and then go out with a whimper--BUT, don't get too crazy. Poker is a game of balancing risk and reward.
  • Stages of Play: Late in the Tournament. If you're lucky enough to make it into the Late "money" stage of this particular tournament, it's really just a crapshoot. The blinds go up so big and so fast that you need to be willing to just shove all in with any pair or any big ace. The fewer the players left, the more you should value your bigger cards, and the less you should value the small ones. Fold your small cards, and shove with your big ones. You either get lucky at this point, or you don't. 
  • Position. Position always matters-- even if you don't know why it does. This is true especially in the early and middle stages of a tournament like this fast-paced one. If you have a weak ace (e.g., A7o) in early position, just fold it. If you have this hand in late position and it's folded to you, don't be afraid to bet it. If you have it in late position and someone has raised in front of you, your first instinct should be to fold. Play more hands in late position than early-- but don't think you have to play a hand in late position if someone has raised in front of you. Think about what kinds of hands your opponent has been showing down, and adjust your your starting hand requirements accordingly. If he's been playing weak aces, for example, you should only play strong aces or big pairs against him. Once you start getting better at poker, the game changes from "what are my cards?" to "what do I think my opponent's cards are, and how do I take advantage of that." For now, however, just focus on how strong you think your cards are relative to an average hand that someone might be playing back at you with.
  • Reading the Board. Whenever the flop is dealt (whether you're involved in the hand or not), try to figure out what the nuts are on the board. Then ask what is the second nuts, and so on. Once you've done this, ask yourself if you can imagine your opponent holding the hand that makes the nuts.  If the board is 7-4-3, for instance, the nuts is if someone hold 5-6. The next nuts would be a pair of sevens (which makes three of a kind). And so on. Ask yourself how likely it is that your opponent has these kinds of cards in his hand.  Then ask yourself how strong your own hand is relative to this probability. Always consider this before deciding what to do. The older guys who are just there to play poker will play very different cards than the younger aggressive ones. Oh, and be cautious on flops that have two cards to one suit. Many of the players at this tournament (especially the older guys) love to play any two suited cards and then chase flush draws. If the board has two to a flush, and you have something like top pair or an overpair, be cautious in the early stages and willing to fold if a third flush card comes on the turn or river. In the middle stages, however, just bet hard to try and force them from chasing the draws.
  • Don't Bluff. Especially in the early stages, just play ABC poker. If you have a strong hand, bet it. If you have a weak hand (which will be the case most of the time), just fold it. Try to survive until you get strong cards and/or make it deep into the middle stage. And doon't take it personal if someone bluffs you-- instead, just file that fact away for later. Think "This player is bluffy. Next time I get a strong hand, I'll slow down and see if I can get him to try and bluff me again. Then I'll raise him."
  • Have Fun. While winning would be great (or even just moneying) it isn't likely. Hell, most of the good players there won't make the money (only 3-5 players get paid). Enjoy the game and try to just get the feel for the action, how people bet, how the different players act, and so on. One of the best things you can do is just observe and learn. Poker takes minutes to learn, but years to truly master.

Oh, and final piece of advice is that if you're at Dad's table, don't think he's going to go easy on you just because you're a beginner or his son. As the Guru once told me, "I'd check-raise my own mother if I thought I could get away with it."  Poker players will generally give you all their wisdom and advice if you ask-- but only away from the table. At the table, it's dog-eat-dog. And every single one of your other opponents at the table will be thinking that they want your stack of chips. They'll see you as a beginner and as so-called "dead money" that they want to use and abuse. The players at this tourney are generally really nice people, but when they're involved in a hand they want to win it. Don't be afraid of their aggression. Play back at them when you think you have a stronger hand them, but fold when you don't.

All-in for now...

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