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early stage tournament strategy

How to Build Stacks and Avoid Spewing Early in a Tournament

Early stage tournament play, before the antes kick in, is a subject that players have varying ideas about.

Some think that the pre-ante phase of an MTT is basically a cash game played with tournament chips. Others think that it’s a waste of time to enter the tournament before antes are in play—that “real” tournament play begins when the antes kick in.

There’s some merit to both of these schools of thought, but there are many factors to consider when it comes to grasping the pre-ante levels of MTTs.

In this article, I’ll attempt to paint a clear picture of how you should approach the early stages of a tournament. I’ll be covering:

Let’s get started.

Chips you win are worth less than the chips you lose

The fact that tournament chips don’t have a monetary value is the main factor that differentiates pre-ante tournament play from cash games—even if the stack sizes in terms of big blinds are the same. For example, if you win 100 big blinds in a $.50/$1 cash game, you win $100. But if you win 100 big blinds on the first level of a $100 tournament with 100 big blind starting stacks, you have not won $100.

Unless the tournament is a winner-take-all, any chips won are worth less than chips you lose because of ICM. You can’t win the entire prize pool no matter what; even if you somehow busted the entire field in the first hand, you’d still only win around 30% of the prize money. By contrast, you can roughly double your investment by limping into the money with a tiny stack, and without ever making a whole lot of big blinds.

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There’s no way to measure the exact value of different stack sizes when there are still hundreds of players left in a tournament, but we can use a SNG-based ICM model to illustrate the basic principle.

Early stage ICM example hand

First hand of a tournament with 15,000 chip starting stacks. You’re in a heads-up pot on the river, holding 43 on a board of K♠2A6♣8♠. There’s 10,000 in the pot, and both you and your opponent have 10,000 chips behind. You missed your draw and have no shot of winning the pot at showdown. You’re considering moving all-in.

If this were a cash game, your bluff would have to work 50% of the time to break even:

10,000 / (10,000+10,000) = 0.50

However, in a tournament the odds are always slightly in favor of not taking unnecessary risks.

Using an ICM model from a $10, 10-handed sit-and-go*, here’s what your stack would be worth (in dollars) after the hand if you choose to check and continue the tournament with 10,000 chips, and if you shove and get a fold, resulting in a 20,000-chip stack:

early stage poker tournament ICM example

If you get called, your stack is obviously worth $0. 10,000 chips is still worth $6.87, and winning the pot only lifts our stack value to $12.95. Therefore, by shoving you’d be risking $6.87 to win $6.08 (12.95-6.87):

6.87 / (6.87+6.08) = 0.53

So, a shove would have to work 53% of the time to break even.

*Note that SNG models aren’t directly applicable to MTTs, but the above example illustrates how ICM works. It’s clear that playing for tournament chips isn’t the same as playing for chips with cash value.

This brings us to a second crucial point, which is the fact that you can’t reload in tournaments

Phil Hellmuth might be terrible at many aspects of poker, but he’s arguably achieved more success than anyone else at this game. Why? Because he understands how important it is to “respect your tournament life,” as he once put it. These words still hold true today.

In cash games the money is just money, so you can reload as many times as you want. But when you bust a tournament, you’re done, which is why you should generally be more risk averse in tournaments.

Tournaments also attract weaker players who hate folding. Nothing is black and white, and I’m not going to recommend never bluffing in tournaments, but you should be selective with your spots against weak players, especially during the pre-ante levels.

It’s a disaster if you punt off 200 big blinds on a bluff, against a MTT player who hasn’t folded top pair since the first Bush was president, no matter how game theoretically correct it may have been.

In cash games you need to regularly fire three-barrel bluffs because the edges are thinner and the competition tougher. On the other hand, you could probably make a living at MTTs without firing a single three-barrel bluff.

3 reasons why the pre-ante levels are worth playing

Many players don’t bother playing early levels because they feel like a waste of time—like they don’t mean much as far as one’s chances of doing well in the tournament overall.

With starting stacks of 30,000 chips, playing for 600 chip pots feels tedious. And without antes in play, you play less hands, making things even less interesting.

It’s true, though: playing for a pot that at some point equates to the size of a small blind is inconsequential from a mathematical standpoint. It doesn’t matter whether you have 28,000 chips or 32,000 chips after the first few levels, whereas just getting one steal through at the 5,000/10,000 level can make or break your tournament.

But there are good reasons to play the pre-ante levels.

1. Taking notes

The early levels are excellent for taking notes on your opponents. Every showdown gives you information that can be used later on. But if you late register a tournament, you miss out on all that information, and perhaps won’t know how to exploit certain opponents as a result.

When observing your opponents, try not to be specific. Don’t just categorize them in very generic groups, such as ‘tight/loose’, or ‘bluffy/scared’. These categories are helpful, but they usually don’t capture the truly valuable information you get from paying attention to showdowns specifically.

Whenever you see a hand shown down, re-play it though again in your head (or, use the re-player option if you’re playing online), and put yourself in each player’s shoes. For example:

Consider a player who flatted a cutoff open with AQs on the button. What does it say about his 3-betting range?

If said player went on to raise on a Q-x-x flop in position, what does that mean for his range when he just flats the c-bet?

If he instantly checks back a river he should consider value-betting, how polarized does it make his betting range on future rivers?

And so on.

By the way, if you’re playing live, there’s no shame in taking notes on your tablet or phone. Is it tedious? Yes. But that’s part of the job, and a quick way to learn exploitative play.

2. Create and consider your image

The flip of taking notes is considering the notes your opponents may have on you–also known as your “image.” Consider an example from the old days of heads-up games:

I had the privilege of watching a friend of mine, who was one of the best heads-up players in the world at the time, play a number of hands at $200/$400 in 2009.

One thing I noticed was that he would often 3-bet with weak hands very early matches. I asked him why he did this, and his answer blew my mind: He called it an “advertisement.” If he won the pot, he explained, then great, but if he didn’t, then he risked merely 11 big blinds 3-betting as a bluff. In a heads-up match where hundreds of big blinds will be flying around, 11 big blinds is not much to be risked, but getting caught will help create a favorable image for later in the match.

Nearly a decade later, such a simple strategy won’t prove effective anymore in heads-up NLHE, but it does work great in MTTs (especially live MTTs).

Taking control by getting in a 3-bet or two early will help you build an aggressive image. In MTTs, the best way to win a big pot is to get paid when you have a big hand, and it’s a lot easier to get paid when you have an aggressive image and someone’s fed up with your aggression.

So, when’s the cheapest time to create an aggressive image? That’s right: the early stages of poker tournaments, when you’re playing for 600-chip pots with a 30,000 starting stack.

I’m not advocating going crazy—you should still be reasonable about your hand selection. You just want to be the player who seeds doubt in opponents’ minds when there’s no showdown.

3. Taking advantage of the deadest money

Most MTTs have a fair number of fish in them, but there’s variation in exactly how bad the players are. Many fish might be weak players, but they will still muster the occasional deep run.

But there are also players who barely know the rules, or who are looking to gamble every hand, or who push any amount of big blinds into the pot when they have top pair, etc. These players are bound to bust very early. If you want their chips, you need to be there to collect them.

This is especially important in turbos and most small live tournaments, which are essentially turbos, where the late-game edges aren’t very big. A large portion of your profit in turbos should come from the big fish who donate 100 big blinds to you very early on. It’s important to capitalize on those free chips.

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Skipping the pre-ante levels is good sometimes

Despite all the reasons to register tournaments from the get-go, there’s merit to late registering some tournaments, especially if you’re an online player.

The main reason is that your hourly rate will in most cases be higher by registering a similar on-going tournament around the first ante level as opposed to registering another tournament from the very start. Most of the money in tournaments is made in the late stages, and so that the slot on your screen is better used by adding a table at the ante stages.

However, this much depends on the structure of the tournament(s) you’re playing, and it’s tough to pinpoint exactly when it’s better to late register a tournament than play one from the start. It should be clear, though, that there is more merit to late registering tournaments with slower structures.

If you’re playing online, note-taking and setting up dynamics are less valuable, too, since you have a HUD to rely on and some opponents might be mass-tabling robots. For these reasons, it also seems fine to late register most regular speed tournaments.

The one tournament type you should never late register are knockout tournaments. In this format, a large percentage (usually half) of the prize pool goes to the bounty pool, and it attracts fish looking for a quick gamble. You absolutely need to be there early to capitalize on the gamble aspect of these tournaments, but notice also that by late registering you’re playing for a smaller prize pool: when a player busts, his bounty is gone, thus making the remaining prize pool smaller.

early stage poker tournaments knockout

The regular prize pool is $18,772.50, as is the bounty pool. But with nearly half the field already gone, so too is some amount of the bounty prize pool. That means you’re basically starting the tournament with a negative ROI to begin with.

Early stage poker tournament strategy tips

The strategy for deep-stacked, pre-ante tournament play is basically the same as in cash games. The only difference is the ‘big picture’ (tournament life, chips won being worth less) to consider, but when it comes to how to play specific hands, there’s no reason to deviate much from standard deep-stacked cash game strategy.

Now, I’m by no means a cash game expert, and my deep-stacked MTT play falls short of specialized players. That being said, here are some basic tips to ensure you don’t make mistakes at pre-ante levels.

Understand that hand values are different compared to shorter stacks. Top pair top kicker is a hand that you’ll basically never fold with 25 big blinds, but for 200 big blinds you want to be cautious. Even with hands like two pair or a small flush, be ready to slow down if there’s a chance you’re beat, and if your opponent is showing a lot of strength.

When you hit a big hand, lean towards going for big value. Remember: the early levels are when all the fish are still in the tournament. There’s no reason to play a GTO strategy with 33% pot c-bets when you have a chance to get a huge donation. When you make the nuts and your opponent might has a hand make the big bets and don’t worry about balancing. Pre-ante levels are like printing the daily coupon: most of the time it pays absolutely nothing, but occasionally you get incredible value. That’s your reward for enduring the tediousness of the early grind.

Stealing the blinds is less important with no antes. Mathematically, a 3BB button steal would have to work 66.6% of the time to break even. But from a big picture perspective, whether you add 1.5 big blinds to your 300-big blind stack is inconsequential, and so you should tone down your steal percentage in general.

Use big open sizes. Since the stacks are deep and there are no antes in play, you’re generally opening a strong range that still benefits from people folding hands that could crack your strong hands. With 100BB+ stacks before the antes, a good rule of thumb is to add about one big blind to whatever you’d open to with a 20-30BB stacks. (Around 3x is a good standard opening size.)

Use big 3-bet sizes. A tiny bit over 3x the open in position, and closer to 4x out of position, are adequate sizings. Don’t make the mistake of 3-betting too small, no matter how tempting it is to lure your opponent in when you have a big hand.

There’s hidden value in being the short stack. You often see players punt off their last 20 big blinds after just losing a 200-BB pot. You should avoid doing this. While it’s true that you’re a long way from winning the tournament with 10% of the starting stack, having a short stack during the pre-ante stages is one of the most +EV scenarios in tournament poker. Back in the day, short-stacking cash games was a popular thing to do online, because people were playing too loose and you could shove your 20 big blinds into 6-way pots where 5 of the players were dead money. It’s often exactly like that in tournaments. During the early levels, it’s not uncommon to see a 3x open and five calls. 3-bet shoving decent hands into massive overlay wins you a ton chips. You don’t want to squander that opportunity by carelessly punting off your short stack.

MTT players don’t like folding, so tone down the big bluffs. I just had to say this one more time. You guys have no idea how many big blinds I’ve lost over the years by not following this rule, but it’s probably in the millions.

As always, I’m happy to answer early stage poker tournament questions in the comments section below or on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.

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Read more tournament content from Miikka Anttonen:

Miikka Anttonen is poker professional from Finland with $2.4 million in career earnings and a world championship title under his belt. His autobiography is Once A Gambler. Find out more at https://www.onceagambler.com/

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