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Final Table Poker Strategy: The #1 Biggest Mistake to Avoid

With steep pay jumps and top-heavy payout structures, the final table of any poker tournament is where big money is earned or burned.

In this article, we’ll look closely at the biggest mistake made at final tables: overly tight/passive play. Along the way, we’ll have real-world examples to discuss from live tournaments, along with key insights from Doug Polk.

Let’s get into it!

What about ICM?

ICM stands for Independent Chip Model. If you’re unfamiliar with this tournament-specific concept, see our Intro to ICM.

You might already be ready to mount the objection, “but what about ICM?!” in defense of tight play. But I’m not suggesting that you should never play conservatively at a final table. There are in fact times when you should tighten up in a tournament’s endgame. To take a couple examples:

  • As a middle-of-the-pack stack when there are numerous shorter stacks at risk of busting. This is of course a frustrating spot to navigate, since larger stacks can easily push you around, making your life hell, as you try not to bust before other short stacks.
  • When you are facing a marginally profitable spot in terms of equity, but not with regard to ICM. If pay jumps are significant and you’re likely to catch one, it’s better to avoid close, high-variance spots entirely. (Check out ICMIZER to see for yourself how drastically calling ranges can change as a result of ICM pressure.)

With this disclaimer on the table, let the nit-bashing begin!

Since ‘tight’ is a broad term (players can be tight in a number of different ways, and to a greater or lesser extent), we’ll go over exactly how tight play manifests itself at a final table. By identifying costly mistakes made by tight players, you’ll know to avoid making them when it’s your turn on the big stage.

Now, let’s talk about an aspect of final table play in which ICM is not a factor: heads-up.

Heads-Up Favors the Bold, Not the Cowardly

Reaching the final two in a tournament is an infrequent event, even for online MTT grinders. Because of this, many players who get there often fail to adjust to the uniquely aggressive style of play that heads-up poker requires.

Of course Doug will be the first to tell you that ranges in this format should be much wider than those in a 9-handed game. This means opening more hands, 3-betting at a higher frequency, defending the BB aggressively, and being willing to call down with marginal hands.

Calling down with marginal hands is particularly important, since relative hand strength decreases significantly when playing heads-up. Check out some of Doug’s own heads-up stats below (forgive the blurriness, it’s the best shot I could get):

Doug VPIP’d 72.37% of hands from the big blind and 90.67% of hands from the small blind in this 322k hand sample.

Although these stats are from Doug’s cash-game database, they serve as a good guideline for heads-up tournament play provided stacks are relatively deep (50bb+). Though preflop play in tournaments will often times be looser because of the presence of antes.

Doug opens almost 91% of hands from the SB (which is also the BTN), while defending the BB with around 72% of hands. Figures like these emphasize just how dynamic heads-up poker is. You’ve got to be willing to battle to take down the trophy.

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Example: 2016 WSOP Main Event – Qui Nguyen versus Gordon Vayo

The 2016 Main Event culminated in a heads-up showdown for over $3.3 million between American pro Gordon Vayo and amateur Qui Nguyen. Despite the difference in experience, it was the recreational player who put on a heads-up masterclass, bullying his way to victory over Vayo’s passive play, which arguably cost him the bracelet.

Below is an example of Vayo getting punished for overly-tight play (taken from this episode of Doug’s Poker Hands):

WSOP Main Event Final Table. Blinds 1.2M/2.4M/400K. 

Nguyen (BTN) – 218.9M chips
Vayo (BB) – 117.7M chips

Nguyen raises to 6.7M with J 5. Vayo calls with Q♥ 9.

Flop (14.2M): 9♣ 4♣ 2
Vayo checks. Nguyen bets 9.7M. Vayo calls.

Turn (33.6M): T
Vayo checks. Nguyen bets 27.7M. Vayo calls.

River (89M): 5
Vayo checks. Nguyen goes all-in. Vayo folds.

Doug’s Insight

“All match, Nguyen was punking Vayo – constantly. A lot of people gave Gordon too much shit in smaller hands where he made reasonable folds even though he was being bluffed.

This [fold] is not reasonable! When your opponent starts pushing you around, going all red-line on you, you absolutely cannot decide in the big spots to nit it up and let them have it.”

To put Doug’s quote in simple terms: 50 big blinds deep + flopped top pair + uber-aggressive opponent = call.

Fear of Busting

The following point is particularly relevant in light of the hand example above. It is understandable why tournament players want to minimize their chances of going bust. Unlike cash games, you can’t just top up your stack when you lose it; when you bust, the dream is dead. However, many players make the mistake of playing too passively.

Whether folding to a river barrel (as Vayo did above), or just calling rather than raising with a draw and missing an opportunity to push fold equity, overly-passive play is showcased all the time at final tables.

As Doug explains, “Your tournament life isn’t as precious as people make it out to be. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value – of course, your last chip in the tournament is worth so much more than every other chip. But here’s something to think about: if you live in fear of busting, if you’re going to play in a way where you’re not willing to stack off, you let people run over you and pass up on an opportunity to win chips.”

Example: 2017 WSOP One Drop – Doug Polk versus Martin Jacobson

Doug proved that he practices what he preaches back in the 2017 WSOP $111,111 High Roller for One Drop final table.

In an enthralling hand against former WSOP ME champ Martin Jacobson, Doug showed no fear of busting. His attitude earned a surprising fold from the Swede, a monstrous pot, and it set him up nicely for the $3.6 million top prize and WSOP bracelet.

Let’s take a closer look at the hand and Doug’s own comments about how it played out:

One Drop Final Table. Blinds 120K/240K/40K. 

Jacobson (LJ) – 6.7M chips
Polk (BB) – 5.4M chips

Jacobson raises to 525K with K♠ J. Only Polk calls with A T.

Flop (1.5M): K♦ 4♦ 2
Polk checks. Jacobson bets 450K. Polk calls.

Turn (2.4M): 3
Polk checks. Jacobson bets 1M. Polk raises to 4.6M and is all-in. Jacobson folds.

Doug’s Insight

The fact that Martin folds a hand as strong as his in this spot is proof that it pays to push your fold equity in these big-money spots. The 3 turn is a pivotal card in ensuring that the bluff gets through, as it is favorable for the range of the BB caller.

We can have all straight combos (56s/56o, A5s/A5o), a ton of two-pair combos (K4s, K3s, K2s, 32s, 43s, 42s) and all of the sets bar kings. Combinatorically, the BB actually has more strong value hands on this turn (two-pair or better) than the LJ. This advantage allows us to construct a legitimate check-raising range that contains more than enough value hands for our bluffs to be credible. Using a strong combo draw as we do here is a great choice, since our hand retains its equity well when called.”

Final (Table) Thoughts

Next time you’re at a final table, don’t shrivel up and play with a laddering mentality. The big bucks are always at the top, and you’re not going to get there by playing passively. Just ask Nguyen how he won his bracelet.

Getting to the final table isn’t enough! Set yourself up for the win with our final table bubble strategy guide.

As always, if you’ve got any comments or suggestions for future articles drop them in the comments below. And good luck at the tables!

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