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How to Squeeze Max Value from Juicy Live Tournaments

Live poker tournaments have much softer fields than online tournaments. The Big $109 on PokerStars, for example, is a tougher tournament than many WSOP $1,500 events.

This difference in player quality presents many factors that aren’t present online. In order to maximize our winnings in live tournaments, we must understand and adjust for these factors.

Today we’ll discuss how to account and adjust for three live tournament-specific factors:

  1. Caliber of play
  2. Live tells
  3. Players’ egos

Time to dive in.

Caliber of play

If the caliber of play in live tournaments is lower than on online, then how do we adjust to take advantage?

In the vast majority of live tournaments we need to aim to exploit our opponents’ weak play as much as possible. The exception is in tournament fields with many strong players. These tournaments call for fewer exploitative plays because strong players will quickly adjust their strategy and counter-exploit us. 

The first exploit we can consider is increasing our open-raising range. The idea here is to push our edge as far as possible. Put simply, the more hands we can play profitably, the better.

We can also widen our 3-betting range. Many players will not adjust to a wide 3-bet range (unless they’re tilted—we’ll visit this later), so we can take advantage by scooping cheap pots when they fold or playing larger pots against a weak opponent when they call. Both are good outcomes. 

Barreling more hands is another exploitative play ripe for live tournaments. There are many spots in live tournaments where opponents will roll over and give up to postflop aggression. The typical player at the WSOP doesn’t know or care about minimum-defense frequencies, and is not considering how many hands to defend in certain situations. Many of them are more concerned with hitting premium hands and not busting with marginal holdings. (Recreational players do not want to bust early!)

When considering exploits, it’s extremely helpful to understand the theory behind each spot. Ideally, we use this theoretically correct strategy as our baseline strategy, but deviate as we learn more about our opponents’ tendencies.

This idea of knowing our baseline theory is perhaps most important when making decisions on the river. For example, suppose we are facing a triple barrel from an opponent who we are pretty sure has a value-heavy range and is not balanced. Does this mean we can over-fold in this spot? Yes. But we should only take it so far. We can’t assume “they are never bluffing” in most spots. Yes, we may be right that their range is value-heavy, but we should usually still defend at a reasonable frequency.

Let’s look at a hand example.

WSOP $1,500 Buy-In. 9-handed with a button ante. 100bb deep.

Villain (recreational player) open-raises to 2.5bb from MP. 2 players fold. Hero calls on the button. The blinds fold

Flop (7.5bb) A♠ 6♦ 2
Villain bets 5bb, we call.

Turn (17.5bb) J
Villain bets 10bb, we call.

River (37.5bb) 2
Villain bets 37.5bb.

What should we defend here?

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First, let’s determine how often we need to call here by calculating the minimum defend frequency (MDF). To determine the MDF, we take the bet size and divide it by the total pot including the bet (37.5/75), which gives us the percentage of combos we can correctly fold (50%). So, in this situation, we have to call 50% of the combos we come to the river with in order to avoid being exploited.

Now, if we were playing against someone like Doug Polk, we would want to call as close to 50% of our river range as possible. We know a player like him will be at least somewhat balanced, and we can’t let him exploit us with his bluffs.

But in this hand we’re up against a recreational player, so we probably don’t need to defend near that 50%. That being said, we don’t want to defend as low as 5%. That’s too extreme of an adjustment to make without a rock solid read.

Let’s assume our button calling range looks something like this:

Red = Call. Blue = Fold.

Now, let’s assume we come to the river with all our top pairs, two pairs, and sets (which is already exploiting our opponent by over-folding previous streets). Should we defend a hand like A7s or ATo, here? These are fringe hands we need to make a decision with based on our opponent. But folding hands as strong as A6+ or AQs would be over-adjusting.

If we have seen the player bluff or bet too thinly for value, then calling with fringe hands is probably the correct play. On the other hand, if the player has been rather quiet and tight, then we likely have to fold the fringe hands.

The main upshot here is that since live tournaments usually have many more weaker players we need to exploit their tendencies while being careful not to over adjust.

Learn heaps of targeted tactics for exploiting weak live players in this two-part article series by a tournament veteran.

Live tells

Live tells do exist in live poker—imagine that! But it’s important we think of live tells the right way. Too many players fall into one of these extreme groups:

  • If you think live tells mean nothing, then you’re probably not paying close enough attention.
  • If you think live tells are everything—i.e., that they’re to be heavily relied upon—then you’re probably not giving theory enough credit.

It’s important to strike a balance when considering live tells.

There are certainly tells to notice from weaker players, and the most common is probably timing tells. For example, if a player we suspect is weak takes a noticeable amount of time to make a decision, then we can discount the possibility that he has a hand with which he’d normally make a quicker decision. Likewise, when that player makes a quick decision we might discount the parts of his range that should require a bit more thinking.

Of course, how to interpret a “tell” is also situation-dependent, and it’s important not to draw strong conclusions from only slight changes in an opponent’s behavior. But there are other tells to look for. Read this article by a poker tells expert if you want to learn more.

Understanding and spotting live tells takes practice—the more you play live, the more you can trust your instincts. Moreover, it is just as important to consider the possibility that you have your own tells. You never want to give your opponents free information.

Dealing with egos

Online, few players will take a 3-bet personally. This is not always true with live, inexperienced players. Many of these players let ego influence their decisions.

Their ego seems especially influential when they face aggression. If we have a loose, splashy image, we will need to be prepared for players to start adjusting. The good news, it’s usually easy to spot a player who is tilting. It’s also pretty easy to spot players who are keen to assert themselves in response to our ‘aggression’. We need to be ready to adjust in response.

What is even more important, though, is an ability to keep our own ego in check. There is no reason to react emotionally to specific players who have been 3-betting us or winning pots against us. This is probably one of the biggest leaks in recreational live poker players. They worry too much about their own ego, want to look “smart” among peers, and are afraid to own up to mistakes. It is crucial to prevent ego from impacting our play. Be a robot when it comes to emotions!

Here’s a quick example to demonstrate. Let’s say a hoodied kid to our left is 3-betting us almost every hand we open-raise. We want desperately to play back, but we shouldn’t adjust by calling more and trying to bluff them off just because our ego hurts. Instead, we should remain patient, and take a smart, theoretically sound approach to adjusting. Perhaps we start opening a bit tighter, which allows us to call 3-bets more and gives us a higher percentage of 4-bets in our range. And oh how good it will feel to put in that 4-bet!

For more specific advice on exploiting players’ egos, check out this article.

What else to look for

One final factor to consider about live poker is how slow it is compared to online. This can take a toll on players who are used to playing mostly online. It’s easy to become bored playing live, and so it can be tempting to play hands that shouldn’t be played.

For our part, we need to make sure our strategy doesn’t change as a result of being bored. And we can look for this in opponents, as it’s common to see what looks like a “boredom play,” where an opponent will show up on the river with a random hand, like T8o, after opening UTG because they hadn’t played a hand in a while.

Staying focused is a challenge, but it’s a crucial part of playing good live poker. We need to pay attention at the table to determine who is making those boredom plays, who is becoming tilted from facing 3-bets too often, and so on.

To sum up: start with theory, make adjustments, stay focused!

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Your everyday MTT grinder from Toronto, Canada. Also happens to play professional lacrosse.

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