This article is based on an episode of the Level-Up Podcast, hosted by Upswing VP Mike Brady and special guest Darren Elias, a poker pro and the newest addition to the Upswing coaching team. You can watch or listen to the entire episode via the links above or read on if you prefer a written version.
Mike: Welcome back to the show, poker players, let’s level-up your skills.
My name is Mike Brady and I’m joined by a special guest today. He’s won a record four World Poker Tour titles and is an end boss of large field tournaments, thanks for joining me today, Darren Elias.
It’s only fitting that our topic today is how to approach tournaments generally. You’re about to learn key tips and adjustments that Darren makes throughout big tournaments like the WSOP Main Event. Whether you play tournaments frequently or just dabble in them, you’re gonna want to stay tuned in for the entirety of this one.
Darren and his longtime friend Nick Petrangelo just released their new Road to Victory course on UpswingPoker.com. Road to Victory is truly The Ultimate Tournament Course. It has a heavy emphasis on practical strategies, in other words, how you should play against real human opponents in tournaments online and live.
Darren, do you want to speak to how your course differs from what’s out there?
Darren: I think in today’s solver era of poker there’s so much information and tools out there about poker theory. Understanding theory is important, and it’s something that we talk about in this course. Definitely something that we use Nick for, this high-level theory and concepts.
But the focus of my end of the course, and really the course in general, are applicable and practical strategies to beat the human players actually in your game. Because I think that’s really what matters.
A lot of mid-stakes and lower-stakes players are not really able to apply those advanced theory concepts directly. Instead of focusing mostly on that theory, I really go into how to beat the guy that’s playing 60% VPIP and limping around every hand.
Mike: If you play low-stakes and mid-stakes tournaments, you’ve probably run into a decent amount of those guys.
Your course is laid out in a way that really follows the tournament journey. After some intro videos, you start the journey:
- Early Stages
- Intermediate Stages
- Bubble Stages (split into Hard and Soft Bubble)
- In The Money (split into Initial and Deep In The Money)
- The Final Table (including heads-up)
I’d like to follow that same structure in this episode by asking you for one especially valuable piece of advice for each stage of a tournament.
Early Stage Tournament Strategy
Mike: So, let’s get into it. Darren, what’s your number one golden tip for the early stages of these large field MTTs, when stacks are deep and weak players are in abundance?
Darren: These early stages are really a time for observation. Collecting data on your opponents, and starting to build player profiles. Observing their patterns, their bet sizing, tells, and things like that. And making adjustments, formulating in your mind how we’re going to make inferences about their play, and start to adjust our ranges, knowing that we’re going to be playing hundreds of blinds deep against probably weak players, and dealing with players who aren’t going to be playing according to theory, or what we would call our baseline strategy.
I actually have some pretty interesting charts for this part of the course, on how I play these spots. How I take advantage of these multiway limped pots, players with sizing tells where they open small with weak hands, and big with good hands. How we formulate our range playing against these types of players to make the most money.
Mike: I remember one of the very first things, as I was reviewing the first videos and charts you were uploading to our shared drive for this course, was you uploaded a range for BTN versus a limp or two. I was pretty blown away by how out of line you get against these limpers.
I remember one hand in particular you’re overlimping on the BTN with 97 offsuit. Then you appropriately had a hand that you go over, where you run a savage line and absolutely own someone. Can you speak to any specific strategies like that?
Darren: I think online players, and players that are used to playing against solid competition, are going to be a little surprised when they see these ranges, and how wide we can actually play in these big field live tournaments. I think live players will be a little less surprised.
These players who are limping very wide ranges early in these tournaments, hundreds of blinds deep, also tend to make a lot of mistakes postflop. We’re able to play profitably in position with a lot of different hands.
Also, these players are a limited resource. There’s only so much time we’re able to play this deep against players, and these are opportunities every time we’re offered this situation and position to potentially play a hand.
I’m always willing to push the envelope on how much we can get involved, whether it be limping behind or isolating. These are opportunities we should be taking advantage of as much as we can.
Mike: And you’re throwing in one blind, so it’s not even that big of a risk. Let’s take the spot, and maybe we’ll end up in a sweet situation.
Intermediate Stage Tournament Strategy
Mike: Onto the intermediate stage, after re-entry has closed with maybe half of the starting field remaining. What’s your advice for this stage of a tournament?
Darren: Focusing on play around the BTN. A lot of players are uncomfortable in these situations, where you’re opening the CO, opening the BTN, or you’re in the BB. And you’re playing these 40, 50, 60% ranges. Playing these pots with these wide ranges is a spot that comes up frequently, because of how often we open and how often we defend in the BB.
We have some examples of hands I’ve played, and also hypothetical situations on how we proceed in hands against late position opens, and we’re in the SB or the BB, and how we proceed differently against different player types knowing that everyone is going to have their tendencies. Some players like to bluff these spots a lot. Some players, especially tighter players, are less willing to put the pressure on in spots like these.
Mike: Can you speak to some specific examples of how you’re changing up your strategy when you’re up against those early position opens compared to late position?
Darren: We’re going to be looking at sizings and player types. Is it a player that uses a consistent sizing? Which player types are we looking to attack, and which are we not?
We actually have a pretty cool hypothetical example where I gave us 97 suited in the SB, facing a BTN open in the intermediate stages of a tournament. Say a Day 2 of a tournament, with re-entry closed. And how we proceed against all of the different player types. I thought that was pretty fun to make and should be good for the viewers.
Mike: You categorize five different player types (solid pro, tight pro, loose pro, loose rec, and tight rec). Let’s use that 97 suited example. Let’s compare a loose recreational player to a tight pro. What would you say are the biggest differences between how you play 97 suited against these two player types?
Darren: I’m usually not 3-betting the tight pro as much in this spot. We have to be cognizant of their ranges. When we talk about a loose recreational player, it folds to him on the BTN, he might be playing something like a 60-70% range. The tighter pro may be opening something around 40%, and probably has some knowledge of how to proceed against 3-bets properly. The tight pro is probably calling too tight, but still calling and playing competently postflop.
So we have to think about that; is that really a spot we want to attack? Do we want to put a bunch of money in preflop against a tighter player? Or are we comfortable just calling against a tighter player, knowing that this player’s weaknesses probably come more postflop in not finding bluffs, and not putting enough pressure on us postflop. So against a tighter pro, I’m feeling comfortable just calling out of the SB.
When a loose recreational player adds to their BTN opening range, instead of opening 55%, they’re opening something like 70-75%. We have to understand that they’re adding hands to their range that are never going to be calling 3-bets at this depth. That really makes us want to attack these player types.
Bubble Stage Strategy
Mike: Alright, let’s move onto what can either be a very fun or very unfun part of the tournament, depending on your stack: the bubble stage. In the course, you split this up into the “Soft Bubble Stage” and the “Hard Bubble Stage”. Can you explain the difference between the soft and hard bubble stages and give our listeners some advice for navigating both of them?
Darren: I define the Soft Bubble Stage as anywhere where it’s 2x the players that are in the money. So if the tournament is paying 20, we’re down to 40 players. It’s where I start to consider ICM implications and tournament life a little more.
The Hard Bubble stage being any time we could reach the money in this hand. Usually in most tournaments that’s hand-for-hand. It depends on the size of the tournament; sometimes we’re one off the money, sometimes we’re 3-4 off the money. But the Hard Bubble means we could reach the money at any moment.
The bubble stage has some parallels to ICM and the final table. We want to avoid untenable situations on later streets where we’re going to be under a lot of pressure by cleaning up our preflop ranges. And really avoiding tough spots later, when playing against opponents who cover us, or we could be under a lot of money pressure.
On the other end, we want to focus on putting pressure on opponents who are making these mistakes, defending too wide and opening too wide. We really take a hard look at RFI on the bubble, and how we open to different stacks and different player types.
Mike: Let’s use that 97 suited example again. How would you change the way you play 97 suited in the SB versus a BTN open when you have a short stack, and the BTN has a big stack? Or maybe you have a medium stack or a big stack, and the BTN has a medium stack?
Darren: At these bubble stages, a lot of these spots are dictated by stack size, almost more than player types. If we have a solid player on the BTN opening, and we’re in the SB with 97 suited, with 20BB on the hard bubble, that’s an easy fold. If we don’t flop two pair plus, we’re going to be bluff catching at best, out of position, against a player who’s going to be putting a lot of pressure on us.
But if there’s a loose pro on the BTN, opens with 50BB effective, we’re in the SB and we have 100 blinds, maybe this is a spot where we attack, and we 3-bet and put a lot of pressure on a guy. Now the onus is on him, he may be under pressure later in this hand.
Initial ITM Stage Strategy
Mike: The bubble has burst and we’ve locked up some cash. What’s your advice for this initial in the money stage?
Darren: This is an interesting stage of the tournament. Often, when the bubble bursts, there are a lot of players who have short and medium stacks that were waiting around. Now they’re sort of relieved of this ICM pressure. They’ve been playing very tight, they don’t want to bubble.
You might look around your table and see a bunch of guys with 8BB, 10BB, 12BB, and they’re all clapping and they’re ready to go all in. So be aware of that. When you get dealt 65 suited in the LJ, you probably don’t want to open that at this stage of the tournament. These guys are ready to go all in when they have KQ now, and it’s a different scenario than it was earlier in the tournament.
So adjusting our preflop ranges and our get-in ranges, knowing that the state of the tournament has changed. This is a stage of the tournament where money goes in pretty light. So if you go on a rush in this part of the tournament, this can be a stage where you can accumulate a lot of chips.
Mike: ICM isn’t that significant in that stage of the tournament, because pay jumps aren’t that significant. That said though, in a large-field tournament (like the WSOP Main Event), players really drop like flies in that stage. I’ve never seen hundreds of players bust faster than Day 4 of the Main Event after the bubble.
Darren: I’m not much of a staller, but you see players stalling on the bubble. They should be stalling at this stage, where there are ten people dropping every five minutes and you can catch a pay jump.
Deep ITM Stage Strategy
Mike: Onward to the deep-in-the-money stage. Things are starting to get real now with just a handful of tables left. Emotions tend to run high at this point as potentially life-changing money is in sight. What’s your tip for this stage of the tournament?
Darren: This is obviously a crucial stage of the tournament. We talk a lot in this course about the idea of zooming out, and stopping to assess what’s going on at your table and what’s going on in the tournament. This is a moment in the tournament where we need to stop and do this on a couple of fronts.
One being, who’s at your table, and what is their emotional situation? In these big field tournaments, you get guys that are just happy to be there. They’ve never really been on a run like this, this is a big buy-in for them, and they’re kind of just along for the ride.
There are professionals in there who are dialed, that are playing to win and trying to accumulate chips. There are professionals in there that are a little over their head, and playing tight, and just trying to survive. So really assessing what each player is doing, how they’re approaching each spot is important.
And then also assessing the tournament as well. Zooming out and looking at the field composition and the payouts. How does our table rate against the skill level of the rest of the tables in the tournament. Do we need to adapt our play? How are the chips distributed? Are there weak players with a lot of chips?
Mike: In short it sounds like what your saying is that you have to look at this wealth of information, all of these factors, and then really critically think how you should adjust. And that’s important in all of poker. But it’s really magnified in tournaments.
If you’re at a tough table, I suppose that means you’re going to be a little but more careful, because you want to survive to get out of that table.
Darren: Yeah if we had a tough table with two or three tables left, and there were a lot of very weak players at the other tables, I would probably be avoiding any high-variance situations or playing big pots when I didn’t have to, if I knew I might have some very profitable situations later if I can survive until the redraw, until players get shuffled around.
That’s something that’s crucial when thinking about poker tournaments in general. If there are two tables left, and we’re playing against 17 Nick Petrangelos, then yeah, let’s play baseline, let’s play the charts. We’re going to be playing against strong players, who are playing the right ranges.
But most of the time in these big field tournaments, that’s not how it is. There are a lot of wild cards, and there’s a lot of information out there that should be used to adjust your strategy.
Mike: Even if you don’t have the exact right answers at the time, but you’re in this big spot, that doesn’t mean you can’t zoom out and do your best to try to critically think. You might not have all the answers, you may not have taken Darren and Nick’s course yet, you may not have a ton of experience, but zooming out and trying to critically think is still going to be better than skipping that step. It could literally be the difference between locking up a life-changing score, or cashing for disappointing peanuts.
Final Table Strategy
Mike: Hundreds or thousands of players have fallen and you’re now at the final table. What advice would you like to share with the aspiring trophy winners listening?
Darren: The final table is a bit similar to the deep ITM stage. It’s important to continue to monitor your opponents and their emotions in these spots. Especially recreational players, you get guys that are just happy to be there at the final table. You get guys that are really grinding the money jumps, where this is life-changing money. Then you get recreational players that are playing crazy, ignorant of ICM dynamics.
We bring Nick along a lot for the final table, as I consider him an ICM expert, probably one of the best in the world. How these money jumps and the situation at the final table is going to change the strategy, not only preflop, but also postflop. And incorporating that into your game.
And also think about, how much do my opponents understand this concept? Is this something I can use to pressure my opponents? Or do they not even understand, and I’m playing a theory that they’re not.
Mike: I want to ask you about long-handed versus short-handed final table dynamic. Obviously, ICM is present throughout that. How do you think about ICM changing as you go from nine players left, to seven players, to five players, to three players left.
Darren: I would even start it at 12 or 13 players left, where these heavy ICM considerations start to come in. With two tables left, it’s often five or six-handed, and these aggressive chip leaders are playing shorthanded. A lot of strategy is dictated by chip distribution.
You then make it to the final table, and it’s almost like a new game, where now you’re sitting nine-handed. You really have to take a second and assess the chip distribution and the stacks.
I often find some of the tightest play being in these spots, where it’s nine-handed and you have a lot of short stacks in play. You always need to take the time to readjust and recalibrate any time there’s a big pot. Because even a short stack doubling up can affect your ranges dramatically.
As players get knocked out, it’s important to remember to just be fluid, and realize that every final table is going to be different.
Mike: Now, onto heads-up play. What’s your advice for when just one player stands between you and the lion’s share of the prize pool?
Darren: Heads-up play is interesting in big-field tournaments, when you really don’t know what you’re going to be up against. You can get anything from a top pro to a rank amateur, and someone who never plays heads-up.
The first thing I think about is who am I playing against, and what kind of edge do I have? Because I want to be avoiding high-variance situations any time I have an edge.
A lot of that is linked to stack depth as well. If you’re playing 15, 20BB deep, there are only so many spots you can avoid. When playing deeper-stacked, how do you want to change your strategy knowing that the more decisions you make your opponent make, the more money you’re going to win. If this player is going to make a lot of mistakes, you really want to make them make as many decisions as they can.
In these tournaments we do have a unique ante structure. How does that affect our strategy, where we might have big blind ante playing heads-up. Does our opponent understand this strategy?
Mike: I’ve looked at some big blind ante heads-up ranges, and it really is wild. I think you play 100% of hands on the BTN in theory. Obviously a very robust limping strategy. But maybe you’re playing an opponent that doesn’t realize that. If you open 2.5x from the BTN, they’re getting incredible odds from the BB with that big blind ante in there. So maybe they’re way overfolding, so all of a sudden you can open a bunch of trash junky hands, and they’re going to fold way too often.
Darren: If you have a player that doesn’t really understand the math and the odds of the big blind ante, and are overfolding, there are a lot of hands that are baseline limps. But min-opening 100% becomes an attractive strategy against a player like that.
Mike: You go much deeper into heads-up strategy in the course, so let’s leave it there for this episode.
Add Darren’s closely guarded tournament secrets to your game in his new Road to Victory course. Learn more now!