The tournament grind is tough. You can go months without a solid score, all the while watching other players succeed around you.
Tournaments are nonetheless a high-value format because of the soft competition. So, if you don’t mind the variance, or if you enjoy the format more than cash games, then by all means play tournaments.
To improve your chances of tournament success, we’ve prepared 8 must-know tournament tips to share with you today. Instead of focusing on in-depth strategy, we’re going to discuss certain key fundamentals and mistakes to avoid. With these basics on lock, you’ll be on your way to crushing tournaments.
Let’s jump right in.
1. Don’t try to maintain your starting stack
Multi-table tournaments are a marathon. You’ll play for hours before you approach the money, and at the final table the starting stack size will often be worth less than 1 big blind.
Consequently, it’s important to think about the value of your starting stack as distinct from the real money cost of your entry. This should ‘free up’ your play early on so you can focus on making great decisions and not on protecting your starting stack. This gives you a better chance at growing your stack and making a deep run.
It isn’t until the later stages of a tournament that ICM comes into play, at which time you can start thinking about the monetary value of your stack and how that might affect your strategy.
2. Play for the win
This tip is closely related to the previous one, but is more applicable later on in tournaments.
The pay-out structure of multi-table tournaments almost always reward those who finish in the top few spots, at the expense of those who just barely made it past the bubble. You should aim to maximize the number of times you finish in the final few, even if it comes at the cost of min-cashes or pay jumps.
Pushing every worthwhile edge will help you build big stacks and set yourself up for deep runs. In other words, the more profitable plays you make, the more often we’ll finish in a top position.
3. Play exploitatively, but not too exploitatively
Because tournament fields are often very weak, you should use an exploitative strategy when appropriate.
For example, you can exploit tight players in the blinds by opening with a wider range, especially from late position. Or, to take another example, you can adjust your betting range to contain more value bets and fewer bluffs to exploit a loose calling station.
No two tournament players are alike, so it’s up to you to identify and attack a specific player’s weaknesses. See this article for 8 common exploits that work against weak competition.
However, it’s important to remember that exploitative play and exploitable play are two sides of the same coin. In other words, when you adjust your strategy to exploit your opponents, you become more exploitable.
Most opponents will lack the ability to exploit you, but some will be savvy enough to adjust. For this reason, it’s important to protect yourself by rarely straying too far from sound poker strategy.
Consider, for example, this hand, between Daniel “Jungleman” Cates and Phil Hellmuth at the King of the Hill tournament on Poker Night in America. (Action recapped below the video for those of you who don't have the time to watch it.)
Jungleman raises on the button with T♣ 5♣ to 2BB and Hellmuth (the effective stack with 22BBs) defends with Q♠ J♦. Hellmuth check-calls on the T♦ 3♦ 2♣ flop, then check-raises on the T♠ turn leaving himself with just 6BB behind. Jungleman calls on the turn, but then folds to the tiny river shove on a 9♦ river. Hellmuth drags the pot with his bluff and Jungleman starts steaming like a bubbling tea kettle.
Jungleman's huge river fold with trips getting six-to-one is a great example of mistaking a certain player’s capabilities, and letting that misconception get in the way of playing fundamentally sound poker.
This next tip will be particularly helpful to those with a background in cash games.
4. Fight for those antes
Tournament antes almost double the amount of dead money in the pot before the preflop action begins, which means you should adjust your play in two ways:
First, your improved pot odds to steal the blinds allow you to raise with a wider range from every position. A standard raise risks 2–2.5x big blinds to win the 2.4 big blinds (give or take) in the pot. If there are aggressive players to your left, you can readjust by tightening up your raising ranges; or, in the right circumstances, work in some 4-bet bluffs to punish them.
Second, you should defend your big blind—and sometimes your small blind—much more often. With antes in play, you’ll be getting great odds on a call versus standard 2–2.5x raises, which means you should be calling with a much wider range than you would without antes. You should also expand your 3-betting range (particularly in the small blind, which is the position from which you should be 3-betting the most).
Speaking of big blind defense...
5. Don't be afraid to defend your big blind when short-stacked
Many players tighten their big blind defense range when their stack dips below 20 or 15 big blinds, but those players have it backwards.
You should actually defend your big blind more often in this situation (so long as the raise size is small) because you realize more equity when short stacked. Your opponent won't be able to blow you off a hand like bottom or middle pair by the river, like they could if you were deep, because you'll oftentimes be all-in on the flop.
To give you an idea of how much looser you can defend, let's compare the big blind vs cutoff defense ranges for different stack sizes from Nick Petrangelo's Winning Poker Tournaments course:
You can see that we get to play a fair bit looser at the shorter stack depth, which is probably counter-intuitive for some of you. Being able to easily realize equity makes a big difference!
Keep in mind these charts assume your opponent min-raised preflop, so if you're facing a larger size, you'll want to play tighter.
6. Play tighter when you're short stacked and near a bubble
Your shove/fold ranges may need to be modified under ICM pressure. For instance, you will need to play tighter when approaching the money bubble with a short stack (see: How Not to Blow It On the Money Bubble).
ICM pressure is often applied postflop by bigger stacks. An aggressive player with a big stack might put you to a decision for your tournament life just off the money bubble, or just before a significant pay-jump. In these spots it’s important not to let the pressure consume you, and to recognize when you simply must call down and let the chips go where they may.
7. Put pressure on your opponents when you have a big stack near a bubble
Just as you want to avoid succumbing to ICM pressure, you should use it against your opponents when you have a big stack.
When approaching a significant pay jump, you should raise with a wider range of hands to take advantage of short stacks who can’t profitably call with many hands. You should play more aggressively postflop as well.
Many new tournament players value survival more than they should, especially when they see the pay jumps getting larger. This survival-based approach is very exploitable and will result in many disappointing 10th, 9th and 8th place finishes. (For a more in-depth explanation on abusing a big bubble, see: There's Big Money to be Made on the Final Table Bubble.)
This final tip isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good one to stick to.
8. Avoid late registration when possible
If you believe you have an edge over your opponents, then you should register when the tournament begins to maximize the amount of time you play against them.
This is not to say that you should never late register for a tournament—in fact, there is often value in registering a tournament right before registration closes. If you have an edge, late registering is better than not playing at all.
Tournament Tips Wrap Up
That's all I've got for you today. Jump start your next tournament run by implementing the 8 tips we’ve discussed here.
Be sure to take our tournament strategy quiz if you haven't already!