Surviving in Poker Tournaments

Poker Tournament Survival Tactics

by Oliver Butterick


Poker Tournament SurvivalI played in a Bicycle Casino weekly Wednesday Night Tournament, No-Limit Holdem $50+$10 with one optional re-buy. You get $800 in chips for your initial buy-in, and for $50 more, you get an additional $1,000 in chips. The blinds start at $5 and $10, and increase every twenty minutes. This week, there were 160 entrants. I know, I know. In my last article, I said I was going to write most of my articles on cash games... well, I will, but this article is on tournament strategy.

I played one of the best tournaments of my life. Did I win? No, but that’s not something I can control entirely. In order to win a tournament, you need to have two essential ingredients, and if you are missing either, you cannot win it: luck and skill. First off, by luck, I mean that you need to make some key hands. For example, you need to win some all-in “coin-flip” situations. I don't really believe in "luck" per se, but you do need to win several hands where you don’t really have an advantage. Even the best player in the world needs to win some coin-flips in order to win a tournament, and that’s not something you can control. Skill, however, is entirely within your control. You have absolute power to learn as much as possible about the game and to practice correct strategy with discipline. Even the luckiest person in the world will have trouble winning poker tournaments if they play poorly. There are only so many times that you can win where you start at a disadvantage before the odds catch up to you and you lose all of your chips.

There are two major theories about how to win a tournament, and they are really two sides of the same coin: Accumulation and Survival.

The Accumulation Theory follows the tenet, “You cannot win a tournament unless you accumulate all of the chips.” In practice, you must continually increase your stack size by winning both contested and uncontested pots. I like to think of this as “playing the player.” You need to determine whom you can steal pots from and when your opponent can be bet off a hand. You also need to maximize the size of the pot when you have the best hand.

The Survival Theory follows the tenet, “You cannot win a tournament unless you survive until the end.” In practice, you must pick and choose your hands that you are going to play and stay out of trouble. You also need to minimize your all-in confrontations. I believe is in one of Tom McEvoy’s books that he states, “You can’t lose a tournament if you never risk all of your chips.”

In truth, to win a tournament, you need to follow both of these strategies extremely well. I believe that you need to both stay out of trouble and maximize your stack. Last night was a chance for me to practice surviving. During the first hour and a half, I did not win a single pot. I was dealt horrible cards and therefore played very few hands. During this time, I received one pocket pair (sixes) and I did not get a single big ace (ten or better kicker) or suited ace. However, I stayed out of trouble. Fairly early in the tournament, I started to get short-stacked (which I define as having less than 20 times the big blind), but I did my best to stay out of trouble. Once I finally broke the seal by winning a pot when I flopped two pair from an unraised big blind, I started to receive some better cards. I folded at least two hands when I had a suited ace when someone had moved all-in before the action got to me. Also, I did not make a move with A-3 off-suit when I was the action had folded to me in late position. This is a great hand when you are in “all-in mode” (defined as having less than 8 or 10 times the big blind), and although I was right in this neighborhood, I decided to wait for a better hand.

There were two key hands that I played that were excellent spots to make a move.

1) I picked up A-J suited in late position when I had between ten and twenty times the big blind left in my stack. One loose player called the $100 big blind and everyone else folded to me. With the blinds and antes, there was already $500 in the pot, so I raised to $725, exactly half of my stack. This way, if I am called, I can make the decision of whether or not I want to make a bet on the flop. In fact, the loose player called and the flop came 9 high, rainbow. She checked to me and I put the rest of my chips in the pot. Correctly, I had read that she missed the flop and she promptly folded her hand.

2) I picked up A-K offsuit when I was under the gun and I went all-in with about eight times the big blind. It was folded to a player in middle position who took a minute or so before folding his hand. After folding, he claimed that he had A-K suited. Since he folded, I won all of the blinds and antes instead of (in all likelihood) splitting them with the other A-K. Because I had been playing very few hands, this opponent guessed that I had been waiting for a huge hand. He was right, but he didn’t realize that in that situation, I consider A-K a huge hand.

Here are the main principles that you need to follow in order to survive in a tournament:
1) Don’t play too many hands. Early in the tournament, it is okay to call with speculative hands, like medium connected cards (for example 9-8 offsuit) when you have more than twenty times the amount of the call. However, if you have less than that, or are getting close to that amount and the pot has been raised, it is best to stay out of trouble and wait for a better hand, which leads us to the next principle.

2) When you have between 10 and 20 times the big blind, look for hands that you can raise with. During this stage, you cannot to afford to just call. You are starting to look for opportunities to make a move and double up. This means that you are looking for big aces and pocket pairs. If you raise and are called, you can decide after the flop if you want to contest the pot.

3) Raise; don’t call. When you are starting to get short-stacked, you are looking for opportunities to raise, preferably when everyone has folded to you. This way you have two ways to win the hand: either you make the best hand and double-up, or everyone folds and you win the blinds and antes. When you call, you can only win by making the best hand. So, if someone has made an all-in bet, your requirements for calling go way up. I would suggest calling with pocket Aces, Kings, or AK suited, but you can even fold A-K if you like. Use extreme caution if there is more than one all-in bet before the action gets to you. It is very likely that one person has a big ace and the other has a pocket pair. I only like to call with pocket Aces in this situation. For example, against A-K suited and pocket 9’s, pocket Aces will win about 70% of the time. However, pocket Kings only win 50% of the time and pocket Queens win 43% of the time. So, although Queens might be the third best starting hand, against two opponents like these, the “ladies” are at a disadvantage--you can call it the “glass ceiling.”

4) Don’t get too anxious when you start to get short-stacked. It is very common for players to start panicking when their stacks get small, especially as the blinds keep increasing. If you still have some time before you are going to get blinded off, wait so you can pick and choose the spots that are right for you. On the other hand...

5) Don’t wait too long when you are short-stacked. When you start to get short-stacked, especially when you have to put an ante into every pot, you need to know how many hands you have until you will be “pot-committed.” So, every time you play a hand or the blinds are increased, you need to examine your stack and count the number of hands that you can fold until you will have to put a large potion of your stack into the blinds. This way you will know, for example, that you reasonable have six hands before you will be pot committed. That means that your requirements might go down to any Ace (as long as you’re not already facing a raise), or even any Ace or King if you have three hands left. (These are just examples, and not meant to be the exact requirements for these situations.)

Once again, I’d like to recognize that it is just important to accumulate as it is to survive. I failed miserably to accumulate chips during a few key hands: one hand that I was bluffed into folding when I should have realized that I had the best hand, and the other was when I was dealt pocket Aces in late position and everyone folded to me. I could have slow-played by calling and getting two people in the pot, or enticing one of them to try to raise. Instead, I raised all-in, hoping that they would suspect that I was trying to steal the blinds, and one of them would call. However, they both folded and I accumulated a small amount of chips instead of doubling up.

I’m very happy, however, with my performance. I outlasted nearly 130 out of the 160 entrants, nearly making it to the top 18, who all made the money. I’m also happy with the hand that busted me. I waited and stayed out of trouble, until I was finally dealt pocket Jacks in middle position with everyone to folding before me. I moved all-in and was called by pocket Queens, and I didn’t catch a Jack. Like I said, even if you play with a lot of skill, you still need to get lucky in order to win a tournament. Maybe I’ll get lucky next time.


Strategy articles by Oliver Butterick:
Poker Jedi Mind Tricks
Poker Commandments
Poker Tournament Survival
Calling on the River



(c) Shirley Rosario

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