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Poker School

Understand Tournament Tactics and How They Differ From Cash Games

Here we’ll give you a little more insight into tournament play, including:

Choosing your approach

Before you start playing tournaments, it’s worth taking a moment to work out your tactics. Yes, you need to win hands and chips, but some situations aren’t as clear cut as they look.

Take this classic poker dilemma:

It's the first hand of a live tournament and you're the big blind. Everybody folds except the small blind, who goes all-in. You accidentally see he has a suited ace and king. You’ve got two queens. What should you do?

  • Call You have the best hand and need to build up chips
  • Fold There’ll be other hands and it’s not worth the risk

In many ways, there’s no right answer to this question. It really depends on where you’re coming from as a player.

Approach one – play to survive

According to a lot of experts, your objective in a tournament is simple: don’t go broke. This means avoiding close gambles for large portions of your chips whenever you can.

Say (as with the above example), you're a 57% favourite over your opponent. In a cash game, that’s definitely worth a call. But in a tournament, 43% of the time you’d be out. Based on the estimated value (the average outcome if you did this over and over), you’re never going to win.

Tournament type

There’s also the type of tournament. If the first prize is much bigger than the second, then you should gamble to give yourself the best chance. Likewise, in short-stacked game where the blinds keep going up, the clock is against you, so it makes sense to press ahead while you can.

In a typical single-table online tournament, though, it’s not about individual wins as much as defending and growing your stack. In which case you don’t want to risk getting knocked out at any time for a relatively small profit.

A question of skill

Most poker theory tends to assume that you’re a pretty experienced player. If that’s the case, you’ll have plenty of chances to outsmart your opponents later on, so why take the risk?

If you’re a new player, you’re relying on odds, not advanced strategy, to see you through. In which case 57% is not a bad bet to take.

What would you do?

To get you in the tournament frame of mind, here are some more scenarios to think about.

1. Call that bluff?

Q. It's the bubble stage (the part just before prizes) of a multi-table tournament and everyone’s folded up to you in the small blind. You have terrible cards, but put in a big bet to steal the blinds. Then the big blind goes all-in, a fraction ahead of your bet. What should you do?

A. Easy. Gamble. It might not pay off, but it’s not costing you that much extra to call, considering this is your chance for a prize position.

2. The big all-in

Q. It's the middle stage of a tournament, pre-flop, and you are one of two chip leaders at the table (he’s a bit ahead of you – the other players don’t even come close). He moves all-in, but you have two aces. Do you call or fold?

A. Again, this is obvious. You fold, even though you’ve got the best hand. This player is the only one who can send you home, so if you call, you're going to be out the tournament about 38% of the time. Better to pick off the less risky opponents first and go after the big money later.

3. Chip up at the final

Q. You’re down to the tournament final with just one opponent, whose stack size is about a quarter of yours. She moves all-in. You’ve only got a 2-2. Should you call?

A. Definitely. First, your opponent is getting desperate so might just have overcards (two high cards), not a pair. Even if she does, with your chip lead, you can take the hit. Also, you know you’re up against a good player, so you need to use any chance you can to beat them.