If you’re a decent poker player, you can win many hands against inexperienced players who don’t have a solid strategy.
Yes, poker is largely a game of chance, but a great knowledge of the game, coupled with an impeccable strategy, can put you on your way to consistent victory at even the highest stake games.
Poker as a game involves beating your opponent to a pot by playing a better hand or forcing them to fold. What spices things up in poker is the concept of incomplete information—you do not have all the necessary information to make the moves you do. For example, you don’t know what your opponent is thinking, what cards will be dealt next, or what cards your opponent holds.
This is where your poker strategy comes in.
A good strategy will help you make better assumptions about the unavailable information. It’s essentially an outline to maximize your profits at any game by describing possible actions players might make in any game.
But don’t just stick to one thing. Your brilliant strategy needs to incorporate many elements. For one, you need to factor in the element of chance, and probability, include a lot of deception in your body language, and up your bluffing game a giant notch.
As you may have noticed by now, an excellent poker strategy is a mixed strategy—you need to incorporate all the elements mentioned above to make it effective.
Also, you may need to adjust this strategy depending on the following factors:
- Stage of the tournament.
- Number of opponents
- Pot size
- Your position at the table
- Your playing style
- Opponents’ previous actions
- Stack size
This poker tournament strategy guide will highlight some effective poker strategies, what they entail, and explain how to implement them, so you master the game and learn how to win.
After understanding these strategies, we recommend following up with practice. This will make you an ace poker player in no time. But first, let’s highlight the top tips for tournament poker, review the basics you need to master as well as the type of tournaments you can expect to join.
Top Tips for Tournament Poker Strategy
There are a few key things to keep in mind when playing tournament poker:
1. Be patient – don’t get involved in too many hands early on, as you’ll just be bleeding chips. Wait for good hands and make the most of them.
2. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive when you have a good hand – if you’re in a late position with a strong hand, don’t be afraid to raise or even go all-in to put pressure on the other players.
3. Be aware of the chip stacks around the table – if someone is short-stacked, they’ll be desperate to make a move and you can take advantage of that. Conversely, if someone is sitting on a huge stack, they’ll be a lot tougher to beat.
4. Pay attention to your opponents’ betting patterns – if you can pick up on tells, it’ll give you a big advantage.
5. Always think about what your opponents could have – if you can put yourself in their shoes, it’ll help you make better decisions.
Tournament Poker Strategy Basics
How to Measure Success in poker tournaments
For some players, success in poker doesn’t equate to monetary gains. You might like different aspects of the game or appreciate particular hands you played quite well, which is perfectly all right. Success should be measured by different yardsticks.
Different measures are used when it comes to the monetary success of any poker game.
One such measure is lifetime earnings. If you want some motivation on just how far a winning strategy can take you in poker, look at the lifetime earnings of some poker players who have managed to claw their way to the upper echelons of poker royalty by snagging prizes in the tunes of millions. One such elite player is Bryn Kenney, with lifetime earnings north of $57million.
So what exactly are lifetime earnings? This is cumulative prize money a player has won. This measure, however, doesn’t come without flaws. For one, it doesn’t account for the player’s profitability or buy-ins.
You could have a lifetime earning of $50,000; however, you might have made the money playing 100 tournaments, each with a buy-in of $1000. That means you’re running a loss spending $100,000 to make $50,000.
On the contrary, a player with lifetime earnings of about $20,000 could be doing better than you if they made the money playing 100 tournaments with $50 buy-ins. That means they only spend $5000 to make $20,000.
Unfortunately, lifetime earnings aggregation systems don’t consider the return on investment(ROI) when measuring success. Fortunately, other more accurate ways of measuring success include titles won, players’ aggregation on the final table, and win rate.
Variance describes how your winning or losing in poker is based on luck. Practically that means you can go a lifetime without winning a major tournament event.
Suppose you flip a coin one hundred times and win 58 times. That means you have experienced a positive variance if you expected to win 50. Alternatively, it’s a negative variance if you only win 42 times.
Let’s take an example with the game of No-Limit Hold’em. The minimum edge you pursue in this game will not come up that often. A small bad run equates to a little negative variance.
This is usually confusing for new players as they will soon discover they’re losing money despite their great plays.
A great way to neutralize negative variance is to play big tournament fields while keeping your buy-ins low and fields small.
Meaning if you performed poorly early on, you’d have a chance to run well in the deeper stages, essentially neutralizing your negative variance.
Rakes and How It Affects Your Poker Strategy
Rake refers to the commission taken by card room owners. The scaled commission can be deducted from the buy-ins or pots in each hand. Pot rakes are usually to the tune of 2.5% to 10%.
So how can this cost affect your strategy? For one, a high rake rate will affect your EV, making you play a tighter form of poker. All minor pre-flop calls turn to folds.
The win rate—the number of big blinds won per 100 hands. However, the win rate in tournaments is the Return on Investment (ROI). That’s how much money a player makes on each buy-in. Suppose you pay $10 to enter a tournament and make a profit of $1, then your ROI is 10%.
In another poker game, suppose you played 10,000 hands of poker and won 350 big blinds. Your win rate would be 3.5bb per 100 hands.
You won’t need to calculate your win rate physically. There is software available for that.
Types of Poker Tournaments
Single vs.Multi Table Tournaments
The major difference between a single-table tournament(STT) and a multi-table tournament (MTT), as you might have guessed, is the number of tables used in each game.
An SST tournament usually involves two or more players sitting at one table and playing continually until the winner is decided.
MMT, on the other hand, is played across several tables. When players are eliminated during an MTT game, other players have to spread out through the table to ensure the number of players in each table is equal. Eventually, players will all be gathered at the “final table,” where they’ll play out the game to completion.
Sit & Go Tournaments (SNGs) vs. Scheduled Tournaments
Sit & Go Tournaments (SNGs) has a predetermined number of players—usually 2 to 20. The game can only begin when all the seats are filled.
Typically, participants need to pay a tournament fee and a buy-in. The game also offers add-ons and rebuys as it progresses.
Players will be randomly seated at the tournament table, and an initial draw will determine which player will act first as a dealer. Usually, the highest ranking card by suit takes the draw.
On the other hand, a Scheduled tournament has a fixed starting time. Most will start at the exact time it was scheduled, while others will require a minimum number of participants to start.
Scheduled tournaments allow a period when players can register and enter the game, but they’ll still start at the predetermined time.
Regular and Turbo
Regular and turbo describe how the blinds structure is used in a game or the rate at which the blinds increase in different game levels. The blind will increase slowly in a regular tournament, faster in a turbo tournament, and super fast in hyper and super tournaments.
Freezeout and Rebuy
In a freezeout tournament, you buy-in and then get chips. You then play until you run out of chips, at which point the game is over for you. In freezeout tournaments rebuying into the game is not allowed.
On the other hand, rebuy tournaments allow players to buy more chips once they run out. Rebuy is only open for a certain time window. Once the rebuy time window is closed, the tournament reverts to a freezeout game.
Typically the player will pay an amount equal to the original buy-in fee and get additional chips equal to what they had at the beginning of the game. The rebuy-in money is then added to the prize pool.
Full Ring/Shorthanded/Heads Up
All these refer to the number of players allowed at each table during a tournament. A full ring game can seat up to 10 people on a table. A shorthanded game limits the number of players to six on each table. A heads game requires two players on each table.
In a bounty tournament, every player eliminated is awarded a certain prize. This payment usually comes from a percentage of the prize pool.
Essential Poker Tournament Strategies
As you can tell, there are a lot of variations in the poker game. The strategies we’ll discuss below will cut across all these variations.
Tournaments are Long
Because of how long a tournament can go, you may need to adjust your strategy at each tournament stage.
Don’t worry if you hit a couple of bad beats at the start of your game. As you get deeper in the game, you’ll get plenty of chances to neutralize the negative variance.
A great poker strategy will weather these bad turns if you can stay collected and focus on the bigger picture.
Here’s how to get through each stage of poker.
During this stage, you need to activate your stealth mode. Don’t be too concerned about increasing your stack by a big percentage; try to maintain what you have. Play more conservative hands as you observe the other players. Post flop, you’ll be able to identify the weak players. Exploit that weakness by playing hands against them and trying to take pots from them on the flop.
Another temptation you need to avoid at this stage is limping. Theoretically, you could afford to do so because of your big blinds but limping at this stage gives the small and big blinds a chance to gain their full equity.
Selective aggression is essential in the middle stages as the blinds increase. Here, the only way to survive is to steal blinds.
Also, you’ll need to start implementing your short stack strategy. And when you have marginal hands, don’t call short stacks that push all in. Aim at winning small pots.
The third or fourth level is not the time to chase straights or flushes unless you can do so for cheap. Each chip is important.
Another thing you need to do at this stage is activated your observation skills. You need your table mates strategy. When most players make strategy adjustments, they will not continue to play speculative hands even if they have a big stack size. This is where you swoop in to extract a payout when their straights or flush don’t come.
Also, be wary of small stacks, especially in the BB. They’re bound to go all in soon as they get any ace, pocket pair or any good poker hand.
Let the games begin! During the fourth stage, all the aggressions come out to play. You may be three or five players on your way to the money bubble.
Here you need to up your blind stealing game even further. Pre-flop aggression will decide most hands.
To protect your stack and buy time for your monster hand, you need to scoop pot after pot before the flop.
Premium hands become even more valuable at this stage because the number of players has reduced.
In the big blind, a king or an ace can be mighty. If another player raises your pre-flop and you have an ace in the BB, don’t be afraid to shove. You might dominate this player.
Know How to Size Your Bets
Daniel Negreanu invented the “small-ball poker” strategy to teach players how to size their bets. Essentially sizing your bets smaller gives you a chance to play many hands. Your bet size should depend on:
- The flop texture
- Range of your opponent
- Size of your stack compared to the pot.
Another key element here is to know when to use your over-bet. The best time is in extreme situations when you either have nothing or a monster hand. You can bet 2✕ the pot to make things hard for your opponents.
If you’ve watched a lot of High Roller tournaments, you might have noticed this strategy in action. During the pre-flop and flop play, you see a lot of small raises and bets. On the turns and rivers, things get more exciting with bet sizes as huge as 2✕ or 3✕ the pot size.
Spot Weak Tournament Players
During the initial stages of poker, you’ll be well to leave the great players alone. Weak players, on the other hand, you need to exploit as much as possible to take pots from them on the flop.
Weak players usually stick out like a sore thumb in any game.
They are usually the ones playing the most hands. If you spot a player playing eight hands during a 10-handed button orbit, that’s very alluring. It means they’re opening 80% of their range without regarding their position.
Here are other tell signs of weak players:
- They limp in after limpers
- They call raises in the blind, then check or fold the flop many times
- They ignore how the flop hits their range but react to how it hits their specific card
- Instead of trying to win, they open limp in a late position hoping their card will win at the showdown.
Time Your Aggression During the Tournament
Here is where poker becomes a bit paradoxical. You can’t get deeper in the game if you can’t keep your chips. At the same time, if you don’t risk those chips, you can’t build your stack.
So then, what do you do? The answer is simple yet complex. You need to strike a balance between survival and chip accumulation.
For that, implement timely aggression. As the blinds and antes get bigger, you must be more aggressive. If you discarded j -9 suited from the Cut -off early in the tournament, on the turns and rivers, raising this card from the same position might be a good idea.
When implementing aggression, always look for positions where your chances of winning are higher. You’ll be better off passing on situations with minimum positive outcomes.
Master Your stacks
The value or size of stacks involved will affect how one plays. Here’s how to adjust your strategy in different situations for better outcomes.
Small Stacks Tournament Tips
Small stacks can range anywhere from 12 to 20 BB. If you find yourself here, you must shove wide against loose openers with medium stack sizes. Because they have wider ranges, it will cripple them if they go all in and lose.
On the other hand, when you are closer to the money or encounter tighter openers who are short, shove narrower.
Medium Stacks Tournaments
Medium stacks are between 21-35 big blinds. You aim to apply pressure on weak players and look for shorter stacks. When a weak player opens pre-flop, 3-betting can push them against the wall.
Big Stack Tournament Play
Big stacks are 55 big blinds or more. This is the time to take more chances and pressure your opponents.
Leverage your big stack to shake up shooter stacks. You can 3-bet them in spots, but if you decide to implement this strategy be ready to defend your openings, especially if they’re too wide.
Mix Thing Up
Just as you’re learning to read other players, so do they. To avoid being predictable, mix things up. During the game, if you’ve been having good hands and raising pre-flops without showing your cards, mix things up by playing a couple of weak hands to keep the other players guessing. Mixing loose play with tight ones forces your opponents into decisions.
Don’t Continuation Bet Every Hand
Instead of randomly continuing betting on every hand, choose carefully what hand to bet the flop with. Timing is everything when it comes to continuation bets.
Consider the board, your hand, and position when deciding how to flop. An ideal c-bet with A7s may be great for one spot but awful for another.
Because a pre-flop will reveal so much information, craft your c-bets to match your story before the flop.
Ask yourself these questions to come up with the best strategy:
- What is my opponent’s range
- What does my opponent think my range looks like
- The flop hits who’s range best
- Who has the best hand on the board
A flop with three big cards isn’t to your benefit if your opponent thinks you have a middle pair. On the other hand, fire away if your opponent thinks you have big cards, and the flop comes AKQ.
Beware of the Bubble
The money bubble in a poker tournament is the game stage where all the remaining players get paid. In most tournaments, all the players who make it to the top 10% of the field will get paid. If a tournament has 100 players, ten players will be paid.
The money bubble, therefore, creates a unique situation in the poker tournament. In this stage, many players are just hanging on, hoping to make it into the money and be among the 10% who get paid.
Having a lot of chips in this stage can be advantageous for you. Since most players will fold, you can start raising marginal hands.
Have a Plan for Future Streets
Before any move in poker, gauge the likely outcome. That is not to say you should meticulously account for every possible outcome. A rough idea will do. You can, for example, ask yourself:
- What turn card can I barrel
- If my opponent raises, what next
Then you proceed to lay out your solution to these situations. For example, in the first situation, you may decide to value every 9, jack, and queen, then barrel every king, ace, and heart as a semi-bluff.
In the second situation, you may decide to fold or continue if your opponent raises small enough.
Master How to Play Heads Up
Mastering heads up will sharpen your post-flop skills as you get used to playing wide ranges.
Playing well with wide ranges is handy when you play big blinds against late position opens and in big cash games where the game is breaking up with only two players remaining on the table.
Final Take on Poker Tournament Strategy
The best poker strategy is the one that works for you. With each of these strategies mentioned above, we recommend practicing them as much as possible to get a good grip before trying them out on a high-stakes game. Remember, poker is a marathon, not a sprint. Always have the bigger picture in mind, don’t let a couple of bad runs at the beginning of a tournament through you off your game.
FAQs on Poker Tournament Strategies
What is the best poker tournament strategy?
The best poker strategy is to have mixed strategies and adjust your play according to how the game goes. Ultimately you need to start slow as you read your opponents, practice patience, protect your stack, be careful in the middle stages, and play more aggressively on the turns and rivers.
How much does it cost to play in a tournament?
Tournament buy-ins can be as low as $5 or as high as $10,000, depending on the number of players and the prize pool.
Are cash games harder than tournaments?
Cash games are usually more challenging than tournaments. For one, most players in cash games tend to be professional players, while casual players usually dominate tournaments. Also, cash games run deep, leading to more post-flop plays. Post-flop plays are very difficult in cash games.