Online Poker Tournament Strategy

Early Stage, Mid-Stage, and Late Stage Poker Tournament Strategies

Tournament poker online is big business both in the many online poker sites and throughout the thousands of casinos and card rooms that exist around the world. The attraction for poker players varies and could be down to a number of factors, such as being in the running to win sizeable amounts of money, having the chance to make an instant name for themselves or simply building contacts within the game. Whatever your motivation, in order to be a success within the tournament environment, you need to adjust your game and understand how poker strategy differs in tournament play.

Most new players play poker tournaments like they are playing ring games, adopting the same strategy and hoping that luck will see them through. There are a number of main differences when playing tournaments such as the fact that drawing hands become less valuable. In a tournament (that isn’t a re buy), if you lose all your chips, you are out of the tournament whereas in ring games, you can lose what you have at the table and reload some more funds. Additionally, the structure is such that as the competition progresses, the antes and blinds increase which has the effect of making players tighten up (through the fear of going broke). Bluffing is also easier in tournament play, particularly as the tournament progresses.

You don’t have this to contend with in a standard ring game as the conditions you are playing generally stay the same (assuming you stay at the same table).

Adjusting to the Stage of a Poker Tournament

The most important learning when moving into tournament play is that your play should adjust, depending on whether you are in the early, middle or later stages of a tournament.

There are a number of adjustments that you should make, the most important being what hands you play at each of the stages. Even within the elite of poker, there are different styles and strategies which are used successfully. The legendary Johnny Moss was famous for playing very tight in tournaments early on and avoiding big money confrontations whereas players like Doyle Brunson and Gus Hanson, play very aggressively with a wide range of hands early on and try to build up their stack. Doyle Brunson talked about this in his book, Super System, and made the valid observation about his game, early in his career, in which he found himself more prone to jeopardizing his chips on even-money situations early on. It didn’t take him long to concede that this was a good strategy in the early stage of an ordinary poker game but not good in a tournament (where you can’t reload).

For the purpose of discussion, i will stay away from discussing re buy tournaments as players tend to play much more speculatively with the knowledge that they can re-buy should they lose their stack.

Early Stage Poker Tournament Strategy

Early in a poker tournament you can afford to be a little looser in your play as it is relatively cheap to see cards. It is also worth noting that there are always plenty of players early on who are willing to risk their tournament lives with top pair or mediocre draws - in short there is plenty of money to be made playing speculative hands early on.

Your main objective is not to risk your tournament cheaply. There are plenty of players who will pay you off when you make a real hand. For instance hitting a set on the flop, particularly when there is an inconspicuous board can be very rewarding, especially when there are enough low quality players who don’t know how to fold top or even second pair.

Mid-Stage Tournament Strategy

As the play progresses into the mid stages, most players tighten up waiting for premium starting hands and pocket pairs. You should look to take advantage of this and put the odd bluff in to pick up cheap pots. Take care when nearing the end of a betting limit as players are more inclined to get involved in hands (as their chips are about to get devalued as the blinds and antes increase).

At this stage it will be costing you more to get involved so playing lots of hands will be detrimental your stack (as you will miss most of the time). Sticking to premium hands in early position is a good idea. Depending on the action in late position, you can afford to play a few more hands, if not only to pick up some cheap pots.

Late Stage Tournament Strategy

As the tournament moves into the later stages, there will be considerably more all ins and aggression, as players try to pick up the now sizeable blinds and antes and climb the money ladder. You should now stay out of the action unless you have something worth committing chips to.

At the same time you need to keep an eye on your stack. If you play too tight, the blinds and antes will eat you up. On the other hand, get involved in a fight with a marginal hand, and you are risking an exit at a time when it is so important to hang in there. When you are down to 10 times the big blind you should be looking for an opportunity to go all in. For most any Ace or pocket pair will be enough however you should try to avoid going all in where you are being put all in by another player (unless you have a big pair or strong ace). By being the aggressor, you have twice the chance of staying alive (everyone could fold or you could win the showdown).

Final Table Tournament Strategy

As you near the final table, you can be taking advantage of the tight play as players try to make the final table. Now more so than ever you need to stay positive, pick up blinds where you can and look for weaknesses in your opponents play. You also need to consider stack sizes and should try not to tangle with the big stacks as they can afford to gamble.

It is also important to move up the money ladder so keep an eye for any short stacks (lower than you). They will be feeling the heat and will have to make a move before you so let them roll the dice before you risk your tournament life, assuming you are not blinding yourself out of the tournament by playing too passive. If on the other hand you find yourself the chip leader or one of the big stacks, be sure to keep the pressure on the lower stacks as they will be less inclined to get involved with you.

If you want to win, you should practice playing short handed games and heads up poker. In short handed play, the hand values go up significantly and you should adjust your starting hand requirements. Similarly in a heads up battle, you should be looking to raise most hands and put your opponents under pressure, particularly with an ace or pocket pair.

Additional Tournament Strategy Considerations

There are a number of other considerations in tournament play that are worth mentioning.

  • There are always players looking to mini-cash in tournaments. These players are usually not too difficult to spot and particularly when approaching the bubble, you should attack their blinds as they will be unlikely to defend them unless they have a very strong hand. If they play back at you, you know you picked a bad spot, fold and move onto the next hand, but keep at them as they will fold most hands to a raise.
  • With any strategy, you need to understand the players around you as this should dictate who to target and how to play. If you are playing a very tight table, you should look to pick up blinds. If it is very aggressive, you need to take your foot off the throttle. Know your opponents and target the weak players.
  • Remember to change gears. Tournaments are a marathon and it won’t take your opponents to work out your strategy if you don’t mix it up!