By BJ VanderWoude
When playing tournament poker in general, you should remember that you must alter your play compared to playing cash games. Tournament poker is about survival, yet it is also about being the aggressor. Playing extremely tight and selective in tournament play might allow you to cash from time to time, yet often those are the exact faults that will prevent you from winning or making the final table.
When I first started playing poker at www.FullTilt.net, I was taught to be extremely tight and selective with the hands that I played. This was to ensure that I ran less risk of being outplayed when I held big hands. As you develop as a player though, you will usually begin to play a wider array of hands, depending on situations and position. This is especially true in tournament play. In the first stages of tournament play, the blinds are small and there are usually no antes. This is the time to play different types of hands, low pocket pairs and suited connectors. The reason being, these are the types of hands that will pay you off in a large way and will not break your stack with the blinds so low. When I feel that it won’t cost me too much, I like to splash around throughout the first two periods of blinds. The first reason being that you get to see what cards the other people at your table are playing, as well as watching their betting patterns and tendencies. The second reason with the blinds so low, this is your time to build your stack before the blinds get too high and you must revert back to playing tight.
Tournament play differs from cash games in the fact that you are simply trying to survive by building up your stack. The most important aspect to remember is that you MUST survive in order to win. With this being said how you play certain hands should depend on the chip stack of your opponents, the blinds and or ante, and the amount of people left in the tournament. The way you play hands like medium pocket pairs and A-K, should depend on those aspects especially.
Say you have 22,000 in chips, with blinds at 500/1000, there are 145 people left in the tournament with only 130 being paid. The average chip stack is 16,000. You are in middle position and the chip leader raises to 12,000. You look down and see A-K of hearts. It would cost you roughly half of your stack to call this raise, and you are sitting without a made hand. The only two options here are to raise or to fold. Saying the chip leader is a fairly tight player; your best option here is to fold. You cannot call here and run the risk of getting outplayed after the flop, and re-raising without a made hand probably isn’t the best decision so late in a tournament and so close to the money. A-K is a good raising hand; however it is not a good calling hand, especially in tournament hold em. Now look at a different situation but with the same hand.
Say you have 22,000 in chips, with blinds at 500/1000, there are 145 people left in the tournament with only 130 being paid. The average chip stack is 16,000. You are on the button with A-K of hearts. A player in first position goes all in for 3300 in chips. A player immediately to your right has 8500 in chips and just calls the 3300. This is a perfect example where you raise with A-K. Neither player can eliminate you from the tournament, and by the player to your right just calling the first raise, you have to put him on a low pocket pair or a medium to weak ace. Any hand stronger than that he would have re-raised to eliminate other action. By re-raising you do two things. First you make the player to your right make a difficult decision. Does he “call” all of his chips with a marginal hand? If he folds, you get one on one action, where you might not even have to hit a flop to win, and secondly if he calls, your are receiving good odds on the money that you put in, almost 3:1. As I mentioned above, with a hand like A-K, it is better to raise and put your money in before the flop, that way you don’t run the risk of putting in substantial chips and getting outplayed after the flop.
A good way to describe tournament play is cutthroat. It involves spending substantial time at the table and in normal tournament play only about 1 out of every 10-12 players will finish in the money. This means that you must be especially careful with the decisions that you make. When it is your turn, take some time to think about everything that is going on in the hand, and in past hands. You must be deliberate but not impulsive. The hardest part of playing NL tournaments is that you seldom can make more than one mistake and still finish in the money, and depending on the scale of your mistake, you might not even be allowed to make one. One decision can cost you your entire stack (and evening), so take time to think about every move you make.