Poker Tournament Strategy Guide

In this article, we’re going to talk about poker tournament strategy. From the early stages through to the end game, we’ll reveal the tips you need to succeed. We’ll also cover big vs short stack strategy, plus the differences between online and live poker tournament strategy, as well as high stakes.

Ready to improve your chances of winning as a tournament player? Then let’s begin!

Tournament Selection

Before we delve into the nitty gritty of poker tournament strategy, there’s an important factor to consider first. All cash game players know the importance of sitting at the right table. But your poker game selection is just as crucial in tournaments, too.

Consider the number of seats at a table, for instance. If you play better short-handed, concentrate on 6-max events. There’s a big difference between a Multi-Table Tournament (MTT) and a single table Sit and Go (SNG) too. Not to mention turbos, deepstack tournaments, and heads-up events. 

We’ll talk more about the differences between live tournaments and online poker later. But that’s also a factor. And if you opt for the internet, you’ll want to focus on the poker sites which are full of fish. Finally, it’s vital not to play above your bankroll.

Poker Tournament Strategy - Early Stages

Early Stages

Once you’ve decided on the right game, you’ll need to think about basic poker tournament strategy. In the early stages of a competition, look to avoid doing anything drastic. Hand selection is key. The popular mantra “tight is right” almost always applies. 

While you cannot win a tournament in the opening blind levels, you can certainly lose. Avoid contesting big pots with marginal hands. Accumulating chips to stay ahead of the increasing blinds is important, but not as critical as avoiding going broke. So don’t be afraid to fold if you’re in doubt.

The best approach to picking up chips at the start of a tournament is to open often, but with small sizes. Do so from a late position as much as you can. It’s a simple but effective poker tournament strategy since everyone else will be playing tight.

Mid Stages

If you make it into the middle stages, your poker tournament strategy becomes less about chip acquisition and more about preservation. But your actions largely depend on your relative chip stack.

Short Stack Play

Smaller stacks, such as 20 Big Blinds or less, will have to tighten up. In such a spot, you are getting close to an all-in or fold situation. This is an effective short-stack poker tournament strategy that’s extremely difficult to combat.

Let’s say someone opens for 3x BB and you shove a stack of 18 BBs. This is a big re-raise to have to call and you’re putting your tournament life on the line, sending a strong message. Your opponent really has to have something good to make such a call. So you will be able to steal a lot of pots this way while protecting your equity if you do have a hand.

Super Short Stacks

When you get down to 10 BBs or less, the game is basically solved. Countless poker tournament strategy boffins have devised charts which tell you exactly which hands to shove in which spots. With no room for nuanced betting, you can simply memorise these all-in or fold charts and play accordingly.

We’ve shared some of these push/fold charts below.

Big Stack Strategy

If you’re sitting on a bigger stack, there’s no need to bully the table too much in the middle stages of a tournament. Wait until you get nearer to the bubble to crank up the pressure. But how do we define a “big stack”?

You could reasonably argue that anything upwards of 50 Big Blinds is a big stack. If you’re the chip leader at your specific table, regardless of the amount, you should certainly adopt a big stack poker tournament strategy. 

And what does that entail? Well, in general, it means loosening up and taking a few more risks. Look to steal more frequently, open the betting with a wider range of hands, and defend your Big Blind more often pre-flop. Fire out a lot of feeler bets and 3-bets and try to take down pots without a showdown. 

Position

As with all forms of poker, table position is important. A key component of big stack poker tournament strategy is getting involved with playable hands while in position. We don’t just mean raising from the button, but instead, look to create opportunities. 

You can call from the cut-off position with a hand like J-T suited against an early position raise, for instance.

Avoid 4-Betting

Most poker players adopt a tight poker tournament strategy. So when they see the big stack getting involved, they’re happy to duck out of the way. Therefore, in situations where you 3-bet and find yourself raised, you should know that you’re likely in trouble. 

Avoid going to war unnecessarily when you’re in such a strong position. And don’t make a habit of doubling opponents up easily. 

End Game

As you near the final stages of a poker tournament, it’s generally a good idea to loosen up. The majority of poker players will go the other way and try to make it into the money, or the final table, depending on the tournament. You can leverage that by playing wider ranges and stealing with weaker hands than normal, especially with a big stack.

It’s difficult to practise the final stages of a tournament. The only way to do so is to find yourself in that position in the first place. But you can certainly work on your heads-up game by playing at dedicated two-player tables. Since many payout structures are top-heavy, there is often a high jump between first and second place. So make sure to sharpen your game.

On a similar note, it’s not a great long-term poker tournament strategy to try and ladder up. Playing tight and waiting for others to bust, just to secure a better payout, is sub-optimal. It’s important to play to win, as the biggest rewards come for finishing first.

General Poker Tournament Strategy Tips

General Poker Tournament Strategies and Tips

Here’s some poker tournament strategy advice that applies to all stages of an event.

Bet Sizing

A critical element of a good poker tournament strategy concerns the sizing of your bets. It’s hard to be too specific, as each situation is different. But in general, the correct size of a bet depends on your relative stack size, your opponent’s range, and the flop texture.

In the past, a post-flop continuation bet would have likely been around two-thirds the pot up to a full pot-sized bet. But it’s much more common today for players to make smaller wagers of around a quarter to half the pot.

On the turn, an interesting poker tournament strategy is to polarise your range. Overbetting the pot puts your opponent in a tough situation. You’re basically asking them to commit their tournament life to take you up. But it’s equally acceptable to continue playing small ball poker.

Defend Your Big Blind

We can’t stress enough the importance of defending your Big Blind in a poker tournament. Aside from the obvious psychological advantages of showing that you won’t be bullied, pot odds play a big part too. You’re just getting the right price a lot of the time, particularly when antes are in play.

Don’t be afraid to flat call a raise often, with anything vaguely playable. Suited connectors and gappers of all sizes should be well within your defending range; even the likes of 3-2 suited. Against a poor opponent, you can literally play any two cards, right down to 7-2o.

Keep in mind that, in multiway pots, you’ll be getting even better odds. But naturally, it’s much tougher to realise your hand’s equity. You’ll need to be a little more selective with your defending hands, so focus on holdings that tend to flop nicely. Any connected or suited cards are acceptable.

Defend Against Continuation Bets

A common poker tournament strategy mistake is to fold too often against c-bets. The theory is similar to the point about defending your Big Blind, in that you’re usually getting good pot odds. So if you have any equity at all, don’t be afraid to call.

Pick out a few strategic hands to float with too, in the event of your opponent checking the turn. You can then bluff the river in a lot of spots, but having backdoor flush outs and overcards just in case is always handy.

Deep Stacks

A good deep stack poker tournament strategy is much more similar to that of a cash game. As the stack sizes approach 100 BBs, players are much more likely to call 3-bets. You’ll likely find yourself in tougher spots more often as a result. 

Let’s say you’re sitting on 30 BBs in a regular tournament and opt to 3-bet with K-Js. You see a Jack high rainbow flop and you immediately know you’re committed. Hands like A-J are not a concern; the chips are going to the centre regardless. But if you and your opponent both have 100BBs, you’re going to be much warier. 

Adjust your deep stack poker tournament strategy to polarise your three-betting range. Take out the hands that don’t flop well and that you’d never want to risk your entire stack with, such as A-To.

Live vs Online Poker Tournament Strategy

Online Poker Tournament Strategy

Should your online poker tournament strategy look different to that of your live game? In general, the approach is similar. But there are some subtle differences in the approach required. Let’s take a look.

  • Fundamentals: When playing online, your basic game needs to be much tighter. With no physical reads and less psychology involved, it’s all about optimising every decision. Make sure your pot odds, ranges, and equity calculations are watertight.
  • Standard: At regular stakes, online poker tournaments are often played at a higher standard. In a live game, players want to play more hands, as they’ve often made an effort to show up. There’s a higher proportion of drunk and social players too.
  • Aggression: Expect passivity when playing in live events, for the aforementioned reasons. Not only will the standard of play be lower, but you’re far more likely to find calling stations. Online tournaments tend to see much more raising. 
  • Value: Although value betting is an important part of any poker tournament strategy, it’s even more so when playing live. Slowplaying big hands can be a profitable play at a live table, due to the passivity of opponents.
  • Bluffing: It’s a lot harder to get a bluff through when playing a live tournament. That’s due to the greater number of social and weak players. An online bluff carries a lot more weight.

High Stakes Tournament Strategy Adjustments

There’s not too much of a difference when it comes to a solid poker tournament strategy for the nosebleeds vs regular stakes. Of course, the main consideration is that you’re up against a better standard of player. So you’re not likely to see many calling stations or fishy plays.

Another factor to think about is slow playing. It’s more important to get full value from a good hand against the best players. And since these guys tend to be more aggressive, you can slowplay more effectively. 

In recent years, the trend in High Roller tournaments has been towards smaller pre-flop raises, backed up by small c-bets. But then, on the turn, huge bets of 2x to 3x the pot tend to be fired. If good players who consistently win at the highest stakes are taking such an approach, we can be sure that it works.

Super Short Stack All-in or Fold Charts

As promised, we’ve prepared some All-in or Fold charts for super short stacks tournament strategy. The following charts are for a 9-handed Texas Hold’em game and are based on the different positions at the table.

Pay attention to the hands highlighted in bright green which can be considered “no-brainer” all-in hands.  Hands highlighted in light green represent hands that have positive expectations but may not be worth the risk depending on your situation.

Note: These charts are generated using ICMIZER and some positions have been grouped together as the ranges for these positions are similar.

UTG and UTG+1 (10bb)
UTG+2 and Lojack (10bb)
Hijack (10bb)
Button and Cutoff (10bb)
Small Blind (10bb)

As you can see from the charts from ICMIZER, you’ll be able to play a wider range when you’re in a late position with the simple reasoning that you’ll be more likely to meet little resistance when there are fewer players to contend with. At an earlier position you’ll need to have a stronger starting hand just in case someone calls you.

Check out our guide to push fold strategy for more on this topic.

Conclusion 

So there you have it. That’s our essential guide to poker tournament strategy all wrapped up. By adopting the tips in this article, you should be able to take your game to the next level. 

However, there’s no substitute for practice. Why not get in some poker training right away, while our advice is still fresh in your mind? Check out the selection of tournament tables at Natural8 today.