Tournament Poker

Tournament poker is one of the most popular poker formats, thanks to the huge returns you can make on a relatively small investment. You can play a poker tournament for as little as $1 and walk away with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars; who wouldn’t want to do that?

However, tournaments are a complicated game and require a lot of strategy if you want to make a deep run. If you don’t know your big blinds from your antes, then don’t worry; we’re here to break it down and give you the tools you need to improve your tournament poker game.

A case of poker chips and playing cards and dice

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What is Tournament Poker?

Let’s start off by talking about what tournament poker is. Tournament poker is a poker game where a group of people buy in for a set amount of money. Most of that money goes towards a prize pool that the players compete for, and the rest goes to the casino to host the game. Once a player has bought in, they’re given tournament chips to play with, and the aim of the game is to be the last player standing.

The blinds will start at a low amount compared to the starting stack and increase over time. After a few levels, antes will be introduced that each player must pay before the start of each hand. These are introduced to help speed up the action and force players into playing. Monetary prizes are awarded when a certain percentage of the field (usually between 20% and 10%) remains.

As the tournament progresses and players are eliminated, tables are kept balanced by moving players from one table to another. The tournament plays down until there is just one table of players remaining, called the Final Table; this is where the big money is won. Players continue to play as normal, with the blind and ante levels increasing, until just one player remains, who is crowned the winner of the poker tournament and takes home first prize.

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What Makes Tournament Poker Different?

Tournament poker is different from other forms of poker in several ways. While it may share some aspects with other poker types, the combination of these components makes tournament poker unique. Let’s take a closer look at how they should impact your play.

Single Chance Elimination

While there are tournaments that will let you rebuy until a certain point, once you lose all your chips in a poker tournament, you’re out. Your tournament life has a certain value, as you can’t compete for prizes if you’re not in the tournament. This means you need to protect your tournament life when you play and not take major risks for slim edges that could eliminate you.

For example, if you have a flip that you expect will win you 0.5bb in the long run, it may not be worth risking your tournament life for 0.5bb in expected value. Picking your spots and not taking small edges for your tournament life will mean fewer early eliminations and more deep runs.

Tournament Chips

When you play in a tournament, you are given tournament chips to play with rather than cash chips. These chips do not have a set value; in fact, their value is considered to be dynamic, with the chips having a higher monetary value the fewer of them you have. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it plays into the concept of your tournament life having value.

If you have a million chips, the value of each individual chip may not be very high, but if you have one chip left, that chip represents your whole tournament life, and therefore the value of that chip would be higher than the value of one chip from a million chip stack. This concept is called ICM or the Independent Chip Model. This works out the value of your stack based on the likelihood of you finishing in each position.

Players use ICM to determine the range of hands they should play preflop, as the ICM ranges differ from those of Chip EV. This is due to the dynamic nature of ICM, as not every chip is worth an equal amount, and persevering your tournament life is an important aspect that must be respected.

Only the Top 12.5% Get Paid

One of the things you need to adjust to when playing tournaments is that only around 10-15% of players will make money in an event. This means that you’re only going to cash 1 out of every 8 times, so you need to get used to losing – especially if you’re putting in a long session.

Tournament poker has some of the biggest swings you’ll come across in the game, so one of the hardest things to do is to stay the course, even through extreme variance. Tournament players make their money from deep runs, so it’s common to go on stretches where you’re eliminated before the money or only min-cash for a long time. These runs can be hard to deal with mentally, as repeatedly losing may cause you to adjust your strategy unnecessarily.

Increasing Blinds

Another thing you’ll need to adjust to in tournaments is the constantly changing blind structures. You start off deep stacked in tournaments, with the average stack being between 100-200bb. However, as the game progresses, the stacks get shallower and shallower in relation to the blinds, and eventually, you will be playing push/fold poker.

This means that to be a good tournament player, you must be skilled at playing at all stack levels. If you can only play short stacked, you’re going to lose a lot of chips in the early stages, and if you can only play deep stacked, you’re not going to know how to accumulate chips in the latter stages.

The rule of thumb for playing poker tournaments is to play tight in the early stages and loose in the latter stages. It may seem counterintuitive, and most players like to play a lot of pots when they’re deep stacked, but tournament poker is about chip accumulation. You want to play more hands and steal the blinds and antes more often when you’re deep in a tournament, as the chips are more important for your survival.

Choosing When to Register

When you play an online poker tournament, you can register before the tournament starts, meaning you’ll get seated and will play as soon as the tournament begins, or you can choose to late-register. If you late register, you join after the tournament has already started, so you can get better information on the likely number of entrants, as well as see who’s playing in it.

While late registration has its benefits, such as starting you closer to the money and giving you extra information about how the tournament prize pool will look when registration is closed, there are some drawbacks. Many recreational players like to play in tournaments from the start and splash around when they have a deep stack. By late registering, you’re missing out on the value these players provide and the opportunity to run up a stack.

You also start with a lower number of big blinds, as the blind levels will have increased relative to the size of the starting stack. This means that you’ll be forced into playing shove/fold poker earlier than you may like to, which reduces your edge on the field.

Early Stage Tournament Strategy

In the early stages of a tournament, you get to play a lot of deep-stacked poker. While deep-stacked poker is a lot of fun, it can also be costly if you don’t know how to play it well.

The instinct of a lot of new players is to use their deep stack as an opportunity to splash around. After all, they’ve got plenty of chips; what’s the harm in gambling early on to run up a big stack? While the attempt to run up a big stack is admirable, you want to be picky about the hands you play when you’re deep stacked, as bleeding chips in the early stages is a big reason players don’t make deep runs.

Tournament poker is about survival and chip accumulation. You need to keep accumulating chips throughout the tournament to stay in it, and the longer you stay in it, the more money you win. This means you can’t afford to play loosey-goosey in the early rounds, losing 25% of your stack by making speculative preflop calls.

Young man play online poker in laptop.

Say you lose 5000 from a 20,000 chip starting stack, so you’re at 15,000 as you reach the middle stage. Those 5000 chips could be the difference between being on a 15bb stack or a 20bb stack at an important time in the tournament. With 15bb, you have less room to maneuver, fewer opportunities to steal/resteal, and you’re much more likely to be all in for your tournament life.

This is why you should stick to a tight but aggressive strategy early in a poker tournament. Winning the blinds and antes doesn’t do much for your stack at this point, so we want to save our chips for when we have strong hands or until we get to the middle stages of the tournament.

Middle-Stage Tournament Strategy

After you’ve negotiated your way through the early stages of the tournament, the late registration will be over, and the middle stage begins. This stage can be difficult for a lot of people to play, as their stack isn’t feeling as comfortingly large as it did in the early stages, but it’s too early to be playing shove or fold poker.

Preflop

As you move into this stage, you’ll notice that the blinds and antes are starting to become a more significant portion of your stack. As soon as you get this feeling, this is when you should open up your preflop range and attempt to steal the blinds more often. The common feeling is to tighten up as the stacks get shorter because “I don’t want to lose any extra chips,” but this is incorrect thinking.

You need to accumulate chips to survive in a poker tournament, so as soon as you feel the pinch, this is your signal to start accumulating. You can sit on a big stack throughout the early stages without being eliminated, but you can’t fold your way to a tournament win; there has to be a turning point where you start to widen your ranges.

The trick is to be smart about it. Don’t raise 64s from UTG just because you think you need to accumulate chips. Pick your spots carefully. You’ll want to do most of your stealing from late position, as the success of these raises is a lot higher than if you were to raise from early position. Also, look out for people who are getting out-of-line preflop, as these are the perfect targets for restealing with a small 3bet.

Postflop

One of the things you’ll need to consider when stealing light is how you’re going to play postflop. Players will either make the mistake of always giving up when they’re called (unless they make a hand) or always following through with a c-bet. The answer is somewhere in between, and you should always pay attention to how the board interacts with your opponent’s range.

You need to consider how your opponent’s stack size influences their likely calling range. For example, a player with 20bb is likely to shove over a button open with a lot of their suited aces, which means that on an ace-high flop, you have an overwhelming top pair advantage over your opponent. In these situations, you can go for a hyper-aggressive c-betting strategy, as you can apply a lot of pressure to your opponent’s second pair hands by the river.

However, on boards that are more favorable for your opponent, you need to be a lot more conservative when it comes to your c-betting strategy. When stacks get shallow, it becomes a lot easier for your opponents to check-raise all in with a marginal hand or draw, which prevents us from realizing our equity with hands like two over cards.

Bubble Play

The bubble is a unique aspect of tournament poker that requires a great deal of attention. This is the point where the last few players before the money are eliminated, so players will often tighten up, as they don’t want to be knocked out just before they make the money. How you approach the bubble should change depending on your stack size.

If you have a short stack, the best thing you can do is fold your way into the money. You won’t gain a lot by doubling up from 10bb to 20bb, so why put your tournament life at risk when you’re so close to making the money? That being said, if you have a super short stack and are one of the shortest stacks in the tournament, you’ll have to find a good spot to get your money in; otherwise, you’ll be blinded out!

A medium stack is hard to play on the bubble, as you don’t want to risk playing a big pot against a big stack and getting knocked out. However, you can target the short stacks that are looking to survive into the money by raising into their blinds and 3betting their opens. This allows you to accumulate chips while staying out of the big stacks.

Having a big stack on the bubble is like a license to print money. You should be raising the majority of the hands you’re dealt, particularly if it’s a big bubble that people are desperate to survive. You’ll find that people won’t even call your raise, let alone 3bet you, so feel free to raise everything until someone starts to show some resistance. Just make sure to readjust to your normal game once the bubble has burst.

Late-Stage Tournament Strategy

Once the bubble has burst, the aim of the game is to make it to the final table. Tournament prize pools are heavily weighted towards the final table, so you want to do everything you can to get there. In the late stages of a tournament, the stacks have gotten a lot shorter compared to the blinds, which means it’s more important than ever to keep yourself alive by stealing the blinds and antes.

This will include a lot of opening from late position and a lot of shoving over open raises. You can expect to have a stack of between 10 and 20bb when you reach the late stages of a tournament, which is the perfect stack size for shoving over a raise. In fact, it can be correct to open-shove a range of hands from these stack sizes instead of making a standard raise.

The benefit you get from doing this is that you don’t have to face a tricky decision when called or have to make a decision against a 3bet. By shoving, you realize 100% of your equity, which has some value, but it also means you can’t get away from your hand when your opponent has a monster.

It’s important to play a good push/fold poker game, and there are plenty of apps and charts that can help you learn the profitable shoving ranges based on your stack size and the size of the ante. We recommend checking these out if you want to become a serious tournament player.

Final Table Tournament Strategy

After battling through the late stages of the tournament, you’ve managed to get a seat at the final table. You can see the winner’s trophy and large payday ahead of you, and there are only a handful of players between you and it. But how do you maximize this opportunity? Your strategy will depend on your stack size and your position at the table.

  1. Short Stacked

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    If you come into the final table short-stacked, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that you’re unlikely to win the whole thing. Your attention should shift to getting as far up that pay ladder as possible and maximizing the amount you can win. If you’re the shortest stack at the table, all the other short stacks are going to be waiting for you to bust before they start to gamble. You have to try and make a move to make some chips, so when you’re shoving, try to target the blinds of the other short stack that have a lot to lose if they lose the all-in. Other than that, it’s a case of waiting for a good hand and hoping you double up.

    However, if you’re not the shortest stack, you must do what you can to avoid being eliminated before them. This doesn’t mean folding aces until they bust, but make every effort not to punt off your stack while other, shorter stacks are around. Doing so is considered ICM suicide, as you’re giving away money to the other players at the table for no good reason. Take your spots when they come, but don’t go crazy.

  2. Medium Stacked

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    When you have a medium-sized stack, you can start to look towards that trophy rather than worrying about survival, but that doesn’t mean you can go mad in the name of glory. You still want to try to outlast the short stacks if possible, as busting with 30bb when there are players with 5-10bb is a travesty in terms of ICM. You’ll notice ICM coming up a lot throughout the final table strategy, as this is where it’s the most important.

    As we mentioned previously, ICM is a way of looking at your chip stack in terms of real dollars, based on where you’re likely to finish in the tournament. The more chips you have, the more likely it is you’ll finish in a higher position, and thus the more valuable your stack is. If you take a stack that’s worth roughly 4th place money, but you bust in 8th because you decided to 4bet jam Q4o into the big stack, you’re lighting money on fire.

    Playing with a medium stack can be tricky, but you should look to bully stacks that are slightly shorter than you but aren’t considered short stacks. These players aren’t going to want to bust before the short stacks, and thus you can apply pressure to them more effectively. It’s best to stay out of the way of the big stacks unless you have a very strong hand.

  3. Big Stacked

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    Playing with a big stack at the final table is what tournament players dream of. You have a great opportunity to take down the whole thing when you have a big stack – as long as you don’t punt it off. A lot of players will play the final table like it’s the bubble, raising with almost any two hands to try and apply pressure on their opponents. However, this is a mistake.

    During the bubble, players weren’t going to play back at you very often because they didn’t want to be eliminated before they reached the money. At a final table, your opponents have already made a good amount of money, and short stacks are incentivized to shove over light raises.

    You should play aggressively, but not maniacally. The best way to accumulate chips as a big stack is to play a lot of hands against medium-stacked opponents. These players are heavily incentivized not to bust before the short stacks, so you can do a lot of 3betting and 4betting against these players and expect it to work very often.

    Even postflop, you can apply massive pressure by tripling off, but make sure to continue to hand read and slow down when the board starts to favor the range of your opponent. While aggression is good, punting is bad, and you can quickly see chips disappear with your stack, along with your hopes of winning the tournament.

Online Poker Tournament Poker Tips

We’ve covered a lot of aspects of online tournament poker strategy so far, but it can be hard to remember everything when you’re at the table. Here are some easy tips for you to remember that can help you with your online tournament poker game.

  • Get Ready for a Long Session – If all goes well, you will be sitting at your computer for several hours! You need to make sure that you have the time to play the tournament until the end and that you can do so comfortably, so you can play your A-game.
  • Be Positionally Aware – When you’re short-stacked, playing a strong hand from early position is more important than ever. Even though you may get away with opening 53s from UTG when 300bb deep in a cash game, it’s lighting money on fire if you’re doing it from 20bb in a tournament.
  • Get Maximum Value Postflop – Don’t be afraid to value bet when you’re playing in a tournament. You’ll find at low stakes that a lot of players like to pay off hands and don’t like to fold, so you’ll make a lot more money by aggressively value betting when you have a strong hand.
  • Remember to Steal the Blinds – When you get late in a tournament, you’ll want to widen your opening range to steal the blinds and antes. Doing so is the best way to accumulate chips and keep yourself alive in the tournament.
  • Defend your BB with a Wide Range – With blinds and antes, you get a fantastic price to call a 2x raise when you’re in the BB. You’re often getting 4-1 or better on a call depending on the ante size, meaning you don’t need much equity to profitably call.
  • Remember to Check – While it’s tempting to c-bet every hand when your raise is called, it’s not always the most prudent thing to do. Remember, we’re trying to accumulate chips to survive, so there’s no point wasting 2-3bb by c-betting on a board that heavily favors our opponent’s range.

Summary

Online tournament poker is an extremely fun format of poker that allows you to win a huge prize from a small investment. Online tournaments run for every stake level, so no matter how big or small your bankroll is, you can find a tournament that fits your needs. After reading this article, you should have a better idea of how to implement online tournament poker strategy, but if you’re interested in more in-depth strategy articles, why not check out our strategy page?