What is a Poker Tournament?

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.

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.

Early Stage Tournament Strategy

guy playing a poker freeroll tournament on his laptop

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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?

Did this article deal you a winning hand?

Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!

Looks like you’ve been dealt a bad beat. We’ll shuffle the deck and try again.

Liam began his writing career in the mid-2010s, starting as a full-time sports journalist before moving into the world of iGaming and poker. In 2020, Liam published his first book, “Stay Lucky: A Complete Guide to Online Sports Betting.” He has worked with many top publications and companies, including Gambling.com, The Game Day, Casino Guru, and more.

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