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Playing in a multi-table tournament (MTT) is widely regarded as the most exciting way to play Texas No Limit Hold’em. From the World Series of Poker to the World Poker Tour, from playing in online events to your local game at the bar which starts with multiple tables and ends with a single winner of the tournament, tournaments are where it is at.
One of the biggest questions any tournament player asks themselves before they take to the felt is what poker hands to play. From the best to the worst, which two hole cards should be thrown into the muck and which others should lead to you putting in chips?
At the start of tournament play, the early blinds set the stage for gameplay to be more like a cash game, where more players will get involved with a wide variety of hands to build some big pots and get themselves into an early lead.
The first few blind levels are, however, way more vital than they can sometimes appear. Lose a big chunk of your chips, and it can really put a damper on any late-stage ambition you had. So keep that in mind and look to protect your stack for the long road ahead.
Two of the keys to starting a tournament strong are: playing strong hands and identifying your opponents playing style. These Hands include:
Playing these stronger hands in the early stages can be extremely lucrative, and identifying your opponents playing style is pivotal to how you can implement this plan. You need to know which players you can exploit and which hole cards you can use to carry out that exploitation. Pushing your opponents out of their comfort zone while they have the chips to lose can mean the difference between you going into the middle stages with a big chip stack or going home early.
The premium starting hands in poker are, generally speaking, known as pocket aces, pocket kings, pocket queens, and combinations of those cards such as ace-king or ace-queen. Pocket jacks would be seen as a premium hand, but even more so at tables that are six-handed or shorter, such as the very final stages. Getting pocket jacks when three-handed would be similar to like finding pocket kings in nine-handed play.
Playing premium hands is something that should be done with great aggression in the early stages. Your aim should be to build a stack and if you can get plenty of your chips against players who have taken big risks with lower-ranked hands, you’re going to be a winner in the long term.
Everyone loves winning a hand with suited connectors, such as nine-ten of diamonds or seven-eight of clubs. In the early stages of MTTs, these are very interesting and powerful hands to play. They can catch out a lot of premium hands and often get good results against middle pairs. Why? Players do not see them coming.
Let’s look at playing two-three of clubs against pocket tens. If a board of ten-four-five comes, then the player with the pocket pair can feel incredibly secure, but an open-ended straight draw that is held by the player with two-three could cause major damage. Neither a six or an ace look like dangerous cards to see on the river after a blank turn, but of course they would be and this is how suited connectors can fly under the radar and cause major damage.
In the latter stages of a tournament, playing suited connectors is much riskier and when it gets to the final table, it is a luxury that is afforded only to players with a big chip lead to wield. Early on however, they can work and become extremely profitable if your strategy is applied correctly.
Strong pocket pairs – that don’t qualify as premium hands – such as pocket tens, nine, eights or sevens, can also help you make a lot of chips in the early stages. You’ll often need to hit with them in order to win hands against premiums, but after doing so, they can go under the radar too and win as a middle set on the flop or even a full house made in the later streets.
Playing ‘middle’ pocket pairs such as the above is worth doing in tournaments, but timing is everything. This must be judged on the merits of your opponents and the perceived strength of your hand against theirs. If, for example, you call a raise pre-flop with pocket eights and make middle set with a flop including an ace, if you know your opponent often plays weak aces you could be very strong and can bet big to win more chips.
If you know that they are more likely to have raised with middle suited connectors like jack-ten, then you may need to play the hand differently in order to make the best play.
During the middle stages of a poker tournament, your focus should shift from building a stack to playing down to the bubble. Making money on a consistent basis is the cornerstone of every successful tournament player, and doing so relies on your ability to identify player’s ranges as well as your ability to play specific hands.
These hands include:
Online poker tells such as taking a certain amount of time to make some decisions rather than others is key, and stack sizes in certain spots can become more and more revealing as the tournament progresses. Playing low pairs, as well as making drawing hands pay in multi-way pots are both ways of making money in the middle stages, but again, knowledge is power. Make sure that you know your opponents well in this stage and play on any weakness that you perceive in some who are limping into the money places.
The power of high-card combinations such as ace-king, king-queen, ace-queen and ace-jack are such that the middle stages of a tournament represent your ideal time to play these hands aggressively in order to maximise your profits. Players who have drifted short will often move all-in with worse and there are still enough players calling raises with suited connectors or low to middle pairs that your high cards can work as strong drawing hands as well as powerful raising hands pre-flop.
Playing low pairs yourself, such as pocket sixes and lower, can ‘mine’ for sets and often make good profits when they hit. They can also make a low or ‘wheel’ straight and low suited connectors have a special power too. Six-five suited is the holding that is most likely to crack pocket aces, so don’t rule out those low-flying cards.
Playing hands such as ace-ten, ace-nine or ace-eight can often work out really well against high connected cards such as king-queen or jack-queen in the long run.
If no-one hits, you’re going to make money on those sorts of hands with an ace high, and they have the potential to win big hands if you move all-in against hands such as lower suited aces or two picture cards. Chasing flushes on their own left you ‘catching buses’ as the rhyme goes, but if you play the ace-high hand well and happen to pick up a draw to the nut flush too, that can maximize your profits.
As with all no limit hold’em, any two cards can win a hand… and any two cards can lose a hand as well. When an MTT gets to the late stages, blinds increase, and players will have shorter stacks with which to attack their opponents.
Hands such as ace-king, ace-queen and king-queen become very powerful, especially in all-in situations. Other hands that you may not have considered raising with when there were nine players at the poker table, such as ace-eight or king-ten, increase in power and should be played with more confidence.
Stealing the blinds is not worth so much in the early stages, but late in the game, raising from late position to take the blinds and antes can be the difference between winning the tournament or only coming close.
Deciding what hands to play is situational and should always be a decision that you add lots of other factors into before making. Who you are up against and what their range is may be one of the most important, but the stage of the game, as well as what you’re risking to win or lose is vital too.
Overall, it’s worth remembering that the best hand is always the winning one, and doing whatever you can do to maximise your chances of having that hand when all five community cards are face up and the last round of betting is complete is all that is in your control.
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.
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