There are many metaphors about the game of poker. It has been described as war: “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” It’s been compared to life itself, with women being the rake (“Rounders”). It’s even drawn romantic comparisons: “Poker is a lot like sex, everyone thinks they’re the best, but most don’t have a clue what they’re doing” (Dutch Boyd). For my money, at least when it comes to poker tournaments, I think of boxing. Poker is a lot like a boxing match: you dance around early, trade some jabs, and land power punches when your opponents tire in later rounds.


In the early stages, it’s all about sizing up your opponents. It’s like shadowboxing, conditioning yourself for the real action later. Sure, you’re still going to bet a big hand when you have one, but you’re not going to tire yourself out in the early going. You’re not looking to take any big risks, drop your guard, and suffer an early knockout. While it would be nice to score an early double-up, you’re not going to make any big moves to accomplish that goal. You’re also not going to risk any large part of your stack without a hand bigger than one pair, unless you hold AAs and push in pre-flop. To summarize: in the early stages of a tournament you’re not looking to bluff or to risk too much of your stack without a massive hand. You can speculate a bit in position with truly playable hands, but if you don’t hit the flop big you’re done with these hands. You should rarely bust out of a tournament early.


As you progress in the tournament, you open up your game. You start stealing blinds from middle and late position. In the very late stages you’re either stealing the blinds once per orbit or you’re falling behind pretty rapidly. You also need to mix in some re-raises to steal from the loose, aggressive big stacks that will start attacking the table. And there will be at least one loose, aggressive big stack raising way too often to steal the blinds. It’s a bit of a risk, but to make the final table you’re going to have to push back against these players at some point. Wait for a reasonable hand and a situation where it’s likely the loose player is just raising in position, and push back. If you can steal a standard raise along with the blinds you’ve won three rounds worth of blinds. That buys a lot of breathing room.


Finally, you launch the power jabs. Towards the very end, you’re either going big or going home. You don’t want to rely on the cards to decide your fate (that’s like trusting the whim of the judges’ scorecards). You’ll need to gamble, and usually it’ll be all-in pre-flop or fold. Alternatively, if you raise a smaller amount and get called, you’re pushing on the flop with any made hand, solid draw, or if the flop is unlikely to have helped your opponent. You must maintain a big stack at all times or die trying. It’s worth taking big risks so you have the chips you need to gamble: without being forced all-in.

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