Posts Tagged hold em tournament strategy

Playing the River in No Limit Hold em (With Eric Lynch “Rizen”)

One of the rules I put forward in Poker Tips that Pay, and that’s conventional wisdom in no limit hold em play, is that you don’t bet a medium-strength hand on the river. If you’re betting the river, it’s for one of two reasons: (1) you have a strong hand and believe your opponent has a good, second-best hand you can extract value from; or (2) you have a weak hand and believe your opponent has a hand he may lay down to the right bet. If you have a medium-strength hand, it doesn’t matter what your opponent has: if he’s strong you’re probably going to call him down, and if he’s weak you check to him and let him bluff. But you don’t bet and risk getting raised off your medium-strength hand.

With that in mind I was surprised to read one of the hand examples from an otherwise excellent book, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time: Vol. I, by Eric Lynch (a top Internet pro who goes by the screen name “Rizen”). In Hand 89, he details a situation where it’s folded around to him on the button. At blinds of 300/600 (75 antes) on the bubble of a $150 online tournament, he makes a standard raise to $1800 with KQ offsuit. He’s called by the loose, aggressive big blind who “has been defending his blinds very aggressively” and “making big check-raise and multistreet bluffs.” After the pre-flop raise, the pot contains $4,575, Lynch has $37,140 behind and the big blind has $14,570.

The flop comes 532 rainbow and the big blind checks. Rizen prudently decides to check behind, as this is not an ideal flop for a continuation bet. If he leads out at this board he’d be representing at best an ace with a gutshot straight draw. If he bets here he might get check-raised by an aggressive opponent holding any two cards.

The turn brings a Q, giving Rizen top pair, king-kicker. The big blind again checks, and given that it’s extremely likely he has the best hand right here, Lynch fires $3,000 into the pot. The big blind quickly calls. Now the pot is $10,575 and the river brings a 6, completing an open-ended straight draw. The big blind has $11,570 behind him and Lynch has $34,140 remaining in his stack. The big blind checks.

What do you do in this spot? You’re on the bubble of a big online tournament and you hold top-pair, second-kicker on a board of 532Q6. If you’re Lynch, this is still a great opportunity for a value bet. He fires $4,000, and is quickly check-raised all-in for an additional $7,570. He calls, and his opponent turns over Q6. He made two pair on the river and decided to extract maximum value from his hand, doubling up in this pot.

Now, why wasn’t the big blind afraid to get all his money in on the river with Q6 and a four card straight on board? The answer is simple: any half-way aggressive opponent would’ve bet that flop with an open-ended straight draw or a set. But Rizen checked the flop, indicating he missed completely. When he bet the turn after being checked to twice, he either had a queen somewhere in the range of QT-AQ or complete air, so the big blind decided to prudently stick around with top pair and an inside straight draw. And the big blind checked the river to induce a bluff, believing it was more likely than not that Rizen couldn’t call a bet, but would probably fire another bullet if checked to. The big blind’s play was perfect from beginning to end, minus the questionable decision to call pre-flop at all with a mediocre holding like Q6 suited.

But Lynch defends his decision to value bet the river with top-pair, second-kicker and complains that it was just unlucky that the big blind ended up hitting two pair on the river. True, it was an unfortunate river card. But in my mind there’s absolutely no reason to put another $11,570 in a $10,570 pot on the river after his hand became quite vulnerable. Notice how expensive the river became: more money was put in on the river than on all the other streets combined! In effect, Lynch was betting MORE on the river that he had the best hand than he had in the whole hand up to that point, despite the arrival of a four-card straight on a coordinated board.

I also hate the decision to call the all-in check-raise for another $7,570 after making the poor decision to try to value bet the river. A relatively small, all-in check-raise on the river is almost never a bluff, especially at stakes like this. Even at that point in the hand, Rizen could have folded and maintained his stack of over $30,000 in chips. Is it really very likely that his opponent expected him to fold for $7,570 in an $18,575 pot? How many opponents are going to fold getting around around 2.5:1 on a call with a stack as large as Rizen’s? By calling that check-raise, he was reduced to a middling stack of $23,000. If he’d played the river prudently and checked behind with his medium-strength hand, he’d have over $34,000 and would still be among the chip leaders at the table.

What do you think? Would you have been afraid of the fast call by your opponent on the turn? Would you have bet top-pair, second-kicker on this board and this action? Would you have called an all-in check-raise on the river? Remember, one of the main reasons we love playing position in poker is so we can control the size of the pot. And no street is more important to pot control than the most expensive one: the river. Being in position means you can always check behind and minimize your investment in the hand.

So how would you have played the river here?

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The Secret to Winning Poker Tournaments – It’s All About Timing

Hold em Poker Strategy, Tips & Advice Section

Anyone can win a poker tournament by getting the right cards at the right time, or by playing against terrible poker players. And we all know what the ultimate secret to winning poker is: aggression. But how can you more consistently win poker tournaments when the cards aren’t falling your way, your opponents are decent, and without risking your tournament life with over-the-top aggression? After all, the all-in move will work every time but once: then you’re walking past the rail.

The secret to winning poker tournaments is to recognize the three key periods in any tournament: (1) the early game; (2) the mid stages; and (3) the late game. The secret to winning Texas hold em tournaments is to have a distinct strategy for each of the critical crunch times in the poker tournament:

  • The early game – There are two schools of thought to playing the early game in a poker tournament. The conservative approach, what I will call the Harrington school, is to buckle down, play tight, and wait for the right spots to come to you. The goal is to preserve your chip stack for the later stages of the tournament without risking any dangerous, early all-in confrontations. This is not to say that you won’t play your premium hands (the top 5% of all cards dealt), but you don’t ever want to invest the majority of your stack without a very strong hand. You certainly don’t want to speculate and gamble without a strong advantage. The advantage of this strategy is that it reduces your beta: you’re unlikely to build a big stack early on but you’re also much less likely to stage an early exit. This strategy should be preferred at the lower limits and at tables full of loose, inexperienced players. Let the loose, erratic players bust out without engaging in reckless gambling yourself.

    On the other hand, you might apply maximum aggression in the early game with the goal of doubling up early. You do this by speculating with a variety of hands, in or out of position (including suited connectors, all pairs, and complete trash if you can push a tight player off their hand after the flop). The key to this approach is to be a balanced loose player. You can absolutely not afford to be a calling station: loose play is only justified if you’re willing to turn up the aggression to compensate for playing these weaker hands. But while loose, passive play is the worst possible poker strategy, becoming a maniac and going all-in without rhyme or reason is (nearly) as bad. Loose, aggressive players looking to build a big stack early will raise and re-raise frequently, but preferably pre-flop and on the flop when the betting is cheap. When you start seriously gambling, you should either have the best hand, a lot of outs, or a good reason to think your opponent will fold. This loose, aggressive double-or-nothing approach is best-suited for a table full of tight aggressive players schooled in the Harrington strategy of preserving their starting chip stacks for the later stages. You can exploit these players’ conservatism to garner an early chip lead.

  • The mid game – If there is a single secret to winning poker tournaments, it’s found in your mid game play. This is when most players begin to tighten their game, afraid to risk their remaining chips as they edge toward the payout. This is a natural tendency: while it’s cheap to speculate with low blinds in the early game, the rising blinds cause players to reassess the value of speculating with marginal hands. If this happens at your table (and almost always it will), you should once again take the opposite approach. You need to view the mid-game as make or break for your tournament life: you absolutely must build a big stack heading into the high-blind late stages by any means necessary. You must raise in position, re-raise pre-flop, and gamble aggressively, especially against tight medium-stacked opponents. You also need to pull out the occasional big bluff on the turn and river on a board that turns scary after the flop. If you can steal two or three big pots with the worst hand and steal more than your fair share of pots without a fight by constantly raising in position, you’ll give yourself enough chips for the late stage. Since the high-blind, late-stage of the tournament will rapidly devolve into pure gambling, you need this big stack to maximize your chances of winning the tournament. If you’re going to come in one of the top spots, you can’t risk your entire poker tournament on one big gamble. Without building a big stack in the mid-stages, you’ll end up getting all your chips in for one big gamble sooner or later. If the cards don’t fall your way (and there’s always a good chance of that happening), you’ll bust out in one of the lower-tier payouts. Even if you finish in the money, you’ll miss the lucrative top payouts.

  • The late game – This is all aggression, all the time. Ideally, you’d like to pick on tight, medium-stacks. Alternatively, gamble with short stacks that are forced to make desperate all-ins. The only real rule to follow is to avoid a big gamble with another big stack. You never want to put your poker tournament life on the line on a single deal of the cards, if you can help it. That said, you’ll be forced to make some gambles in the late stages, and it’s better to be the aggressor. Challenge the other players to fold to your aggressive plays. With a big stack, you’ll intimidate the other players and can afford to lose a couple of coin flips. If you find yourself short-stacked, use the best opportunity to push all-in. Never allow yourself to sink below 5x the big blind without moving in, regardless of cards. This is the most random part of the poker tournament, but if you’ve built your stack in the mid-game
    you’ll maximize your chances of placing in one of the top-tier payouts. Dominating the mid-game is the ultimate secret to winning poker tournaments.

Divide your play and adjust your strategy for the three key phases of a poker tournament, and you’ll profit from the result. The secret to winning poker tournaments is to have an appropriate strategy for each phase, and building the biggest possible chip stack before the blinds rise to prohibitive levels in the late game. Sometimes this means an early exit, but you have to be willing to die in order to live (and profit).


This article extracted from Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em (author Jonathan Gelling, Play to Pay Publishing).

Love poker, but want to earn some money from the game? Visit and preview a sample chapter from Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em, by poker author Jonathan Gelling.

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