Posts Tagged poker tournament strategy

Sniffing out Sets & Avoiding Unnecessary Risks

One of the most dangerous hands to deal with in no limit hold em is the dreaded set. When you flop a hand like top pair at low or medium blinds, the hand you’re always most worried about is the set. When the blinds are truly high as a percentage of your stack you’re just going to ignore the possibility, because you can’t afford to fold any legitimate hands at that point. Plus, when the blinds are high few players are going to stick around with a small pair hoping to flop a set. But anytime before the second round of antes, you always have to be on guard for an opponent looking to flop the set. If he hits it when you flop a decent top pair, you could risk all or most of your stack in a fairly hopeless situation.

So how do we sniff out a set in no limit hold em? The only way I know of is to put your opponent to the test, and see what his reaction is. An opponent showing WAY too much interest on a rainbow board after a bet and a raise is unlikely to be afraid of top pair. But if the board is suited and/or straightening then you have a much harder time trying to figure out what you could be up against.

With that in mind I’d like to illustrate a hand I recently sat through — and badly misplayed. We’re playing Seat 8 in middle position, and the villain is immediately to our right, acting right before us. We’ve watched villain and he’s a very loose player that makes much larger than average raises (4x the bb) with a variety of speculative hands, such as QJ offsuit. He raises even more with his strong hands from what we’ve seen, including one hand we saw him raise 5x the bb with AQ. We’ve even watched him call a 3x re-raise of one of his large initial raises with QJ. He managed to outflop AK to double up that hand. He likes to play a variety of aces from any position and many suited cards, and he’s very aggressive whether he makes a hand or not. He’s not our favorite player at the table because he’s raising a lot ahead of us and is very tough to read.

This hand, the blinds are $25/$50, and villain raises to $200 (4x the bb) from third position. We act right behind him and find an AT of clubs. Ordinarily I’d be inclined to re-raise here and isolate a loose player with what figures to be the best hand, but I don’t want to build a huge pot with a mediocre holding. Plus, I think there’s zero chance that villain is ever going to fold before the flop. So I take the more conservative route and just call. I could also make a strong argument for folding a marginal hand against such an erratic player, but I think that’s a bit weak, especially since we have a very big stack ($5,370) nearly twice the size of anyone else at the table. The cutoff and button both call behind us, and the blinds fold. The pot is now $875, and four players see the flop:

Villain leads out for $100 into the $875 pot, a minimum bet. We’re next to act. At this point, we have $5,170 left in our stack, villain has $2,555, and the players to act behind us have $1,545 and $5,750 respectively. Now, on this board we’ve flopped top pair with a mediocre kicker. Calling is out of the question here. If villain had a better ace than us, why would he bet so little on a board with possible straight and flush draws? This looks like exactly the sort of probe bet that a loose, inexperienced player would use to try to buy a cheap turn card. Also, if we merely call, we’ll invite a raise from one of the two players still to act behind us, who may sense weakness if the action in front of them is merely a weak bet and a call. The button in particular is a very tight but aggressive opponent who would probably pounce on such weakness.

We decide to raise to $500. We’re not afraid of the loose, initial bettor but concerned that the cutoff or button might have an actual hand. Both players have been playing very tight and might have elected to merely flat-call with hands like AQ or AJ behind us. We might even be able to scare AJ out of the pot with a bet and a raise up front.

We raise to $500, and both the cutoff and button fold. Villain re-raises us $750 to $1250. The pot is now $2,725 and it costs us $750 to call. We have $4,670 left in our stack and villain has $1,305. What should we do?

This is probably the point in the hand where I should have realized I was either beat somehow, or villain had a hand that wasn’t worth an unnecessary risk. I’d only lost $700 at this point, but continuing to play would cost me $2,055 more (the amount of villain’s raise and the rest of his stack, which was surely all going in there). I could have folded and walked away with $4,670 and been in strong contention in the tournament regardless (starting stack sizes were $1,500). But I ignored the information that I extracted with my raise. Remember: bets and raises are designed to extract information from your opponents, and unless you have a good reason to doubt what a bet means, you should respect what a bet is trying to tell you.

Here, I initially interpreted villain’s min bet as a probe bet designed to provide cover for some kind of draw, and responded aggressively. I don’t think this was a mistake, as most loose players in villain’s class actually would make a weak bet like this on a draw. They would generally fold to a raise, however. If they didn’t, they’d probably just go crazy and go all-in with whatever random hand they were min-betting initially. A small, calculated third bet is not in the crazy, loose player’s repertoire. If he really had the flush draw, why would he three bet the hand for so little?

In fact, at the time I convinced myself he must have something like the QJ of diamonds, for an inside straight-flush draw. I couldn’t put him on a big ace for four reasons: (1) AK was on board which makes it less likely he had that particular hand; (2) I had an ace in my hand which made it less likely he had an ace in his; (3) I’d seen him raise 5x the bb with strong aces and in fact he only raised 4x this hand; and (4) I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t make a healthy continuation bet on a flushing and straightening board like that. Since I had a T to help block some of his straight draw potential and plenty of chips to spare, I pushed all-in and villain instantly calls. He turns over a set of 4s and I don’t get nearly enough help to win this hand. In hold em, there’s nothing worse than putting your money in drawing nearly dead!

In retrospect, the min bet was a very clever trap laid by a player who had flopped a very powerful hand and expected to be raised by one of the three players acting behind him, one of whom probably had an ace. He wasn’t concerned about giving a cheap turn card both because of the resilience of the set hand (which could always turn into a full house if the board pairs) and because he knew his weak bet was likely to be raised if anyone had an ace. I made the mistake of not respecting villain’s play merely because he was loose, when in fact I’ve since seen that he is capable of a variety of tricky plays like this.

But the biggest mistake is ignoring the betting information: anytime you see the sequence bet, raise, small re-raise, you need to stop and pay attention. I don’t think I’ve ever played a hand out with that betting sequence that I haven’t regretted the results. It’s one thing if another player pulls the trigger for all of his chips after you raise his flop bet. That could be strength or weakness. But a relatively small third bet is usually a very bad sign. Always be on the lookout for the set at the low and middle limits, and remember: there’s no shame in folding top pair if it prevents you from taking an unnecessary risk.

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Tip: Poker is Like a Boxing Match

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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5 Reasons You Bust Out on the Bubble – Poker Tournament Strategy for Success

Hold em Poker Strategy, Tips & Advice Section

It’s a frustrating experience. We’ve all been there. It’s the middle stages of a poker tournament, the blinds are starting to eat into your stack, the cards aren’t coming, and you don’t want to bust out on the bubble. Anything but busting out on the bubble! What could be worse than wasting two hours of your life and barely missing the payout? The only thing worse than that is knowing it might have been different, if you’d avoided the five major mistakes that leave you exiting right before the money.

  • Playing too conservatively – Hand values change as the blinds increase. What might have been a marginal hand at 10/20 blinds becomes a must-play stealing hand at 100/200 blinds. Particularly when the antes kick in and up the reward ratio on a successful pre-flop steal, you simply must apply maximum aggression during this bubble phase. It will never be easier to steal a pot before the flop than it will be during the bubble phase of a poker tournament. All your fellow players are equally anxious to avoid elimination on the cusp of the payout, and they will not push back at you in a marginal situation. It’s true that unrestrained aggression will occasionally have you leaving on the cusp of making the money, but unbridled folding will have you walking away empty-handed far more often.

  • Raising more than necessary – A lot of players will reflexively raise three times the big blind regardless of the stage of the tournament. They reason that a smaller raise will simply invite the blinds or button to call with marginal holdings. This may be true, but it’s also true that as the blinds escalate, a standard pre-flop raise will increasingly commit you to the hand. As a poker player, you always want to maintain flexibility. If making a standard raise tends to commit you to a hand you don’t want to play for all the chips, you shouldn’t make it. Of course, you always want to apply pressure on your opponents. So you will continue to raise with both your strongest and your marginal hands in favorable situations. But you should raise less than three times the big blind… perhaps 2.5 or even just doubling the big blind will do at higher levels. When the blinds ratchet up and the antes kick in, even the loosest players will begin to back off flat-calling raises. Most players are generally going to re-raise or get out of the way, and you can play the hand appropriately, confident that you’ve minimized your losses and maximized your returns by making a cheaper raise.

  • Playing drawing hands – Drawing hands like suited connectors lose more and more value in no limit Texas hold em as the blinds increase. Increasing blinds mean fewer players per pot and increase the cost of seeing the flop and drawing on the turn and river. All those factors make suited connectors and even small pocket pairs looking to flop a set unprofitable. While you may be able to speculate with these hands at the low blinds, you’ll whittle yourself down if you remain attached to them in the middle and late stages of a poker tournament. If drawing hands are to be played at all in the later stages, you should play them aggressively pre-flop to steal uncontested pots. Do not call and passively hope to hit some kind of miracle hand late in the game.

  • Playing against extreme stacks – There are two types of players you want to avoid on the bubble: the extremely large stacks and the extremely short stacks. The short stacks have nothing else to lose, and they’ll be looking to gamble with a variety of hands. While eliminating players is good for the remaining players as a group, you don’t want to volunteer to play sheriff against these short stacks. The risks of being whittled down in all-in confrontations against a short stack simply aren’t worth the marginal reward of knocking a player out, unless he’s either extremely short or the very last player before the payout. As to large stacks, you generally don’t want to stand between them and a pot, unless you have a premium hand or believe you can raise them off their hand. On the bubble, the big stacks are usually loose, aggressive players who aren’t afraid to gamble. It’s usually best not to try to out-muscle these players unless you can do some damage to them. You also want to make sure they respect your play and are able to fold a hand before you try to bully a large stack out of a pot.

  • Failing to play position – Always raise in position (unless you’re facing an extreme stack). If it’s folded around to you in the small blind, you will almost always want to attack the big blind unless you’re extremely weak and the big blind is extremely loose. On the bubble, it’s often the first player to bet that will take down the pot. When it’s folded around to you and you’re acting in position, it’s a huge mistake to fold. Pay no attention to your cards. Instead, look at the relative chip stacks and what you know of the players at your table. If there’s a better than even chance you can steal this pot, then make your move. You might get challenged, but if you make a less than standard raise you won’t lose too much if you have to fold. Plus, when you really have a hand, you’ll get paid off nicely. By being constantly aggressive, your opponents won’t know when it’s safe to make a stand against you.


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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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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