This is the second in the Texas Holdem Strategy Series, focusing on no limit Texas Hold’em poker tournament play and associated strategies. In the first installment, we examined a real-world tournament scenario and how to handle a particular class of difficult players – the "maniacs", aggressive, wild players that are commonly encountered in today’s poker tournament venues.
In this article, we’ll examine the techniques that were used more closely to best these players, along with stitching a Texas Hold’em tournament poker strategy together with some good poker tournament fundamentals.
Let’s begin with some foundational elements of any winning tournament poker strategy – clearly understanding our priorities. In poker tournaments, each player's primary objectives are:
1. Survival – first and foremost, surviving to play at the final table, and ideally to be the last surviving player (the winner!) is of paramount importance.
2. Building and Protecting that Chip Arsenal - to survive increasingly large blinds and tougher competition at the latter and final tables, a player must build up and sustain a "chip arsenal" - a substantially large stack of chips - early enough in the competition to be capable of surviving and taking various necessary, calculated risks from time to time.
This must be accomplished without risking the entire tournament and building that chip arsenal in the process. Failure to build an early chip lead is a sure ticket to being eroded away once the blinds and antes increase, chewing away at your stack until you’re cornered or dead.
3. Sustained Focus – concentrating on your game plan, attacking when the right cards and situations present themselves and converting those opportunities into “profits”, while avoiding killer momentary lapses of reason (i.e., making occasional mistakes by not paying close enough attention). Focusing like this over an extended period of time is much more difficult than it seems, requiring a constant vigil, self-awareness and self-discipline.
4. Adaptability – as the tournament progresses, it’s critical to recognize when the game dynamics change and quickly adapt to new conditions such as:
• Number of players at the table
• Style of the players
• Size of your chip stack vs. opponents’
• Odds the pot is giving you, especially as blinds and antes increase
• New players arriving that are initially unknown quantities
• New table you’ve been moved to and avoiding mistakes.
Since Texas Holdem tournament events are specifically designed to progressively eliminate players, your foremost objective must be to survive and protect your stack of chips. Taking unnecessary risks is a formula for disaster and an early trip home…someone can always get lucky against you.
Demonstrating the patience to hold back and attack at the most opportune moments, when the odds favor your success, and with a proper battle plan in mind is critical. While others are visiting and socializing, daydreaming, watching the waitresses, and otherwise taking their eyes off the ball, when you’re at a tournament table, it’s time for your focused attention on the game at hand. This kind of extended attention span becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, so rest up before playing in a tournament – do not play when tired if you can avoid it.
I also recommend against alcohol while playing, as it leads to impaired judgment and fatigue.
Here are some basic guidelines to use when playing in poker tournaments or at any table where there are many players that you don't know well:
1. Prepare and Refine your Battle Plan – when you enter a tournament, you're going to be fighting a "battle" for survival - against the blinds, the antes, fatigue, as well as against the other players. Would any good military commander go into battle without having first surveyed the battle field, understood the enemy and its tactics, and without having a well-conceived battle plan which takes these facts into account and ensures success? Of course not! If they did, they probably wouldn't live to tell about it.
You shouldn't go into a poker tournament without having completed some pre-planning for the battle ahead either. Think about your plan and several things you’ll do in each typical situation ahead of time. Refine this once you’re at the table as your battlefield unfolds before you.
2. Start out slowly. Be patient. Use the early tournament period, while the blinds are still low, to study everyone at your table, identifying the most likely prey, understanding their habits and play styles. Use this time to mentally prepare and refine your "battle plan" for transferring their chips into your stack. It’s best to formulate several strategies during your pre-tournament planning, and then refine each one as you see how the game is actually shaping up, the types of players at your table and how you’ll approach each situation.
3. Set the Stage – play a few “ugly” hands early, limping in occasionally and feeling your way around the table with the other players while the blinds are still low, playing a few hands you wouldn’t normally even consider. This prevents you from starting out with a table image as a solid or tight player; otherwise, you may not get the action you’ll need when you do get those pocket rockets (AA) and great opportunities later.
4. Know Your Own Table Image - Everyone develops a "table image". Be aware of your own table image, and be careful to mix your game up along the way so that you can't easily be "typed". Once others can predict your behavior and your likely reaction to a given situation, they'll definitely use it against you. For example, if you play mostly premium hands and fold at the first sign of trouble, other players will quickly type you as “weak” and will steal you blind, taking advantage of that knowledge by representing hands they don’t actually have so you’ll fold. If you project that image, know it, so you can trap them with a good hand – make the most of it, since that will definitely destroy your weak table image…
In the first article, I let several aggressive players push me around a little early on, then limped in and dropped out on a few draws, so they all thought I was a tight, weak player and a good target for their aggressive style of play. Letting them push me around some, while not losing much to them, conditioned these aggressive players to push me even harder when they absolutely shouldn't have – a huge error on their part that I converted into a chip leadership position.
5. Be Careful, Protect Your Stack – You must protect your stack and survive until you get some good hands you can use, so be careful to expend that chip depot deliberately and judiciously – always with purpose. When a player raises you significantly, you must think: 1) how much of my stack can I afford to invest in this one hand, 2) can I win this hand if I play it fully, and 3) what kind of play will yield me the most chips and give me the best overall odds to win against this particular player.
6. Get a Real Hand and Extract Its Value - don't go up against maniacs and aggressive raisers without a real hand - and definitely, do not challenge them while you’re chasing a draw! Their strength is their bravado and wild, aggressive betting style - it's also their biggest weakness. When you do get a real hand that you believe is a winner, you must get the most value for it by extracting as many chips as possible from the other players:
• Hit aggressive players head-on, triggering their aggressive response systems, and be willing to stick it out with them, re-raising them all-in if necessary since you know you’re likely in top position, or
• Trap them with a check-raise play. You can often just let aggressive bettors take the initial lead, betting into you and thereby become pot-committed, leading them to putting many or all of their chips at risk. That’s another reason you'd better have a real hand whenever you challenge the aggressive players – they typically just will not fold or back down, and
• Bet enough to extract a significant chip “profit” from the opponents, without forcing them to fold, if you’re sure you have the winning hand.
7. Pay Attention and Focus Outwardly - watch everyone and everything that's going on at your table. Don't daydream, and for Pete’s sake – do not focus on your own hand! As a general rule of thumb, spend 3 times as much energy and time trying to determine what other players are holding (especially when you’re not in a hand), gauging their play and betting styles, and refining your battle plan - than you do thinking about your own hands and play. You won’t be playing that many hands if you’re a good poker player, so use this available time wisely.
8. Play the Pot Odds - most people think too much about their own hand and what they might draw next. That's because calculating and playing the pot odds isn't yet second nature to them. If that's you, then you definitely need to get the poker odds ingrained into your subconscious mind, so they’re second nature and you don't even need to think about them while you’re playing. Find yourself a good Texas Holdem poker odds calculator, practice with it, and you’ll learn the odds of drawing each type of hand and find that you don’t need to think about them.
9. Bluff for the Pot from Good Positions - as the blinds and antes increase, the size of each hand’s pot becomes substantial. Bluffing for these pots from proper positions (e.g., acting late with a big bet, acting first with a semi-bluff hand and bigger bet) is a good way to hold your own while everyone else struggles against the blinds.
10. Play the Player – the key to winning in poker is to get other players to make the wrong play, which you then profit from. To do this, knowing your opponents, understanding what kinds of hands they play, whether they’ll fold when bluffed, and knowing when it’s time to lay down your hand to simply survive and play another is crucial.
The alternative is to do what many players do - just leave most everything to chance and play the game in a random, unpredictable fashion with whatever hands you’re dealt; a.k.a. “gambling”.
They say "those who fail to plan, plan to fail", and that “hope is not a strategy” – a couple of my favorite sayings that come to mind…have a plan, and execute it.
You must be prepared to mix up your play enough that players aren't sure what to expect from you. It's helpful to "shift gears" from one mode of operation to another from time to time. It's also recommended to play the opposite from everyone at the table; e.g., if most everyone is playing tight overall, then loosen up your play and take advantage of them by overplaying some hands, going on some draws, and a few semi-bluffs. If the table becomes loose, tighten up and attack with a good hand or trap them.
Remember, aggressive players' egos usually can't handle being overtly raised or publicly challenged. They expect to be the preeminent raisers and dominate the game, so they'll often re-raise or go all-in in order to leverage their aggressive position against you. Be ready! You can just about count on it. When they push you at the wrong time, sock it to ‘em! You can use these types of players to build up your chip arsenal and possibly earn yourself a seat at the final table.
There aren’t any absolutes in no-limit Texas Holdem tournament strategy, which is one of the things that make it so entertaining and challenging. These are just a few good tips and techniques that will help you get started and do reasonably well against some good players and some aggressive ones.
Finally, it's been said "if you can't spot the sucker at your table, it's probably you!" I love this saying, because it's so true. If you do your pre-planning and have confidence in your game plan, along with an ability to observe the opponents and apply the proper techniques against different kinds of players, you’ll go far in Texas Holdem poker tournaments.
So, there's your first set of Texas Holdem poker tournament strategies. I sure wish someone had condensed things down like this for me when I first started playing. It would’ve saved me years of learning it the hard way. Enjoy.