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Playing Too Many Hands, or Not Enough

by Tom McEvoy |  Published: May 17, 2005


You're in a tournament, you're in early position, and you pick up an A-6 suited. You think, "Gee, this is a pretty good hand if I flop a flush to it," so you play it. If this sounds like you, you're playing too many hands. And you're probably also playing too many hands when out of position. This is a common error that many novice players commit. No-limit hold'em is a "backside" game – that is, the point of power is late position. If you are patient and disciplined, and always pay close attention to your table position, you can erase the flaw of playing too many hands.

"I don't mind playing pocket pairs from any position if I can enter the pot for only one bet," Don Vines, the co-author of our upcoming book How to Win No-Limit Hold'em Tournaments, says. The problem comes when you limp in from out of position with a small pocket pair such as fours, for example, and an opponent raises five to six times the size of the big blind – and you call. Most times, it is not profitable to call a raise in situations like this unless lots of other players have called in front of you, and you have a ton of chips. "If I'm playing at a table where there's a lot of raising," he adds, "I will not play small pocket pairs from up front." This is a good rule of thumb. The aggressiveness of your opponents should be a determining factor as to which hands you enter the pot with from early position. In other words, it isn't terrible to play small pairs from up front if you're at a passive table; but, if you're up against several very aggressive players, be wary of getting involved.

During the early rounds of a tournament, players have a tendency to play a lot more hands than they play in the later stages, especially in rebuy tournaments. They come into pots with a wide variety of marginal hands that they would not play once the rebuy period has ended. Early in a tournament, we often see people play too many hands from out of position, and too many marginal hands when in position. "My philosophy is the opposite," Don states. "I prefer playing fewer hands early, and playing more hands from the backside that may be considered somewhat marginal later in the event. I usually will have fewer callers later in the tournament, and since I am in late position with these marginal hands, I will be in position to take the pot away from my opponents if nobody flops anything." When the rebuy period is over and the blinds are bigger, or when the antes kick in, players tend to tighten up. This is when you can take advantage of that tendency.

Unlike limit poker, in which you have to win a series of pots and show down lots of hands, in no-limit hold'em you don't have to win lots of pots; you just have to win most of the ones you play. And you don't have to play very many hands. You can win with a bet. People tend to forget that.


On the flip side of the coin, we see many players who play too tight during the opening stages of a tournament because they want to survive. They wait till the cows come home for pocket aces, kings, queens, or A-K. They really are not playing true no-limit hold'em, because they are afraid to get involved in a hand, lose it, and get eliminated from the tournament. They have no "heart."

People who play excessively tight usually meet with one of several possible fates. Against observant opponents who notice a layer of dust on top of a rock's chips, the rock won't get any action on his good hands. So, when he finally wakes up with aces or kings and raises the pot, what do his opponents do? They fold, leaving the tight raiser with only the blinds. Also, it is almost impossible for a very tight player to win a no-limit hold'em event, because nobody gets dealt enough premium hands over the course of a tournament. Using position, chip power, and good timing is often more important than getting good cards in no-limit hold'em. In other words, you can win with no cards.

Don't let fear freeze your play. People who don't gamble enough usually are afraid of getting knocked out of a tournament, but there is another way to look at things. Whether you get knocked out one place out of the money or first makes no difference. The result is the same. Throughout the entire tournament, you must be playing to win and trying to accumulate chips so that you can make the money. Don't worry about getting knocked out. Play to win or don't play at all.

Assuming we play and win just the right number of hands in the next no-limit hold'em tournament we enter, Don and I hope to meet you in the winner's circle one day soon.

Tom McEvoy is the co-author (with Don Vines) of How to Win No-Limit Hold'em Tournaments, due to be published in May. You will often find McEvoy in action at the poker table at, where he is a spokesperson.