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Home-Game Tourneys

Tips for single-table home-game tournaments

by Dan Abrams |  Published: Jul 25, 2006


In many respects, a tournament is a tournament regardless of where it's held. But there are a few considerations that are especially important in a home-game tourney.

First, figure out the "non-poker dynamics."

Before you even agree to play, you should know why you're there. Are you there to suck up to the boss or a big client? Are you trying to flirt with that fiery redhead from work? Maybe you're just trying to get even for that big fancy dinner for which you offered to pick up the check. I'm not judging. It doesn't matter to me. But, you should know your priorities, because they should inform your decision-making.

For most home games, the situation is pretty standard. Everyone wants to have a good time, gamble a bit, and play an exciting game.

Here are my standard home-game single-table tournament tips:

1. Assess the blinds structure of the tournament - How many hands will the winner see versus how many will you see if you "never play a hand"? The way to answer that is to answer the simpler-component questions: How many chips do you get to start with? What are the blinds to start? How do the blinds escalate? How long is the tournament supposed to last? The answers to these questions simply determine how aggressively you must play.

If the tournament is supposed to last three hours, you can assume the winner will see 90 hands (an average of 30 per hour). Now, if the winner will see only 90 hands and must acquire all of the chips, you'll see how huge the luck factor is (in this structure). In 90 hands, you'll be lucky to see pocket aces or kings even once. You might get A-K once. You might see five pocket pairs in the whole tourney. Think about that when you're considering folding your pocket tens to a raise and a reraise before you (in this structure). To win, you've gotta get all of the chips. You simply can't wait.

Not only should you not fear "coin flips," you can't realistically fold on many flops when you think you might have more than eight outs. If you don't plan on making your draws, how else will you get all of the chips (in this structure)?

If you're starting out with more than 50 times the big blind and the blinds double every hour, you're going to be playing for a while and can afford to be a bit conservative if you like. But if you're starting out with 20 times the big blind and the blinds double every 15 minutes, you're going to have to play like an ultra-maniac right away.

2. Assess the payout structure of the tournament - How much money is in the prize pool? How many players (rebuys)? How many places are paid and how much? If it's fast-structured, winner-take-all with no dealmaking, you can't really avoid confrontations. If you have A-Q and there's a raise and reraise before you, I think you should go all in, because the first raiser could have uncallable trash and the second raiser might be dominated by you. However, let's say fourth place gets you a satisfactory profit and you're somewhat short-stacked against five remaining, very aggressive, players. Now, if the two short stacks make those raises, I would tell you to fold the A-Q. Basically, in these kinds of situations, where you just want to "guarantee a small profit," you should rarely get involved in a multiway pot without a very big pair. Of course, that conservative philosophy is foreign to me. I say, go for the gold!

3. Identify the First-Timers - This isn't a casino cardroom. In a home game, you're more likely to play against people who barely understand the rules. You can't simply play them the way you would an ordinary novice. First-timers may not understand that a flush beats a straight. If you have the straight, don't overplay a board on which a flush is possible. Conversely, if you have the flush, make "SMC" bets (suckers must call).

4. Don't Slow-Play Bad Players. Instead, Make SMC Bets - An SMC bet is one in which you have a very strong hand and it's such a small amount (relative to the size of the pot) that players must call even though they aren't getting the correct pot odds. This differs significantly from a "post-oak" bet, which is smaller and often offers correct pot odds, if not an invitation for a good player to steal. If you smile while looking at your top set, say something like, "Let's make it a pot worth winning," and bet 25 percent of the current size of the pot. Bad players will call with almost anything, and good players will fold an underpair. If a good player does call with a worse hand, he could be setting up a bluff on the next card. Novices very rarely do this. With SMC bets and a bunch of callers, you can be sure that if the flush becomes possible on the river and someone bets, he has the hand. Otherwise, you can get money in against some players who are literally drawing dead. What's better than that?

Side note: When raising with a great hand, separate the calling amount from the raising amount and scoop everything but the raise into the center. Example: There's $100 in the pot and one player bets $25 and two people call. If you raise to $75 in a single tall stack of $5 chips, it appears to be almost the size of the pot. But if you put out the $25 call next to the $50 raise and scoop the calls into the center, they'll see $200 in the center and your $50 raise will look much more callable (to the novices).

When bluffing, do the opposite (but you should rarely try to bluff bad players).

5. Encourage Limping - Pros complain that in fast-structured tourneys, a simple but aggressive preflop strategy is very difficult to overcome. Novices are particularly weak on the flop and beyond. They can't lay down moderately attractive hands even with extremely scary boards. They don't know anything about pot odds and implied odds. They can easily get confused. Take advantage of that. When playing novices, encourage limping, because you have a greater advantage after the flop. This has the added advantage of discouraging the much lamented simple-aggressive preflop strategy.

How do you encourage limping? If you establish your poker expertise before you start, they will likely just follow your lead. So, in the beginning, limp a lot and give negative feedback to big bettors and raisers. If you don't feel comfortable deceiving people at the poker table, you shouldn't be playing. Poker is all about deception and making good decisions based on incomplete information.

Go have a good time taking their money, and don't feel guilty about your skill advantage. They'll draw out on you plenty of times, and you'll remember that it's still gambling. Anyone can win if the deck cooperates.

More important than knowing most everything is knowing when you don't. I don't know everything. Tell me when I'm wrong. spade

Dan Abrams produced the documentary on the World Series of Poker in 2000 for the Discovery Channel, and was the post producer of the World Poker Tour in its first season. He may be contacted at: